“It’s still hard for me to believe the trouble I went to all those years, trying to convince myself that I was so generous! Sometimes, I can still feel guilty about, well, how controlling I was.”

Maxine was reflecting on family holidays — then and now. She’d learned the hard way how her family felt about the steamroller “generosity” she brought to family holiday celebrations in the past. But that resentment was only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. 

“Generosity and altruism are, of course, wonderful qualities. They are also the sheep’s clothes of irrelationship, allowing us to hide our anxiety about being close to others—lovers, family, friends—in the confusing guise of giving.”Mark

“I thought that ‘all I did for them’ entitled me to call all the shots when I visited — what we’d do, who we’d do it with, even what we’d have for breakfast. It was crazy, only I didn’t see it that way at all.

“The part of all this that I totally missed — or ignored — as that, except for at the holidays, I kept myself pretty distant from most of my family for most of the year. So when I — this was really hard for me to take in — showed up once a year with my ‘act,’ they were increasingly uninterested. They finally started treating me like an intruder.”


Compulsive caregiving may look like seeking relationship and closeness, but it’s actually an under-the-radar technique for managing anxiety by keeping feelings at a distance — especially feelings for those who might be important to us. This is the soul of irrelationship — a state in which interactions are unconsciously structured to keep the risks connected to intimacy at a distance.

“One year we finally had a major blowup about where we were going to spend the holidays — at my mother’s or at my sisters’. Since I was the ‘uber-good-gal,’ I felt that I had the right to decide. Well, nobody else felt that way anymore: since I only showed up at Christmas, they no longer felt I had the right to ‘buy my own way’ with nice presents once a year. Then I tried playing the ‘after-all-I’ve-done for you’ card, but that didn’t fly either.”

Maxine was busted. Her show of “generosity” was finally outed as a Trojan Horse — an outsider bearing gifts intended to buy everyone’s complaisance. In reality, it only bought off Maxine’s fear of the underlying tensions in her family and her determination to keep them under wraps. It also made everyone else feel manipulated and mad at her. 

“For years Maxine’s caretaking had gotten in the way of her family’s learning to care for one another.”Daniel

“There had been friction between my mom and my sister about the holidays for years, but nobody even came close to talking about it. ‘Because it’s Christmas,’ everybody ‘went-along-to-get-along,’ only, the resentments just kept building up.

“Well, one year Christmas finally blew up, and so did my generosity routine. But there was no going back. Once the pretending stopped, everybody’s resentment came out in the open. And there was nothing I could do about it. I was surprised to learn how hurt my mom’s feelings were that my sister didn’t want to come to her house. But I was even more surprised that, for me, this brought up leftover stuff from when mom and dad’s marriage was falling apart. My sister and I kind of got put to the side while they acted out their drama. That was when my caretaking thing started: it was a cover-up for how scared I was and for what a mess our family became.

“My sister handled it differently: she generally played along with the ‘everything’s okay’ routine, but held her ground when it came to being swayed by our mother’s influence. She essentially claimed Christmas, and just dared mom to pick a fight with her about what we were going to do for the holidays. Now I see why Christmas at my sister’s felt like we were sitting on a volcano threatening to erupt. Well, every year, after mom had a couple of drinks, she’d start making snide remarks at my sister, about the house, the dinner, even about their kids. But ‘because it’s Christmas,’ she wouldn’t answer mom back. She would just smolder silently. No wonder the holidays always left a bad taste in everybody’s mouth. And then, the next year, we’d do it all over again — everybody pretending they ‘couldn’t wait’ for Christmas. My God it was awful.” 

“Giving and receiving is hard- wired into our brain’s reward networks. It usually works socially because reciprocity ensures fairness, but avoiding the anxiety of intimacy in irrelationship makes give-and-take careen wildly.”Grant

Maxine’s holiday caretaking was no match for years of bad feelings, holidays or no holidays. But what surprised everybody was that, when the volcano finally did erupt, the net result was relief: when the smoke cleared, family members found themselves able and willing to talk with one another in ways they’d never done. This included Maxine, whose need for caretaking her family had vanished.

The next year, for the first time, Maxine’s family were able to negotiate about the holidays like grown-ups and didn’t need Maxine to make everybody “feel better.” They were really looking forward to the holidays.

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