Thanksgiving and Creepy Relatives

Debbie loved the holiday season but dreaded those family gatherings. Some people look forward all year to getting together with relatives. But Debbie’s stomach knotted up whenever the thought came to mind—mainly because of Dwayne, her creepy cousin. Most of her relatives were tolerable, not the people you’d spend time with if you weren’t related to them but bearable in small doses. But Dwayne was in his own special category—despicable under any and all circumstances. In conversations, he’d always step inside that unspoken but understood personal zone that creates discomfort when violated. He had other benignly irritating traits like talking too loud, laughing too long, picking his nose, and dressing like he was playing the part of a nerd in high school skit. But other traits seemed more malignant—like telling Debbie filthy jokes and continually making sexually inappropriate remarks. And it always seemed to happen away from other family members. Debbie’s “creep meter” screeched like a Geiger counter next to a nuclear meltdown.

Over the years, Debbie had learned that the only way to deal effectively with Dwayne was to spend some time planning ahead. Based on previous experience, she knew there were certain ways she could sidestep Dwayne’s revolting infringements. For instance, to counteract his way-too-long hugs upon first arrival, she would offer handshake instead. She stayed vigilant and never let herself be in a room alone with him. She never sat down on a couch with an open space beside her, figuring he would occupy it if available. And to cover herself in unanticipated awkward moments with Dwayne, she would excuse herself by saying, “Oh, sorry, my phone is vibrating so I need to take this call,” and then leave the room.

Her use of some pre-planned creep-avoidance strategies enabled her to minimize the dreadfulness of her holiday family gatherings.

Managing Holiday Expectations

A lot of people have rigid notions about what holidays are supposed to entail. They grew up beholden to certain traditions that now seem terribly difficult to break. And for some people, if it was done once it became a “tradition.” Consequently, there are a lot of internalized “shoulds” that manifest themselves as rigid rules governing what needs to happen during the holidays. But rigidity usually leads to misery so for the holidays to be joyful, flexibility is required. Here are four suggestions for flexibility.

First, deliberately leave something out. Take a tradition or two and give them a hiatus to be brought back in a year or so. Traditions are fun and are usually meaningful but voluntary customs are always more enjoyable than ones that are obligatory.

Second, try to avoid the typical holiday tendency to approach things in an all-or-none manner. A lot of people have unattainable expectations that only produce frustration when left unmet. But it’s more manageable if you adjust those expectations on the front end. Shoot for a 90 on your holiday test instead of a 100. It’s still a passing grade and you’ll be more relaxed.

Speaking of relaxation, plan some times to simply relax and get off the holiday treadmill. Watch some movies, take time to reflect, go ice skating, get away from the crowds, or do whatever would help you defocus from the expectations screaming at you. It won’t be easy but it will be worth the effort.

Finally, say no to some requests. Many people get invited to things that only occur once a year and it can be quite daunting if you get more requests than can be reasonably handled.   Each situation has its own relational expectations so this may not be easy. But you may have to decide between your sanity and perfect attendance.

We’ll Get Along If You’ll Just Pretend

The final drama role we’ll discuss is what I call the “mute”. Here’s how this type of drama works: My role in the drama is to avoid discussion of anything conflictual. Your role in the drama is to pretend along with me that everything is fine. As long as we both play our drama roles, we’ll get along well. Any questions? When the mute plays his role, we use phrases like,

  • “He’s in denial;”
  • “We had an argument and now she acts like nothing ever happened;”
  • “There’s this huge elephant in the living room that we can’t talk about;”
  • “He just won’t discuss it;”
  • “Every time I try to bring up the problem, she changes the subject;” and
  • “I’m supposed to just pretend like everything is fine.”

The mute’s role in the drama is to appear untroubled. Our role in the drama is to participate in the pretense. And if we don’t, then we’re the troublemaking bad guys who refuse to let things go.

You Can’t Make It Without Me

Now, let’s look at the third drama role, the messiah. “I sacrifice to help people” is stance taken. We describe them using terms like:

  • rescuer
  • caretaker
  • knight-in-shining-armor
  • brown-noser
  • know-it-all
  • God’s gift to the world, and
  • needs to be needed

Cashdan refers to this as ingratiation and says,

Relationships are orchestrated so that others are constantly aware that the person. . . is giving up something or putting the recipient’s interests before his own. There is a concerted attempt to induce others to be grateful for the things one does and the sacrifices one makes”. (Cashden, 1988).

Eddie Haskell from the old TV show, Leave it to Beaver, was this type of manipulator. Eddie was a nasty jerk. But around Mr. or Mrs. Cleaver, he quickly slipped into the messiah role, saying things like, “My, that’s a beautiful dress, Mrs. Cleaver” or “Don’t worry, Mr. Cleaver. I’ll make sure little Theodore stays out of trouble when Wally and I take him to the malt shop this afternoon.”

The messiah says in effect, “My job in this relationship is to take care of you. Your job in this relationship is to be grateful for the help I provide. Any questions?” Again, relational “success” is contingent upon drama participation.

By the way, lack of gratitude is experienced by the messiah as injury or rejection at which point he or she slips into the role of persecuted victim. This guilt-tripping manipulation is designed to coerce the other back into the role of gratefulness. And it often works!

The Help-Rejecting Complainer

Webster defines the word, martyr, as “great or constant sufferer.” The stance taken by the martyr is: “I’ve been hurt and you should do something about that. By the way, it will be your fault if I don’t make it.” We describe these individuals using terms like, guilt tripper, victim, help-rejecting complainer, or dependent. Speaking of this dependency, Cashdan says,

Such individuals are convinced that the success of their relationships, particularly close ones, hinges on their ability to convince people that they cannot exist on their own. They consequently adopt the emotional demeanor of a child and coerce (induce) those about them into taking care of them. (Cashden, 1988).

Where Cashdan uses the words “coerce” or “induce”, our word “manipulate” would fit nicely.

Indeed, some people in this category of manipulators meet various diagnostic criteria for Dependent Personality Disorder (DSM V, 2013) including:

  • has difficulty making everyday decisions without an excessive amount of advice and reassurance from others
  • needs others to assume responsibility for most major areas of his or her life
  • has difficulty initiating projects or doing things on his or her own
  • goes to excessive lengths to obtain nurturance and support from others
  • urgently seeks another relationship as a source of care and support when a close relationship ends

So, the relational stance taken by the martyr is, “My job in this relationship is to be taken care of. Your job in this relationship is to take care of me. Any questions?” Again, the “success” of the relationship is contingent upon both people staying slavishly chained to their drama obligations.

We’re using the word “martyr” to describe an individual who adopts a victim stance. The theme of many discussions is, “something has gone wrong or someone has done me wrong.” But here’s the thing. If you participate in the drama by rescuing, he or she becomes the rescued victim. If you refuse the rescuing obligation, he or she becomes the persecuted victim. Either way, the martyr remains firmly entrenched inside the role of victim.