Rico Brunner, we should feel loved, accepted and present when we are with our family. Why do people have such troubled relationships with family members?
I think that it is important to keep in mind that difficult family dynamics develop over the course of several years. They start with injuries and misunderstandings during childhood. A person may feel misunderstood by someone. This could affect the relationship between a child and its parents or the relationship between a child and his or her siblings. A lot of this conflict is based on expectations and disappointments, how people treat one another, and whether the parties can find a way to reconcile. I think it is very interesting that the cause for family conflicts that persist even after a child has reached adulthood only seems to be rooted in the past. In fact, people often still behave similarly to how they behaved when they were young, and this is why the conflict still exists.
People often say that you can choose your friends, but that you are stuck with your family. You will always be connected to them…
That is true. I have to point out that friendships involve the ability to choose. You choose your friends; you decide how you want your friends to behave and how you act when you are around them. You set boundaries and decide what behaviors you find acceptable or not. You have the freedom of choice. This is not always the case with family. You do not have the same freedom that you have in friendships. For example, you cannot just say: “Hey, I’ve had enough. We will have to figure out a way to solve this, but I will not compromise my values.” It is usually possible to stand up to a friend. The main difference between these relationships is that people act like independent adults when they are around their friends, but they still act like children when they are around their family. This is why the dynamics are so different.
Do most people still feel like a child when they are around their parents, no matter how old they are?
Basically, yes. You can observe this when you join your partner or a friend during a visit with their parents. Their personality seems to regress a bit, and they seem a bit younger. That is not necessarily a bad thing. It is only concerning if it makes the person uncomfortable. Experience has shown that our parents will either become our friends or our enemies after we reach adulthood. We have to find a way to communicate with our parents in an amicable manner. Otherwise, any existing conflicts or emotional injuries will escalate as we grow older.
Does this have anything to do with the pressure to your meet our parents’ expectations and the fact that adult children still try to please your parents?
This is certainly a part of it. I believe that there are a multitude of reasons that contribute to difficult family relationships because people are so diverse. In some cases, it might be high expectations or the feeling of not being loved. Some people may not have received enough reassurance or never felt seen. There are many different reasons. Whenever I support people who have a strained relationship with their parents, we do not dwell on the past too much. Instead, we focus on their behavior as adults. I strongly believe that a child, if they choose to do so and if it is necessary, should have the courage and strength to stand up to their parents.
In some extreme cases, people realize that they will never be understood or find a compromise, and this is when they break ties with their family. What do you think about that?
I think that every adult has the right to break ties with their family. A lot must have happened, and people must have been hurt repeatedly before they decide to cease contact with their family. The most common reason for adults distancing themselves from their family is that they feel that their parents have never managed to let go and continue to “meddle” in their lives. They feel that they cannot forge their own path in life. The second most common reason is that people do not feel accepted by their parents. In other cases, people simply do not feel comfortable around their parents. This topic is rarely discussed, but some parents and children simply do not like each other. Our society seems to believe that parents and children like each other, but their personalities might be so different that they will never manage to get along. Sometimes the lack of contact between parents and their children is a relief. I have supported parents whose children have cut them out of their lives. Although they were hurt and disappointed, they realized that this was a necessary step for all of them. It takes courage to respect the other person’s decision and to accept this as a part of the family dynamic. Experience has shown that respecting a person’s decision to leave increases the probability of them eventually finding their way back.
What about the situation you just mentioned? Did they find a way back to each other? If so, how?
In this particular case, they did not become close again. However, I know several cases where people reunited after spending five or ten years apart. It depends on whether the parties have learned from this experience and continued to grow during this time. It also depends on how they approach one another now. If everything works out, a new friendship may develop. I like to call it “friendship” because adults do not really have a mother or father anymore. Of course, they have a biological father and a biological mother, but a person who is 50, 40, 30 or 60 does not really need their mother anymore because they are now independent adults. Ideally, they have developed a friendship in which both parties are treated as equals.
