In the Uncle Remus story of the tar baby, Brer Rabbit picks a fight with a lifelike doll made out of tar and turpentine. The tar baby is so gluey that when the rabbit punches it, his fists get hopelessly stuck. He tries to kick his way free, trapping his feet, then finishes off with an infuriated head butt that renders him utterly helpless.
I can't think of a more fitting metaphor for family life in the 21st century. There's nothing in the world as sticky as a dysfunctional family. You can put half your life's savings into therapy—good therapy, effective therapy—and, 15 minutes into a holiday reunion, you still become hopelessly enmeshed in the same old crazy dynamics. Your assertiveness training goes out the window the minute your brother begins his traditional temper tantrum. A mere sigh from your grandmother triggers an attack of codependency so severe you end up giving her your house. For many people, family get-togethers require strategies for staying out of such sticky situations. Before you head over the river and through the woods, give some thought to the following suggestions.
Strategy #1: Give Up Hope
Most of us go home for the holidays thinking (along with comedienne Abby Sher), God, grant me the ability to change the things I cannot accept. Even if we don't consciously realize it, we want our families to cease and desist from all the things that affect us like fingernails on a chalkboard. We don't ask much—just socially appropriate behavior, dammit, and minimal reparations for the more damaging incidents in our past. Although come to think of it, things would certainly go better if our relatives would listen openly, communicate honestly, and agree with us on all significant issues. And possibly offer money.
The hope that our families will act perfectly—or even reasonably well—sets us up to whack the tar baby, to be incapacitated by the dysfunctions we'll almost certainly encounter. Before you meet your relatives this season, take a few moments to sit quietly and acknowledge what you wish they were like. Then prepare to accept them even if they behave as they have always done in the past. At best you may be surprised to find that they actually are changing, that some of your wishes have come true. At worst you'll feel regrettably detached from your kinfolk as you watch them play out their usual psychoses.
Strategy #2: Set Secure Boundaries
Given that your family members will probably go on being their same old selves, you need to decide how much contact with them you really want. Are there certain relatives you simply can't tolerate? Are there others you can handle in group settings but not one-on-one? How much time and intimacy with your family is enough? How much is too much?
It's crucial to answer these questions before, not during, a family gathering. Prior to the event, think through various boundary options until you come up with a scenario that makes you feel comfortable. Would you be more enthusiastic about a get-together if you planned to leave after no more than four hours? Or three? Two? One? Would you breathe easier if you rented a car so that you could get away without relying on relatives for transportation? Would it help to have a friend call you on your cell phone halfway through the evening, providing an excuse for a graceful exit?
The objective of reinforcing your boundaries is not to destroy your relationship with your family but to strengthen it. Once you've set limits that allow you to feel emotionally safe, you'll find that your relatives seem much more lovable and enjoyable. This is true even if you have such a mega-dysfunctional tar baby of a clan that for you, the only safe contact is no contact. In that case, take a family vacation—not a vacation with your family but a vacation from your family. This has worked fabulously for me. Once insulated by distance from any new outrages, you can begin to make sense of your relatives' behavior, ultimately coming to regard them with the same fascinated compassion a Sopranos fan might feel for that quirky Mafia family.