Subversive Shrink: Chronic Family Obligation Fatigue Syndrome

Posted February 5, 2016 in
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Dear Subversive Shrink,

This time of year has a plethora of birthdays in my and my husband’s families. Running between not just one or two households, but upwards of four or five has me left exhausted before it’s even started. Remembering the topics I’m allowed to bring up from person to person has become an Olympic sport and by the end of the day if I haven’t been questioned about my college degree or general life direction, I feel as though I deserve a gold medal. Answering questions like, “So what do you REALLY do?” or having to explain why I haven’t bought a house yet is just mentally and physically taxing. My husband just tends to ignore the fact that we’re suppose to bring a side dish AND presents for everyone to each household, leaving me with the brunt of the work and the brunt of the blame when it doesn’t happen. “It’s the wife’s job” they say… Now, as the self-identified feminist and activist, I want to argue with this logic and the fact that his laziness is accepted while me wanting to go skiing instead is seen as the ultimate slight to his family. How do I combat Chronic Family Obligation Fatigue Syndrome and the urge to argue gender (or any) politics at the family table? Ignoring it seems to leave me angry, but arguing seems just as blood boiling.


Dear Anon,

Roles and expectations are some of the most infuriating constructs we encounter in our everyday lives! They rarely honor us, often subjugate us, and they can be the cause of tremendous harm to our mental health. They creep into our psyches and exert their forces, creating internalized guilt, shame and self-silencing.

First, we must challenge ourselves to not be our own gatekeepers—this means that in order to be an agent of change within your family system, you must first end your personal relationship with guilt and shame. You have the right to have boundaries and to be the owner of your own life first. Ask yourself what you need for the situation to feel more balanced, then you can begin the work of expressing that to your loved ones.

Setting boundaries and reforming role expectations is as much an art as a science. It requires navigating cultural issues, inter-generational traumas and narratives, and your individual values. The first person with whom to work on this might be your partner. Perhaps it’s time for them to be given the gift of greater accountability for family expectations. For instance, ponder what would happen if you negotiated with your partner that they are in charge of the food or another item you’re both expected to bring to an event. A way you might open this discussion could be: “This last cycle of birthdays, I realized how intense all the expectations were, and I felt like my expected role was to manage all of that. It feels important to rework that so that we are both supporting each other and are sharing an equal amount of accountability. If you would take on the task of what we are expected to bring to events, that would mean a lot to me.”

Next, try setting boundaries with extended family, including around how many events you can be expected to attend in any single time period. As author Anne Lamott said: “No is a complete sentence.” It is not only okay to say no to something … It is even an act of radical self-love and compassion. Alongside establishing what is workable for you with attendance, you can’t have some crucial conversations with family regarding what topics are hurtful or issues you’re not interested in sharing unless you bring them up first. Sometimes well-intentioned loved ones haven’t a clue what we need from them, and it can be tremendously helpful to hear someone say, “You know, I’m not really sure where I’ll be with that, so in the future, I will let you know if I’d like to talk about it. Thank you for asking!”

Try those steps to defining your needs with your partner and family, and perhaps the next time those holidays, birthdays and other debacles come around, you’ll have a much more spacious experience!

In Solidarity,

The Subversive Shrink

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  • Y

    The husband’s choice of behavior definitely stands out in this letter. Why is he going to his own family gatherings without bringing what is expected–side dish/presents–and then allowing the blame for failing to do so to fall on the letter writer? What an awkward, potentially humiliating situation to put your wife through among her in-laws. There are a few possibilities here: 1. It could be a genuine oversight on his part, 2. he could be harboring attitudes about gender roles similar to his family’s, or 3. he feels comfortable making the letter writer responsible for this role and its accompanying failure because it’s just easier for him. The first thing that can or should be done here is talk to the husband about the side dish situation: what’s the deal? Ideally that conversation should end with husband and letter writer figuring out a strategy for dishes/gifts that doesn’t make the other look bad, and a way of checking in with each other while navigating his family events. Setting boundaries with his family definitely isn’t going to work if the husband isn’t already supporting the letter writer from his family’s criticism, even if that criticism is implicit.

  • Looking For A Shrink

    Super excited with this new column. High-five, SLUG.

  • Abby

    YESSSS! Please do more of these SLUG!