Each year around this time, conversations with clients turn to the predictable stress of time with family over the holidays. Like ghosts in the night, old issues, long dormant, reappear at holiday time. How is it that an adult with partner and children can walk into their parents' home and instantly feel 10 years old again? The anticipation of a holiday encounter can lead any adult to feel slightly unhinged in a way that few other situations do.

Let's face it, no one can upset you like a family member.

Here are some ideas to try on this holiday season. They are born of basic tenets of family therapy theory and are utterly applicable to a variety of anticipated holiday situations:

1. Plan and be strategic. 

It's always a good idea to warn someone that you are going to make a change before you actually do:

"I was thinking about the holiday, and this year I might do something a bit different."

You don't even have to be sure of what specific change you're going to make, the point is to warn others first. That way, you can attempt to avoid their shock and surprise when you decide not to follow the family script - you know, ‘the way it's always been and everyone (but you) wants to continue'.

This can be particularly useful when, for example, you have young children and want to begin to create your own traditions around the holidays. Perhaps you feel the stress of traveling with small children in an effort to please everyone, or because 'you've done it every year, and they're counting on you.' So let people know in advance and find allies to support your change.

Which brings me to the next point.

2. Expect a reaction.

It is true that relationships have much in common with physics: for every action there is a reaction. Families attempt to maintain a homeostasis - a state of balance, maintained by familiar patterns and expectations. Think of the tremendous impact it has upon relationships when a family member joins or leaves the system; these points of normative developmental crises, birth, adolescence, marriage, or death, each require a renegotiation of previous roles and rules in the family system. Holiday traditions are valued as markers of continuity, so changes, however minor, can feel disruptive and unsettling. 

3. Focus on yourself.  

You can change only your behavior, not the behavior of others.

Admittedly, this is a tough one. It's the balancing act between giving up the dream of what can be, and accepting what is. There is much integrity in changing one's own behaviors in a respectful and compassionate way, and it's sad to realize that, for now, others may just not be who you want them to be.

Developing a curiosity about yourself may help. This might be a good time to entertain the questions:  Why does this person still hold so much power over me?  Why do I still need my mother/father/sibling to compliment or recognize me? How is it that I have come to this place in my life carrying that old wound?

4. There's always next year.

Your opportunities to practice being different in your family are boundless. Try to think of this as one of many steps toward change. It will most likely take more than one conversation and there can be complicating factors: addiction, trauma, divorce, remarriage. Relationships take time, so keep in mind the long term; families are full of surprises and unpredictability as the family life cycle inevitably moves into the future.

When I hear a person in their 20's or 30's say "I'll never have a relationship with my brother, I respond, "Well, let's think about this for a moment. If you both live until you're 80, are you telling me nothing will happen over the next 50 years? Most likely, your parents will predecease you, and you and he will together become the oldest living generation in the family. You may each partner with someone, and perhaps become aunt and uncle to each other's children." There are endless circumstances that create opportunities for us to evolve in our family system.

5. Lastly, I try to remember at this time of giving thanks, that to even think about the quality of relationship is of itself a both blessing and a privilege.

Why are parents today seemingly so unhappy?

Published on July 13, 2010 by Jacqueline Hudak, M.Ed., Ph.D., LMFT in FamilyLife

The cover story in this week's New York Magazine: "I Love my Children. I Hate My Life", immediately catches my eye, and I am eager to read it. As a Couple and Family Therapist, I am perpetually curious about the ways in which the very private conversations I have in my office are reflected in the public narratives of popular media.

This thorough and nuanced piece explores the fact that study after study indicates that having children makes people less happy.

As a mother, there was much I related to in Senior's article; I loved doing the birthday parties for my kids, but (as my friends can attest) the goodie bags just about put me over the edge; this familiar birthday ritual illustrates both the joy and the.................angst of parenting.

I use that term - angst - quite deliberately: I have found that it so beautifully captures the experience I have had as a Mom as well as the hundreds of stories I have listened to, particularly, from the parents of young children in my clinical practice.

Although for me it has become a well-worn term, to be accurate, I visited one of my go-to places for language, Visual Thesaurus: http://www.visualthesaurus.com/

Sure enough, there it was, angst:

"that vague, unpleasant emotion that is experienced in anticipation of some (usually ill-defined) misfortune."


That one word expressed what I felt as a young mother, as well as what I have heard again and again from my patients.

Here are two stories; they have served to guide me in attempts to resist the incessant invitation in our cultural landscape - to parent by angst.

I sat in my office with three generations of a family together: my client, a 16 year old boy, who I'll call Chris, his divorced 47 year old mother, and her 78 year old Italian-American father.

I had asked this maternal grandfather to join us because he was so present in Chris's life - they were especially close, and, as a family therapist I knew he held tremendous leverage with his acting-out grandson.

"What is she talking about, these ‘emotional needs'?" the grandfather asked, referring to his grown daughter, Chris's mom.

He continued, his loud, gruff voice somehow now almost pleading: 
"She had a good life! Three meals a day, a roof over her head, what is this she's talking about, wanting to give her son?"

