Why don’t we talk – really talk – about family relationships? In her new book, psychologist and family researcher Lucy Blake explores how we tend to either avoid, or embroider, narratives about family …
I spend a lot of time talking about family relationships. I talk about them at work, when I’m collecting data or giving lectures to students. And I talk about them outside of work, because family small talk is a common, inevitable feature of daily life. People want to know who you spend time with and what you’re going to spend time doing, especially around the holidays. People talk about family like they talk about the weather. But why is it that we rarely talk about family in a meaningful way? Why is it that we feel that we can only talk about those experiences that are positive?
What I have come to understand is that, although it is common, family small talk can be stressful. One reason why this topic of conversation can be distressing is that the more challenging aspects of family relationships are steeped in stigma, at the heart of which is a separation between “us”, the “normal” majority, and “them”, the stigmatised minority. Let’s take an example – growing up with a parent with a mental health problem. In countries around the world, it is estimated that between 15 and 23 per cent of children live with a parent with a mental health problem. Yet despite the fact that it is far from rare, it is no wonder that both parents and their children might want to keep this information private. A recent review found that the stereotypes most associated with mental health problems are that those who are affected by them are responsible for them, incompetent, weak in character, dangerous or dependent. Few parents – or their children – would want other people to see them through this lens.
Just as there is stigma surrounding mental health problems, there is stigma surrounding family estrangement. Professor Kristina Scharp at the University of Washington is interested in how people talk about family relationships, and family estrangement in particular. I asked Professor Scharp to explain why it is that family small talk can be so hard for those who are estranged from a family member. She explained:
“Most people perceive family to be a safe topic because everyone has a family. And I think if you come from a really happy family, it might not occur to you that not everybody comes from a happy family. One of the most common conceptions is that families are these lifelong, obligatory relationships, so when you experience something counter to those cultural norms, that can be something that pervades your whole life. Because even if you wanted the distance, and even if you were able to successfully accomplish the distance, you still live within a culture where that is unheard of, at best, or unacceptable. Any time you violate a social norm that is held really dearly by society, you are going to be punished. If you choose not to have a relationship with your family, no one thinks you’re eccentric – they think something is probably wrong with you, even when that might not be the case in the slightest.”
Professor Scharp’s response allowed me to understand that few people will want their colleagues, friends or partners to judge them in this way. No one wants to be thought of as abnormal. And within my own discipline of psychology, I have learnt something else too, which is that even thinking about difficult family experiences can be challenging, let alone sharing those thoughts with other people.
I learnt this lesson through studying attachment theory, an influential theory at the heart of which is the notion that our early childhood experiences go on to shape the quality of our relation- ships throughout the course of our lives. Professor Miriam Steele is the Co-Director of the Center for Attachment Research at the New School in New York and a leading clinician and researcher in attachment theory. I am incredibly grateful to have been trained by Professor Steele and her team in how to study family relationships through the lens of attachment theory. I reached out to Professor Steele to clarify why it is that thinking and talking about our family relationships can be so difficult. She explained:
“I think it can be hard to understand your childhood because it might be painful and we all want to protect ourselves from the pain of being rejected and feelings of loss. If you go back to the writings of one of the founders of attachment theory, John Bowlby, and his original thinking about this in the 1930s, he wrote about something he called “defensive exclusion”. That when things are difficult to process, you tuck them away because to think about them would be too painful.
“Relationships that have some challenges but are overall good enough, they’re not so hard to engage with and come to terms with. But the painful ones are the difficult ones. Those realities like, “I was unloved”, or “my parents loved work more than me, or drugs more than me, or other relationships more than me”, are so painful. We often have an inability to tolerate mental pain. We don’t like it.
“From an evolutionary perspective we come into the world needing that love, so there are ways that children will do almost anything to protect the image of their parents in their mind, like believing that their parents’ lack of love was their own fault because they are unlovable. And not only is thinking about the past sometimes painful, but it can be hard work, which some people don’t really want to do. You can get by with denial, but it only works so far. The by-product of not thinking about or dealing with difficult emotions and memories is that they still exert an influence on our lives.”
I’m more likely to tread lightly around family talk, with compassion and an awareness that, for many different reasons, family is not necessarily an easy topic of conversation to navigate.
