Standing on Ceremony

A good friend, Patrick, was mad at his younger sister, Leona, when he went to a family affair. He felt, because he was the older brother, she should talk to him first, but she didn’t. Therefore, at the end of the evening, he went up to her and said, “Have a good life,” and walked away. The next day, he had to bring clothes to Leona’s adult daughter, and, rather than deliver them personally, Patrick chose to leave then with the doorman, even while he knew his niece was home.

imagePatrick and Leona had always been close to each other and to their parents. Over the years, both had significant financial setbacks and both came through for the other during these times of tension. It took years for Leona to pay Patrick back and he hadn’t asked for it until he felt financially threatened. Now Patrick had borrowed from Leona and not all was paid back, although Patrick clearly would pay when he could. I suspect that Patrick’s financial vulnerability increased his sensitivity to formalities. Nevertheless, his standing on ceremony can hurt him by compromising a basically supportive relationship. Leona may have felt that Patrick should have initiated the dialogue because she had gone way out of her way to help him, making her the alpha sibling. Silly, right? Yet, it is all too common.

Families and friends have split because of some perceived slight. Sensitivities are especially activated during ceremonial occasions. Making invitation lists to weddings and Bar Mitzvahs can be a nightmare, because resources are more limited than relationships. I had a conflict with my son, Sam, during his wedding because he wanted me to limit the Bronx friends I could invite. Since my friends and I had been close for so many years, there simply was no way to cut without leaving scars. Although Sam made perfect sense, the less rational, yet powerful, sensitivities prevailed and we had an overcrowded table. I was relieved.

Standing on ceremony can be a barrier to important goals—like maintaining good relationships.

Marilyn, my wife, and I agonized about seating arrangements for the Bar Mitzvah of Max, our other son. Even after putting so much thought into it, we managed to offend one cousin who complained bitterly about her table. I calmly told her to move her seat and enjoy herself, and have thought of her as a royal pain-in-the ass ever since. I have seen brides run from their weddings crying. Many have described their weddings as a miserable day, because of someone feeling that they were offended—a violation of ceremony.

Birthdays and anniversaries also bring out the sense of ceremony. My wife and I differ on this. She wants to recognize birthdays, Valentine’s, and Mothers’/Fathers’ day while I couldn’t care less. We now laugh at our differences, but I had one patient who got divorced after her husband forgot Valentine’s Day. Obviously, there were other issues, but things spiraled out of control after he goofed.

Standing on ceremony can be a barrier to important goals—like maintaining good relationships. Many close relationships are strained because people stand on ceremony about who owes whom a call. Patrick has close bonds with his sister and, after my criticisms, he relented and called her. (He still felt that she should have called him first.) Our son Max just forgot his brother’s 10th anniversary, but Sam knew this was typical of Max and wasn’t hurt. That, to me, was maturity, recognizing the relationship is much more important than the ceremony.