There is one lesson that I have struggled to learn throughout my lifetime and that is that “family” does not necessarily equal “love”. Just because people are members of the same family, are related by blood, does not mean they are required to love one another.
This lesson is in direct conflict with what we are taught as children. Growing up, I was taught that ‘family’ is your ‘safe place’, that ‘family will always love you’, that a ‘mother’s love is forever’, etc. I was either told these lies directly or they were implied. I grew up with an unrealistic sense of security and belonging, believing I could make mistakes and my family would always love me, that time and distance could/would come between us, but ‘family’ would always be there for me when I need them.
When family members hurt me, I was ‘guilted’ into accepting that hurt by well meaning people telling me, “but she’s your mother, she’ll always be your mother”, or “that’s your sister, your only sister, you owe her another chance”, implying that there was some sort of unwritten rule that says you have to accept any treatment, any abuse and are expected to dismiss and forgive it, solely because the abuser is a family member.
While growing up, in the 60’s and 70’s, watching television was both a source of entertainment and a constant reminder that something was very, very wrong in my life. The television promoted the stereotypical ‘happy American family’ with such programming as “Happy Days”, “the Brady Bunch”, “the Waltons”, etc. It provided me with glimpses of the past through programming like “Leave it to Beaver”, “Father Knows Best”, “Make Room for Daddy”, etc., where the message of happy, safe family life was even more pronounced.
In my childhood home, we had a room over the garage to keep our toys, a ‘playroom’, a place to play, away from the main living area of the house so it could be kept presentable for company. In that playroom there were Norman Rockwell prints on the walls, the two I remember most are of the doctor and child and of the family gathered around the Thanksgiving table. That particular picture has been the cause of an internal struggle that I have only recently come to terms with and, I believe, overcome.
Even though my family of origin was terribly dysfunctional, though it included physical, emotional and verbal child abuse, though there was infidelity within my parents’ marriage, spousal abuse, jealousy and hatred between different branches of the family, there were still efforts made to bring family together, if at no other time of the year, but holidays.
Those were times I looked forward to, tried to cling to, those are the memories I’ve tried to preserve throughout my lifetime, as they appeared, at least in the beginning, to be honest attempts to put aside differences, forgive past disagreements and to enjoy just being together.
My earliest memories of ‘holiday’ gatherings include the decorating of the house, all the prep work that went into organizing a family meal or holiday party. There was a happy buzz of activity, tempers seemed more in check, attitudes were lighter, it seemed an enjoyable thing, getting the family together. My maternal Aunt and Uncle, who never visited our home, would come to our house, or my Uncle would bring my cousin and there would be laughter and excited conversation. The family would gather around the table for a feast, a variety of desserts, punch or cider, there would be holiday music playing softly in the background.
As I got older it seemed as if even the promise of family gathering for the holidays was not enough to curtail the tension in our home. My parents would be at odds, a relative would cancel or make other plans that interfered with everyone getting together, someone would make an off-hand comment in passing that would upset my mother, or the suggestion would be made to hold the gathering at another relatives home the next year and bad feelings would erupt.
After my parents divorced, all our ‘family’ gatherings occurred at my Grandmother’s house. She would insist that there was peace, there could be no fighting or arguing, not between the children and certainly not between the adults. In spite of my Grandmother’s efforts, my Aunt would find a reason, year after year, to not be present, which my mother (with all of her insecurities and poor self-esteem) would interpret as a slight against her. There would be angry phone calls, heated exchanges, accusations that my Aunt thought she was better than everyone else, that my Aunt always had to ruin family occasions, etc.
Though family gatherings became more and more about drama and hurt feelings, my mother still planned ‘family Christmas parties’ and expected everyone to show up and cheerfully participate. I was never certain of her motives in doing this, whether she truly held hope that everyone would get together, or she created situations that would serve to justify her resentment toward her sister.
When I left home I was summarily extracted as a member of the family. I was not included in any gatherings or family celebrations, I received no birthday cards, no Christmas cards, no contact of any kind and when I did try to establish contact I was reminded that I had made my choice, by leaving home (I was kicked out), I chose ‘independence’ over my family and betrayed them. There was no ‘going home’.
People often interfered, pressuring me, not knowing or not caring about my abusive childhood, to reconcile with various family members. I succumbed to this pressure, mostly because I had that ‘Rockwellian’ image of ‘family’ tattooed on my brain and thought it was what I had to do, what I should do, thinking that someone had to be the first to put aside all the pain and hurt to forge a path forward… that someone had to be me, as the person who’d moved beyond my family of origin.
I found, quickly, that it is impossible to move beyond the hurt and pain of the past when the people you seek to reconcile with are unwilling to do so as well. When others have dug in their heels and are determined to hold on to the pain of the past, whether real, perceived or imagined, it is impossible to begin a new chapter and move forward.
Though I had been ‘extracted’ from the family, I was occasionally called upon to do my ‘familial duty’ and help out with one thing or another.
