With the return of in-person reunions, the return of toxic family relationships too

Psychologist John Duffy, author of “Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety,” practices in Chicago. He specializes in work with teens, parents, couples and families.

(CNN)During the pandemic, I was working with an adult female client to resolve a number of unanticipated family issues: a son who worked too little in his Zoom-based classes, clashes with her husband about financial concerns and how much time to spend together as a family at home.

We all faced unanticipated family issues within our households throughout the pandemic: managing time with significant others, getting our kids to listen, reasoning with a family member who refuses to get vaccinated, minding the emotional temperature of a home already stressed out.

What we need to avoid

    As awful as the pandemic was, it did afford us the luxury of avoiding some long-standing family problems such as grandparents who disapprove of our parenting styles or an adult sibling we just cannot stand for his politics or narcissism.

      Pre-pandemic, these are the types of relationship issues many of my clients were working through. But during Covid, many didn’t have to see those difficult family members, and in many cases the conflict seemed to disappear altogether.

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        Now those family issues are back.

        In just the past few weeks, I’m seeing those negative family members come back into my clients’ lives with a vengeance. As families are getting together again across the United States, the judgments and personality clashes that have been put on hold are re-emerging, often with renewed energy.

          As it turns out, pre-pandemic family patterns were firmly set and highly resistant to change. Those conflicts and grudges never really disappeared. They just faded into the background, ready to reemerge at a moment’s notice.

          Many of my clients are upset by this turn of events. They thought they were finally free from their family turmoil, only to have it return post-pandemic. Now they are more angry and frustrated about the same stale topics. And for those who do the heavy emotional lifting for our families, their burden has grown quite a bit, and quickly.

          Boundaries might be part of the new normal

          There is one change since before the pandemic: I’m hearing my clients say they are no longer willing to stick with the pre-pandemic status quo, instead setting more clear, firm boundaries to protect themselves emotionally.

          I work with a woman in her 40s who has struggled in her relationship with her mother since her teen years. She describes her mother as judgmental, remote and emotionally unavailable. She felt a reprieve from these feelings in her brief but pleasant exchanges with her mother during the pandemic. But once they sat across from one another again, maskless and close, the toxicity rapidly returned.

          In therapy, we discovered she had some agency in this relationship she did not realize she possessed before Covid-19. She had choices. She could let her mother know that, once she said something offensive, she would leave. She could make certain topics off-limits. She could set boundaries.

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          In any toxic family relationships you have, you can do the same. You can’t change other people, but you can choose not to see them anymore or to see them far less. You can get off the phone or leave when offended. You can decide that no overnights are allowed. And with clear, non-negotiable boundaries, that relational pain truly can be mitigated.

          Setting clear boundaries is neither a concession nor a punishment. Instead, it provides structure around a difficult relationship. That clarity may preserve a relationship that would be otherwise irreparable. The mother of the woman cited above, for instance, responded very well to the boundaries my client set. And setting boundaries works not only in family relationships, but in most any connection we have that unnecessarily drains us of our precious emotional energy.

          The bottom line

          Before you go to back to the same patterns, take a moment to consider your family relationships. The pandemic allowed us to step back and take stock of how we spend our time, and who we spend time with.

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            We recognize toxicity in our relationships more clearly. And we have an opportunity to act on it before our negative pre-pandemic patterns return.

            During this post-pandemic period, I strongly encourage you to take stock of your extended family relationships and consider which bring you energy and which drain you. For the latter group, set overt, clear boundaries now, before those well-rehearsed patterns re-establish themselves.

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