The Dysfunctional Family Holiday Survival Guide

Navigating  family relationships can be tough during the holiday season…

Johnny gets along with Sally but doesn’t get along with Sally’s husband. Your mother always makes your skin crawl when she asks you when that grand-baby is coming and you haven’t even had a date in 3 months, let alone a relationship with a man worth procreating with. You had a fight with your brother 6 months ago and haven’t spoken since, but you’ll all be sitting around Mom’s table for Christmas dinner. It can be crazy-making! For as much as you might love your family, when there are stressed relationships, the holidays have a knack for bringing out our best and worst behavior.

As with the rest of the year, you won’t be able to control what anyone else says or does, so I want to help you take care of YOU during this stressful, uh, joyous time.

How to take care of YOU this holiday season:


You might want to indulge in comfort eating, but truly, next Christmas will be even more stressful if you are still carrying around the 10lbs you gained this holiday season (lol….I’m kidding!). In all seriousness, it’s important to be mindful around food when you are dealing with emotional triggers. Stress can cause us to go into auto-feed mode and it can be easy to eat our weight in Christmas cookies or Hanukkah latkes as a way of reducing our stress levels. Listen to your body. Eat when you’re hungry. Stop eating when you feel satisfied, not full. Give yourself some extra allowance for tasting the good food – but when you find yourself not noticing what you’re eating, slow down to get back into a mindful, conscious eating experience.


Drink until you’re singing Christmas carols with abandon! Uh, no, I didn’t really mean that.

LIMIT YOUR INTAKE Please be careful of your alcohol intake in potentially stressful family situations. It can be easy to over do it, thinking it will make the time more tolerable. In the end, alcohol is a predominant precursor to family feuds, so it’s best to keep intake at a minimum.
GET HOME SAFE The holiday season (between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day) is the deadliest on the roads for DUIs (you can see what I had to say about that in this HuffingtonPost article here ). Make sure that if you are going to socially drink that you take precautions to get yourself home. In addition to taxi’s there are now services like Lyft and Uber to get you home when you have imbibed.
RELAPSE PREVENTION PLANNING For those living a sober life after a battle with addiction, holiday family experiences, especially when stressful, can be particularly triggering. If you have struggled with alcohol or drugs and know that the holidays or family relationships can be stressful on you, there are things you can do to help you stay sober. Bring a “sober buddy” with you. This is someone else who is also in recovery and will agree to hang out with you and be by your side if emotions get strained and you feel tempted. If you participate in a 12-step program, you can arrange to call sober friends or your sponsor throughout the festivities. If you’re traveling, you can arrange to attend an AA meeting in the community where you are staying so that you feel close to your recovery.


I personally love buying gifts for others and this is the one area where I have really had to set some limits for myself because I can easily over-spend when I see something I’m just sure someone I know will love. I bet some of you can relate. The best thing you can do for keeping you sanity when it comes to money stress during the holidays is to set a budget. You can find some great holiday budget-setting websites this time of year. Make your budget and then STICK TO IT! For as much as we might want to buy our sister that perfect pair of earrings, save it for birthday time when your budget may allow you to be more flexible. You might even get creative and make something for your family – a pretty tin with some home made cookies or chocolate can go a long way when you have many people to buy for. Whatever you do spend, remember that it is about the giving, not the getting, so buy and give gifts only when you truly want to. The holiday time is about love, connection, relationships and religious traditions. There is nothing written that says you must buy everyone at the party a gift. Be kind to yourself and respect your budget.