What I have learnt, is that talking about family relationships often necessitates an ability to acknowledge and tolerate pain. And I have also learnt that, as well as denying its existence, people hide from or minimise pain by creating fantasies of perfection. I have been surprised to learn that someone speaking about a parent as being entirely without fault or limitation – as being superhuman – is not necessarily an indication that that person has had a perfect relationship with their parent, or a perfect childhood. Professor Steele explained:
“As a clinician and a researcher, if someone tells me “my childhood was perfect”, that can set alarm bells ringing, as this can be another way in which people avoid difficult feelings and experiences. Idealizing parents and thinking of them as perfect, without flaws, can be a way of keeping things superficial so that we don’t have to engage with reality.
“Relationships can look very good from the outside, but actually the people in them might not be getting much out of them. So, for example, someone might make it look to the world “Oh, my mother, she was wonderful, she was out there and helping everybody, she was so warm, she was really involved in charity work”. But this might be a way of avoiding the reality that “actually, she wasn’t that great towards me. For me, she wasn’t there at all”. It’s really quite amazing the way the human brain can function to make it look to the world as if there is no pain there.”
In speaking with Professor Steele, I have come to understand that in talking about family relationships in an authentic or vulnerable way, not only do we potentially open ourselves up to judgement, but we might need to acknowledge, and potentially feel, pain. With these lessons in mind, I now understand why it is that we tend to only really talk about family relationships in a positive, if not idyllic and idealistic, way. I can also appreciate that when we talk about family like we talk about the weather, we are only really inviting stories of sunny days. And that in talking about family in this way, the idyllic narratives of the family story are the ones that we most often hear, and the only ones that we might feel comfortable in telling. The more nuanced, complex reality of family life and family relationships remains hidden, and the “family story” lives on.
The importance of knowing what you don’t know
These lessons that I have learnt have allowed me to appreciate that there is no “normal” kind of relationship between parents and children in adulthood. I can now actively resist judging my own family relationships against those of the perfect, imaginary families that I see on my social media feeds. And I can reassure myself that when I experience the push and pull of positive and negative emotions in a family relationship, that they are not a problem in need of fixing, or an indicator of deficiency. Instead, I can reassure myself they are an expected, natural part of being in a relationship with a family member.
And in learning these lessons, an important illusion has been shattered, which is that, unless I am told otherwise, other people have experienced a safe, secure childhood, free from adversity. I have also learnt to appreciate that adversities live in the branches of my own family tree, even if they are rarely mentioned or labelled as such. And what I now know is that these events and circumstances are what make my family tree similar to other people’s family trees, rather than different from them.
When I keep these lessons in mind, the world is no longer neatly split into “good” and “bad” families. Not only do the harsh, judgemental narratives of the family story start to fade, but they start to feel woefully inadequate. In my intention to both understand and extend kindness to myself and others, it not only becomes easier to walk away from the judgemental narratives of the family story – it becomes vital to do so.
What I now know is that before I speak with someone I have absolutely no ability to guess what kind of challenges and strengths exist in their families. I likewise have no ability to guess what they might have experienced or endured in the past. It doesn’t matter what car is in their drive or how wide their smiles might be; not even their selection of biscuits can give it away. No matter how people present themselves, no matter how “picture perfect” their families might appear to be, until someone decides to share their world with me, I genuinely have no idea what they have experienced in their family relationships.
Aware that I know so little, I try to resist making assumptions about other people’s lives and their family relationships. I try to keep in mind that although I might sometimes think that I know few people who have been affected by adversity in childhood, or estrangement from a family member in adulthood, without a shadow of a doubt this is not true. The people who I love, work with, teach, learn from and pass in the street will have encountered a diverse range of experiences in their family relationships.
With these lessons in mind, I talk about family in a different way than I used to. I do not assume the students that I teach and the colleagues that I work with have active, supportive relationships with their parents or their children. And I’m more likely to tread lightly around family talk, with compassion and an awareness that, for many different reasons, family is not necessarily an easy topic of conversation to navigate.
No Family Is Perfect: A Guide to Embracing the Messy Reality by Lucy Blake (Welbeck, €22.95) is out now. Buy it here: www.dubraybooks.ie.
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