Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Family Trap

The dysfunctional family has been a source of humor on television and other media.  However, the antics of the Bundy family and their ilk are nothing compared to the horror show some children have to live through.

Note:  This is an extension on my earlier postings, The Parent Trap, The Child Trap, and The Parent Trap, Part Deux.

I had an interesting discussion with someone the other day, about family ties.  I am not "anti-family" but my position is, once you are an adult, you need to think about starting your OWN family, and that family, and your relationship with your spouse, is the primary relationship in your life.  You have to leave home and stop being a child.

Many a marriage has been broken up when one spouse puts his parents or siblings above his spouse in the hierarchy of the relationship.  And in most cases, breaking up is probably the best thing.  If your husband is going to be a "Momma's Boy" and take her side over yours on every issue, what is the point of being married?  Just divorce him and let him marry his Mom.

Similarly, parents who meddle in their children's marriages and child-rearing are causing nothing but trouble.  And yet, it is quite common today for the "helpful Grandma" or "helpful Grandpa" to insert themselves smack dab in the middle of the parent-child relationship, and sabotage the parent-child relationship by providing gifts to the child, as well as messages that conflict with what the parent is saying (and openly dispute or run down the parent in front of the child).  It seems to be a popular sport as of late.

Why people put up with these sort of things is beyond me.  We all have "issues" I guess.  But sometimes, you have to simply walk away from dysfunctional families - for the sake of your physical, mental, and financial health.

A friend of mine thought this was literally heresy.  Family is everything, they told me.  No matter how "crazy" your family is, you have to "honor" them and interact with them.

And unfortunately, the world is full of insensitive jerks like this who say things like this without knowing the back story of the listener.  I hear all the time from people who are larger pompous know-it-alls than I am, holding forth on the importance of family and hearth and home, painting a picture of a Norman Rockwell life, full of hope and good cheer.

So what is wrong with that sort of image - or giving that sort of advice?  Well, when you say shit like that (which is what it is - shit - just a bunch of stale platitudes and Hallmark Card glurge) you can hurt people.

I realized this when I worked at Planned Parenthood in College, where I organized their library of books on sex, sexuality, reproduction, history, feminism, and psychology.  It gave me a lot of time to read up on a number of issues most Engineering students never learn about.

Dysfunctional families probably outnumber "normal" ones by 5 to 1.  But many people today toss around the term "dysfunctional" very lightly.  Their Mother is an annoying nag, for example, so they call her "Dysfunctional".  It trivializes the term.

From what I read in the various books at Planned Parenthood, I realized that very serious family problems are far more common than we think.  And that assuming blithely that everyone comes from a "normal" family can be hurtful.

Thus, for example, some pompous blowhard inflicts his opinion on Suzie, who is estranged from her parents.  "You should visit them, Suzie!" the blowhard says, "Family is everything!  Whatever you go through in life, you'll always have family!"  He drones on this way for a half-hour, serving up one platitude after another, while Suzie slowly dies another little bit inside.

You see, Suzie was molested by her Father for many years, beginning at age 6 and until she turned 16 and left home.  She did all the right things they said to do in school.  She told her Mother - but her Mother, on the rare occasion she was sober, only said "not to make up stories" and looked the other way.

It took her many years of therapy and hard work, but Suzie now has a good job and can support herself.  She still has nightmares about it, but is finally dating a nice young man and is looking forward to perhaps having a "normal" life.

But one annoying thing she has to deal with is the ignorant blowhards who say things like she has to "honor her Mother and Father" because the Bible says so.

Or take Ryan, who was beaten daily by his born-again Father, who kept a broom handle in the kitchen for "enforcing discipline" on the children.  "Spare the rod, spoil the child, the Bible says!" his Father would exclaim.  Actually the Bible doesn't say that.  His Father once broke the broom handle in two beating Ryan.  On another occasion, Ryan was admitted to the emergency room with a broken arm, after one particularly nasty beating.

Ryan's Mother stood by, too paralyzed to do anything - being beaten and abused herself.  They both finally gathered up enough courage to leave the abusive Father, but like many abused women, Ryan's Mother often talked about reconciliation and reuniting with Ryan's abusive Dad.

And it is not hard to understand why she would feel this way.  To begin with, abuse is a form of brainwashing, and often the abused ends up identifying with the abuser.  It happened to Patty Hearst.  It could happen to you.  And compounding this was "advice" from counselors and religious leaders on the "sanctity of marriage" - encouraging Ryan' abused Mom to "reconcile" with the abused Dad.

Fighting all that - walking away from the abuser for good - took a lot of courage and strength.  Undermining that - even unintentionally - is not a nice thing to do.

Ryan and Suzie are composites of a number of people I know who have lived in abusive situations.

You see, things like incest are not that unusual, but actually fairly common.  If you are holding forth with this nonsense about the importance of Family, chances are, if there are 30 people in the audience, more than one was the victim of incest.  Several were beaten regularly by their parents, perhaps one or two severely.  Probably several have issues with alcoholic parents or siblings, or drug-addicted siblings, family members in jail for serious crimes, or perhaps homeless family members who are on crack and hit them up for money.  Statistics indicate that one or more of the members of your audience have had to deal with these sort of issues - perhaps several of them.

