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On the homefront
The need for re-engaging and sustaining those family ties
Portsmouth Herald - 5/19/2017
They grew up in a family with some normalcy, but not enough. Relational riffs were dealt with varying periods of silence, and clear disconnect. The siblings became adults, married, and in-laws folded into this already fragile system. The in-laws complicated the family relationships. Frequently they tried to help, yet sometimes they created further interpersonal divide.
This scenario mimics many families. Often, I will hear people say,
"I wish there was a way we could get along."
"My sister-in-law drives me crazy, she's so controlling."
"My brother-in-law is such a know-it-all."
"I hate holidays, everyone is so competitive."
The conflicted issues are many, with these reflecting a few examples. Exempting addictions or extreme pathology, the concerns are often garden variety, with potential for connecting and healing. However, people often choose to reject their families and fully withdraw. This choice has a profound effect on the entire family, especially as the years unfold. The family is forced to grieve the absentee member/member's family. For some there is an aching emptiness at each major family function.
How does a family bring the member back into the fold? There are many family approaches, yet I will begin with Salvador Minuchin's hierarchical perspective. He suggested the eldest family folk take authority toward repairing the family. The two examples that come to mind were spearheaded by the fathers. In the first example, the son met on hard times and responded poorly to the family's lack of support and "pick yourself up by the bootstrap" message. The son kept his family away for eight years. It was his children seeking a relationship with their grandparents that bridged the divide. The father created a pathway for the other family members to reunite.
In the second example, the second son and his wife constantly looked to his parents to financially give to them. They exhibited a sense of entitlement. Each time the parents rescued them, the rest of the family rippled with anger. The brother and sister were able to be responsible, why not their sibling? In time the parents stopped enabling and stepped back. The father took the time to listen to the rest of the family and mend the splintered feelings.
According to Scott Myers, a professor of communication studies at Virginia University, siblings were much more aggressive with their siblings than other people in their lives. He proposed that by being aware of this aggressive posture and intentionally changing to a kinder manner, siblings can alter their dynamics significantly. Myers encouraged siblings to treat family members similarly to how they treat a friend.
What else can be done?
First, be realistic as to how close family members can actually be. This may mean letting go of fairy-tale notions in exchange for acknowledgement of individuals' limitations.
Second, establish clear boundaries. Some families, for example, have an open-door policy, with people coming and going all the time. For families with a hectic life style and many commitments, they can't reciprocate an open-door life style and instead need boundaries to function well as a unit.
Last, let go of trying to change your sibling/s, Often, we might get caught in trying to have our siblings invested in our way of thinking. It is important to let go of this endeavor and instead, take the time to understand their views. Typically, the oldest is most invested in changing the younger sibling/s. It is important to stop trying to change them and instead invest the efforts in getting to know them better.
There are benefits to relating well with siblings. Gary and Joy Lundberg outline "5 surprising reasons why adult siblings should get along." They are:
1. It will be one of the best gifts you can give your parents.
2. When your parents are elderly and need care, you won't be alone.
3. You never know when you will need each other.
4. Your children can benefit from a good relationship with their aunts and uncles.
5. It will bring peace into your life.
-Dr. Constance Johannessen has a private practice, Johannessen Psychological Services, on 20 Ladd St., in Portsmouth. She is a licensed psychologist who has practiced for more than 20 years and specializes in couples, individual and group therapy.