My husband Don often gives me ideas for my blog; since he has been reflecting a great deal lately on the concept of family he asked If I’d write
my thoughts on the subject. I agreed to see what would come from my own personal and professional reflections on family. It would probably be interesting for you to do the same, perhaps before or after reading what follows.
Whenever I research or write about a subject, I often go the dictionary as a starting point; The dictionary definition of family is: parents and their children; a person’s children; a set of relatives; the descendants of a common ancestor; any group of person’s or things related in some way; a group of related plants or animals. Not that the dictionary definition is what we subconsciously or even consciously relate to and identify with, for it’s most often our experience of family that determines how we define it for ourselves. Usually when we think of family we think of those with whom we are blood related and with whom we share a history, a life together or even a life apart.
There’s a saying that blood is thicker than water. My mother used to say that blood is thicker than margarine: For her, family was all she lived for; her sole purpose in life was to create and nurture a united family. She did so with remarkable success. Yet for so many blood ties are often tangled with knotty issues, and family bonds don’t always bind people together. And the love, affection and caring that are considered to be natural “normal” aspects of being part of a family are not always enough to hold them together in peaceful coexistence. People related, though they may love and care about each other, don’t always like or respect one another; the so-called dysfunctional family is one that literally cannot cohabit and function as a cohesive compatible unit. There is often sibling rivalry and/or parents giving more love and attention to their favorites, and/or poor parenting, abuse, bad marriages, divorce etc. and other disruptions that cause conflict so that enjoyable togetherness isn’t possible. And once in-laws come onto the scene, even more difficulties can arise. Two families and the individuals within them don’t always congeal well in spite of their efforts to do so.
Even understanding all of that we can still wonder why it is that family life can be so challenging, and sometimes so fraught with frustration and disappointment as well as all the joys and satisfactions.
It would be easy to write this off as, well, we are all unique individuals with our own psychologies and ways of perceiving the world. We have different needs and desires, different personalities and temperaments and goals in life.
The fact that we are biologically related is in actuality an accident of birth.
Sometimes we are ill fitted with the environment we are born into and the people within it: Like plants put into the wrong kind of soil, we cannot take root or thrive. The nature and nurture factors gives us some insights; however neither one can claim to be the sole influence. We are all, from birth, instinctively seeking love, nurturing and support; some don’t get it, or get enough or in the ways they need it, which results in all kinds of unrequited needs that impact the individual and family. And we all have our own paths to travel and choose to travel them in our own ways, and we have our own unique destinies to fulfill.
I’d also have to say that expectations of family are often unrealistic and the cause of a great deal of dissention and disappointment.
The truth is that there is no one thing that can explain the difference between a harmonious family and one that is often conflicted and struggling with myriad issues. The politics of family and the dynamics that evolve within it can be quickly recognized but not so quickly changed; sometimes because not all members agree to the process or what it’s about. And some people expect others to do the changing, and change for some, whether it’s within the self or relationships is too great a challenge.
There isn’t an adequate explanation as to why some individuals within a family are more invested than others in its survival as a loving unit. Some people use all the familiar trappings and traditions to keep family members involved, to some extent anyway. Traditions are often the glue that keeps families intact, or at least what brings them together at times. Traditions are important in the whole scheme of family life and why people struggle and stress themselves greatly to maintain them. Without their efforts some families would rarely get together: it’s often that weddings and funerals draw relatives together. They, like the holidays are often rare reunions: opportunities to see and touch those who are connected with shared origins, and that suffices for many. However that too can create problems, as you may know.
I’ve had many tell me that they are disillusioned by the lack of family feeling and lack of obvious or ongoing caring and interest demonstrated between brethren. They need to factor in that everyone’s depth of caring and their capabilities of expressing it are vastly different; and the time, mind space and energy they are capable of applying to relationships isn’t in par with everyone’s else’s desires and needs. There are some people who are not able to emotionally and in other ways connect with many others, so they limit their family associations to just a few of its members; probably those they are more compatible with and with who they can more easily relate, so that those not so close may feel rejected, or put aside.
We can’t be close to everyone: It’s just not possible.
In other words, it’s not about you, it’s about your relative’s relative emotional capacity to relate and interact, and their social styles; it’s also about what they are dealing with in their own lives and in other relationships. And that being a member of family isn’t a guarantee that the family will always, if ever, fit with the person’s concept of how a family ought to be.
Many people get their ideas of what family should be from the concept of the “ideal family” as shown on TV’s Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best: Or from observing other families that appear to be harmonious and happy. Comparing families though is like comparing nations, cultures and societies; as humans we share many things in common, as societies we have vastly different values, belief systems and life styles.
“American Family values” are often political planks because the concept resonates with those who hold it in their minds and hearts as essential for the best quality of life, well-being and happiness. There is no question that healthy families are important to the survival of a society; indeed they are considered to be the foundation of a nation. So when it doesn’t work out for the individual, there is an added sense of profound disappointment, a sense of failure…of not being part of the glue that binds a person to the whole, therefore feeling isolated and unloved.
There are those who struggle because of what my Mother often referred to as a blessed obligation; that is, to maintain connections and closeness with their families; they are the ones who donate time and energy to make it work and to bring members together; they are trying to create or sustain a happy family life, often, sadly without success. It’s obvious in that case that there are just too many issues facing the individuals and the group that interfere; maybe they just don’t get along, maybe there hasn’t been enough mutual respect, shared interest or equal caring and commitment. Perhaps there are conflicts of interest. Often hurtful things said and done are set up as barriers to closeness. In that case forthright communication is the best solution to break down walls set up between people. Getting together and listening respectfully to each other with understanding and compassion is often the first step to resolve those kinds of problems; it works well when all parties have the motivation to make things better between them.
