Marguerite Kelly is on vacation. This column originally ran on May 23, 1991.
Q. My wife and I spent the Christmas holidays with my family in New Jersey--her first visit--and she's really mad.
My sister acted as master of ceremonies at my mother's house, dominating the conversation, scheduling all activities and lecturing us on her latest opinions.
My own contributions were ignored, rejected or contradicted. One family member scowled at me the whole time; another gave gifts to everyone but me, and others spoke to me as if I were a child.
Ours is a dysfunctional family, the type that needs a black sheep to abuse. I've done my best to minimize family ties and to be low-key when I'm with them, but I must deal with a lot of freight.
I've complained about the way they treat me but am told that everyone is treated the same, and that I'm "paranoid." At 36, I don't want to play the black sheep any more, and find it harder and harder to spend time with my family.
A. An old auntie used to say, "God gave me my family; thank God I can choose my friends," but this is easier in theory than in practice.
The people with whom we grow up are always the ones who squeeze our hearts. They can make us feel better or worse--gladder, madder, sadder--than anyone else, at least until we have children of our own. The emotional arms of our parents, brothers and sisters extend so deeply into our lives that we often act like children ourselves, whether we're dealing with our relatives, our spouses, our offspring or our co-workers.
Find a good psychologist or a clinical social worker to help you figure out why your relatives act the way they do. Understanding is the first step to freedom and forgiveness.
And you need psychotherapy to help you change your own behavior, so your family won't feel invited to abuse you quite as much, and so you'll realize their behavior isn't as important as you think.
Therapy should help the situation but it won't make your family more likable or make you and your wife want to spend much time with them. So, make only very occasional visits to your mother, perhaps when your sister is away. You also might leave your wife at home sometimes: She is probably even more hurt by their slights than you are and her discontent would only intensify your own.
You and your wife should also make friends with the most normal, kind and generous people you can find. The more you balance the selfishness in your family with the sanity of your friends, the less your folks will annoy you.
Reach out to others who are going through a rough patch. In this way you'll make your own family, so you can look on your relatives for what they probably are: a motley collection of eccentrics who aren't exactly harmless, but who can't hurt you as much as they once did.
It's time to look forward, rather than backward, and to get on with our life.