Every year in December, my mother, my sister and I do one session of family therapy. This particular ritual began four years ago, after a violent incident with a potato. We were cooking Christmas lunch, and my mother made a threatening motion at me with her carving knife. I went mad and squashed a hot potato against the wall with my bare hand.
The goal, when we started the therapy, was that it would function a bit like an exorcism. We could say unforgivable things to one another in the presence of a trained professional and they would somehow become forgivable. Better than that: the process would be healing. If we spat enough venom in advance of the big day we would be sucked dry.
The dream of a happy family Christmas is a seductive one, but there is evidence to suggest that – for adult children and their parents at least – getting on might be medically impossible. There is a psychological term for the way you regress to your most nasty, sulky self when you are back in the nest. It’s called “family systems theory” – the idea that every family has its own equilibrium, and that each member has a fixed role they are forced to play to keep that equilibrium intact. You surrender your adult personality at the door of your family home as a kind of blood sacrifice. Whatever your established role was as a child – bully, telltale, sad clown – you are doomed to play it again, and to keep playing it, in order to keep the family dynamic alive.
Could spending time with relatives actually make people mentally ill? Family therapy was developed in the 1950s, after psychologists observed that patients tended to relapse when they went home to their parents. Sometimes even a visit from a family member would be enough to trigger psychotic behaviour. Stranger still, any psychiatric improvement would be greeted with suspicion by relatives, rather than relief, and sometimes with the eruption of similar symptoms in a sibling. The family dynamic was so irresistibly powerful, psychologists concluded, members were quite capable of driving themselves mad to preserve it. As Janet Malcolm writes in her 1978 essay “The One-Way Mirror”, family therapy emerged out of a conviction that “the family itself was sick – that it needed treatment, rather than the ‘patient’, who was only, and almost accidentally, an emblem of the family’s disorder”.
Viewed in this light, the family Christmas is a fundamentally doomed exercise. What’s interesting to me is that I continue to romanticise it anyway. If you don’t believe in God (perhaps even if you do), family is the thing you celebrate at Christmas. This is why not getting on with your family can feel like a spiritual, as well as a personal, failure. The image of the happy family is at the centre of every Iceland ad, and every Christmas TV special. I have seen it so many times it feels like a memory. I realise, in my rational brain, that the Christmas I am chasing is fiction. But I like fiction. After all, the holiday itself is a kind of fantasy. (Historians agree that, whatever we’re celebrating on 25 December, it isn’t the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, who was probably born in September.)
So, while we recognise that we are fated to argue, and that saving Christmas is hopeless, we continue to go to therapy. Sixty minutes of medical attention per year is perhaps not enough to treat my family’s sickness, but there is something curative about having our nastier behaviours observed.
The ritualised game of therapy is always a little theatrical (the couch, the box of tissues), but in a family session the performance becomes more elaborate, because you are tasked with presenting the drama of your life together. The idea is to manufacture an argument vicious enough that it merits the therapist’s intervention. This requires concentration: my 27-year-old sister keeps a list of grievances on her phone we can use as prompts when conversation is flagging (“potato”, “carving knife”) and we try not to talk to each other on the way up the stairs to the office, as we have learned from experience that this makes us too nice.
We begin each session like bad actors: I come dressed in a fleecy tracksuit, and slump in my chair like a hideous teddy; my mother pulls crafty faces and says things like, “You would like me to put a bag over my head and never speak again.” Sometimes, our therapist calls my mother “Mummy” (“Mummy feels silenced”). We start to call her Mummy too, which is satisfying (“I hate you Mummy!”) – but we avoid direct eye contact while we say it. We look at the tissues instead and try to cry.
Gradually, though, the effort to perform dysfunction becomes embarrassing. Our therapist, who is sweet-tempered and bookish, keeps watching us; and this gets less thrilling, and more uncomfortable. As the hour wears on, I feel larger and more threatening in my chair, while my mother appears to be getting smaller and less crafty-looking. I become aware that I am sweating in my fleecy tracksuit. That I am 30. That a bit of spittle just flew out of my mouth as I shouted at my mother, who is 64.
For a few days after each session we are gentle with one another. We post Christmas tree emojis on the WhatsApp group and float the idea of using a safe word (“pie”).
It will never last. But, as with all Christmas miracles, it feels good to believe.
[See also: Why we are drawn to therapy]
This article appears in the 09 Dec 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special