Do what feels right to you, not what you think you “should” do.
STAY ONLY AS LONG AS YOU ARE COMFORTABLE Especially when traveling to visit family during the holidays, many people plan to stay, or invite guests for longer than they really want to. They think, “Well, it’s the holidays, I should stay the whole week”, or “I’m traveling all the way there, I should make a longer visit out of it”. No – if you know you can only tolerate 48 hours with your extended family before you feel overwhelmed, don’t plan to stay longer than that. (See item #6. “Self Care” below for tips on taking care of yourself no matter how long the visit is.)
ACCEPT YOUR FAMILY MEMBERS FOR WHO THEY ARE, AS THEY ARE If you go in thinking, “This will be the year things will be different” you will inevitably be let down. A lot of family stress happens because we don’t accept our family members for who they are. When we come from a “dysfunctional” family (and quite frankly, who doesn’t these days?) we often wish for our relatives to be “more loving”, “less crazy”, “more like me”, or any other thing they haven’t been in previous years. This leaves you longing for a different emotional experience. If you took those glasses with the “if only” lenses off and put on the glasses with the clear, accurate lenses, you would see your family members for who they are as other human beings, rather than as relative to your existence. I promise you, this will enhance your visit because when you clearly see people for who they are in the life they are living, you can understand them better. When there is understanding, there is acceptance.
KNOW WHEN TO NOT VISIT There are definitely families in which getting everyone together does no one any good. There may be high conflict or you may truly have family members who are unhealthy to be around (emotionally abusive, neglectful, narcissistic), or there may be dysfunction in the form of active alcohol or drug addiction among family members. Respect how you feel. If you visit knowing that you would really rather not, save your money and time – you will end up resentful and that will add to the stress of the visit. For the family members you would like to see, make polite apologies about not joining them this year, then make plans to see them sometime soon after when you can genuinely appreciate the time with them.


I live in San Diego and I learned in my first 6 months here that there are a lot of us transplants here (the majority of my family is in New York and other eastern states). There have been many years where it was not feasible to travel to visit on both Thanksgiving and/or Christmas. I personally LOVE the holiday season- I love the lights, the parties, the gifts and I know many people reading this do too. There are a couple of things that can bridge this gap to allow you the experience even if you can’t be exactly where you want to be.
VISIT VIRTUALLY Between FaceTime and SKYPE, it’s easy to feel
like you’re right there with your loved ones. No, you may not be able to taste Mom’s pumpkin pie, but you can see everything and say “Hi” to everyone when they are all together. If you’ve got kids, you can plan the virtual visit with the grandparents when the kiddos are opening their presents so that they can feel like part of the excitement.
START YOUR OWN TRADITIONS Many of the transplanted people I know, including myself, have standing holiday traditions that don’t include our families because of the time or expense of traveling for more than one holiday. By now you may have heard of “Friendsgiving” – that’s when a group of friends get together and have their own Thanksgiving dinner even if they are not family. My husband and I have a small group of friends we’ve been doing this with for the past 4 years. If you’re facing being alone and don’t like that idea, don’t be shy – let your friends and co-workers know that you really miss the Thanksgiving experience since your family is not around. You’ll be sure to be invited to someone’s house. Better yet, if you like entertaining, start your own tradition and hold the dinner at your place. There are so many people who are missing the family experience this time of year, they will be happy to get your invite. Many people invite active military service members to their home for a holiday meal. You can check out this page to see about opportunities for helping military families this holiday season.
MAKE A PLAN FOR BEING ALONE Many people end up alone over the holidays – sometimes it’s geographical hindrances, other times its due to social isolation or other emotional factors. It can often feel like you’re the only one alone as the whole world seems to shut down. This can be a great time to have a day that is strictly for comforting you – make yourself (or pre-order from your favorite restaurant) a great meal, take a bath, pick out a book you’ve been putting off reading or plan to watch a great movie. Then, of course, you can always volunteer somewhere to serve others during the holidays to brighten your spirit. In the end the holiday is just another day – 24 hours just like all the rest.


