It’s funny how our closest family members often unleash our rawest reactions.
It’s funny because we expect our tightest bonds to provide the surest sense of emotional security.
And, yet, a spoonful of drama is, perhaps, the most universal, unavoidable, inescapable facet of practically every family dynamic.
By the end of a two (or three!) day holiday stretch, with no iPhones, iPads, or TVs to diffuse the tension, many of us feel emotionally drained, like we need a vacation from vacation. We feel bent out of shape, for reasons so subtle we can hardly articulate them. And, yet, these visceral familial patterns reemerge, time after time, holiday after holiday.
Indeed, families can’t help but manufacture tension; it’s what they do best.
As true as this is for parents and siblings, it’s exponentially more true for in-laws.
These are highly sensitive relationships which, for a variety of reasons, activate our defenses and heat up our hot spots no matter how civil and respectful each side may be. We communicate our feelings in more subtle ways – body language, tone of voice, eye contact (or lack, thereof) – we get the message across without having to verbalize the unflattering sentiments.
Many of our patterns turn into “games” (to borrow Eric Berne’s term) which family members begin to play without even knowing they’re playing them. Games are predictable; we know which family member will get bent out of shape about the slightest slight, which family member will isolate to his or her shell, and which family member will say exactly what he or she shouldn’t say exactly when they shouldn’t be saying it. Here are some examples of the typical “players” which may or may not sound familiar to your own familial experience…
THE PERPETUAL PLEASER
The Pleaser tries to make everyone happy (except herself).
She cleans up after everyone else’s mess, she supervises everyone else’s kids.
Deep down she resents them for letting her be their tool.
But she doesn’t realize how easy she makes it for them to do so.
She turns herself into a “shmatta,” and then wonders how she became one.
She resents everyone else for letting her be who she feels most comfortable being.
She plays the “pleaser” game, which entitles her to a justified dose of resentment when she feels under-appreciated and over-used. In essence, she pleases people in exchange for the right to resent them.
The Dramatizer is overly sensitive; she gets offended by nonexistent offenses, and feels victimized by nonexistent assaults. She gets a warped sense of satisfaction from this game; it gives her something to worry about, something to complain about, something to feel intensely consumed by. She subtly realizes that she’s making a huge mess out of nothingness, but she doesn’t really know another way to operate. Drama is her comfort zone; it’s all she knows, so it’s all she wants. And she gets it. Every time.
THE CONSTANT COMPLAINER
Similar to the Dramatizer in that he loves being the victim, the Constant Complainer doesn’t necessarily take offense to people so much as he takes offense to reality. His kids wake up too early, his head is always aching, the temperature is too cool or too warm or too damp or too dry. Everything is either too much, not enough, the wrong kind, or the right kind in the wrong way. He loves to complain, and he thinks people enjoy listening to his tale of woes. He doesn’t notice much else, and if he does, he doesn’t really like to talk about it. His motto is: “I complain, therefore I am.” Complaining is his way of asserting himself, he is entitled to a better version of reality than he’s been dealt, and he expects sympathy from his beholders in exchange for his ongoing script of horror stories.
THE CONFRONTATION LOVER
While the Dramatizer takes offense to others, and the Constant Complainer takes offense to reality, the Confrontation Lover doesn’t take offense – he creates offense. He will openly say what others may be thinking, and he makes people uncomfortable for the sake of assertion and control. “Why don’t you call?” “Why don’t you visit?” “Why weren’t we invited?” “Why are you leaving so early?” In essence, the Confrontation Lover makes people even more uncomfortable than they already were, and then wonders why they never feel comfortable around him. Deep down he knows he’s placing people in an awkward position, and that his antics repel more than they attract, but it’s what he does best. He puts people on the spot, makes them squirm, watches them squirm, and then feels bad for demoralizing them — only, it’s too late. The deed has been done. He can’t help himself. Confrontation is his habitual form of communication.
THE BUTTON PRESSER
The Button Presser is similar to the Confrontation Lover in that they both aggressively instigate negative transactions. The difference is in their approach. Confrontation is obvious and overt; button pressing is more “clever” and under the radar. The Button Presser gets a kick out of making people feel uncomfortable in very passive aggressive, indirect ways. He’ll praise a business competitor because he knows it gets under your skin, he’ll “innocently” ask how work is going when he knows you’re having a rough time, he’ll talk about how well his kids are doing in school when he knows your kids are struggling. His comments are “clean” on paper, but dirty in context. He gets a strange enjoyment from pressing people’s buttons. It gives him a sense of control, but it leaves people feeling defensive without being able to articulate why. He does it so smoothly that he probably doesn’t even notice himself doing it. He thinks he’s clever, but in the end, people don’t really like him. And he knows it.
THE ATTENTION SEEKER
The conversation always seems to revolve around him, and when it doesn’t, he finds a way to either redirect it back to him, or pull the plug on it altogether. He doesn’t really know how to harmonize, how to blend in; in his mind, it’s either all about him, or it’s not worth discussing. He’ll always find a way to squeeze personal accomplishments into the flow of conversation, as though every discussion provides a wall on which to frame his degrees and hang his accolades. He seeks positive attention, yet he typically receives negative responses. He struggles to be a worker among workers, player among players; he needs the spotlight, and when he doesn’t get it, he silently withdraws into his own mind.
THE PEACE MAKER
The Peace Maker thinks she can make everything nice and dandy; she mediates, she negotiates, she offers solution after solution, which usually fall on deaf ears. She probably reads a lot of “relationship” books and thinks she knows a lot about love because she watches “Dr. Phil.” She doesn’t realize that the drama is deeper than it looks; the symptoms she seeks to quell are only the surface of the problem. But this doesn’t stop her from trying. She wants to sugarcoat some bitter truths about her family, but in doing so, she annoys everyone else.
The Analyst is similar to the Peace Maker in that he addresses the drama from the outside, rather than igniting it from the inside. But he is more intellectual than emotional.
He doesn’t want to solve the issue, he wants to analyze it, dissect it, explore it, and explain it.
The drama doesn’t bother him per se; in fact, he probably gets a warped kick out of observing it.
He is, perhaps, best equipped to label which player is playing which game.
He uses the drama as food for intellectual thought; it boosts his ego, and makes him look insightful.
(Shameless disclaimer: I’ve played this game way too many times.)
These “roles” are not mutually exclusive; we may play many of them, or none of them.
But they are common patterns, “games” as some social psychologists like to call them.
You may mentally tag your family members in this post, but, more importantly, tag yourself.
Notice the games you play, notice the patterns you perpetuate.
Before family functions take a turn for the dysfunctional, it helps to mentally prepare ourselves, to identify and diagnose the dramas we consistently design, and see our own place in the games we invariably play.