I was asked to be my Aunt’s emotional support, to listen to her vent about her marriage, her health, caring for her husband and my Grandmother, how unfeeling her son seemed to be toward her. She asked me to take on the burden of handling my Grandmother’s financial affairs to lighten my Aunt’s burden. My husband and I paid for my Aunt to have dental work done, bought groceries for she and my Uncle. We stepped in and took my Grandmother to doctor appointments, bought her things she needed, tried to respond to her needs as we became aware of them.
When my sister wanted to leave home, but was afraid to do so and anger our mother, she turned to me after a 13 year separation and asked for help. My husband and I put our feelings aside and jumped in, ready to help. We provided her with transportation, helped her move, let her live with us for a short time until her apartment was ready, I painted cupboards, we bought her furniture and household items she needed, provided transportation to and from her work for nearly a year and approximately 6 years later, after another separation, we fed her, got her a job, included her in family activities, etc.
In both cases, I began to feel taken advantage of, that the relationships were one sided, with me being asked to give of myself, my time, money, etc. It didn’t feel like ‘family’. It felt like I was behaving as family, but each time I asked my family members to be supportive of me, to understand my feelings, my needs, to allow me to ‘take care of self’, they became hurt, angered and turned away.
I’ve experienced this with my in-laws as well. Their family was quite dysfunctional too. When I met my husband, there was a very pronounced dynamic in the family, one in which his sister and mother were very close, but he was somewhat of an outsider. Both his mother and sister would say things that were very demeaning and hurtful, but as he explained to me in more recent years, he had become accustomed to it, expected it and had simply accepted it as his role within his family. He was dominated by both of them, submissive to their roles of authority over him.
When we got married and started our own life, they seemed to have difficulty with the fact that we were ‘independent’ of them, that we were making a life of our own, apart from them. His sister still required their mother’s assistance, had two failed marriages, both her children had had issues that required different types of intervention and it took her years before she was able to keep a job for an extended period of time, while we were making it without the help of ‘family’, and even overcoming the challenges of my becoming disabled, adopting a special needs child, and marital problems that we worked through and put behind us.
We were always the last to learn what was happening within the family. We would be the last to learn of the health issues of other family members; deaths, births, separations of distant family members. We were not included in family gatherings for holidays, trips to visit relatives, etc.
There came a time when this lack of communication and distance caused a rift that would last for 10 years. We were excluded from birthdays, graduations, etc.
I started feeling those old stirrings for family, wanting to try to reconcile with my in-laws, to get my husband to reconcile with his family. We started having them over for Sunday family dinners, started hosting family Thanksgiving dinners, included them in family events, etc. but once again, a lack of communication on their part, unrealistic expectations and demands that their needs be met with little to no consideration for us or our feelings has brought those attempts to an end.
After all these years, after longing for that ‘Rockwellian family’, after making attempt after attempt to ‘create’ or ‘recapture’ a sense of family togetherness and belonging, I have finally accepted that just because you are born into a particular group of people, a particular familial group, does not mean you must be accepted, that ‘love’ is not a required emotion shared between individuals that share genes.
These same people who do not necessarily ‘love’ and accept their own blood relatives seem to, at the same time, not be willing to love nor accept someone who does not share a blood relation.
A friend of mine, that I met oddly enough as a result of one of my family members being abusive and dismissive of her, explained to me that she doesn’t worry about ‘family’, but rather has developed her own ‘phamily’, consisting of close and trusted friends. She has suggested, as have other friends who have had similar familial experiences, that I create a ‘phamily’ within a tight circle of friends, that if our families of origin are uninterested in acting like family, accepting us as family and trying to have a mutually fulfilling relationship as family members, I should let go of the desire to have such a relationship with these people. I have to accept that it simply isn’t possible, not with this group of people and to keep ‘hoping’ things will change is really only causing us more pain and suffering. These folks are content with things remaining as they are, because they are in control, they are determining when and how much contact is made, they are determining how ‘involved’ we are permitted to be within the family structure and they have, thus far, only included us within the family structure when there was something to be gained by them in doing so.
I have realized, after a great deal of counseling from friends, after reaching back and tapping into previous psychotherapy and reading the book, “People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil” by M. Scott Peck, M.D. that some people are simply toxic to our health and well-being, family or not, we are not required to maintain a relationship with such people, we do not have to remain vulnerable to them, we do not have to feel guilty for protecting ourselves from them. They are able to have control over, and hurt us, only if we allow them to.
The people in both my family of origin and my husband’s enjoyed a sense of control and dominance over us while we were in a submissive position as the result of being children, but once we became empowered by independence and sought separation from them, once we broke free of their control and dominance, they became desperate and resentful as a result of losing that control. Without a position of dominance, they could no longer control the people around them, control the thoughts and emotions of either of us and had to face their own ‘helplessness’ and impotence as people.
Being related by blood is not a license to perpetrate one’s sickness upon others.
Yes, I feel liberated, I feel as if a heavy weight has been lifted from my shoulders, I feel relieved, as if I can breathe. It has taken many years, most of my adult life, to experience this awakening and I intend to do everything within my power to protect myself from this kind of vulnerability in the future.