Families: Speaking Up

Our emotional wellbeing depends to a great extent on how fairly and kindly other people treat us. (How we treat others affects their wellbeing just as directly.) But where does that leave us when we are unsure what to expect of others or whether our demands are half-way reasonable? And how does this affect the quality of our lives in that most intense of cauldrons – our own family?

Speaking up is an issue that affects countless households but often in a buried and unexamined way.  Here’s an all-too familiar example.

Mum feels over-stretched and unappreciated. It’s background noise to her emotional life and part of the reason she feels so tired. Arriving home from work and a lengthy detour to the supermarket, she asks her oldest child for help bringing in the shopping from the car. He’s 14 and is busy sending a text. He asks Mum to hang on a minute.  And Mum loses it – explodes with frustration, disappointment and anger – not because of that delay, but because for her it typifies so many moments when she needed help and didn’t get it, or when her needs were obliterated by the people she loves most.  But what happens next? Son looks up from his text and is outraged that the harridan in front of him is shouting, about what? About him not  “jumping to”?  Is that what she’s on about? Now it’s his turn to be self-righteous. Does she see him as a lackey to jump to her every command and salute while doing so? He, too, feels devalued – and hopping mad.

It would be entirely possible to write a comedy series about domestic moments just like this – yet the living of them is rarely funny. Messages get mixed and family communication collapses. The truly important is not expressed and the unimportant becomes Wagnerian.

Misunderstandings may be inevitable, especially in families. Nevertheless, when they happen often or are badly handled their effects will be serious and may be catastrophic.  In this situation, for example, what happens when Dad or one of the other children comes home and each hurt person wants their sense of injury to be validated? “Taking sides” may make one person feel better, but it solves nothing.  In fortunate families, a sense of proportion will soon reassert itself.  One person will apologise and explain their difficult day; the other person will acknowledge their over-reaction. A quick hug, and life continues. But even then, it is worth taking time to consider consciously and honestly what you are expecting of other people and how reasonable or realistic these expectations really are.

I have written about this extensively in The Universal Heart and in Forgiveness.  It calls on skills that can take repeated efforts to learn – but are invaluable.

After all, despite our desires for the contrary, no one can read our thoughts – including our unexpressed wishes and desires.  So often our hurt or outrage is about what people have failed to do when they had no idea that was what we wanted.  This mother did ask for help, but her son could not have known – particularly in the midst of his own urgent texting – why her request was urgent and how starved she was feeling more generally for consideration and support. Equally, when the son said to wait a minute, that was literally what he meant, but she heard, “Your needs can wait,” and in the noise of her explosion he was hearing, “Only my agenda matters.”

It is not easy to assess how realistic your expectations or responses are, but two things help. First, take a mental step backwards to look at the situation coolly from the other person’s point of view. If you find that difficult, it is even more worthwhile persisting – and checking out your findings.  Second, look just as closely at what you have not expressed clearly – and what therefore could not have influenced the other person’s response. You may be reluctant to be explicit, yet it is always preferable to acting out your disappointments – and living with the consequences.