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The Easter Hope of a New England Family Part I

Steven Losardo

The Setting

For one family in New England, this Easter means Reactivity Weekend take LXXXV. But really, who’s counting? The weekend is usually made possible through a Good Friday argument exasperating stressors that seemingly began in 1920. Some family members know better and avoid the unfinished business. Others have good intentions and come with a plan to prevent the specific intricacies from imposing a burden. However, they find themselves caught in the drama
knowing there is a possibility that this may be the best reenactment of “Good Friday” yet. Then there is the rest of the family system who are not only happy to cooperate, but also take on leading roles. No moment is too big for them, so they engage, and it can get ugly.

The Impasse

The Good Friday impasse typically unfolds once the entire family convenes at their grandparents’ house in Rhode Island. This year will be no different. During dinner, a discussion begins between two brothers as to who was the better basketball player either Larry (Bird) or Magic (Johnson)? Complete with Boston accents, the pace of the conversation picks up as an argument ensues. Some find it humorous as Magic is now referred to as “Tragic Johnson.” True
to form, their mom does not and intervenes saying, “Dominick Leonardo (DL)!! I am not having a good time tonight onna-conna (because of) you and it is GOOD FRIDAY to boot.” The emotion has taken over, and the oldest son DL uses an all too familiar defensive counter as he says, “Ma, we all know he (brother #2) is your favorite and besides you’re the one who ruined our last three Easters!” Next, the storyline thickens.

Advice in the Wrong Hands?

This year Uncle Angelo (Unc) will be the family member who believes that a different approach can help facilitate change. This idea begins the week before when Unc, who has been known to occasionally fabricate the truth, supposedly ran into John Gottman. He learns that Gottman is a famous psychological researcher and clinician. After Unc expresses some concerns about his marriage conflict, Gottman (2016) explains to Unc he may be stonewalling his wife. Gottman
discusses the antidote is down-regulating negative emotions and suggests Unc take a “self-soothing break for at least 20 minutes and then re-engage.” Unc gets the idea to apply this information to the family’s situation the day before Reactivity Weekend begins.

While online, Unc reads in a blog that any attempt to increase positive behavior is worth the awkwardness of the first step in change (Fishbane, 2013). As a result, he has hope, and although he does not know what “self-soothing” means, he decides to apply Gottman’s information when the family drama first begins. In the current moment, Unc pretends to be a basketball referee and calls for a family timeout from the debate. For most, it can be hard to tell if the timeout is really
his hope in action or his sarcasm. Despite a questionable approach his timeout seems to work and the argument stops.

State-dependent learning

Unbeknownst to the rest of the family, DL has been utilizing couple therapy with his wife. There he is learning about the Fishbane’s vulnerability cycle (2013) and using a relaxation technique from a mindfulness app. Additionally, the therapist’s state-dependent approach in session will enable DL to transfer that knowledge in the here-and-now while in a similar emotional state (Gottman, 2016).

As DL hears the timeout call, it seems like he is in a therapy session and he seamlessly takes a walk outside using an app to relax. The approach enables his reactivity to decrease so he can process the argument using Fishbane’s (2013) vulnerability cycle. Similar to being in session, he can acknowledge his current view and feeling of frustration about the situation are similar to when he was five (Fishbane 2013). Then he thinks, “I wonder what it must be like for my family
at this moment?” This step enables him to shift the view of his mom and brother to one of curiosity and compassion. Now, with more awareness and understanding he is ready to head back into the house and choose a new behavior (Fishbane, 2013). Before getting there, he hears a voice from the woods saying, “If you build it, he will come.” A part of DL feels five again and reminds him of the challenging experience of as watching the movie The Field of Dreams with
his family. As this voice catches him off-guard, DL does not feel safe and freezes up. The family’s past is about to show up as it so often does. This is where this blog will pick up next time. Stay tuned!

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