by Barry Kerr and Kristine Gay
Family gatherings can be such loving and joyous occasions, full of warm memories and fond affections. The faces, voices and laughter of those most familiar to us can be a great source of comfort, strength and inner security. Such gatherings can also bring to our awareness the less positive aspects of our familial connections. Because of this, most of us go to family gatherings with mixed feelings.
Almost everyone is led to believe that family relationships are supposed to be positive and loving. We are supposed to like our family. Family is supposed to be there for us, and we for them. Aren’t family members the ones who are obligated to accept us, take us in and love us when the going gets rough? Isn’t this the reason for family?
Well, certainly, in historical terms, the family unit has served as the primary model for human survival. Biologically, human children are dependent on family for many years. Given the harsh conditions of life in times past, adult family members continued to work together in cooperation and mutual concern; to pool resources, protect each other and be “insurance” against disasters. These were all practical aspects of family that improved each individual’s chances of survival and material comfort and success.
But does this indisputable history of success of the family unit on a practical level translate to emotional, psychological and spiritual success for its members? Material survival can be observed and measured by healthy, well-fed bodies, and an adequate or abundant collection of tangible wealth. However, emotional and psychological well-being is not so easily discerned. Families cannot hide material poverty and hunger, but they can easily hide the non-tangible poverties of emotional neglect, psychological abuse, spiritual emptiness and the like.
It is typical of clients who come for life and relationship coaching, healing or psychotherapy to present unhappy stories regarding family relationships. Who hasn’t experienced some level of resentment, disappointment or disillusionment with a family member? We’ve probably all felt judged, misunderstood, abused or neglected by someone in our families, right? And when it happens, it feels unfair. We feel cheated. In righteous indignation, we assert: Our family is not supposed to behave like that!
But why do we believe this to be true? Who says that our family members should or should not behave in any certain way toward us? It may be what we want and expect, but does that mean they “owe” it to us? Or we to them? The answer is a resounding “NO!” No one owes anyone anything.
Sure, we may have all kinds of agreements within a family, spoken and unspoken. And yes, there are all kinds of civil and religious laws and morals about these things, but each of us is a unique and autonomous being, free to make whatever choices we want in life, even free to break laws and break agreements. And yes, there are consequences to our choices, sometimes harsh, including death. However, whatever the consequence, the choice remains ours and no one else’s. And that’s true for our family members, too.
So, with that in mind, do our family members owe it to us to love us? No. Do they have to care? No. Are we obliged to love and care for them. Absolutely not. Even parents are free to choose whether they care for a baby or child. Some parents choose to abandon children or worse, keep them in dangerous or neglectful situations. Of course, these parents might end up in prison or face other harsh consequences, but they can still do it. And some do.
So why make these “dark” assertions? Because it’s one of the keys to personal well-being. By liberating ourselves from assumptions and expectations about what our family “owes” us or what we owe to our family, we are in a far stronger and more objective position to discern what is healthy or unhealthy in our relationships, and to determine how and when we choose to relate to those close to us. Likewise, knowing that no one owes us anything, when we do receive love and care, we are more prone to feel gratitude for the generous gift that it is.
Personal growth often requires making difficult decisions about our relationships to family. Years of neglect, abuse, guilt trips, manipulations, judgments and other negative behaviors will finally push us to our limits, and it’s then that we are truly confronted with our childhood assumptions about family. If this sounds like you, consider seeing a life and relationship coach, or a therapist. They can guide you through this challenging journey that leads to personal empowerment, inner peace and healthy relationships.
This article was first published in Natures Pathways magazine in September, 2013.