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    Families of Choice

    tomFamily. It’s a powerful word that evokes many intense emotions. Now that the holiday season is here, many people are anticipating—and some are dreading—spending time with their families.

    It’s common to romanticize family as representing nurturing, safety, belonging, and unconditional love. For some fortunate people, the reality actually approaches that idealized picture. But, since the days of Freud, psychologists have known that our families can also be the source of our deepest wounds and longest-standing emotional pain. In what follows, I’ll be speaking to those who find their family relationships to be sources of frustration and suffering more than sources of love and support.

    Most people seem to follow one set of rules governing what is acceptable behavior from friends and another governing what is to be tolerated from families. Too many of us are reflexively willing to twist ourselves into pretzels in order to preserve relationships with family members. We put up with levels of abuse and insensitivity from them that we wouldn’t dream of tolerating from anyone else.

    I’ve lost count of how many people who, when asked why they put up with so much abuse or neglect, just shrug and say, “Well, you know, they’re family.” Many of us never question the idea that we owe unconditional loyalty to our families. We believe that we have a duty always to be willing to forgive, and we never question the assumption that forgiveness means tolerating unhealthy behavior from family for a lifetime.

    In the right circumstances, loyalty can be an admirable quality; but most people seem to understand that, at least where friends are concerned, it’s not wise when the relationship is destructive. Shouldn’t we assess family relationships by the same standards? Psychotherapy regularly turns out to be about loosening loyalties to abusive family members, and often one of the greatest obstacles to success in therapy is a powerful taboo against looking clearly at what’s really going on there.

    One of the most common forces cementing unhealthy family loyalty is called separation guilt, the (often unconscious) idea that ending a relationship with a family member, or even just setting up protective boundaries, is always an act of betrayal and abandonment, and never an act of self-protection or legitimate self-care. This kind of guilt can obscure what should be obvious—that loyalty is rational when it’s earned, but not when it springs from guilt.

    There are specific signs that a familial relationship may be toxic and therefore potentially dangerous to continue. If you feel drained and depleted when you’re with the person; if you feel constantly angry; if you feel used and manipulated— then it may be time to move on. More seriously, if you feel yourself getting emotionally ill, or worse, physically ill when interacting with a relative, such that contact results in back and stomach problems, ulcers, migraine headaches, etc., it may be the body’s way of saying, “Enough, you’re killing me!” Perhaps most seriously, if you’re feeling intimidated or threatened, it may be time to end the relationship.

    It’s common to assume that we’re stuck with our families, and that we have no choice in the matter, but it doesn’t have to be this way. As adults we have the power, if only we’ll claim it, to decide who belongs in our “family of choice” and who doesn’t. One way to begin making self-affirming, rational decisions about who belongs in our family of choice is to make a list of all the important people in our lives. For each person, ask some basic questions, such as: Do I feel safe in this relationship? Do we trust each other? Do we support each other’s values and life goals? Is our relationship characterized by mutual affection and respect? Do I know and feel known by this person? Do we enjoy each other’s company?

    Of course, no relationship is going to score one hundred percent all of the time on all of these criteria, but asking these questions about your relationships can quickly throw into sharp relief which are worth continuing and which are not.  The people for whom you answer mostly yes to these questions are your family of choice, regardless of whether or not you’re related by blood. These are the people who deserve your loyalty, your commitment, and your love.

    Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco. For more information, please visit