Lesson 5 of 7 - evolve a high-nurturance family

What's Unique About
Family Relationships?

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member NSRC Experts' Council

The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/fam/basics.htm

Updated 03-09-2015

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      This YouTube video summarizes some of what you'll read in this article. The intro mentions eight self-improvement lessons in this site. I've reduced that to seven.

      This is one of a series of Lesson-5 articles on evolving and enjoying high-nurturance families. The series exists because the wide range of current U.S. social problems suggests that most families don't function very well. That illustrates the toxic effects of the epidemic [wounds + unawareness] cycle proposed in this ad-free educational Web site .

      If you have significant family-relationship problems, keep them in mind as you read this. This article aims to expand your awareness by exploring...

  Why are family relationships often more stressful than other relationships?

  How does the [wounds + unawareness] cycle affect typical family relationships? And...

  What's unique about trying to repair damaged family relationships?

Try thoughtfully answering these questions out loud now, and notice your thoughts and feelings. Then compare your answers to what follows...

      This article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the introduction to this site and the premises underlying it 

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 4

  • These Q&A items about relationships and families

  • requisites for healthy relationships

  • the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle


      A relationship occurs when the existence, values, traits, and/or behaviors of one person significantly affects the wholistic health of another person, in someone's opinion. Typical families are two or more people bound together by a mix of preferences, genes, ancestry, shared experiences, names, traditions, roles, expectations, and perhaps legal obligations. Think of the people - living and dead - whom you include in "my family." Who among them have had the greatest impact on your life? Why?

      Family members can be:

  • genetically-related adults and kids with common ancestors,

  • legal relatives, like in-laws, adopted and foster kids, and their kinfolk; and...

  • unrelated people with whom you have grown a special bond.

      These relationship-types have some things in common, and others that are unique. For example, you don't choose genetic relatives, or the family roles that genes and tradition dictate - e.g. uncle, grandmother, brother-in-law, great-aunt, cousin, half-sibling, etc.

      Most mates choose each other, but may not be thrilled with one or more of their new in-laws. This promotes rudeness, insincerity, and/or pretense, which invite distrust, confusion, doubt, and disrespect.

  Why are family relationships often
 more stressful than other relationships?

      Try saying your answer out loud. Then compare it to this:

       Premise - relationship "problems" occur when some important need/s of one or both people aren't met. Fundamental needs healthy adults and kids have of each other are for spontaneous (vs. dutiful) honesty, empathy, interest, tolerance, forgiveness, kindness, and respect.

      Average kids are taught to expect these traits from family members, as well as acceptance, inclusion, and priority over non-family people. Many people expect their family members to love each other, regardless of their personalities, behaviors, and differences.

      Reality check: think of a grandparent, sibling, aunt, or uncle you feel bonded with. Now picture a  friend "outside" your family. Which of these people would you expect to be more loyal, supportive and helpful if you're in a crisis? Who "should" be willing to make sacrifices for you? If you could only ask one of them for help and both were able, who would you choose? Why?  If each of them said "I can't (or won't) help you," who would disappoint you the most? Why?

      Partly from instinct and partly from social training and experience, we're taught to assume that our family members will want to provide support and refuge for us in troubled times. We depend on and expect them want to fill key needs. Does that match your experience?

      The reality is, our relatives are imperfect people who may be psychologically wounded,  ignorant, biased, selfish, and unable or unwilling to fill our needs and expectations. When that happens, most people feel some degree of disbelief and confusion - then a mix of hurt, anger, disappointment, resentment, criticism, anxiety, and/or scorn.

      Another aspect of family relations that can cause significant stress is loyalty and priority. The ideal is that family members will love and support each other equally. The reality is, adults and kids like some relatives better than others. That often breeds loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles that are more intense than those with non-relatives. Have you experienced feeling "second best" to some family members? Do relatives see you as choosing favorites among them?

      One more aspect has to do with a felt sense of security. We expect relatives to provide a safe haven and refuge for us in tough times. If they won't or can't, we feel anxious - "If I have no family to fall back on, who will want to help me?" This is more acute in small families ("I'm an only child") than large ones.

      Perhaps the most volatile or reactive family relationships are between...

  • parent and child or grandchild,

  • ex mates and their kids and kin,

  • full and half siblings, and...

  • some in-laws.

Dislike, distrust, disrespect, and betrayals among these can be specially upsetting and impactful.   

      Bottom line - family relationships are apt to be more stressful than others because we're taught to depend on and expect more caring from relatives than from other people. Do you agree?

   How does the [wounds + unawareness] cycle
 affect typical family relationships?

      Premises - all relationship problems are caused by psychological wounds + unawareness - specially ignorance of communication skills. These two factors are inherited from ancestors, and passively condoned  by a wounded public in major denial. Unless these factors are intentionally stopped by family adults, they pass on to the next generations. This is the [wounds + unawareness] cycle.