Emotional needs: Affection, support, encouragement.

Now, along with the basics, parents needed to cultivate that coveted sense of self esteem in their kids.

In that moment I came to understand something central to the way my generation ‘parents': that unlike our grandparents and before, so concerned with the basic essentials of life, we had become saddled with a tremendous burden:

The knowing - that as parents we can do psychological harm to our children.

This knowing crept into our collective unconscious, fueled by the writings of Spock, Bettelheim, Bowlby. Very gradually, almost without notice, parenting became a competency to be mastered, and opinions about the ‘right' and ‘wrong' ways of doing it were hotly debated in our cultural discourses.

I came to describe this as "parenting by angst" -

This was what I was hearing in my office, daily.

Each story was particular to that family, or those parents, but our conversations centered around one theme: the ubiquitous worry about each decision, however minor, harming the child in some emotional way. Parents weighed every outcome against potential psychological damage.

Then, the Lion King movie came out in 1994.
My first child, a daughter, Lauren, had just turned 3. There was vociferous public discourse about whether or not a child should even see the movie, with the stark depiction of the young lion cub both losing his father, and feeling tremendous guilt in the role he played.

Experts cautioned it was too much exposure for a young child to the harsh realities of a life - do not take her to see it.

Fortunately, I read an article that spoke with such simple clarity to me that I have used it as a compass ever since.

I looked it up today, 16 years later, and assure you, it's worth a read in its entirety:


Titled FILM VIEW; A Bambi For the 90's, Via Shakespeare, Dr. Perri Klass, 
a Boston pediatrician, discussed the notion of shielding our children from all such intense emotional life experiences. The perspective of this wise clinician was that it was an impossibility to protect our children from such events; our task as parents was rather to help them process the inevitable negative and scary things that would come their way.

Regarding the movie, she stated," But let us, for heaven's sake, not start worrying that it's a problem if children respond to art with sadness or dismay or even fear, as long as these emotions can be discussed, as long as the sad can be comforted and the frightened reassured."

I could not protect my children from the inevitable and sometimes random wounds of living a life. Impermanence, loss, and hurt would touch them at some times. The best I could do was to be there with them in it. And, to then say, "I am confident that in time, you will feel better."

So, why are parents today seemingly so unhappy?

I return again to the notion of angst.

It causes us to hover above and around us those we hold most dear - a feeling - vague, unpleasant, and ill defined.

It is the direct and dire cost of loving another, of leaving ourselves open to all that comes with that connection: the joy, fear, exasperation, rage, and, yes, delight. But mostly it is about thinking we can cause such harm in our loving - that we must employ such caution that it robs us of the spontaneity and pure slow relaxation of being together without a sense of time, task or goal.

The words of that grandfather, the questions he asked that day in my office are with me still; I am grateful to him as I try to remember that sometimes, the very basic ways we care for each other are more than enough.

Intimate justice - doesn't the sound of it just make you want some?

I am frequently asked by clients to recommend books that I think are particularly helpful and informative; I wrote this review of my colleague's book a few years ago, and decided to share it here on my blog. I do so because it is some of the best writing I have found that is both accessible and deals with the complexity of relationships. 

Making Love, Playing Power: Men, Women and the Rewards of Intimate Justice, by Ken Dolan Del-Vecchio

Those of us who transgress the lines between doing ‘therapy' and social justice work try to open our clients and families to new ways of seeing their lives. In my clinical work, I pursue the questions that might help someone see possibility where previously there was none. In this book, Ken provides a clear map of how gender, race, class and sexual orientation influence power in a relationship - and how the imbalance of power is at the root of most conflict. This dynamic is generally not talked about - even by supposed ‘experts'. Ken helps focus our understandings of how we are taught to be male or female, and what cost that exacts from relationships with those we love. This book enacts the revolutionary ideas that men are fully capable of deep intimacy and connection, and women, of empowerment and self-love.

With so many self-help books on the market, it is so refreshing to find one that has a chapter entitled "What Patriarchy Teaches Men." AND it is written by a man. I can only begin to imagine the ways in which sharing this book will enhance my clinical work with couples and families. The dominant psychology of our culture teaches us to look inside the person or relationship for "the problem." Yet "the problem" is so often outside of the relationship - and the tricky thing is, we don't talk about it. As a culture, we don't acknowledge the ways in which the presence or absence of racism, poverty, gender privilege, or heterosexism (to name a few) shape and give meaning to our lives. Instead, we couch the struggles in pseudo-diagnostic terms: "communication problems", "anger management," "codependency." We thus never get to talk about or take action against the structures that support these hierarchies of privilege and oppression within which all families live.

As the mother of a teenage boy, I am also deeply concerned about the ways in which he is taught by our culture to be a man. Can he stay the big-hearted, emotional and tender person I have known? Must he become indoctrinated into the traditional world of masculinity? I know all of the rhetoric about how men have changed, but has the culture of masculinity? (that's a whole other blog!) I see the extreme self reliance, the inability to ask for help or be viewed as dependent, in many "younger" men in my practice. I know Ken shares that concern for his son and speaks to that in his dedication: "For your generation, may you know love more than domination and truth more than fear."