As children and parents get older, the distance between them might grow…
Children typically start to distance themselves from their parents when they are between 16 and 35 years old. This is the time when parents and children “drift apart” the most. Parents might approach retirement or discover new passions after the children leave home. The children have left their childhood behind, and they are now adults who want to experience life and meet friends instead of spending time with their family. If parents are able to let go, the children will naturally seek more contact to their parents when they are 30, 35 or 40. The relationship may become closer once the children have kids of their own. This is when they seek closer contact to their parents as long as the relationship is healthy.
People often refer to a “sense of family”. Does this still exist today, and how would you define it?
I think that a “sense of family” always has and always will exist. However, I do not think that all families have this sense. One could define this “sense of family” as a feeling of closeness or the desire to take care of one another. Some families do this incredibly well, because the parents model this behavior for their children. I believe that the prerequisite for having a positive sense of family is that the parents have a healthy relationship with each other. There is also a negative sense of family that is rooted in tradition and rules. People tend to say: “This is how our family does things, and that is not up to discussion.”
Family celebrations often involve conflict. Why is that the case?
Two factors play a role here. First, we usually want to make sure that the celebration will go smoothly. If we spend Christmas with our family, we hope that it will be pleasant. Typically, all family members make an effort during the first five minutes or two hours. After a while, it is difficult to sustain this effort, and people resume their usual behavior. This can be very dramatic because the past is dragged into the present. For example, a daughter that has never been accepted by her mother or father might feel that she is still not accepted. A trigger that is rooted in the past immediately appears in the present, and it can cause an explosion. The person either implodes and feels despair or under a lot of pressure, or they explode. That could cause an argument among family members.
Yes, things often escalate. Do you have any tips on how to make it through a family celebration if the person knows that there is a lot of potential for conflict?
I think the following perspective is helpful: there will always be events that upset us. For example: I am driving along a highway that is often plagued by traffic jams. Most people will be upset if they end up in a traffic jam even if they expected it. It does not make sense to be upset about something that you cannot change and that you knew to expect. Instead, it is helpful to anticipate this and tell yourself: “Ok, I am driving along the highway, and I expect that there will be a lot of traffic. I can listen to music while I wait, and I will try to relax. Once traffic eases up, I can keep going.”
The same principle applies to family celebrations. I need to anticipate my family members’ behavior. For example, I do not get upset about the fact that my father never agrees with me because I know that this is usually the case. If I prepare myself for this behavior, I will not be hurt. If my brother or sister always tease me or make rude remarks, I can prepare myself for that. I have to accept that this is who they are and that I should not take it personally. The ability to maintain this attitude requires practice. It might not work during the first family Christmas, but it will get easier during the following celebrations. It is important to anticipate and prepare yourself for your family members’ behavior and to not take things personally. Most importantly, you need to recognize that another person’s behavior has very little to do with you.
You mentioned triggers. Those are deeply rooted in subconscious processes that can make me angry. How can you quickly calm yourself when you feel that you are about to “boil over”?
Sure, if you feel disrespected or insulted, you instinctively react to this unfair treatment. If you act upon this impulse, things can escalate. Take a moment to tell yourself: “Alright, that is their opinion and their point of view, but it has nothing to do with me.” This will take the wind out of their sails. I like to bring up this exciting example in my practice: if a 4-year-old boy approaches a man or a woman and tells them that they are dumb, the adult will probably just look at the little boy and laugh. If the boy is 16 years old and says the same thing to an adult, they might tell him to watch out. If the boy is 30 years old and calls us dumb, we tell him: “I will no longer allow you to insult me!” If the boy is 40, we might say: “I have had enough.” The statement remains the same, but our reaction changes depending on how much we allow it to affect us. We are hurt whenever we deem the other person to be important.
