Should you keep trying?
Between the facts of shared DNA, cultural expectations, and the ecstatic families portrayed on social media lies a fiction. It goes something like this: Being related means that we can relate to family members in ways we can’t with those outside the family.
Although we know that being related and being able to relate can be fictional, we tend to hold onto another story: that one day our genetic magnet will pull us closer. It’s the resolution we seek, not unlike a Capra movie. Some of us want a closer kinship so badly, we spend decades trying. And some of us either opt for more space, reducing contact with family members, or we relegate family relationships to a more superficial status. Some opt out altogether.
Because “relate” has a few dozen definitions, I’m using the intransitive verb and especially this meaning:
to understand, like or have a sympathetic relationship for someone
The Myth of One Big (or small) Happy Family
As a young girl of the sixties, I remember hearing my grandfather talk about this or that brother — he had close to 20 (not a typo) siblings — who had wronged him or someone in the family. Because he called himself a hillbilly and was ‘kicked out at 12 because there wasn’t enough food for us’ I simply thought that family strife was the result of scarcity.
But, as I began to learn from my mother and her siblings — who grew up poor but didn’t starve — we were not all that different from grandpa’s clan. My gay uncle was sometimes tolerated but mostly alienated, another uncle incessantly bragged about his fame and fortune (I later realized he was a sociopath), another a kind, joyful man who died of cancer while in his prime, and one a generous artist who seemed the least bothered by family strife.
My mother was frequently caught in the middle of her own mother’s unmet needs which sometimes manifested in grandma ‘stirring things up’ between her adult children. I saw mom struggle with grandma’s induced drama while mom tried to be a good daughter. As eldest, I saw the toll it took on mom, but it also impacted my brother, sister and me when we stopped seeing our cousins.
Fast forward 40-plus years. My parents are alive and mostly well; my siblings and me, our children and grandchildren — none of us were banished to fend for our 12-year-old selves. Each of us (except the younger grandchildren) has uttered and suffered cruel comments, unsolicited advice, shaming, and righteous lectures.
We have hurt one another. Just like real families.
Also like real families, we’ve dealt with some shit over the years. Not as deep as incarceration or losing a child (for which I’m thankful), and much of this shit is common to other families: Divorce, eating disorders, cutting, attention-deficit disorder, drugs, alcoholism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, anxiety, sociopathy, domestic abuse, post traumatic stress disorder, estrangement, and harmed relationships due to lying, cheating, gas lighting, blaming and shaming.
These are the ones I’m aware of.
We Are Family
Many things on the list (above) implicate genetics. Also, we’re just starting to understand how few of our actions, including decisions, are ones we (freely?) choose. In Behave Robert Sapolsky provides compelling evidence of a sort of neurochemical-hormonal-evolutionary determinism. That virtually every individual action, like the syntax of my next sentence, is unavoidably caused by preceding events in the world, including those inside my brain.
Free will, according to Sapolsky, does not exist to the extent we’ve been told we have. If you’re tempted to argue that his position would support more similarity in families (due to genetic similarities), first remember that the gene pool in every family is wide and deep. Second, his answer in an interview:
Yes, genes are important for understanding our behavior. Incredibly important — After all, they code for every protein pertinent to brain function, endocrinology, etc., etc. But the regulation of genes is often more interesting than the genes themselves, and it’s the environment [food, chemicals, light, climate] that regulates genes. Almost always, genes are about potentials and vulnerabilities rather than about determinism.
If behavior and choice are more complicated than we ever imagined, why do we put so much pressure on ourselves to “get” or enjoy our family members? And how reasonable is it to believe our family should always like us?
Maybe we suspend our disbelief due to the power of nostalgia. Researcher Tim Wildschut says
“I think one of the strengths of nostalgia is that even if they have not had a good childhood, most people have at least one nostalgic memory that they cherish and that they can use repeatedly. Someone once asked me: ‘How long do these effects last?’ My 11-year-old daughter said: ‘They last your entire life!’ She’s right, too. Once positive memories are instantiated they might have only represented half an hour of your entire childhood, but you can dwell on them and return to them forever.”
I would add that we yearn to live a good story. With endings of redemption, reuniting, and deeper relating. And everyone wants love on their own terms.
Would it be okay to take tell ourselves a different story? Reduce the pressure of ‘one happy family’? Here are seven potential release valves for doing just that:
Put your family strife into a wider cultural perspective. And laugh.
Family issues are our legacy. Whether mythical or real, many are violent. Consider the first earth-born humans in the book of Genesis: Cain slew Abel. As for Greek and Roman gods, Hera threw her infant Hephaestus off a mountain. Cronus ate all his babies except Zeus thanks to Rhea’s trickery. Shakespeare was fond of featuring our worst family flaws (e.g., Uncle Claudius, Goneril, Regan).
Not liking Aunt Maria is okay. Murder is not.
It’s Hard to Relate When We’re in Trauma
Think about the times when rifts between people happen or begin to be exposed. Someone is struggling. Add family to the mix and the relating can get complicated. A parent or sibling who wants nothing more than to help fix things can be perceived as intrusive. Sometimes when we say we want to spare our family members from worry, we are really sparing ourselves from feelings of guilt or shame.
