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Some of us have spent the past 18 months apart from our families, some of us have spent more of it with them than anticipated. Here Kitty Wheater, Mindfulness Chaplain, explores how to approach our family relationships.

In E. Nesbit’s children’s book The Phoenix and the Carpet, written in the early twentieth century, four children discover that the ordinary-looking carpet in their nursery is woven from magic thread, and can take them anywhere they please. Adventures ensue: to a deserted French tower, a Caribbean beach, and all over London. At some point, under the onslaught of exploits and muddy boots, the carpet begins to wear out. One of the girls takes to it with needle and thread, but does it quickly, and so it cannot be a perfect job. On the next trip, the children huddle tightly on the magic bits – but despite their best efforts, two of them fall straight through the dodgy patch, and land with a bump and a scrape on a London rooftop.

Recently, another story emerged in the newspapers. A family woven together by custom and tradition, tight-knit and dutiful despite past tragedy; indeed, bindings so tight, and tragedy so explosive, that under the weight of living a life, the fabric begins to fray. Parts wear thin, so that the patterns are rendered opaque. Help, reportedly, is sought, but no needle and thread are forthcoming. There is not enough magic left to bear the weight of the sorrow. Two fall through the dodgy patch, and land with a bump and a scrape on Californian soil.

It can be quite a shock to stumble across a threadbare bit in something you thought was solid, and family relationships have taken no end of wear during this pandemic. There has been prolonged separation, or entrenched proximity; home-schooling under the duress of societal shutdown; illness; loss. It’s possible, as with most magic carpets, to travel quite a long way before the threads begin to go bare. When they do, there’s often enough of a magic patch still to sit on. Even if the carpet takes a direct hit, a little wear doesn’t necessarily mean anyone is going to plummet through at high speed. And yet, sometimes, that’s exactly what happens.

The psychological concept ‘rupture and repair’ describes how hurt in close relationships occurs, and can be healed. ‘Rupture’, or misattunement, in family relationships is inevitable: we misgauge and misread each other; we get hangry and tired; we have patterns that emerge in ways we wish were different; we bear the imprint of society, culture, generation. This will not surprise any of you: indeed, knowledge of our own and others’ capacity for rupture is often what brings us the most despair. Find out more about rupture and repair.

The key thing about ruptures, whether big or small, is that they often perpetuate themselves in cycles of inter-relational reactivity. Let’s say your partner, child, or parent forgets something crucial, and you snap at them; they get upset, and then you feel ashamed. Between their upset and your shame, this could go one of three ways.

First, you could both clam up and pretend that none of it ever happened. You don’t even get a chance to find out whether this is a worn thread that can sit quietly in the corner, bolstered by enough magic on all sides, or whether it’s a worn thread that is a few muddy boots away from a yelping tumble over south London.

Second, both of you could hurl all the emotions at each other – anger, hurt, shame – at escalating volume and scale. Threads are pulled left, right, and centre, like a border collie burrowing through a couch. It’s no longer about the forgotten lunchbox: it’s about the bills, the bins, your mother, and by the way, that time you said that thing in public and I can never, ever forgive you.

Third: one of you is a clammer and the other is a hurler. This one is really terrific. The hole in your carpet becomes like a gaping mouth, aghast and affronted in equal measure. If you keep this up indefinitely, the clammer will bury ever deeper into themselves, and the hurler will take their feelings elsewhere. Maybe even to Oprah.

Most of us take turns at clamming and hurling, depending on the relationship, the unique alchemy of patterns and threads that you both bring, and the particular weather patterns that are assailing your carpet mid-air. But let us talk about repair, for here is the needle and thread, with the potential in and of itself for a kind of magic.

Psychotherapist Hilary Jacobs Hendel writes that repair, after rupture, is the restoration of ‘an emotional connection that feels safe and soothing…We do this by being empathic, warm, loving, accepting, curious, and playful.’

Makes sense, doesn’t it? But it can be tougher than it sounds, because those forces of clamming and emotion-hurling, avoidance and fixing, often get in the way of our inherent warmth and empathy. We talk about ‘the silent treatment’, or ‘passive-aggression’, or how someone is ‘confrontational’. Often what we most need is something to interrupt the inter-relational reactivity, before it portals our relationship right into the depths of everything that ever hurt.

Here’s one method you might use in the moment of rupture, drawing on Tara Brach’s RAIN (Recognise, Allow, Investigate, Nurture) practice.

1. Recognise what is happening 

When you are right inside your own relational pattern, the most helpful first step can be to recognise that it is occurring. You might even say to yourself, internally, ‘I’m shutting down.’ ‘I’m overwhelmed.’ ‘I’m exploding.’ ‘I’m withdrawing.’

2. Allow it to be present 

We often judge or doubt ourselves for our reactions, particularly if we know they cause us or others pain.

See if it’s possible to hold the fact of your shutting down or your explosion gently, with some understanding. These are old, evolutionarily-honed reactions, and they are simply part of being human, just as they are part of the humanity of the loved one with whom you are at loggerheads.

3. Investigate what you are feeling in the body 

The body plays a powerful role in emotional feedback loops: notice what happens when you are inside your relational pattern. If you are shutting down, you may have gone numb; you may feel almost sleepy, avoid eye contact, and even find yourself yawning (cue shouts of ‘I’m boring you, am I!’). You may find yourself leaning away, or turning to leave the room.

If you are exploding with hurt, you may well find sensations of tension, pain, and even nausea in your body. It may be a shock to you to realise quite how strong they are. You may also notice a strong ‘forwards’ motion in the chest, as your nervous system engages in threat mode.

4. Nurture what arises 

When we drop into our own experience in this way, it becomes possible to ask ourselves a simple question: what does this moment need?

Sometimes it is very simple. You are both hungry and tired, and need to eat, or to rest; you need to take the conversation out of the house, and on a walk; you need to put it down, by mutual agreement, and come back to it later.

Sometimes it is more complex. You are not only hungry, but famished; not just tired, but exhausted. The conversation may need putting down for longer, and at greater distance. One, or both of you, may need help from elsewhere.

Even if you’re the only one who’s pausing and checking-in in this way, in so doing you are changing something in the relational field. Sometimes this enables the right words to come, after a long string of the wrong ones. And even if the only thing that comes out of your mouth is ‘I don’t know what to do,’ or ‘I feel really upset,’ the fact that it comes from a place of presence, rather than reaction, can be the first step in a re-weaving of your relational fabric. You don’t yet know what that fabric will look like – but it will be interesting to find out.

Last of all: stay curious about what is showing up. It will teach you what you need to know in order to make choices about distance and closeness, boundaries and togetherness, what is needed, and what must be dropped. Sometimes it means you move a few thousand miles away; sometimes, it just means you need a hug.

Reflect a little on your magic carpets, this summer. I bet there’ll be some beautiful discoveries amidst the dust.

Over the summer, Chaplaincy’s Mindfulness webpages have a whole host of resources:
-past issues of the MindLetter,
-resources on mindfulness for sleep, and
-a library of guided practices.

You can join Why Don’t You Write Me, the University’s postcard-writing, art, and connection project, at any time: Why Don’t You Write Me.

Photography: Sam Sills