Family's Fatal Flaw

The holidays are here and with them a melange of magical moments and frantic frenzy.  Nowhere else is this mixed messaging as decidedly pronounced as in our interactions with our family.

At once evoking deep joy and endless frustration - family is the epitome of fantasies broken, yearnings unfulfilled and some evolutionary (or political or societal or psychological - the origin of family is still a mystery) pull.

Whatever its origin, it’s fair to say that the family unit has worked well enough to have lasted this long, but also - that it is fatally flawed. The reason for both its success and its downside, is the nature of the family unit, which rests on the basis of obligation. Monogamy. Loyalty. A willingness to accept what is in exchange for a lifelong commitment.

As such, family is your first committed relationship. It is where you learn how much you can expect to accept in your relationships with the rest of the world. And how much you should expect to give for this exchange. It can range from Everything to Crumbs and vice versa. Such is the impact of our relationship to what we call Family.

It sets the stage for our belief of what can and should be tolerated in relationship to another.

Based on reality TV, books, movies, and almost every family I have encountered, that tolerance should be for just about anything. The range of what we will accept and excuse in the name of family is so broad, that family becomes an excuse for bad behavior - but we’re family!

The best you can hope for is not to hope for anything at all, which is why family reunions work out so much better when you’ve had a few awful ones under your belt, such that a reunion that goes mildly well is considered to be terrific.  Family flaws go the other way too - my dear friend M has a storybook mom and suffers not living up to her greatness, thereby depriving her kids of a similar mom experience (you and I both know she’s an amazing mom, but she suffers it nonetheless).

Families are fatally flawed because of the expectation heaped onto them of being the everything and everything that they simply cannot be. At once the place to let down your guard and feel unconditionally loved and seen as your best self and release your shittiest self into a safe space or in the case of M and others like her, carrying the burden of delivering all of this to your own offspring. It’s a setup.

The reason your family isn’t what you thought it would be is the same reason your relationship isn’t what you thought it would be. Because it’s a fantasy. Every thought you have about what family should be is just that - a thought. Reality can surprise you by being better than you thought but oftentimes it isn’t. And you’re left navigating the difference between your fantasy and reality within the context of the underlying obligation that is so widely accepted that any attempt to push back against it results in a form of family outlier: the rebel, the outcast, the black sheep. So you might drink too much or eat too much or talk too much or act out or do whatever it is you did when you were younger that helped you navigate the conflict that was your childhood. The conflict between what it was and what you thought it should be. More importantly at the time - the conflict between what it was and what you needed and couldn’t get for yourself.

But now you’re older and you get to ask for what you need in relationship to your family. You don’t have to accept or tolerate the status quo just because. You can offer up a new way of relating that gives everyone more room to be who they are. You can practice different ways of doing family until you find the one that works for you - like placing 3-hour limits on family gatherings, or taking a hotel even if there’s plenty of room to sleep over, or celebrating Christmas on December 26th. Trying out new family traditions can be painful and disruptive as you figure out what you want and what works for everyone. You may still end up eating or drinking or talking way too much - but you’ll also have a chance of finding moments of shared history, deep connection and the fits of laughter that come from remembering the time when….