It’s such a buzzword these days, self care, but it is essential, especially when your family stresses you out. Taking time out to tend to you will help you have a more positive experience.
PLAN IN “ME TIME” Maybe you enjoy your family, but you’re a person who is used to “Me Time” or just needs to be alone. Respect that and plan it into your visit. Just because you’re visiting for a week doesn’t mean you can’t get out one night to a movie by yourself or steal away for a coffee break alone. When you respect your needs, your visit will be more fulfilling.
EXERCISE Exercise can be one of the best stress relievers and it’s universally affordable. If you’re in a regular exercise routine before the visit, make sure to schedule it in during your stay. If you are not in a regular routine before the visit, just taking yourself for a 20 minute walk can help you feel less stressed. You’ll get some fresh air, quiet time and feel like you’re doing something healthy for yourself amidst all the food and festivities.
STAY CONNECTED WITH YOUR LIFE Break up the visit with a call to a good friend back home. Check in with your life (occasional email/social media/watch your local news online). It can help put things back in perspective especially if family stress is starting to pile up. Remember, you’re only visiting, you’re not moving in.

Now go and enjoy your lovely and dysfunctional family holiday! They’ll be happy to see you and if you stay mindful of the tips I’ve given you, you might even enjoy it more than you planned. Happy Holidays!


Happy Holidays from Coaching Through Chaos

The Hurricane and the Honeymoon: Love and Addiction

This is the story of hundreds of thousands of peoples’ relationships right now.
When you love someone with an addiction, life often feels like you cycle between a hurricane and a honeymoon.

I grew up on Long Island, about an hour outside New York City. It was usually a very pleasant and seasonably predictable place to live. That being said, some of my most memorable moments growing up are relative to the hurricanes that came through and wrecked our lives for a short time. Even though they were brief, they felt catastrophic when they happened. In particular, I can still remember the details of preparing and experiencing Hurricane Gloria in 1985.

Life was good. It was the time of year when summer transitions to fall on Long Island, leaves turn colors, we look forward to Halloween. But then, seemingly all of a sudden, we were taping our windows closed, filling up the cars with gas, buying up all the cereal and Spaghetti-Os we could to prepare for the turmoil ahead…
The storm hit! We braced ourselves and hoped for the best. Gloria was a terrible one – we were left without power for about 2 weeks and there was a tremendous amount of damage to areas of Long Island. In the end, we were fortunate. Our house was still standing and once the power came on our lives really just went back to normal. We went right back into our honeymoon experience where life was pleasant and relatively predictable. The damage from hurricanes varies from minimal to catastrophic. Certainly the range in between is vast, and relative to one’s previous storm experience.

That is exactly how it can feel to love someone with an addiction. I’ve been working as a therapist who specializes in addictions for most of my career. Loving someone with an addiction also hits close to home for me as I have a dear family member who continues to cycle through hurricanes herself. The countless stories I’ve heard from clients, either as the partners of the addicts or the person causing the storm, mirror the honeymoon-hurricane cycle.

People that love an addict will say there are times in the relationship that are “really nice” and their partner is “exactly as they were when we first got together”, but Hurricane and honeymoon - Coaching through chaos - when you liove an addictinevitably, the storm comes in. It may be in the form of them “just” being unreliable or flaking out on plans because they are already imbibing or otherwise using. Other times, and more frequently the longer the relationship lasts, the hurricane comes in like Gloria. It causes what we think of as more damaging consequences in the relationship. The storm can come in the form of not returning home, hooking up with someone else or losing a job (causing both financial and emotional consequences in the relationship). No matter how strong the person who loves them is and how much they say they want a fulfilling relationship, I often witness peoples’ struggle with the honeymoon-hurricane cycle. The partner’s tolerance level is usually directly relative to their past experience in life. If they grew up in a chaotic household, and even more so if they grew up with an addicted parent, their tolerance for the storm damage is high – just like people who have weathered many hurricanes.