Family is obviously more important to some than it is to others even within the same group. We have to let it be so, as difficult as that may be to accept. And we do have a choice as to whether or not to engage with relatives.
If you look at your family members as people, and ask yourself if they were not related, would you choose to have them as your friend or in your life in any way? If the answer is a genuine no, you need to let go. We need to accept that just because you are blood related, or grow up together, or are related by marriage etc. it doesn’t mean you are automatically friends and have a family feeling for each other. So don’t think you are strange if your ideal isn’t manifested in your family life. Keep in mind that it’s just not as important to some individuals to participate in family life, or honor its traditions, rules of conduct and precepts; perhaps because they don’t get the same warm fuzzy feelings from them that others do
We do, after all choose our friends; our families are in a sense imposed upon us by circumstance and biology. We have acquaintances in other areas of our lives, various kinds and depths of friendship with unrelated people and accept that as normal. We can learn to accept that is fine with family members too.
Many people create a family of friends, neighbors and/or coworkers, associates of all sorts. The family feeling that develops between individuals and groups is one that is warm and comforting. It derives, as it does in a blood related family, from a feeling of satisfying togetherness, affection, sharing, and most often a sense of loyalty and love, trust, compatibility, mutual values and goals, empathy and compassion. Of course enjoying each other’s company is as important to making these kinds of family ties as it is in any
We can quite easily love those who are not related to us by genes and DNA. And even be more forgiving of them when they hurt us. Actually being hurt by family members is much more painful, you may have noted. We tend to be more tolerant of outsiders than our own, perhaps even more forgiving, probably because we don’t expect loved ones to inflict pain, betray or neglect us; we expect them to be accepting of us as individuals, to be protective, loving and kind. You can let go of relationships with people outside of the family when they are no longer proving to be good or satisfying for you. You need to be able to do that with family members, too, although admittedly it’s not so easily done; never-the-less necessary when the pain of trying to maintain a relationship is greater than it would be from letting it go.
I often think of my family as extensions of myself; I am in some ways closer to some because of our compatibility. We have more in common and more shared interests; we respect each other’s opinions, they are my genuine friends. Most importantly we can disagree agreeably, a trait which I think helps support a relationship within or outside of family. Political and other differences ought never to be what keep people apart; among intelligent open-minded individuals, they can make for stimulating discussions through which we learn from each other.
On several special occasions my granddaughter, Melody, has gifted me with a plaque with a verse about the meaningfulness of family. One surrounds a photograph of our family’s celebration of her graduation from High School. I have them where I cannot help but see them every day, and I smile as I dust them and reread the messages.
One says, God wanted man to learn to share*
To learn to love and learn to care* To raise a child ‘till it was grown* To never laugh or cry alone* With hearts as close as they could be* That’s why God made the family* Each person He made a separate soul – Yet bonded by love they made a whole* God Smiled on His work-union warm and sweet, For the family made each soul complete.
Our family is like a patchwork quilt, with kindness gently sewn. Each piece is an original with beauty of its own.
With threads of warmth and happiness, it’s tightly stitched together to last in Love throughout the years, our family is forever.
Melody now lives in Atlanta, is married and has three children. Her family sentiments mean a great deal to me, as I’ve always had a strong sense of the importance of family innate within me and reinforced by my mother and other members of my family. The times we share are so precious to me; I relish and soak up the experience as a nutrient for my emotions and my soul, and they give me memories to sustain me when we are geographically separated. Our family is spread around the world, as many families are these days.
I do think that can make a huge difference in family’s ease of being and staying close-knit. Though we say absence makes the heart grow fonder, for some it’s more out of sight out of mind. Keeping in touch is so much easier now, though some people are better at that than others, of course.
I’ve had many an occasion to help people who come to me for hypnotherapy to deal with complex family issues, past and present, and thankfully have been able to help them resolve them and move into more harmonious togetherness and a more satisfying family life.
In our family we all recognize hat we all have our own style of being and our own priorities and individual and life challenges, and as is the case with many families, our life styles don’t always converge. Never-the-less there is always the knowledge that as family, whenever there is need for extra support or expressions of caring, or a crisis, we are there for each other.
So what is family?: An emotional or biological connection that can be fostered or neglected, valued; or thought of as incidental, and/or simply taken for granted; the latter I’d never recommend.
I feel a great deal of empathy those who have no family, or are outsiders to their relatives for whatever reason. It does help though to know that you are a whole human being with or without a family to reinforce that fact for you. You need to get your emotional nourishment from other sources, because they are out there, you know; i.e. from people like yourself seeking connections and a sense of being part of a clan. Longing doesn’t make it happen; it only increases the sense of loss.
As family members and individuals we are always learning and growing; ideally growing together and not apart; ideally we respect the fact that we are all different people who need to be true to ourselves while also being a member of a clan; and as much as humanly possible, doing our best to be a strong and loving thread in the fabric of the whole. However, we cannot take sole responsibility for keeping the fabric intact. If it is torn, or threads are loose, we cannot all by ourselves mend it. The whole family must be united in that endeavor. Family therapy can be a wonderful way to help families come together and develop more rewarding relationships.
Be realistic in your expectations, for then you will never be so disappointed. Actually that applies to just about everything in life, does it not?
TTFN and all the best
always, from Elaine Kissel