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Family Dynamics: The end of the game: are you ready to stop playing?

The holidays are often enlightening when it comes to family dynamics. Many of us who have completed years of therapy and truly moved on, and even have families and lives of our own, find ourselves rapidly deteriorating into childhood patterns the moment we are faced with the old hooks and traps, regardless of our resolve to be different. Often, even the best of intentions can go awry or be misconstrued in the face of engrained patterns and typical family scenes.

Recently, a good friend shared her experience, and asked a great question:

The holidays are such a great time to observe family dynamics, recurring fights, and patterned behaviors. I had some eye-openers this Christmas. I wasn’t always successful in changing my behavior or holding my tongue, but at least I could see my part in the patterns this time.

But what do you do when you have a great insight and you make a suggestion to Person A about how they might avoid a recurring argument with Person B, and they come back with something like,

“You always take his side!” Or, “I’ve seen YOU do the same thing!”

This particular person seems to hear everything as blaming and side-taking no matter how lovingly it is presented. Any suggestions?

I know that I need to let go of my attachment to them changing, but this fight seems like such an easy fix to me, and it would really change and improve their relationship.

The assumption that you need to let go of is that your family members have any desire to stop the fight or that they actually want to change their relationship! It can be a shocking and enlightening revelation to realize that they might have no desire to change the dynamic. It isn’t just about letting go of your attachment to them changing; often people aren’t really listening to any suggestions because on some level they like the game. Perhaps ‘like’ is the wrong word. They are ‘invested’ in the game. It is comfortable, familiar, safe, and it is the only way they know how to interact. People will hold onto the familiar with a very firm grip, and then attack anyone who tries to take that familiarity away.

To you, the solution may appear to be an easy fix. However, family dynamics are often so deeply engrained, and the people that are involved in those dynamics are so dependent on the game, that even if they don’t admit it or even consciously know it, they have NO desire to end the fight. In addition, part of what they really want is for YOU to join in. Anything you say is simply an invitation for others to try to draw you in. Nothing you can do or say will have an effect because they don’t WANT to change it. Just by you suggesting change, you are jumping into the game with them. You get to be the ‘good guy’ the ‘counselor’, the ‘hero’, the ‘rescuer’ the ‘persecuter’, or even the ‘victim’ to their disinterest in your suggestions.

The only option is to take responsibility for your own experience, and to then be neutral and vulnerable. Neutrality is defined here as unattached, willing to hear ‘yes’ or ‘no’, speaking without judgement and without your need to try to get them to change. And vulnerable is being defined here as ‘without defense’, open hearted, and communicating with responsible, and non-defensive honesty.

Presenting your own experience, rather than trying to change their behavior, is more neutral and vulnerable.

You can say something like,

‘I’  am really tired of fighting. It is hard for me to watch when the two of you fight. I am working on vulnerable communications that take the other person’s feelings into account. I have found that if ‘I’ do, <your suggestion here>, it helps.

I wonder if either of you are interested in changing your interactions, stopping fighting, or in communicating differently with each other?

If anyone says ‘YES’ you can then ASK  if they are interested in suggestions. Asking is the key here, rather than assuming that they want suggestions or that they want something to be different. People will often not listen to suggestions unless they have requested them or have acknowledged that they want support in this manner.

My guess is you will get NO clear ‘yeses’; you may just get a bunch of hooks and traps that are unconsciously intended to pull you back in. THAT is your answer! Remember that ‘yes, but’, really means no. If someone is not giving you a clear ‘yes’, and then they just jump back into their game, then your answer for now is a BIG NO. The unspoken response you are getting might be something like,

‘WE LOVE OUR GAME. And YOU suck for not joining in!’

If you want to truly get yourself out of the game, you need to first appreciate the people for who they are, games and all. In addition, you need to accept not only that you can’t change them, but that they don’t necessarily even want to change.

grandepiphanyBeyond that, if you can step back and see the game more objectively, like a TV drama, you may develop a sense of humor and appreciation for the dynamics (playful loving humor from an observer’s point of view, not sarcasm that you throw in their face).

The idea is for you to find a way to feel at peace and have fun with it, and not get caught in the dynamics yourself. The only real way to not be caught in the game is to not interact with it except from the stance of a neutral observer and a place of compassion for each person’s inner wants and needs.




  1. Great points! It is so true how family dynamics are very ingrained and can be difficult to change- especially when the individuals aren’t even you! But I so agree that being a neutral party and leading by example are quiet but powerful ways to influence others in a positive way- it may not work as fast as you’d like, but it can over time bring about positive changes. And even if it doesn’t, you can be secure in your knowing that YOU are doing the right thing and being a person that you’re happy with inside. Glad you talked about this!

  2. Spot on Barbara. Observing our own patterns and using those as a foundation for observing the patterns of others is well within each individual’s power. Offering new insight is generous. Maintaining that integrity for ourselves is ultimate. Spot on.

  3. Wow Barbara. What a brilliantly insightful perspective. I learned SO much from this. The analysis of our own assumptions is SO important and seems to be a never ending rabbit hole of learning.

    I have been really leaning into deeper questionings of the unconscious assumptions aspect of communication since that comment. Fantastic results. Married with healthy doses of shutting up and listening and not getting triggered when I am told the listener doesn’t feel heard.

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