The honeymoon period comes about after the storm. What usually happens is that the addict is so remorseful that, just like the 2–week post-Gloria blackout, the addict finds a way to seemingly restore the honeymoon period. Maybe they don’t drink “as much” or they hide their drug use, or just keep it at home . I should note that using at home is usually safer emotionally for the couple in that the non-using partner thinks “At least I know where they are and that they’re alive”. In extreme cases, the addict may make it to rehab or enter a 12-step program, saying all the things their partner needs to hear to decide to stay with them. Very often, the partner truly means the words when they say them, but their addicted brain may pull them back to using, often looking like they just said what they thought they needed to in order to keep their partner happy.

this is a couple on a honeymoon

To people who have not experienced many storms, these things still seem intolerable. If we don’t understand the addicted brain, we think – “This is unacceptable behavior!” and “I deserve better than this!” An outsider might say, “You should just leave since your partner keeps choosing the alcohol over you!” The partner of the addict may even think this themselves, but they learn along the way, that the addict does not have a choice and they are not “choosing” the substance over the relationship once they are addicted.

The thing is, choosing to end a relationship with an addict is not so simple. defines addiction as “ a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences. It is considered a brain disease because drugs change the brain”. Addiction is not an actual diagnosis.

In the addiction treatment field our latest diagnostic manual permits us to specify that a person has a “Substance Use Disorder”. We don’t leave our partners because they get diabetes, cancer, or rheumatoid arthritis, but we live in a society where others judge those that choose to stay in relationships with people who have the brain disease of addiction.

a house after a hurricane
pic orig on

We didn’t do a mass exodus from Long Island after Gloria. We removed the tape from the windows, picked up the branches from the yards and re-stocked our refrigerators to get ready for the honeymoon of normality to return. Couples with catastrophic relationships damaged caused by addictions may hole up for a few days at home, talk to each other about what happened, and make a prevention plan to try to stave off the next storm much in the same way. We all have weathered some storms in our day. For a couple with addiction, their life is just more prone to them.

How to divorce and keep your sanity

There are a lot of things to consider when getting divorced.  This article is meant to give you a basic orientation of aspects of your life to be mindful of when divorcing.  The purpose is to help you best keep your sanity as you weather the emotional storm and enter the next chapter of your life.  I’m going to cover the following information:

  • What to expect of the emotional process,
  • How to tell the kids about divorce,
  • Understanding the importance of educating yourself through this process and finally,
  • How to best take care of yourself through this process.

  When you are thinking about divorce, what should you do?

As a marriage and family therapist, I, of course, feel the need to recommend that you do your due diligence to make sure you have tried to address the problems or salvage the relationship, if possible*. This can be through communicating with each other or through the process of marriage counseling.
Marriage counseling can get a bad reputation sometimes. The reason behind this is somewhat complex. You’ve got 2 different people with their own perspectives wanting to work through some level of hurt, disappointment or betrayal by the other at the same time. When you add time before they get to counseling in the mix it really can get difficult. I say that because couples wait an average of 7 years from the time the problems begin before seeking help – so although we can teach couples new ways to interact and communicate, the couple is usually fighting against a very long history of the same problems.

Once you have determined that the marriage cannot be saved, get ready to hold on for the emotional ride.  One day you might actually feel relief to know that you don’t have to deal with the same problems over and over again.  You might be looking forward to some freedom or independence, maybe even looking forward to dating.  But the next day, you may feel critically lonely or scared that no one will ever love you again. 
This crazy-making emotional roller coaster is what we know as grief.  
What’s that, you say,  but no one died!
When a relationship ends, it is an emotional death.  There is a grieving process to go through when a relationship ends.  You will mourn for the loss of the life you had built, or were building, with your partner in some way, no matter how done you are with the relationship. The benchmark theory for explaining the grief process was developed by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.  Although it was initially developed for the loss of  a life, Kubler-Ross later expanded the theory as an explanation for the loss of a relationship.  Her model of grief processing has 5 stages

  • Denial,
  • Anger,
  • Bargaining,
  • Depression,
  • Acceptance.

