Have any of you seen the 2008 movie "Rachel Getting Married"? In its raw simplicity, it often is hauntingly on my mind. The movie reminds me of how relationships tumble along, how crisis can allow for growth. I often wonder how change occurs, how relationships evolve and get stronger. The movie reminds me that this growth is often mysterious and unpredictable. And often, when a relationship looks like it is taking a deep dive for the worst, that moment transforms into yet another, in which connection, growth and closeness take a new and solidified shape.
"Rachel Getting Married" is a dead-on, honest portrayal of the struggles both with relationships and addictions. In one wild, memorable scene, the main character (who shouldn't be the main character because she is the sister of the bride -- which is exactly the point) lights up a fiery, incoherent, rambling toast to her quietly seething sister. The focus, now off the bride, is on the ever accentuating presence of the substance-abusing sister. The moment is like watching a match being put to an oil- drenched rope attached center stage to a family. The burn escalates to an explosion. The night is carried away into disaster.
And yet, just frames later, the bride is back, center stage, poignantly tending to her emotionally battered, alcoholic sister. The two quietly and sensitively move on to embrace whatever is next. Without fanfare, explanation or overt reason, the family crisis dissolves and the sisters' relationship gently and firmly marches on.
The other night, my two teenage daughters and I had our own version of a family crisis. It was an evening filled with misunderstandings, yelling and really hurt feelings. Everyone said things that were meant to be mean -- and which, indeed, were. In a moment of feeling powerless and enraged, I did what I tell all my patients to do: I insisted that the next night, when things hopefully would be calmer, we should have a "family meeting." And we did. But the family meeting ended up being even worse than the fight. There were more misunderstandings, more hurt feelings. I pulled rank and took away allowances, threatened grounding the kids' for "bad attitudes" -- and they threatened back with the proverbial "So what?" and "I don't care!" It was a complete disaster. We all went to bed in a fury.
Except that the next night, when we all came home, without talking about it or "working it through," clearly something had changed. I bought some favorite desserts (yes, I spoke with food!), and one daughter made a point of being home early; the other had a gift for her sister. Dinner was filled with stories, openness and even laughter. We all backed down from the punishments and threats, and there was a spirit of good will that permeated the evening. We didn't analyze the night before. We didn't "work it through." We did, at moments, make fun of the night, sarcastically joking about how the limits weren't working and how I was flailing about, trying to reach my daughters. But nothing more specific was said.
Now, as the mother of two teenage girls, I know this moment of calm won't last for long. But it gave me an anchor to move forward -- to remember what we have, not what we don't. It was a memory chip for the next go-around -- a reminder that there is a base to come home to. I think what was most important was that by coming back the next night, by making sure to spend time with each other, we silently acknowledged that we all had been heard and wanted to try again.
As a family therapist, I am always recommending family meetings. But it occurs to me that I rarely talk about just how bad the meetings might be-- or how change really will occur. I think all of our visions of moving through crisis moments might need to be refined and expanded. Inevitably, at the rough moments, feelings will be heated and words will fly. The outcome often feels tenuous. Staying steady in the wake -- when emotional detritus slams the walls, and tears stain the faces -- may be what is needed to allow for the very next moment, when indeed a step forward actually might occur.
Maybe conflict has to do with what we can see: the fights, the tears and the anguish. Maybe change has to do with what we can't see -- unspoken steadiness, a belief that you want the relationship to work and maybe faith that change really can occur. Sometimes a belief in the relationship -- faith that the relationship is strong enough to tolerate crisis -- is the hardest thing to muster. Sometimes that's really all there is, and maybe, in and of itself, that faith can actually be enough. Sometimes what we can't see may be as important as what we can see in allowing our attempts at change to occur.
P.S. In an attempt to avoid yet another crisis, my daughters have read and O.K.'ed everything I've written.