- Families who can’t talk to each other, create problems that grow in magnitude and are passed down the generations. Communication, a willingness to empathise and hold out a hand, is the glue that keeps relationships healthy. To achieve this, needs the wisdom of Job and the patience of a saint. It also need assertiveness. Running away from problems in a family set up, refusing to discuss them, or yelling and shouting to assuage feeling of frustration, just drives a bigger and more dangerous wedge between family members. Loyalty and the strength to support each other when the chips are down, is hard to maintain. It’s so much easier to disappear into a silent chasm of your own making.
When family members stop communicating, people get lost. If the communication is shallow and uncaring, people feel negated. If there is no loving compassion in the way people communicate, then there will be a flatness to life and a sense of emptiness, for what else is life about, but connecting. The saddest stories are the ones reported in the newspapers that tell of elderly people found dead in their homes, alone and uncared for. These people often have children scattered across the world, who have lost touch with them. Of course, the reason for these estrangements is never fully explained, but I know from my own experience, that often it was nothing more than a difference of opinion that caused a family rift that was never resolved.
There is also the issue of courage. It takes courage to overcome rows when bad things are said and people are hateful to each other in a family setting. I am not talking about abuse here; that’s a far more serious issue and should always be addressed with the help of professionals. No, I am talking about having the courage to challenge bad behaviour within a family, in a calm, assertive way that enables you to maintain dignity and self respect. A lot of family misunderstandings are down to a lack of good manners. People who are close, often take each other for granted and forget courtesy and kindness. A culture of ‘anything goes’ can develop in a family, where there is an unspoken permission to ‘let it all hang out’ - to be able to say anything or behave however you wish, even if the words and behaviour is hurtful and damaging. Standing up for your self-respect in a family setting where emotions are running high takes courage, but it so much better than enforced silence or unbridled rage.
Families nearly always have bullies. Bullying is covered up with excuses from them, or from other family members. There is never an excuse for bullying, whatever the circumstances. When people bully, it is because they cannot express themselves with the right sort of assertiveness. Bullying is borne of frustration. It’s hard work to deal with a family bully, because if you love that person, you tend to tread on eggshells around them, in the hope that they will see that bullying is not the way to communicate well. But bullies need to be challenged and that takes self-esteem and courage, too. When you love someone and they bully you, it is your self-esteem that takes the hit.
There is also another type of family member. The martyr. This is the person who constantly says sorry. Who makes him or herself the fall guy. Who lives in a state of apologetic silence. Who can never resolve anything, because to resolve something would mean responsibility. Being a martyr lets you off the hook. You wish to be seen as the person who will lay down your life for others, rather than do anything pragmatic to resolve the problem. What that means is that you do not have the confidence or insight to employ intelligence, wisdom, and reason. Martyrs are very emotional people. Deep inside, they feel that the whole world is against them. Being a martyr means you want people to notice you and to acknowledge that you exist, above everything else. You are screaming for attention, you are hurt and you want others to know it. How can you resolve anything, feeling like that? So beware the martyr in your family. They need help!
Then we have the isolationist. The family member who removes him or herself and says, ‘Let them get on with it, I’m out of here…’ This person is usually very sensitive too, but presents a tough exterior. They come across as the know-all. When they are not given enough listening time or they feel that others are ignoring them, or can’t understand them, they are off! They have an innate stubbornness and an overblown sense of self-protection, that prevents them from reaching out to others and loosening up.
So we are back to communication; a vital component in family relations. Parents need to talk to children and listen to them; really listen. Children have to listen to parents… Is that possible? Parents do not have a good press. They are presented as ‘hard-working and poverty struck’ by politicians, as ‘rich and unfeeling’ by the press, as ‘possessive’ by many, as ‘irresponsible’ if they are single parents, as ‘pushy’ if they are ambitious for their kids… the list of the failings that society seeks to heap upon parents, is endless. And it doesn’t stop when the kids are grown. Then, we are on to the behaviour of grandparents and their interaction with their children and grandchildren.
As we age, the things that help us to stay healthy and happy are good relationships, within our social groups and with our families. This has been proved scientifically. It is also recognised that people entering nursing homes today are far more frail and need more care than they did years ago. Is this because we have lost that sense of family? Families are split; live far way from each other, do not communicate and by doing this, create a situation where older members feel unloved and uncared for? This affects their sense of well being and self esteem. If you think you are useless, of no value to your family or are simply a seen as a burden, you are not going to feel much like living, let alone live a productive and happy life.
That nagging sense that often overcomes older people, that they are surplice to requirements, that in our throw-away society, it’s time they were thrown away, does not make for contentment. This often happens when there is a divorce. The married couple separate and make new relationships with new families. The old grandparents are sidelined for the new crop. Kid’s loyalties become confused. They love their original grandparents but are expected to suddenly love the new lot! They love their parents, but now they are expected to show love and respect for the new ‘daddy’ or ‘mummy’… It’s very tough on everyone.
Now we come to the most difficult of family members; the fantasist. This person is not grounded in reality. He or she will see their children as saints, when they have committed bloody murder! This person will swear that black is white and white is black. This person will avoid a brush with reality at all costs. They will turn reality into a fantasy and swear that their fantasy is a true representation of what is happening. They will never accept that there are none so blind and those who will not see… Fantasists lie and they believe their own lies. They cannot understand why people don’t believe them. If confronted, they will say they are just’ exaggerating a little’ or they will withdraw into silence until, they can find an audience to listen and believe their next fantasy. In a family, it is very difficult to explain the behaviour of the fantasist. They are very good at avoiding, at making promises they never keep, at saying outrageous things, while expecting to be forgiven because they are were ‘only joking’. The story of Walter Mitty illustrates the mind of the fantasist beautifully. Mitty is a simple man who lives a vivid fantasy life within his mind. He imagines himself in a variety of exciting roles, yet his own life is bland and unexciting. Walter Mitty is a hapless dreamer. If you have one of these in your family, beware! There is nothing wrong with dreaming, in the right context. Artists have to be dreamers, otherwise they would produce nothing. This, to my mind, is a very valid use of fantasy and dreaming! But the bleak world of a Walter Mitty character deserves our compassion and a gentle nudge into reality now and then!
Staying grounded when dealing with your relatives, keeps you sane. Good communication is the only way through this minefield, I’m afraid. It takes sustained effort and committment and it’s not easy.