You should expect to experience all the stages in some way or another.  The problem with  grief processing is that it doesn’t always move in a linear way through each stage.  One day, you may feel that you’ve got it all handled (acceptance) but then the next, you feel all the anger you may have felt on day one.  Grief can be a cruel process.

I’ve heard plenty of stories demonstrating this: how it usually plays out is that your life will be moving along towards divorce, but then you meet up with your ex to work out some life details.  You end up having a nice moment, maybe even sleep together. 
All of a sudden, you’re questioning what’s happening, feeling confused. 
Anger can result if the emotions are not attended to, moving you between acceptance, denial and anger – all within a day in that example. 
I tend to notice this pattern quite frequently when I’m working through the divorce process with clients.  Keep in mind that there’s a lot of history behind every split. It’s tough to break that bond even if you are mad.
Keep in mind also, that if you have kids, (even adults ones) , they too will be in their own grief process.



divorce and the kids

How to tell the kids and what to expect of them

If you have kids, I want to start this section with some information to set you mind at ease just a little bit. 
First and  foremost, divorce does impact kids no matter what the age , just like any emotional upheaval in life, but NO it does NOT destine them for a bad life or bad relationships.

The Scientific American offers a summary of studies on children and divorce demonstrating that on average there are only very small differences between children of divorced parents and those from intact families. Over time, children of divorce are not much different in their academic achievement, self-concept, social relationships, behavior and emotional health from their peers who haven’t experienced a family split.
Research shows that most children of divorce become well-adjusted adults.

How to tell the kids

  1. Tell the age-appropriate truth. Your kids are entitled to know why you are getting a divorce, but long-winded reasons may only confuse them. Pick something simple and honest, like “We can’t get along anymore.” You’ll use age-appropriate language. It’s so important that even if you think they’re not going to like an answer, that you don’t sugar coat things. Meaning don’t say “oh, nothings really going to change, Daddy travels all the time anyway” when, truly, most aspects of their life are changing. 
  2. Say “I love you.” Letting your children know that your love for them hasn’t changed is a powerful message. They need to know that your love isn’t gone for them even if it is for their other parent. If this is not in your vernacular, please make an effort to get in the habit of saying it. Kids needs words. They don’t like to have to guess.
  3. Discuss the changes they can expect to experience. Try to preempt your kids’ questions about changes in their lives by acknowledging that some things will be different now, and others won’t. For instance, if you know they will be going to the same school, or where they will be living, tell them that.  Let them know that together you can deal with each detail as you go. Try to let them know about the changes before they have to ask.
  4. Avoid blaming. Be respectful of your spouse when giving the reasons for the separation. It’s important to be honest with your kids, but it’s vital to not be critical of your children’s other parent.

Telling them together as a unified front is ideal. Try to be organized in what you are going to say and in agreement with your spouse about what details you will share.  If you are unable to tell them at the same time, please try to make sure they hear it from you first, before they hear you talking about it with anyone else.  This means to avoid phone conversations about it when your child is home. Kids have a tendency to feel tension between their parents.  They are likely to try to listen for whatever information they can get when they feel something is wrong between their parents. 

Now that they know, how will they react? 

Young kids tend to regress a little bit and demonstrate more dependent behavior and teenagers tend to show more independence and sometimes appear more angry.  Essentially, your younger children may appear to regress and become less mature (emotional outbursts, emotionally clingy behavior may appear),  and the older kids may appear more emotionally disengaged.  Just stay mindful of the grieving process.  You are all experiencing it and it shows itself in different ways.
Try not to engage in arguments about why you are or why you shouldn’t divorce. 
Don’t try to justify your decision. 
I’ve never met a kid who reflected back and said, “I totally understood it when my Mom explained it to me”.  Yes, they eventually can get there, but in the moment, or in the early stages of the separation, they can get stuck on the idea that they don’t want the divorce to happen.  Let them talk about it and acknowledge their feelings.

