Live & Learn

Theory of Relativity defines volatile forces of nature

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During the holidays just past, I had an opportunity to further develop my Theory of Relativity. I know, Einstein has been there and done that, but mine is different.

Here's the formula: R + C = W. Or relatives plus Christmas equals War.

I'll bet that in four out of five family gatherings on or around Dec. 25, there was at least one fairly major squabble. Well, maybe not quite that many families fought their way through Christmas dinner, but I think you'd agree that it's common.

The incident I observed, that I'm still mulling over, was a classic mother-daughter row. I was one of several innocent bystanders who just wanted to enjoy the fun of opening presents, watch the kids play with their new toys, cook and devour a fine dinner and maybe watch "White Christmas" with Bing Crosby one more time. Instead, we were tiptoeing around the two miscreants, trying to keep the Grinch of hostility from stealing our Christmas.

Why do relatives pick fights with one another at Christmastime? It probably has a lot to do with the heightened emotional expectations we all have. The pressure to be with family, to be loving, generous and social can backfire, especially when some members have unresolved issues with each other. Adults fall back into traditional family roles of parent and child, often uncomfortable roles. Sometimes ghosts of Christmases past are unbidden guests. Grown-up siblings replay old rivalries. Somebody makes too many trips to the spiked punch bowl, and buried anger bubbles forth.

But mother-adult daughter hostilities can be the most upsetting. They may erupt at family gatherings, but the anger and resentment that's beneath the surface all the time drains the energy and happiness of both. Psychologists say the mother-daughter relationship is arguably the most complex of all family relationships.

A few years ago, my daughter and I were caught up in such a conflict. We were able to work through it, thanks to love and the mutual desire to resolve the underlying problems. A book I read at the time was so helpful that I bought six more copies to give to friends whom I knew were also plagued with ongoing mother or daughter conflicts. The book, "Don't Blame Mother," by Paula J. Caplan, was aimed mostly at daughters. However, I found it not only confidence-building, but full of ideas I could use for healing and strengthening the bond between my daughter and me. I also sent a copy to her.

"The New Don't Blame Mother: Mending the Mother-Daughter Relationship" came out last March. Caplan says that myths of the perfect mother give rise to impossible expectations and set mothers up for failure. Good mothers are expected to be endlessly giving, never angry, never guilty of mistakes, always forgiving, always there.

Daughters exaggerate mothers' failings and create a monster in their minds mother is too needy, mother can't let go, mother constantly criticizes. Often, a single grievance from childhood gets imbedded and becomes crystallized. It sticks like a stone in the craw, festering with anger for years. Family therapist and author Larry Stockman suggests that battling mothers and daughters are participating in a dysfunctional dance that will end if either one decides to sit it out.

Mothers, for their part, need to be very sensitive to the fine line between advice and nagging, expectations and unconditional support, and recognize boundaries with their daughters. Sometimes just the smallest change in attitude or behavior can shift the relationship into a positive gear.

I was reminded recently that some mothers and daughters get along fine. That venerable, seemingly indestructible advice columnist, Abigail Van Buren, has been joined by her daughter as partner. Guess she's practiced what she's preached all these years. But I wonder, do you suppose they ever get into a snit over how to cook the turkey?

Contact Vivian Taylor at 474-1386 or online at viv@cybertrails.com.

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