Last week during my restorative practices work at a middle school, a sixth-grader reminded me that many people’s baseline is trauma. It’s all Jasmine knows. Her father, grandfather and uncle are incarcerated (all within the last year); her mother, repeatedly abused by boyfriends and her own father, has become a threat to her. “I love her but I don’t like her.”
As an adult, you can choose to engage or disengage with family. If you believe it’s better to cut off communication until you’re ready to reengage (and you may never be), let one of them know in simple terms — unless doing so will increase your trauma.
Conversely, if you want to help a family member who may be in trauma, offer it. But don’t press. If they know they can count on you, that’s all the relating you need.
We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know. Learn It Outside Your Family.
More than 30 years ago I learned that my enabling behavior wasn’t a form of love. My attempts to control and “manage” those I loved was something I could no longer deny. Twenty years ago, I argued with a psychologist who suggested I might be enmeshed with my daughter. I was definitely sprinting in that direction, but I was scared I would lose her. I couldn’t see other options.
In both cases, my ability to (reluctantly) admit my errors and begin behaving in healthier ways with immediate family members would not have been possible if my parents or sister, aunt or cousin “advised” me.
It’s Okay to Take a Break
As hard as it may be to ask for some space and time from your parents or other adult relatives, it’s 100 times harder to have that conversation with your adult child. And when that child needs space and time from you, it can hurt like nothing else.
While it may sound too simple, tell yourself, “It will be okay. This is their journey. I will trust their process and let go of the pain, the questions, the worry.” Then believe it in your bones. If you can’t, get a good therapist.
I’ve been estranged from family members a few times. One lasted the better part of a year. It truly sucked. My biggest challenges during those silences have centered around a) not ruminating on why and b) remaining open to possibilities. As one of my counselors advised, “let them know the door is open, even if a crack.”
Remember, Change is the Only Constant
In 1999, I designed an MBA course called Change Management, which I taught for 10 years. Peter Senge’s The Dance of Change helped me realize the power of nature as a metaphor. In nature, nothing grows evenly. An s-shaped pattern called sigmoidal growth illustrates the starts and stops, accelerating and slowing, of all organisms.
Not only do we constantly change to physically adapt and grow, we are constantly learning. And that type of growth accelerates and slows as well. If you are bummed about your brother not growing at the same speed or in the “right” direction, can you appreciate him where he is? If not, maybe it’s time for a conversation or a break.
Politics and Religion — The Growing Divide
Over the last two decades, especially the last one, politics and religion have become a thicker dividing line within my family. I am not a fan of building walls or militarizing police. Black lives and women’s choices matter. I do not identify with the religious right. These are contentious issues in my family.
Regardless of whether we are predisposed to particular ideologies based upon DNA, neuroscience, or something else, many of my views are not appreciated by at least half of my family. Likewise, I am not a fan of many of their beliefs. We seem to find less and less to talk about unless it’s something safe like laughing at that time our luggage blew off the top of our car and I crossed four lanes of Missouri interstate to retrieve my little brother’s diapers. I was nine.
Putting boundaries around conversational topics is okay. Dr Abigail Brenner cautions that “some topics are absolutely off-limits.”
Period. History and experiences should tell you that these subjects should be avoided at all costs. That’s not to say that important issues should be permanently avoided. Rather, if your experience dealing with certain issues has left you stressed out, emotionally depleted, and the discussion has not progressed sufficiently along to represent a rapprochement of sorts, then it’s best to avoid this discussion until a time when both parties are willing to move it forward in a constructive way.
She has a point. Although I’m hopeful that organizations like Better Angels can help move conversations (not debates) between reds and blues forward in non-threatening ways, my family is not there yet. We need to stick to what we can agree on.
Be as Stoic as Possible
A couple years ago, a friend asked me how things were going with a close family member. I said, “She’s alive… and right now, that’s my baseline.” She smiled, fully aware that I wasn’t using sarcasm.
Stoicism is looking at reality while remembering what could be worst case. I’ve written about stoicism and embracing what Oliver Burkeman calls ‘the negative path’ as one that paradoxically leads to more sustainable positivity. From pondering my own death to the deaths of my loved ones, stoicism helps me frame and level my emotions.
When you feel stuck, depressed, frustrated, here are some stoic-like questions to consider. Implied in most of these is the need for two-way communication, not to assume how the other feels and thinks.
How do I feel about my current relationship with [parent/sib/child]?
If it’s not what I need, do they know what I need from them?
Are they able to give it right now?
What do they need right now?
What kind of relationship do they think is best right now?
Do they know what I’m willing to do to repair or improve the relationship?
Is it possible that more space and time could be what we both need? For now?
Be Patient With Yourself. Time = More Opportunities
Life has a way of offering wisdom, usually wrapped in some pain. I turn 60 this month so I’ve been given a few opportunities to learn some humility. Many opportunities I’ve squandered. Especially in my active mothering years when I often failed with my parents and my siblings. Sometimes, these failures were accompanied by ugly emotional kicking and screaming.
More recently, I’ve decided to accept opportunities. I don’t necessarily accept others’ behavior toward me but I try to accept that this is where they are in the moment. This acceptance thing is relatively new. I don’t embrace it reliably, but I’m working on it.
Grandpa used to say, “You’re either for me or against me.” I am now his age when I was born. I’m grateful for his life. And grateful I have more than a binary choice.
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