Your adult kids will also have opinions and emotions about it. Most often, their upset comes in thinking about how their family is now broken – they can get curious about how they are going to be expected to divide their time. They may get resentful.  I can’t stress this enough, even though your child may be an adult, they are still your CHILD.  I have learned to advise my clients to think of their adult child as their 13 year-old version when deciding how much to share with them.  Inevitably, parents think because the kid is an adult, they should get more information. 
That is not necessarily recommended. 
Most often, you child won’t want to get put in between you and their other parent.  The 13 year-old guideline gives you a  good perspective of just how much you may need to pull back what you thought you were going to share.

What can you do to help your kids adjust ?

  1. Listen to them. Encourage your child to share their feelings and really listen to them.
  2. Help them express their feelings. Children often have difficulty expressing their feelings. You can help by noticing their moods and encouraging them to talk.
  3. Let them be honest. Children might resist sharing their true feelings for fear of hurting you. It may not always be what you want to hear, but let them know that whatever they say is okay.
  4. Acknowledge. You may not be able to fix their problems or change their sadness to happiness, but you can show that you understand.


Children’s Bill of Rights: YOU are getting divorced, not the children

The Children’s Bill of Rights is not a legal document.  It’s a list of “rights” you child is entitled to through the divorce.  It may cover things like:  “I have the right to not have to listen to bad words said about my other parent”. or “I have the right to not be put in the middle of my parents divorce”.  There are several examples online if you Google “children’s bill of rights divorce”.  You’ll  find all sorts of options, some are elaborate & some are simple. The point of this is that your kids have a right to know that their relationships with their parents are not changing and that their life will go on peacefully.

I like this one Divorce HQ Children’s Bill of Rights

Develop an Age-Appropriate parenting plan:

Your mediator, parenting coach or attorney can advise you as to the standards for parenting plans. The basic goals of a parenting plans are to help you provide a set structure, emotional boundaries, consistency & predictability for your kids.  The parenting plan details the terms of visitation – when does the child go to each parent, pick up and drop off times, how are holidays scheduled, etc. If that is in place early on and followed consistently, both your child(ren) and you will have a better chance of adjusting more easily to the “new normal” because there is predictability your life.

I recommend getting your plan formalized in writing ASAP – My experience working with couples through a separation/divorce is that everything goes well, until it doesn’t and by that time, it usually goes very bad quickly. 

Getting back to you – Why should you educate yourself about this process? 

Simply put, knowledge is power.  When you get information and educate yourself, it demystifies the process.  Some of you are reading this post after attending the Second Saturday workshop (presented by where I gave this talk in San Diego.  For those that are attending workshops such as this, you are already taking those steps to educate yourself.  If you are reading this outside the San Diego area, you can search to find a Second Saturday workshop in your area.  You might also Google: “divorce workshop” or  “divorce class” to see what turns up in your area.

Ok.  But why is it so important? What’s the benefits of giving up a half a day to sit in a workshop to hear about how to get divorced when you might already have an attorney or a mediator helping you? 

Once you understand the business of divorce (how to file, figuring out the money/assets/child plan), you will be able to better:
a. Manage your emotions – if you are educated in the process, you can make logical decision, verses ones borne out of anxiety, upset or fear.

When you can better manage your emotions, it will make it easier to:
b. Learn to disengage from the marital relationship and engage in your new role in relation to your soon-to-be ex-spouse.   If you have kids, your new role is as “co-parent”.  If you don’t have kids, you still may have close family and friend ties and if you are able to disengage from your position as “hurt/angry/disappointed spouse”, you can more objectively work through your other close relationships to figure out how you will both stay friends (or in contact with family members) as you wish to even without the marital tie to each other. Essentially, you can move into your “former spouse” or “post-spouse” role more easily if you are not cluttered with a lot of negative emotions.  (I’m not trying to say you are not supposed to feel your negative emotions, but we want to get to a point where they don’t cloud our judgment in relationship decisions).

Most Important – Take Care of YOU!