Of course, our family is important to us. Our mother, father, brothers and sisters are important to us, even if we do not get along with them. Therefore, it is important to figure out how to be less affected by the things the other person says. You might tell yourself: “Ok, that is their opinion. They are allowed to not like me. They do not have to like me.” If we know that a person does not accept certain aspects of us, it is their problem and they will have to deal with it. Of course, it is difficult to attain such an attitude, but it is possible if we work on it over the years. It will also help our interactions with people in general.
You mentioned that people often hope that this is the year when things will be more harmonious. Do our hopes and expectations about a positive change play a role?
Certainly. People tend to change very slowly, but they basically stay the same. I have supported several people who were 50 or 60 years old when they visited my office for the first time. They have often spent their entire lives having conflicts with their parents, and their parents have stayed the same. I think that we can quickly realize if our parents or siblings have changed. If they do not change, we must face this reality and adjust our hopes and expectations. Otherwise, we will continue to feel disappointed and hurt or conflicts might escalate. It is important to muster the courage to accept reality. We may have to tell ourselves: “Alright, my father is a difficult person, and he insults me sometimes. This is how he is, why should I be upset? It is his problem if he wants to live in this dissatisfied state and continues to criticize me. Why should his opinion have any influence on my life?”
This is easier said than done; however, this approach allows us to set boundaries and to gradually reduce the tension that these triggers cause in us.
Does this acceptance of a person – in your example, the father – provide a chance to re-establish closeness?
Acceptance can reduce tension. I often notice this in the people I support. If the children or parents change their behavior, the other side will respond differently. Sometimes these changes are very nuanced, but things can improve over the years. If someone tries to trigger me but is unable to do so, it will cause a change in them. This will change their behavior because it is only exciting to trigger someone if they react to it.
Let’s use a family celebration as an example once more: a father, mother and two adult children are together. Each of them has some conflict with the other family members. If I was a member of this family, how should I behave in order to avoid an escalation and to ensure that this get-together will be at least somewhat harmonious?
First, it is important to stop focusing on the goal of having a harmonious celebration. It is important to accept reality and to tell yourself that your family is explosive, and that it is highly likely that everyone will start to argue after an hour. It is also quite likely that this argument will last for a while until the first person starts to cry and leaves the house. It is important to acknowledge and accept this reality. The second step is to ask yourself: “Why should I be upset or disappointed if I knew this was going to happen? This is how my family is, and this happens every Christmas.” If you can accept and deal with this reality, this reality changes because you no longer participate in it. This will allow you to react differently to the insults and snarky remarks, and this will change the next reaction. I often notice that the inability to accept reality is the main problem. Let me return to the previous example: if I drive along the highway, I should expect that I will encounter traffic sooner or later. It is my own fault if I get upset about the traffic. If I am aware of the fact that my family does not get along and that we will probably spend another Christmas Eve arguing and I am still upset and disappointed, I need to work on my sense of reality and need to accept this situation whether I want to or not.
Are there warning signals that can tell us when to be cautious?
These injuries and our child-like behavior often catch us by surprise. If you notice that you have been hurt again – maybe your mother hurt you once more – you have to tell yourself: “Alright, she hurt me again. She has been doing this her entire life; this is just who she is. Why should I be upset about this now? Why should I take her seriously? If she has been behaving like this since I was a child, it is her problem and her loss for treating me this way.”
Does the fact that we have such high hopes for family celebrations have anything to do with our subconscious desire to feel loved and respected?
Yes, because every one of us has two mothers and two fathers. There is the mother we wish we had; the mother who loves and cares for us. And then there is the mother we actually have, and these two might be very different from one another. The same is true about fathers: you might wish you had a father who protected and supported you, and then there is the father you actually have. You should not forget that our parents were “humans” before they became our mother and father. Of course, our parents are still human, but their personality did not completely change when they became a father or a mother. That can make it very difficult to be a mother or father.
What about the parents who realize that it is difficult? They want to have a harmonious time with their family, but they cannot really accomplish this either. How do you experience this in your work?
