The Other F word

Family. That is the other F word. And it can be much worse than the curse word. We can dismiss the curse word when we hear it. We can use the curse word with impunity as many people do. It’s just a word. But we can’t do the same with the other F word: family. There is nothing like family to bring you great joys and great grief. It is the best of times. It is the worst of times. You know what I mean. You can get away from the F word, but you can never get away from the F people. And this creates tremendous problems for everybody. Difficulties with family members include marital dysfunction, but are even more common among other family relationships.

When we think of family difficulties, we usually think of dysfunctional marriages and contested divorces. Indeed, bad marriages and bad divorces are challenging, both leading to fights of all kinds. But the really difficult family challenges are those that are blood related or related by marriage. You can actually get rid of your former partner or spouse, at least to some degree, but you can’t get rid of your blood relatives. Money, children, and property often divide couples and make for tremendous difficulties. These are hard to endure, but they have a way of eventually fading as children grow up, property deteriorates, and money problems slowly disappear. Not so with siblings, young children, adult children, parents, and to some degree in-laws.

You can quit your job if you don’t like your boss; you can move to a new neighborhood if you don’t like your neighbors; you can end a friendship; and you can leave your spouse, however difficult that might be. But you can’t get away from family. You can’t divorce your brother, you can’t quit your children, no matter what age. And you are stuck with your in-laws for the duration of the marriage. Relationships with children of any age, siblings of any age, and in-laws are often fraught with discomfort, dissatisfaction, and distress.

Childhood by its very nature is challenging, both for parents and for the children. Who really likes being awakened by an infant in the middle of the night, or the changing diapers, the colicky baby, or the eight-year old bed-wetter? Things get dicey particularly in the toddler years of two to six where kids are learning the use of their basic feelings. These years can be very taxing on parents as they attempt to nurture and direct their children beyond the natural narcissism of the toddler years into the social years of middle childhood. It is hard on parents to deal with the demands of these young children, but realize that it is even harder for toddler-age children to cope with having to transition from getting most of what they wanted in infancy to getting very little of what they want. These are years when parents and children often simply do not like each other even though they usually love each other. So much of early childhood is not particularly likable. I try to help parents admit to the paradox of loving a difficult child while not particularly liking the child.

Children are difficult and not always likable at any age, but siblings can be truly vicious to one another. The teasing, poking, prodding, and humiliation that goes on between siblings rivals the gang wars of Chicago. There seems to be no limit as to how some siblings talk to each other and treat each other. I think this sibling rivalry thing exists because you can’t get away from your sibling, no matter what age of the sibling. You can get away from your parents by running away from home, at least for a few hours. Eventually, you grow up and leave home. You can get a new teacher or a new job or a new friend, but you can never get a “new” brother. You’re just stuck with him. The terrible things siblings say and do to one another is due to this “can’t get away from him” phenomenon.

You would think that this sibling dislike and attack would end with adolescence but it often doesn’t ever end. I occasionally hear of wondrous friendships between adult siblings, and many of these relationships have been fostered after years of childhood and adolescent rivalry and hatred. My very best years of friendship with my own brother began when we were both in college and then lasted another 20 years. More often, however, relationships among adult siblings continues to be challenging, seemingly forever. I know of siblings who despise one another. Some of this vitriol is due to the fact that they are forced to be with one another at family functions, but more often these adult sibling problems are due to resentment that stretches back into childhood, and then continues into adulthood. It is remarkable that Jack still resents the fact that (he thinks) his sister was spoiled. It doesn’t help if his sister is back at home with Mom and Dad together with her three kids. It would be easier for Jack to see some distant acquaintance going back home to live as an adult, but when he sees his sister there, it galls him. The difficulties between siblings that began in childhood often exacerbate in adult lives to the point where these siblings never see each other at all. Yet the old feelings of ambivalent love remains. It is as if these still rivalrous siblings wish they could start over and understand each other. My first 18 years of modest rivalry with my brother was followed by 20 good years as we went to college, got married, and went to work. But the relationship deteriorated after that, partly due to the influence of in-laws.

