Christmas can get messy for families!

Family gatherings can be messy, especially during the Christmas holiday. For some families, it’s anything but “a holly, jolly Christmas.” For survivors of childhood sexual abuse whose abuse occurred within the family system, Christmas family gatherings accentuate the family fraud of keeping the secret. The sham of acting like nothing happened becomes a re-enactment of the trauma and threats that accompanied the abuse. “Don’t tell anyone” rings in the air, drowning out the songs of the carolers.

Family gatherings can be messy . . .

Acting like nothing happened re-enacts the trauma of childhood sexual abuse.

If your wife was sexually abused as a child within her family system or if her family was not supportive when she disclosed the abuse, then mingling with her family at Christmas is messy, not merry. If you are the survivor of abuse, I don’t need to tell you how messy it is. You know!

In a previous blog, I outlined ways to navigate through the shame of abuse during the holidays. In this blog, I describe how you can observe your families of origin and identify their rules of engagement, then discover how these rules function as rules of enslavement, and finally begin taking steps towards emancipation.

You can identify your family’s rules of engagement and discover how they function as rules of enslavement.

A friend of mine has been documenting his family history by researching old records, accumulating stories, and recording accounts from his own experience. He has begun to note themes emerging from his family of origin. By identifying these themes, my friend uncovered the force(s) that drive motivations, shape behavior, and sometimes enslave individuals in his family.

We can identify family themes that shape and sometimes enslave our lives.

To begin, first, think of these family themes as rules of engagement. Rules of engagement can be spoken,  but they are also communicated nonverbally through expectations.  Consider these examples of actual family rules of engagement:

  • You’ll never amount to anything.
  • What will others think?
  • I don’t give a rip about what others might think!
  • You’ll pay for this.
  • You need to earn my love.

Think of these family themes as rules of engagement.

Let’s say a family decides to paint their house. For some reason, they choose pink; a color that is going to stand out in stark contrast to other houses in the neighborhood. At one of their family dinners, someone in the family says, “If we want to paint our house pink, then we’ll paint our house pink!” This statement exposes their rule of engagement: “I/We don’t give a rip what others might think!” True family rules of engagement will be repeated through the course of time. 

In a family system, childhood sexual abuse is often linked to the rule(s) of engagement. For example, a father who sexually abuses a daughter and then treats her harshly because of his own shame and guilt further violates her personhood by nonverbally communicating the rule, “You’ll never amount to anything.” Or a parent who instructs their child not to tell anyone about the abuse hidden behind the closed doors of the home communicates the rule, “What will others think?”  

The existence of childhood sexual abuse within a family system is often linked to the rule of engagement.

Rule(s) of engagement hold family members in bondage. Adults who tell the child to keep quiet can enslave them to silence and secrecy. The harshly treated abused child is enslaved to self-blame and loss of self-esteem. The child who believes that love is earned is enslaved to performing for their parent at all costs.Rules of engagement, therefore, become rules of enslavement. So how can you be emancipated?

First, identify your family’s rule(s) of engagement.

As you attend your family’s Christmas gatherings, I recommend that you take the role of investigator. It might be an emotionally consuming exercise, but it can lead to constructive outcomes.

I recommend that you take the role of investigator.

Here are some questions and fill-in-the-blanks that will help you with your investigation. Answer them according to what is true for your family-of-origin.

  • Punishment occurred in our family when ___________________.
  • I felt secure in our family when ______________________.
  • I felt unsafe in our family when ______________________.
  • What people were excluded from your family?
  • What people were included/accepted in your family?
  • How did your family respond to crisis?
  • How did your family seem very different from the families of your friends?
  • Are you able to identify any boundaries for your family? What were those boundaries?
  • What ideas (words, phrases, pictures) come to your mind when you think of your family?
  • Are behaviors or statements repeated in your family of origin that are especially irritating to you? Why?

You can learn more and develop your own investigation questions by googling Family Mapping.

Second, identify the effect these family-of-origin rules have on you in adulthood.

This will take weeks, perhaps months, of self-observation. Be honest with yourself. Don’t beat up on yourself if you don’t like what you see. Healthy change does not come by way of self-condemnation. It comes by determining what is true and then committing yourself to God for changes you cannot make in your own power.

  • What words, phrases, rules, etc. that you heard from your parents do you hear yourself saying? Why?
  • Are the rules you’ve identified benefiting you? How so?
  • Are the rules you’ve identified benefiting others in your immediate family? How so? Have you asked them?
  • What rule(s) are proving to be detrimental to you and/or those around you?
  • If you have adult children and are able to have open and non-judgmental conversations with them, ask them what they have observed about their experience in their family-of-origin (i.e. your home).
  • What benefits might occur if the detrimental rule(s) are cancelled?

Third, Discuss the findings of your investigation with your counselor. Allow your counselor to probe further and help you establish healthier rules of engagement.

Finally, draft a new rule of engagement to counter the ill-effects of the rule of enslavement.

  • It will probably be helpful to get feedback from your counselor.
  • You may want to create some kind of certificate regarding the new rule. Post it somewhere so that you’ll see it as a reminder.
  • Your enslavement has existed over years. Don’t give up! Emancipation is sometimes blotted by temporary relapses into old patterns. Persevere! Discuss your progress with your counselor.

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