Chelsea Handler and David Sedaris hit the literary lottery in telling the world about their crazy families and, boy, do they make crazy look fun. But Chelsea and David aren’t alone in describing their families as less than normal. In fact, if you eavesdrop on enough conversations, you’ll find that half the world classifies their kin as nuts. So, is it true? Are all families crazy?
As a psychologist who has worked with families for almost 15 years, I can tell you that there is a spectrum of pathology: Some families are at the extremely dysfunctional end; some families are at the extremely functional end; and most families fall somewhere in the middle.The most important point is that there’s a difference between funny-crazy and pathological-crazy, and the comedians are definitely talking about the funny-crazy kind.
Thousands of men and women are looking for a romantic partner at this very moment, but they fear being judged by the dating pool because of their pathological families. In getting ready for a date, men and women with pathological families often get a knot in their stomach as they anticipate the awkward questions about family that inevitably come up. One of the main recommendations I hear relationship experts make is to look for a partner who has a good relationship with his or her family of origin. But what are you supposed to do if you don’t have a good relationship with your family – because your family is crazy?!
If you’re someone who comes from a family with a lot of problems (interpersonal, professional, legal), there are a few basic rules to keep in mind.
Rule #1: First, you never have to answer a question unless you choose to do so. If you’re asked something that makes you uncomfortable, make a joke and say something like, “Um, that’s more of a question for date five or six.” Humor is always the best distraction.
Rule #2: Keep it simple and strength-based in the beginning. Let’s say you’ve got a father who’s been in prison for the past few years. It’s the second time out and your date asks you what your parents do for a living. If you don’t want to use humor to respond to the question, keep your response simple and positive. Think about what your dad did professionally before he was incarcerated (e.g., auto mechanic) and simply say that he’s a mechanic. Your dad is, in fact, a mechanic by trade, and your date doesn’t need any details beyond that for awhile.
What if your date asks what kind of relationship you have with him? If your father’s been in prison for the past few years, you probably don’t have a great relationship. In response to your date, say something like, “It’s like anything: it has its ups and downs.” If your date’s a keeper, you’ll have plenty of time to get into details later.
Rule #3: When you’re ready to disclose the truth (or at least a few details of the truth), ask yourself if you’re nervous about what your date is going to think once he or she hears the details. If you feel anxious, as I suspect you will, be honest about your reservations. Sharing private details at the right time can increase the intimacy between the two of you, but make sure to draw your boundaries. Say something like, “I want to tell you about my [insert family member], but I have to be honest and tell you that I’m nervous about it.” Explain that there’s always the risk of being judged, or of being misunderstood. You can say, “I know I’m a quality person, and I hope you can separate me from my dysfunctional family.” Disclosing your true feelings helps you raise your self-esteem in that you learn to adopt a confident, take-me-or-leave-me attitude.
As a rule, don’t share private details about your family members’ respective lives in the beginning of a relationship. For example, if you have a father or mother who is an alcoholic or drug addict, don’t betray your parent by sharing overly personal details too soon. For example, if you once found your mom passed out in the yard, wait to share that kind of detail until you know you can trust your date to be respectful with such sensitive personal information. After all, you don’t want anyone feeling sorry for you, cracking jokes, or saying something upsetting when you hardly know each other.
Have you had apprehension over this issue? How did you handle it?
Dr. Seth Meyers has had extensive training in conducting couples therapy and is the author of Dr. Seth’s Love Prescription: Overcome Relationship Repetition Syndrome and Find the Love You Deserve