There are many other combinations of siblings that cause potential problems, such as liking one sibling more than the other, having “two families,” one composed of the three oldest children and the second family of the four youngest ones. Rarely do these early “families” unite. It makes life with adult siblings challenging.

Equally challenging are adult child and parent relationships. When children leave the nest and find some life in work and their own families, their values and standards often change. Sometimes the adult kids don’t live up to their parents’ expectations, whether in school, partner, work, or how they raise the kids. Parents say to their adult children, “That wasn’t the way it was done when we raised you.” And from the adult children’s perspective, things are even harder. A child who might revere parent or parents early in life might later find fault with those parents when he is an adult himself. I know of one mother who hasn’t seen her son for a year and a half and has never seen her new grandchild, all for some unknown reason. I know of other grandparents who haven’t seen their grandchildren for months without hearing why their son has kept his children from them. These parent-child adult relationships might be some of the most difficult of all.

And of course, there are always the in-laws. Relationships with in-laws are fraught with potential difficulties. My parents did not want me to get married and refused to come to our wedding forcing us to postpone it for months. Perhaps my intended wife was not good enough for my parents for some reason. Variations of scenario are played out in all quarters. The problem is that the in-law doesn’t love, and may not even like, their children’s new partners. We don’t have the “love him but don’t like him” phenomenon; we may just have the “don’t like him” part. I certainly didn’t like my former sister-in-law and she certainly repaid me the favor.

Parents, children, siblings, and in-laws. It is the best of times. It is the worst of times. It is never easy. Young children can find ways to fight out their differences and have no trouble “hating” one another, but when they grow up, they no longer have the privilege of childhood. And adult relationships are much more complex. They seemingly have to find ways of relating to relatives that they really don’t like. The typical answers are: (1) never see your relatives and pretend that they are dead, or (2) pretend that you really like them and put on a happy face. Neither of these practices works.

My advice? Take it slow. There is no quick fix. Try the following:

  • Note that you are sad more than mad. Sure your sister was spoiled when you two were growing up, but that was not her fault. She probably still harbors some of the results of this spoiling, but you can’t change it. It is sad that you can’t change it. There is no value in your being angry at her for what happened 30 years ago.
  • Note that if you are sad, you love your sister, or whoever is difficult in your life. The only reason you get sad is because you love that person, whether parent, sibling, parent, or adult child. You probably even love your in-laws to some degree, and they can easily be frustrating.
  • Speak kindly to your loved one without pretending. Kindness is a choice, and it should be done out of generosity, not obligation.
  • Note that you don’t like your family member while also noting that your dislike for this person may not be entirely rooted in the present. Perhaps it is about something long remembered or long forgotten. Yet it still bothers you.
  • Let your sadness run its course. Sadness always ends. When you are no longer sad about your sister, brother, mother, child, or in-law, you might then be able to think clearly enough to know what to do or say.
  • There may be nothing to say or do, at least not right now. But you should never say or do anything while you still are resentful. Eventually, you might be able to say or do something out of love that is genuine, but first you have to get over the resentment, even if you still dislike this person.
  • Be honest. But that doesn’t mean telling your difficult family member everything you think or feel. Better to say something short and sweet that is true rather than to make it into something that it isn’t. Honesty, by the way, doesn’t mean saying everything you want to say. You need discretion, which you can discover only when you no longer resent your family member. Then the words will come carefully and honestly.

You might be interested in the following:

  • A chapter Deb and I wrote on narcissism a few years ago in a three-volume series on Evil edited by J.H. Ellens and published by Praeger.
  • Our forthcoming The Power of Positive Sadness by Praeger Press due out next month also by Praeger
  • Our 4-8-12 blog and forthcoming book by the same name