Making Love, Playing Power: Men, Women and the Rewards of Intimate Justice is the relationship guide we have been waiting for. It is one to read, savor, and share with those you love.

Published on November 8, 2010 by Jacqueline Hudak, M.Ed., Ph.D., LMFT in FamilyLife Copyright JHudak
What if there were community ceremonies to mark divorce?

Rituals are usually associated with life's momentous occasions: birth, death, and, for those who are allowed, marriage.

There are also those times in the life cycle in which, although the event is no less significant, it goes unmarked by ceremony or observance. Sometimes it can be more of an ambiguous loss, like a miscarriage, or something experienced at the edge of shame, like abortion. A great silence surrounds such occasions. They are losses nonetheless, but not deserving of a ritual to mark them, or to experience them in community with others.

Such is usually the case with divorce.

Several weeks ago, I attended a divorce ‘ritual' of sorts, and came away so moved by the experience that I decided to share it here on my PT blog: Family.Life.

My friend Yasmin brought together an eclectic group of family and friends who gathered at events held on a Saturday night and Sunday afternoon in Philadelphia. Much like a wedding, many of us were previously strangers, and became joined in a web of connection to our mutual friend.

Yasmin had brought us together to mark the finality and transition of her divorce. 
Well, that was my particular spin on the event, but for Yasmin, it was more about saying ‘thank-you' to each friend, who, in their own unique ways, helped her through the past five years of deep and profound grief, searching, and ultimately, completion. She remarked that her marriage took place in community, yet was ended alone and in silence. She was attempting to alter what this culture does relative to the dissolution of a marriage.

It was quite a cast of characters: cousins, aunts and uncles, best friends of the former husband, some who drove many hours to be there. There was a therapist and rebirther, those who knew Yasmin only post-separation, her best pal from fifth grade, the new boyfriend.

And while I couldn't really call it a celebration - although at times it did feel joyous and celebratory, it was also marked by tears - at times we struggled to even articulate what moved us so profoundly in the space that was created.

The centerpiece was a meal for 28 that Yasmin had arranged at a local restaurant that Sunday afternoon. In a private room, at a beautifully appointed table, we toasted and dined, while each took turns to speak about our experiences, both with Yasmin, and in our own lives, of unexpected rupture and eventual transition to a new place.

This process reminded me that as a Family Therapist, I often am exposed to beliefs about the destructive nature of divorce. And generally, as a culture, we have become accustomed to hearing only one version of the divorce story: the bitter, high conflict divorce that results in a ‘broken' family. With my clients who might be seeking alternative perspectives on the ending of a marriage, I always recommend the books by Connie Ahrons: The Good Divorce: Keeping you Family Together when Your Marriage Comes Apart, and, We're Still Family: What Grown Children have to Say about their Parents Divorce.

Together these books narrate the potential of another story about divorce - one that does not have to decimate all involved. Ahrons quotes the noted anthropologist Margaret Mead, who was married and divorced three times; a reporter asked about her ‘failed' marriages, to which she replied," I didn't have any failed marriages. I've been married three times and each marriage was successful."

Says Ahrons: "She went on to explain that she had gone through several very distinct life stages and had at each time chosen a different mate, one who could meet her needs and priorities of that time. She also suggested in her writings...that her own pattern of serial monogamy was the wave of the future."

Perhaps this evolution away from the catastrophic predictions about the consequences of divorce can be seen to correspond with parallel shifts in the meanings of marriage. In Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage, family historian Stephanie Coontz discusses the very modern notion of marrying for romantic love and the elevated expectations (and greater disappointments) of that partnership when it is no longer primarily an economic arrangement between families. And yet, even as divorce has lost its stigma and many reconstituted families make healthy adjustments to their post-divorce lives, it is clear that the transitions themselves may remain painful and confusing.

I too live in a post-divorce, binuclear household, and can say without question that there was far more grief associated with my divorce than I ever anticipated. I am reminded of the line from a movie, "Going through a divorce is like being in a car accident, every single day, for two years." Or, as my 15 year-old son said, "The worst thing about a divorce is that in order to be with one parent, you have to say goodbye to the other."

The ritual that I attended for Yasmin was, in her words, a marker of "crossing through a milestone of growth and development, and celebrating the amazing generosity of those who were with me." Those weekend ceremonies added a far richer text to the stories of both her marriage and divorce.

The act of sharing, amongst a community of witnesses, the stories of hope and commitment, of growth and change, of pain and grief, yes, but also of rebirth and the potential for a new, even more expansive life provides an antidote to the silence that otherwise colludes with the limited perspectives we hold for the families of divorce.
For those who are interested, here are some resources:

Religious divorce rituals:


Divorce ceremonies that help you "celebrate life post divorce":


Published on August 12, 2010 by Jacqueline Hudak, M.Ed., Ph.D., LMFT in FamilyLife Copyright JHudak