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Family Is Everything Except When It Isn’t

Especially around this time of the year, we hear the virtues of family repeatedly extolled. This sentiment abounds in the lyrics of holiday songs, springs from the mouths of relatives, and abounds in the messages promoted by advertising. But is family really all that it’s cracked up to be? Let’s put on our critical-thinking caps and think about that.

I’ve heard from many clients that the message they received from their mothers, fathers, grandmothers or grandfathers growing up was that “family is everything”—more important than their own desires and needs, more sacred than their jobs or friends, to be revered above all else in their lives. Ironically, these are the very same clients who grew up with enough abuse or neglect to be sitting on my therapy couch. Is it possible that these same family members who heartily endorsed the virtues of family didn’t practice what they preached? Could it be that those who championed family the loudest were hypocrites talking from both sides of their mouths or that they were expressing a yearning for an ideal to promote rather than one live?

Sadly, so it seems. Let me give you some examples of these families. There’s the widowed mother who insisted that my client and his wife come to dinner every Sunday and holiday, who used to crack him over the head with the spiked heel of her shoe whenever he misbehaved as a child. There’s the grandmother who could be sweet and loving when she wanted something from my client, but who once whacked him on the arm with a lead pipe when he refused to take her to the hairdresser because he had college exams to study for. And the father who spent more time with the bottle than with his depressed wife and trio of daughters who repeatedly insisted that “family is everything,” though not a one of them felt any deep kinship with any of the others.  

Certainly, family can be important, but so can friends and even strangers. If you’re fortunate enough to have a family that is close and warm and loving, this still does not mean that it must be “everything” to you. You alone get to decide how you feel about your parents, stepparents, siblings, daughters, sons, grandparents, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, cousins, aunts and uncles. What confuses us is the hope or wish that family could be “everything” to us. Most families can be “something,” even lots of wonderful somethings to us, but I believe that valuing family over everything is a dangerous notion. What about work, friends, community, and your own needs? If you’ve reached adulthood, you get to decide what your life priorities are and how much your family means to you. This is true not only during the holiday season, but all year round.