One of the challenges we often face as we grow older is coming to terms with our expectations of "family" versus what the reality is. I often hear clients say the "family" we were born with "just don't relate" to us, or "they are just so different" than us, or "we have grown apart," or "we have gone in different directions," etc. The reality is we didn't have a choice in what family we were born in. However, as an adult we do have a choice to define for ourselves what the word "family" means (i.e. how people interact or treat each other) and who we choose to call "family." Just because someone is a blood relative or married into the family of origin does not always mean it is healthy or good to have a close relationship with them. We all need to be aware that each person and situation is unique so we need to allow each person to find what works best for them. That is an integral part of counseling! It is not about what I think - rather it is ALL about helping the client to explore and clarify what they think, feel, believe, etc.
The first part of this exploration then is about defining how we interact with or treat each other in a "family." What has been their experience in the past? How have they seen other people's family members act towards each other? What do they think they would like it to be like? We have to be aware of how we might have unrealistic expectations of other people (family or not). When we have expectations of others we are setting ourselves up for disappointment, upset and frustration because other people are not us - they don't think like us, believe like us, feel like us, or behave like us! They are not a "mini me!" So the first step to finding peace in our relationships is radical acceptance of others for who they are! Acceptance that they are not, nor will they ever be, who we think they should be or who we want them to be! They are them, not us! Sometimes in family counseling sessions someone will say, "well, they should...." As soon as we hear the "should" word, we need to stop, take a deep breath, back up and accept that this is not the world according to me! We can only choose how we think, feel, believe and act! We can not tell someone else how to think, feel, believe or act! Once we accept them for who they are then we can choose whether we want to spend time with the other person or not. We can choose how our "inner circle" of people in our life treat each other. We decide who we invite into that inner circle and who we don't invite in but instead keep in the middle circle or the outer circle or even not anywhere near my circles! Of course, just because we invite someone in doesn't mean they will accept that invite. It always takes a mutual agreement of at least two people choosing to be in a relationship before there will be a relationship. It only takes one person to decline the invite and the relationship will end.
The second part of this conversation is defining for ourselves which people in our life are the kind of people that meet our definition of "family." Perhaps they have been there for us when we were having a tough time or they have consistently made efforts to stay connected with us or they have been there when we needed someone to talk to or maybe they were able to really be honest with us when we needed to hear something that was tough to hear. Whatever our definition of "family" is, once we have figured out what we want in a "family" relationship then we are ready to take a look at our relationships and decide who is a good fit for us. The "family" we choose versus the "family" we were born into. Sometimes they are the same, sometimes they overlap and sometimes they are no where near each other.
"Each and every day, I choose to be in this relationship with you!"
If you are feeling unsettled or conflicted about your "family" relationships then it might be time to reach out for some professional guidance to clarify your thoughts and feelings so you can find peace and resolution in your relationships with "family."
Putting the Pieces Together (So We Make Sense of Ourselves, Others and Our World)
Lois Zsarnay, LMFT, BCPC, RD
©2014 Lois Zsarnay, LMFT, BCPC, RD