What is Family and Why Are They So Goshdarn Important? January 2019

I've been thinking about connection and love and that fraught term "family" a lot lately. There's an image that seems to infest American culture of the family as a bunch of people who know and like each other, spend evenings cooking homemade stews in a warm, glowing living room, laughing and hugging each other every now and then.

Sometimes that may happen. Sometimes. But my experience is that there is also a lot of misunderstanding, arguing, disappointment and sadly in too many cases, some type of abuse. We seem to treat our families the worst, with the assumption that we will always be bonded.

And it is excruciatingly hard to break that bond, even when it would be healthier for us. Is that in part because we feel that love and connection inside other relationships - friends, therapy - is less real? Less reliable? Less permanent?

It certainly is true that the parental bond, at least kid to parent, is like titanium. And the parental bond, parent to kid, should be. For some parents it actually is a type of love like no other, and they would sacrifice themselves for their child in a heartbeat. But sadly that's not the case for many people. But because we are wired, for our survival, to stay stuck to our parents no matter what, we often operate under the unconscious assumption that the love our parent gives us, even if poisonous and selfish and not loving a lot of the time, is "real" love, the best that it gets.

And does that unconscious definition of family love make us blind to other, possibly realer and fuller, forms of love and family? It seems to me that we dismiss smaller, briefer moments of warmth, connection and understanding, especially if in the context of non-familial relatioinships, as lesser or not really "counting" for some reason? Why? How many moments of love do we not take in and feel because of this bias? On my best days, I like to nurture a lovely, comforting and refreshing concept in my mind that all people are able to connect with me at any given moment. In theory that makes me less reliant on my family alone for that sense of being a part of a group.

But that brings me to my next question: how are we defining family? I guess I'd start with these mushy-gushy concepts I've been referencing - connection, a sense of truly knowing and loving each other, belonging, commitment, reliability, putting each other's needs at the level of our own, sharing the ups and downs together. Do most families provide those things? You can answer that yourself...

Okay so what about the part of the definition that includes blood or legal bonds? Is that what makes a family? We seem to think, and not without some good reason, that those bonds are more permanent (and therefore more reliable?), and give us the right to lean on and demand that we are prioritized over non-family. We FEEL family to be different because of blood and legal ties. We expect the mushy-gushy goodies solely because we are kin in this way. It's such a strong feeling. It causes so many of us to feel terribly, excruciatingly alone if our blood relatives have died (so much for permanence) or left us for any other number of reasons. We are evolutionarily hardwired to look to our kin alone for these needs and not to others. Even when our kin fail us miserably and are not understanding, loving, committed or reliable in any way!

I recently had a horrible fight with a family member I'm really close to. I've had trouble sleeping trying to figure out how to repair this. I'm having heart palpitations that I think are related to the stress of being disconnected and the fear of not ever being connected again in the way we were. So annoying! Part of me wishes i could just be done with this person, and get my need for connection filled elsewhere. Technically I can do this. But this is family, someone I love. And the terrible conflict of needing to protect myself from his vitriol but stay close to this person is eating me up. So hard to just let go.

So ultimately I think there is something powerful and real about family being blood or legal bonds in some way. I think evolution gave us this irrational ability to attach to also give us superhuman motivation to make things right, to forgive and forget. And yet it is that same irrational attachment that leads us to expose ourselves to harm and limit other opportunities for the very things we think only family can provide.

I wish this year for all of us to open more fully to the love and connection that is all around us, to take this in as a manifestation of real family, to not take our famlies, friends and any relationship for granted, to protect ourselves from poison no matter who is dishing it, and at the same time, forgive and seek forgiveness within our families.