So while you blather on about "The Importance of Family", how do you think they feel inside?  Well, let me tell you, they die a little bit inside.  It's like being molested or abused all over again.  It is like the insensitive boor who blames the rape victim for being raped - which is like being raped all over again.

So before you carry on with these sort of theories, consider how they play out to your audience.  If you have a strong relationship with your family, then good for you!  Now, shut up about it.  You are one of the lucky few.  So why rub our nose in it?

And worse yet, why imply there is something wrong with US because we refuse to embrace our abusers?

For an abused child - whether it is sexual, physical, emotional, or even financial abuse, breaking away from the death grip of the dysfunctional family can be the hardest thing they have ever done.  It takes guts, courage, and dedication to break free and start your own life.  Many abused children NEVER leave home and end up abused as adults their whole lives.

And here you are, throwing it back in their face.  Nice.

Again, once you turn 18, you've probably gotten all you are going to get out of your relationship with your parents.  Start your own life and find your own spouse and form your own family, whatever that entails.  Your primary relationship is to that spouse, not your parents anymore.

Yet today, we see children living at home, or near home, until they are 30 years old.  Many do not marry until well into their 30's and try for children almost at age 40.  And even then, they struggle to "understand their relationship with their parents" for the rest of their lives.

It is very sad.  My late Sister fell into this trap.  She struggled to "understand" our bi-polar alcoholic Lesbian Mother, often calling me and blathering on for hours about it.  At one time, she called and said "I have vacation time coming up, why don't I fly out and we can stage an intervention for Mother?"

"You have a strange idea of what constitutes a vacation!" was my only reply.

You see, she should have concentrated more on enjoying her own short life to the fullest, rather than trying to "figure out" her Mother or "prove wrong" her Father by staying in a failed marriage 10 years longer than she wanted to.  She never escaped the Family Trap.  And that was sad.

And I wonder sometimes, if people who obsess about their families - particularly dysfunction ones - are doing so only to drown out the deafening silence in their lives.  If you can magnify the importance of yourself and your life in your own eyes, it might seem all the more interesting - creating constant crises in your life - turning your life into a daily soap opera.  But that is probably a subject for another posting.

When I went off to live my own life and have a less of a relationship with my family, my sister hated me.  I was no longer making my childhood family the centerpiece of my life - I had a partner and a career to tend to.  I had to live my own life, not a perpetual role as "younger brother" for someone else's family model fantasy.   And she despised that.

But what was I to do?  Sacrifice my own life on the altar of "Family" so that I could live out some punching-bag role for these people?  I mean, isn't two decades enough of that for any one person? And yet many people do just that - and many more would say you are obligated to do just that! 

Living your own life is never hard.  Being yourself is not easy.  Many people look to role models, whether they be on the television or in their family, as normative cues on how to behave.  Many people with weaker constitutions often cling to family as a source of comfort.   And I suppose if that works for them, that's fine (usually they are pot smokers, however, and will bore you with their perpetual problem about how they hate their parents - a diatribe usually given from the stained mattress in their bong lair in their parent's basement).

But in most cases, I think, a clingy relationship with your parents, beyond the breast-feeding stage, is not healthy.  Eventually you have to grow up and view them as peers, not overlords.   And your parents may fight you on this.  Many want children to remain perpetual audiences for their lives.  And many more simply cannot grasp the concept that once grown, children are no longer children, and will run down their children and their accomplishments at every turn - trying to keep them as chattel.

As I related in an earlier post, at one Al-Anon meeting (for children of alcoholics) a somewhat portly but attractive girl rambled on for a half-hour about how bad it was living with her alcoholic parents.  She was nearly 30, gainfully employed and making good money.  When several of us suggested that perhaps she should find an apartment on her own - and thus solve most of her problems instantly - she looked at us like we were speaking Chinese.  Leave home?  No, you can't do that.

And unfortunately, I meet a lot of people like this - waiting for their parents to die, so they can live a life of their own - for a few short years, until they too, heed the call of the grim reaper.  It doesn't seem like much of a life to me.  But to each their own, I guess.

You see, while I might SUGGEST to such a person that living their own life might have its merits, I would never try to SHAME them by suggesting that they are abandoning their parents or some such nonsense, as the blowhard in the scenario above would do.

For many people, breaking free and living their own life is the hardest and most difficult thing they have ever done - and it is a fragile victory, at best.  Pissing on that and telling them they are bad for doing it, is, well, just sick.

Note that there is the other extreme as well.  As I noted in the introduction to this piece, a lot of Americans like to talk about how their family is "dysfunctional" without really understanding the depth of the phrase or what it means.  They say "Mom is dysfunctional" because she talks too much on the phone or has other annoying habits.  This trivializes real family dysfunction, and in a way can also be hurtful.  You can imagine how Suzie and Ryan feel when you talk about how bad your family is, because they do annoying things like dress alike or have poor taste in music or food.  It really isn't on the same level as being beaten or molested.

Sometimes you have to put your problems in perspective!