How to Save a Life
Power and Control in Relationships

How to Avoid Family Drama

Even therapists have issues.  We are raised in families who have issues just like everyone else.  We are at the mercy of those family patterns unless we turn around and face them, just like everyone else.  Personally, I come from a family with a lot of drama queens.  So one of my challenges has been learning how to avoid getting dragged into drama and upending my own life.  One of my favorite strategies is to sit in the bleachers.  What do I mean by this?

First I had to recognize how the drama started.  Since most of my family members live in different cities, our drama is usually initiated with a phone call or email.  (The names will be changed here to protect the innocent and the guilty.)

"Have you talked to your sister?" 
"Do you know what your Diane said to Mother?" 
"Did you hear about what Jennifer said to Mildred?"   
"Do you know what your father did last night?"
"Do you know what your brother did to me?  You won't believe it!"

My dilemma was how to be there for my family without having my own peace of mind sucked into an emotional undertow that would not let go until it had fully played out.  This process sometimes took months depending on the amount of outrage or indignant frenzy people could work themselves into, how far they could suck others into it, and how many others they could draw into this eddy of hysteria.

But I learned to remove myself and avoid the emotional rollercoaster.  How?   By picturing it in my mind as a football game.  When the phone calls or emails began I pictured opposing teams gathering on the field.  As the phone calls and emails gained momentum, I pictured members from both teams waving at me to join them on the field and take sides (and there are always sides to be taken in these things).  But instead of joining them on the field, I mentally grabbed a box of popcorn and planted myself on the bleachers and waved back at them, smiling.  I could now emotionally watch the game from the bleachers without being caught up in it.  "No, you guys go on, have your game, over there.  I'll watch you from here."  They rallied harder to get me to join, but I maintained my position on the bleachers and let the game play out - without me.  

Now how did I actually do this?  What words did I actually use?

Sometimes I actually explained my new football strategy. 

"I don't want to play.  If you want to, go right ahead, but I'm sitting this one out.  I'll be on the bleachers."

Other times it was simpler, "No, I think that should be between Jennifer and Mildred.  It has nothing to do with me."

But whatever I said, I let them know I wasn't going to play.  "I will be right over here, but I'm not going on the field."  Of course, this is about boundaries.  Setting and maintaining a boundary that I'm not going to let this hurricane blow onto my shores.  If good fences make good neighbors, good boundaries make healthy families.  If thinking of family drama as a football game and climbing into the bleachers works for you, please use it.  It has certainly made my life more peaceful.

Ahhh, such bliss.  You cannot imagine.  Or, maybe you can.




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Dave Ray

What would family be without drama? Sometimes that drama can make a family thrive, because a family without drama would just plain be...boring.

But how does one draw the line between dysfunctional and functional drama? Perhaps the criteria could be when a member of the family is harmed by their own intentional participation in the drama, or their unintended participation. One of the things that make for a family with "healthy" drama is the concept of boundaries, as stated in the original article.

For example, do I really need to get my sister involved in my dispute with my wife over how our kids should be raised? What could she possibly contribute to the debate? It's one thing to have a sibling that you can confide in when your own life is not going great (and vice versa) but would I really need her to advocate for me with my wife?

I've noticed that some families crave and create drama because, frankly, that's the way it has always been for them and probably has been for generations. But being able to avoid the whirlpools that suck everybody in to a particular family member's drama is, I think, a keystone to family therapy. The distinction needs to be made between families "sticking together" or just being sucked into a morass because they can't respect other family members' boundaries.

The challenge for family therapists is to come up with a way to teach about boundaries while considering three things: the family's hierarchy, the family's strengths, and the entrenchment of the dysfunctional behavior. It's for the family to discover these things via the therapy, which takes time but is well worth it.



You make an excellent point about healthy dramas. Families are where some of the most important events in our lives are celebrated and mourned; marriages, divorces, births, deaths, sickness, graduations, new jobs, lost jobs, and holidays. Families come together during these times to laugh, to grieve, to unite. And these dramas are what bind our lives together as you astutely point out.

Unhealthy dramas create chaos, erect barriers between people, violate trust and create hard feelings over issues that are manufactured or exaggerated. They drive us apart and leave everyone with hurt feelings not to mention being extremely tiring. When a family is constantly in an uproar with manufactured dramas there are no feelings left for the authentic ones.

Thanks for the comments.


Paradoxically we can learn from this drama and eventually discover that the days of our worst struggle become our most beautiful.

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