  1. Understand yourself before moving into the next relationship.  Now’s a great time to see out therapy to really explore and understand why this relationship didn’t work out so you can move into a place of awareness in the future.  It’s a great time to understand what you are attracted to, why you attracted to certain attributes, and what’s in your best interest. 
  2. Support Groups can be great for emotionally managing yourself through a divorce.  It can really be helpful to connect with others who have truly felt what you are feeling and have survived.  Support groups also give you a set of people to talk with about your divorce.  Often, people will start to over-depend on their friends to answer their calls or come over and “bet there” for them at all days and times.  This can put an unhealthy strain on your friendships, and quite frankly, it can damage them if you call on friends you shared with your estranged spouse.  Friendships can get strained when we expect our friends to be there for us “no matter what”.  We can often neglect to ask our friends about their lives, getting so consumed with our own troubles.  No one wants to be put in the middle, including your friends.  Look around, see what’s available as far as divorce support groups, you might be surprised.  You should be able to find groups that are set up for peer support, for social support and for both.  This is a great time for making new connections, and those groups can be a great place to start.
  3. Keep your social media disclosures to a minimum.  I heard recently that Facebook is cited in about 80% of divorces today.  That’s a lot of complaining about social media posting in the courts! You might be excited to show off that you are getting through your divorce: “Hey! Look at me – I didn’t need her!”  “Hey! Check out my new man! Who needs ’em!” We’ll, those kinds of postings can come back to haunt you by way of complaints like: “Just look at his/her Facebook page- they’re always out partying! She’s never spending any time with the kids!” I know, that’s not what you intend to be showing off when you post those things, but it’s all about perception.  While the divorce is pending, focus on your needs, your kid’s needs and moving forward without the need for publishing it.  You can share all you want after it’s final.
  4. Try not to date before the divorce is finalized.  Quite frankly, most people don’t follow this.  I say it, not because I think it will come back to haunt you by way of complaints and accusations in court.  I say it because I think you need time to really mourn the loss of the marital life (even it it wasn’t a good one) and understand who you are now and design the life you want to live.  If people move into dating relationships too soon, they are likely to focus on the new relationship and those needs, verses the ones I just cited.
  5. Make a plan for your future – Once you’ve got a good handle on what your present situation is, you’re getting help to understand it, the grief is starting to subside.  Find things to look forward to ! Will you take a class? Will you go after a new job? What do you want your new life to look like?

If you would like more information, please don’t hesitate to contact me – I’d be happy to help you through this transition.

Colleen Mullen, Psy.D., LMFT


* When I discuss trying to work out and resolve problems before separating, I am not including situations in which there is active Domestic Violence present in the relationship.  In cases of Domestic Violence, please seek out services to best help you stay safe (police, shelters, restraining orders, individual counseling).  Not all problems can, or should be worked on, especially if someone’s safety is at risk. 

One of the good ones – Happy Father’s Day

Happy Father’s Day to all the men out there who have come to fulfill that role. I was born to a great one – he was kind, loving and supportive and he taught me about overcoming obstacles, pursuing my dreams and good leadership.

He’s no longer alive, but he sure lived a triumphant life. To honor him today, I’d like to share about him.  My father, Frank Mullen, Sr. was born in 1928. He caught polio at age 3 and was a paraplegic the remainder of his life. He was a March of Dimes poster child when he was about 8 years old. There’s a great picture of him in his leg braces and crutches that was always proudly displayed in my family’s home. For as much as I knew my father was “disabled”, he didn’t live that way, so the picture always reminded me that he really worked hard every day just to live like “the rest of us”.

Although he spent many early years in and out of hospitals, much of the time in body casts, he was still able to work as a professional musician as a teenager. He was one of 7 kids. His father was a coal miner in Scranton and his mother stayed home to raise the kids. There wasn’t much money. He was able to help his family out with the money he would make as a musician. He went on to college and law school as an adult. He told us stories of getting carried up and down the stairs at law school so he could get to class. If there’s a will, there’s a way was his unspoken motto.