      Depending on how well they fill members' needs over time, all families (like yours) fall somewhere on a line between "very high nurturance ("functional") to very low nurturance ("dysfunctional"). High-nurturance families have observable traits like these.

      Their nurturance level is directly proportional to the nurturance levels of their ancestors'  generations. The lower a family's nurturance level (i.e. the fewer of these traits), the higher the odds of significant relationship problems, like addictions, affairs, domestic violence, parenting conflicts, and divorce.  

  What's unique about trying to improve family relationships?

      Key variables in any relationship problem are the (a) motivation and (b) ability of those involved to resolve their differences and fill their needs cooperatively - i.e. to problem solve. When that doesn't happen to everyone's satisfaction, problems fester and accumulate, and the relationship can become  damaged. Has this ever happened to you?

      Damage occurs when one or both people lose respect, trust, empathy, patience, interest, tolerance, and/or appreciation for the other. The way these are lost can also affect the degree and duration of damage. A damaged relationship in one generation can carry down to the next generation.

      For example, a mother's dislike of traits or behaviors of her own mother may tarnish a granddaughter's relationship with the senior woman. Old rivalries and resentments between adult siblings can cause enmity among their kids (cousins).

      This suggests that prompt, effective problem-solving among relatives is of high importance. Because typical families are significantly dysfunctional, many (most?) adults don't know how to problem-solve effectively - so major or recurring interpersonal problems promote damaged relationships

      Repairing or restoring damaged relationships means converting one or more of these...

  • disrespect into genuine (vs. dutiful) respect,

  • distrust into stable trust,

  • indifference into bonding and balanced concern,

  • old hurts and resentments to real (vs. pseudo) forgiveness,

  • converting dislike into at least empathic tolerance, and...

  • negotiating stable, harmonious boundaries.

      When family members "have bad chemistry" (i.e. their personalities and values clash), the best that can be hoped for is genuine respect for each others' human dignity and rights. This is often hard or impossible for wounded adults to achieve until they progress on self-motivated personal wound-reduction (Lesson 1). 

      Unlike decayed friendships, family relationships are "always there," Holidays, births, birthdays, relocations, showers, weddings, baptisms, graduations, and retirements will always promote interactions among relatives. Each event offers a chance for inclusion and reconciliation, or another snub, rejection, and fresh hurt and resentment - e.g. "My brother never even told me my niece was getting married, and they didn't invite us!"

      When two or more relatives dislike, distrust, or disrespect each other, the whole family system is affected because of alliances, coalitions, and dependencies. This is specially true with major problems between parents and kids or between siblings.

      Sometimes sibling rivalries and parental favoritisms endure well into adulthood, stressing all family members. If these are not openly confronted and cooperatively resolved, they accumulate incidents over time that entrench resentments, hurts, and angers.

      Low-nurturance families often try to ignore, pretend, or minimize relationship problems, or members will openly blame and exclude or shun others for whom they side with. So family relationship problems are often a web of tensions, rather than stress between two people.

      So mending troubled family relationships can be harder than with other people because:

  • if one family member has inherited psychological wounds and unawareness, it's likely that (a) other family members have too, and (b) no one knows that or what it means;

  • family members may have higher expectations of, and higher dependencies on, each other compared to non-family relationships;

  • family relationship and role conflicts are often system-wide, not just between two people;

  • the causes of the problems may have accumulated over time, and may need individual forgivenesses; and...

  • serious loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles are more likely among family members than other relationships

So What?

      Minor and unborn kids depend on their family adults to nurture them (fill their evolving needs) well for two decades. That means they need their adults to want to avoid and resolve role and relationship conflicts promptly and effectively - though it's unlikely they'll ever say so.

      This Break the Cycle! self-improvement course provides concepts and practical tools to help your family adults and supporters do this, This article is meant to raise your adults' awareness of "relationship problems," so they can better improve their family relationships and communication effectiveness among your adults and kids

      In particular, encourage your family members to agree on a mission statement, and use that to outline "job descriptions" for the key roles in your family. e.g. "In our family, mothers are responsible for _______, grandfathers are responsible for ________, teens are responsible for ______," etc 

      Doing this may seem cumbersome and artificial, but it will minimize the chance that members' expectations of themselves and each other will be vague and conflictual. This is specially true for low-nurturance (wounded and unaware) families. Do you know how to gauge your family's nurturance level? 


      This article is one of a series on families (Lesson 5). The article proposes that family relationship problems may be more stressful and harder to resolve than in non-family relationships because of...

  • higher dependencies and unrealistic (traditional) expectations,

  • higher odds of psychological wounds and unawareness, and...

  • more simultaneous problems, and more people affected by them.

These combine to make repairing damaged family relationships potentially harder than with non-family members. This is specially true in divorcing families and typical stepfamilies (Lesson 7).

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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  For more perspective and options for reducing problems among relatives, see this Lesson-4 article.

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