Relational Heroism and Revising the Family Playbook

I come from a family where we didn’t talk much about emotions. There wasn’t much of, “You seem sad, Jason — let’s talk it through.” In our family playbook, one move to get someone to initiate repair was by withdrawing. The basic idea behind this move is, “I am going to pout so you see that I’m upset, and if you’re lucky, I will let you know what you did.”

Unfortunately, I have repeated this behavior in my intimate relationships countless times in my adult years. Sometimes withdrawal can also be used as a mean of retaliation: “I am going to withdrawal so you will know how bad you hurt me.” If I am using withdrawal in this fashion, I have to go big. This means withdrawing for an evening, or even a day or two. The sad thing is that I’m actually hurting myself by allowing my anger and loneliness to fester. By hurting myself in this manner, I am also hurting my relationship, which hurts me still further.

So, I decided to put an end to this losing cycle. Do you know what I did instead of pouting and withdrawing?

One day I came back home after a rough day. I’d had a setback at work and I told Jessica about it. Jessica went into fix-it mode and started to, from my perspective, criticize my actions. I was upset with her response and my gut reaction was telling me to shut down, go upstairs, and pout (withdrawal).

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Remembering the self and relational harm that would ensue, I took a breath, moved forward and said, “This setback was really painful. I need you to be supportive instead of fixing and criticizing the efficacy of my move. I need support first, then when I feel better, let’s problem solve.” Do you know what she said? She said, “Thank you, it’s really helpful to know what to do when you are struggling.”

I will never forget this moment, because I could see my response was a huge relief from her. It was relief that I was revising the family playbook. It was relief that she was not going to be passively punished for making a mistake.

That was my relational heroism.

How will you revise your family playbook and become a relational hero?

Written by

Couples therapist helping people get along better.

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