After working his ways through college, he moved with his family to Long Island, NY in the 50’s after his father passed away. His eldest brother Jack was sort of the family leader. He opened a tire business there. Dad worked there for a bit before he started his career as a lawyer. He met my mother at the first firm he worked at – she was his secretary. Sometime around 1970, he partnered with another lawyer friend of his and they formed their own firm. This firm, along with his partner, is still going strong in Smithtown, NY.

So he raised 5 kids, ran a successful business, occasionally taught a class or spoke at a bar association meeting and traveled all without the use of his legs. Some of my best memories are of us playing catch in the front yard. Dad would be on the ride-around mower and he would throw the football to us while we would run or he’d use the mower to help him “run” to make the catch we threw back at him. There was nothing “disabled” about him. He always found time to take me to my piano recitals and was a great support when I was nervous before a competition. He supported whatever choices we made in life. He had opinions about them, but he trusted our judgment.

Now, don’t get me wrong, my life was not all Pollyanna love & great examples. There was actually a lot of chaos in my home life (which I’ll save for a later post), and I needed to leave home at 17. My father went with me to a wonderful therapist who helped advocate for me to be on my own. Although he wasn’t happy about that, he recognized it was best for everyone involved and some things could not be repaired just by thinking positively.

I ended up working for my father’s firm for most of my 20s. That is where I really saw him shine as a leader first-hand. Many of the clients we worked with did not know I was Frank’s daughter and it always amazed me that I never met one person who ever had something other than kind words to say about him. One of the qualities of a great leader is one in which the people under them feel cared for and supported – he was always able to foster that. Another great leadership trait I learned from him is that the ship gets to its destination not by the having someone point and steer the boat, but by the team it takes to keep the ship running. I eventually jumped ship to pursue my own dream of being a therapist and living in California. Getting him to accept that I was not going to become a lawyer was a tough pill for him to swallow– he so wanted me to follow in his footsteps. We hardly went more than a few days without talking once I moved to California. He was always in my corner with words of encouragement or wisdom.

The last 5-7 years of his life found him living in Florida after a costly divorce, with a retirement plan that didn’t go as he would have liked and with some serious health problems. One of my brothers died suddenly during that time period as well. Dad never really recovered from that – I don’t think anyone really does. He did, however, have a new wife who loved him dearly in her own special way. That relationship was the saving grace in his life at that time. I had some special moments with him after he moved to Florida. It was fun to see him living life on very relaxed terms and enjoying himself. He remained fiercely independent both physically and mentally.  Once he paired up with his wife, he didn’t travel alone anymore, but I remember a time right before that when he drove himself to Chicago to attend a conference. I would always worry about him traveling alone. For as strong as he was, because of his physical representation, he always appeared vulnerable. He would always laugh and tell me I should have more faith in him and his abilities. He ended up passing away in 2009 from multiple complicated medical issues. I still miss his Friday morning phone calls.

Now, his example lives on in me. I try to incorporate his kind nature, excitement for life, empathy for others and ambitious drive to overcome obstacles into my life. I keep a picture of he and I in my office so that memories of his support are never too far away. I can only hope to come close to what he accomplished in business and relationships.

These days, I have the privilege of being friends with some great fathers. I witness examples of deep love, protection, working to provide for their kids and conscious ways they set examples reflected in how the live, love and spend their free time.

Fatherhood is not easy, and some don’t, or can’t, step up to the task. I lucked out being born to my father and I hope many people reading this feel the same way about their fathers. For those that have stepped up where a bio-Dad couldn’t, thank you for that. Blood does not make the family tie, love and relationship does.

Wherever you may find yourself today, if you can relate to receiving the feelings of love and support from your father, or the man that filled that role, give them a hug or call today and send some love their way. For those whose father’s have passed, my thoughts are with you.

Happy Father’s Day dad