One of the most difficult matters to confront with respect to family relationships is that you don’t control the entire relationship yourself. Whether the relationship thrives or withers isn’t up to you alone. As the saying goes, it takes two to tango.
When major family relationship problems are encountered, it’s common to attempt a control strategy. You try to get the other person to change. Sometimes this approach works, especially if your request and the other person are both reasonable. But many times it just leads to frustration.
On the other hand, if you can’t change the other person, maybe you should just accept them as they are. That’s another strategy that sometimes works, but this one can also lead to frustration and even resentment if your needs aren’t being met.
There is, however, a third alternative for those times when changing the other person and accepting the other person as-is are both unworkable for you. And that option is to change yourself in a way that solves the problem. This requires that you redefine the problem as an internal one instead of an external one, and then the solution will take the form of an expansion of your awareness and/or a change in your beliefs.
An internal way of viewing relationship problems is that they reflect back to you a part of yourself that you dislike. If you have a negative external relationship situation, it’s a reflection of a conflict in your own thinking. As long as you keep looking outside yourself for the answer, you may never resolve the external problem. But once you start looking inside yourself for the problem, it may become easier to solve.
What you’ll find when you tackle such problems is that you harbor one or more beliefs that perpetuate the relationship problem in its current form. Those beliefs are the real problem — the true cause of the unhealthy relationship.
For example, consider a problematic relationship between yourself and another family member. Suppose you hold the belief that you must be close to every family member simply because they’re related to you. Perhaps you’d never tolerate this person’s behavior if it came from a stranger, but if the person is a relative, then you tolerate it out of a sense of duty, obligation, or your personal concept of family. To push a family member out of your life might cause you to feel guilty, or it could lead to a backlash from other family members. But genuinely ask yourself, “Would I tolerate this behavior from a total stranger? Why do I tolerate it from a family member then?” Exactly why have you chosen to continue the relationship instead of simply kicking the person out of your life? What are the beliefs that perpetuate the problematic relationship? And are those beliefs really true for you?
I love my parents and siblings unconditionally (I have two younger sisters and one younger brother). However, I haven’t had a particularly close-knit relationship with any of them for many years. There was no major falling out or anything like that — it’s just that my personal values and lifestyle have moved so far from theirs that there isn’t enough basic compatibility to form a strong common bond anymore. My parents and siblings are all of the employee mindset with a very low tolerance for risk, but as an entrepreneur, risk is my favorite breakfast. My wife and kids and I are all vegan, while my parents and siblings celebrate the holidays with the traditional consumption of animals. I don’t recall anyone in my family ever saying, “I love you, ” while I grew up, but with my own kids I’m very affectionate and strive to tell them I love them every day. My parents and siblings are all practicing Catholics, but I left that behind 17 years ago in order to explore other belief systems. (Technically within their belief system, I’m doomed to hell, so that sorta puts a damper on things.) Even though this is the family I grew up with and shared many memories, our core values are so different now that it just doesn’t feel like a meaningful family relationship anymore.
Despite all these differences, we’re all on good terms with each other and get along fairly well, but our differences create such a big gap that we have to settle for being relatives without being close friends.
If you operate under the belief that family is forever and that you must remain loyal to all your relatives and spend lots of time with them, I want you to know that those beliefs are your choice, and you’re free to embrace them or release them. If you’re fortunate enough to have a close family that is genuinely supportive of the person you’re becoming, that’s wonderful, and in that situation, you’ll likely find the closeness of your family to be a tremendous source of strength. Then your loyalty to family closeness will likely be very empowering.
On the other hand, if you find yourself with family relationships that are incompatible with your becoming your highest and best self, then excessive loyalty to your family is likely to be extremely disempowering. You’ll only be holding yourself back from growing, from achieving your own happiness and fulfillment, and from potentially doing a lot of good for others. If I retained a very close relationship with my birth family, it would be like putting a lampshade over my spirit. I wouldn’t be the person I am today.
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