This is often quite exciting. I once supported a woman did not feel accepted by her daughter-in-law. They had a huge fight, and the son sided with the daughter-in-law, his wife. During the time that I supported her, we discovered that this woman had not respected the boundaries of her son’s family and had tried to keep her son too close. The daughter-in-law reacted to this, and things escalated. I supported this woman, and she learned to stay centered, to focus on herself and to separate herself from her son’s family instead of meddling all the time. Something exciting happened: her daughter-in-law approached her, and a normal relationship developed. If this woman were to return to her old behavior, they would take some steps back. They will have a healthy relationship as long as she maintains this behavior, accepts her role as the mother-in-law and grandmother who has to be invited if she wants to have a place in her son’s family and as long as both sides have a mutual respect for one another.
Sometimes the roles within a family have to be redefined because they change over the years?
Absolutely. This is the case for any relationship. The roles have to change over time if you want to be happy together. People continue to grow, just like kids. For example: if I have a three-year-old son, I tell him what he needs to do. I promote his development and give him space, but I make most of the decisions for him because he is too young to make those decisions himself. If my son is thirty and I still behave in the same way – by possibly asking him about his job, nagging him to continue his education or to save more money, criticizing his decision to buy an expensive car – it should not surprise me if my son begins to distance himself from me and begins to choose his own way and those arguments might escalate.
“Live and let live” so that the children have the freedom to grow even if we do not approve of all of their choices…
Exactly, and I would take this a step further: their adult child’s life is none of the parents’ business any longer! When children come of age and are independent, they need to take responsibility for their own life. Of course, they will rebel if they are not given the opportunity to take charge of their own lives. I think that this is a natural and justified reaction. It is important to let them live their own lives and to encourage them to take responsibility for their own actions. To be honest, children will face lots of problems when they become adults. That is a part of life. They might lose their job, they might not achieve all of their goals, relationships will end, they might get a divorce – the rate of divorce in Europe is between 45 and 50 percent. If you have two children, the likelihood of one of them getting a divorce is 50 percent.
I believe that many parents try to ensure that their children are happy, but that this intention can lead to a sense of disenfranchisement in their children. The parents may say: “I am an adult, and I am 50, 60 years old and have a lot of life experience. My son is only 30 years old and has no idea about life. He’s making another poor decision.” This makes a grown child feel disenfranchised! It is important to demonstrate that you trust your children and to tell them: “I trust that you are able to live your life even if you make wrong choices sometimes.” We often forget that maturity only develops through immaturity. Small children are immature and, ideally, old people are mature – they have had many experiences that helped them mature over time.
Let’s return to the family celebration: what can we do to make it more peaceful? Do parents have to let go in order to lay the groundwork for a harmonious family dynamic?
Exactly, and let me go one step further: maybe they should not invite the children, but they should view their children as friends whom they would like to invite. This allows parents to accept their children just the way they are. Children need to view their parents as friends as well and try to behave accordingly. I say “friends” because we are able to set boundaries with our friends. This is why friendships work. We often fail to set boundaries with our family, and this is the reason why conflicts often persist over the years.
Finally, I want to ask you for some tips that can help us get through a family celebration and family interactions in general.
I believe that it is most important to work on our own actions instead of trying to change the behavior of other people. Furthermore, it is important to accept reality and to avoid being upset about something that has persisted for several years. You might have to accept that the evening will be difficult, and you should try to stay relaxed and not take things personally. Try to be tolerant of the behavior of others. Nonetheless, you always have the right to set boundaries and to let people know when they have crossed the line. I also want to emphasize that you always have the right to choose whether you want to stay or leave. If you notice that you cannot handle this situation any longer and feel overwhelmed, it does not make sense to stay any longer. You need to have the courage to leave, and others should respect your decision. It is important to remember that adults have the freedom to do what they want, although it might not always feel right if you are afraid of the consequences.
So, as an “adult” child I can decide whether I want to enter the battlefield or not…
Yes, and by standing up one Christmas and saying that you have had enough, you might set the tone for next year. Things might be different then.
This was the podcast with Rico Brunner about the topic “Family Conflicts” – thank you for joining us.