Family in the House
For any relationship to function well, it must act more like a tribe (or hunter-gatherer band) and less like a typical, highly stressed nuclear family. Once the parents agree about meeting each other’s needs, it’s time to begin to lay down the rules of the house (perhaps in conjunction with other adult relatives in residence). In this way they will be acting as the band’s council of elders, in effect deciding what they need other household members to do or not do.
The next step is what we playfully call a family “pow-wow”—a term we borrow from American Indians. (By the time settlers began making records of real Native Americans, many of them lived in vast tribes, even cities, which were nothing like traditional hunter-gatherer bands. But the kids will get the idea.) During the pow-wow all household members should have the opportunity to give their views regarding the rules. They can also state their needs concerning family decisions, ranging from what time dinner is to where to go on vacation and whether to move. All opinions should be invited and considered. The pow-wow can also be a forum for exchanging needs between all house members and resolving conflicts. The kids will be much more likely to observe guidelines and buy into decisions they helped make. In the end, however, it’s the tribal elders who have the last say over those for whom they’re legally responsible.
Adult children and relatives should be required to abide by the house rules as a condition of living there. We know of instances in which the parents feel obliged to care for these adults but unable to stipulate their conduct around the house or apartment. They become prisoners of their own hospitality.
Family as Friends
Where grown kids or your own parents are concerned, it can be hard sometimes to distinguish between obligation and real connection. Here’s a simple question:
“If this person weren’t related to you, would you want him as your friend?”
In a hunter-gatherer band young people are treated as apprentice adults at puberty. By the time your children (if you have any) reach their early teens, you and they should be considering your needs of each other as friends. You can offer advice and set rules of the house, but the biggest influence you’ll have on their emotional development from now on is as a role model and companion, not an authority figure. And if they have been involved in needs-based decision-making for a while, they will have the emotional maturity to handle appropriate responsibility.
When relationships between parents and adult children, or between siblings or any other relatives, aren’t based on the mutual satisfaction of needs, the only connection is through obligation and guilt. These lead to resentment, and that’s not good for the individuals or the relationship.
Twenty-one-year-old Rachael and her mother, Ruth, discovered this the hard way. When Rachael came to the Uplift, she was full of anger and guilt over her relationship with her mother. Ruth had leaned heavily on her daughter for support ever since she divorced Rachael’s father when Rachael was ten. She constantly accused her daughter of abandoning her.
“I can’t bear to hear that I don’t love her anymore because I didn’t call her last week or because I visited my father and his new girlfriend,” said Rachael. “I devoted my life to pleasing her because she always seemed more emotionally frail than me.
But nothing I do is ever enough.”
Rachael was aghast at first at the idea of telling her mother what she needed from her and setting boundaries. “But she’s my mother!” she exclaimed. “What about unconditional love? You’re supposed to be there for your parents!”
Slowly, Rachael came to understand that the relationship with her mother had to be a two-way street. Moreover, she realized that by telling her mother what she needed from her she was not being demanding, as her mother had been to her, but setting clear and appropriate boundaries.
Rachael asked her mother to brunch one Sunday and explained that she wanted to put the relationship on a more equal footing. To that end she had a number of needs: that her mother not accuse Rachael of not loving her every time she felt slighted, that she not express anger if Rachael saw her father, and that she not call Rachael’s cell phone at work. Finally, she required that Ruth tell her exactly what she needed from her daughter and to agree that that would be enough.
It took a few more brunches, and a few mutual tears, but Rachael and Ruth came to an arrangement. The accusations stopped. “It’s a funny thing,” Rachael told the Uplift group a few months later, “I’m actually seeing my mother as much or more than I did when it was just out of obligation. But now we have more fun.”
Not all family relationships are so easily resolved, of course. One of the hardest decisions many of us have to make concerns whether and to what degree to maintain adult family connections when they are harmful to us. These can involve a violent or addicted adult child, an abusive parent, rancorous siblings—the list goes on.
These situations are the tragic by-products of a dysfunctional society that creates disharmony and often does not have the resources to heal it. But just because there is no hunter-gatherer band to do its job of caring for its members does not mean that you can or must.
Source Credits: Creating Optimism: A Proven, 7-Step Program for Overcoming Depression, Based on the popular Uplift program, written by Bob Murray Ph. D., and Alicia Fortinberry, published by Mcgraw-Hill