By Esther Mann, LCSW
Marrying my husband, Sam, was the best thing that could ever have happened to me. Besides the fact that he is a terrific husband, the bonus was that he came with a wonderful family. I adore his parents, his brother and sister-in-law, and even his friends. They are all so refreshing to be around. They are real people. They say what they mean and mean what they say. There is an honesty about them all that I find so comforting.
It’s not that they are perfect. They are normal human beings who sometimes do or say the wrong thing. But when that happens, they are capable of honest dialogue and, after some real conversation, someone admits to being wrong and will apologize.
Now I want to contrast this to my family, which could not be more different. In my family, everyone gets a pass. No one is held accountable for bad behavior. Excuses abound. For instance, I remember the time, as a child, when my brother took my favorite stuffed animal and started going at it until he literally pulled it to shreds. I was hysterical, but all my mother could say was something like “Motty was upset. He didn’t mean to destroy your favorite stuffed animal.” And that would be that.
I know that is just a silly little example. But all kinds of issues were swept under the rug. When we got older, the situations because more serious, such as when I had my first son and my sister just didn’t show up for the b’ris. As if that wasn’t bad enough, no one in the family mentioned the obviously missing sister and that maybe my husband and I were feeling hurt by her absence. Forget validation over our sadness; how about even noticing it or caring about it?
And since no one is ever really wrong or bad, no one has to know how to validate another’s feelings or apologize. It’s all a charade, which I am so tired of.
I’d always felt disconnected from the rest of my family, but I was never able to really put my finger on precisely what the problem was until I got to know Sam and see firsthand what honesty and responsibility look like. At the beginning of our relationship, it was challenging for me to learn how to dig deep and have an authentic relationship with him. Understanding that I had never really learned how to sincerely communicate, Sam was patient and kind with me, and I was able to figure out how to reinvent myself and rise to his level of honesty. And I’m loving it! I feel great when I’m able to apologize or empathize with another person’s experience. I feel it raises me up as a human being.
I’m writing to you now because I feel so alienated from my family. When I spend time with them and observe all the kissy, huggy falseness that they all engage in, I want to run away. I don’t relate to them anymore and, frankly, get really turned off by their behavior. No one has any expectations from the others in terms of good behavior. Anything goes, and it’s all good. I understand the concept of giving others the benefit of the doubt and even the idea of unconditional love, but what confuses me is whether or not there has to be a line drawn somewhere, so that people are held to account for their behavior.
I don’t want to turn my back on my family and completely align myself with Sam’s family. On the other hand, it would be so easy for me to do that. I feel like I was adopted at birth by these strange creatures and finally, after marrying Sam, got reunited with my real family! That’s how strong my feelings are.
So what do I do now? When I try to explain to a few of them individually that there is something terribly wrong in the way they all relate to one another, they look at me as if I’m the crazy one. They all think they are doing great, feel they are a close-knit, wonderful family and that somehow I’m the freak. If I bring up a specific incident that occurred that involved me, our conversation can go around and around in circles for hours, with no understanding on their part about what I’m trying to say. It makes me crazy.
Any suggestions how I can open up their eyes to what’s right and good? I really do want to feel close to them and understand them and have them understand me. How do I make this happen?
There is a little-known concept in psychology that sounds simple but is actually quite profound and explains a lot. It is known as “fit,” and it refers to the level of success that the individual members of a family have in relating to each other’s various personalities.
Take for instance the mother who has always been a serious, type-A personality. She is the type who always enjoyed working her hardest and being at the top of her game—valedictorian, captain of the debate team, an overachiever. Along comes her daughter who couldn’t care less about school, deadlines, or competition. She is happy, carefree, a free spirit. Though she is a lovely child that many mothers would be thrilled to call their own, her mother simply cannot relate to her.
Her mother cannot understand why she loves to dance all day and smiles for no apparent reason, especially considering that she has a test she is unprepared for and will probably do poorly on. The level of tension between this mother and her daughter is enormous. Though both possess many admirable traits, they simply cannot relate to one another or even appreciate each other’s gifts. They knock heads continuously, and their relationship remains stormy throughout their lives. They are a really bad “fit” for one another.
There are many examples of this, such as when two siblings simply seem to be cut from completely different cloth and can never really be close, much to everyone’s disappointment. Sometimes, as in your case, one member of a family winds up being in total contrast to the rest of her family, and feels convinced that she must have been adopted at birth because her sense of “fitting” in with everyone else is nonexistent.
My guess is that most people reading this column will relate to you. After all, honest relationships that are accountable and sincere are worth the effort and, when achieved, are very special. And often “bad behavior” is just that—and it needs to be viewed as such and worked through. But there will also be people who do not agree with your belief that individuals have to disclose their deepest feelings and allow others in to view their more fragile selves. Some people simply can’t go there; they choose to keep all their relationships light and simple. It’s often a lot easier to just let things slide rather than have that gut-wrenching conversation that requires being vulnerable.
Your family has a pattern of behavior that seems to be working for the rest of them. It’s not for me to judge whether it’s good or bad, since it somehow seems to work for them. And it’s probably not for you to judge them so harshly either. I have no doubt that you will have zero success in trying to revamp their lifestyle. You may view them as being in denial, but sometimes denial is an important tool that enables individuals to keep moving forward. And for whatever reason, they’ve all signed on for this modus operandi.
I applaud your success in recreating and improving yourself. It takes a strong individual, supported by a loving partner, to succeed at such a huge undertaking. Enjoy what you have and continue to seek out only authentic relationships that are satisfying to you. In addition to your relationships with Sam and his family, seek out friendships that are on your wavelength and will further nurture your soul.
Regarding your family of origin, stop trying so hard to understand or fix them. That’s not going to happen. You will be best served by just accepting them for who they are, trying to find aspects of their personalities that you can respect or at least enjoy, and count your blessings that Sam came your way!
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.