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How Your Family Affects Your Relationships  
By: Dr Charmaine Saunders


Charmaine Saunders


What does `family' really mean in Australia today, or, for that matter, anywhere in the Western world? The nuclear family concept of Mum, Dad and a couple of kids doesn't exist anymore for all intents and purposes. It is probably the exception rather than the rule. Now, a child might be brought up by a single parent of either sex, two gay parents, a collective group of adults and children, an extended family or a mixture of step-parents and siblings. It's an eclectic mix and who can say if this is better or worse than the traditional model? I know only these things for sure - that children are our responsibility, that every child has a right to a safe, happy start in life and that we owe children everything because we brought them here. 

In discussing family as a topic, I thought I might look at its incomparable influence on each of our lives, why this is so and how we might benefit once we're adults from childhood's many lessons, the tough as well as the joyful ones. With knowledge and awareness, we can minimise the pain and maximise the pleasure. For the purpose of a general discussion, I will be speaking in broad terms about family, not taking in extreme examples of privilege at one end or abuse at the other. Everyone is wounded by childhood; only the degree varies. The reason for this is simple - all parents are human and therefore, imperfect. Within human imperfection lies the source of all relationship pain. Once we accept and forgive that, we can deal with the past and move forward, healed.

Our parents are our gods when we're growing up; our homes our entire reality. The experts now say that, by the age of 3, all of the early implantation of ideas, beliefs, prejudices, emotional responses and behaviour is complete. The perfect soul that every baby is starts to disappear under the weight of layer upon layer of conditioning. This process continues through the school years, the teenage years and into adult life. Anger, joy, spontaneity, trust, innocence, freedom are repressed and in some cases, even forgotten. When is the last time you felt these emotions - really felt them and revelled in them? One client told me she hadn't felt `happy' as such since her child was born 16 years ago. Another one asked me what the feeling of lightness was that made her feel like singing. When I suggested happiness, she looked surprised and said she wasn't familiar with it! The two most common responses I get when I tell people they're allowed to be happy is a burst of tears at the sheer wonder of it or stunned disbelief.

Yes, we start our journey into people-pleasing very early in life; we lose our true identities and become what people need from us. No wonder so many of us drink, take drugs, smoke, gamble, are violent, commit suicide and get depressed! If you are a parent, you're probably thinking - here we go again, blaming parents again for all the misery in the world. Not at all. Blame only promotes guilt and hatred, two things I actively campaign against. 

Louise Hay says, `we are all victims of victims.' Parents generally bring up children the way they were brought up themselves, and to the best of their ability. Young couples today have largely broken the mould. They take parenting classes to learn about the skills of bringing up children, they both participate in the process and they co-parent, i.e. they provide a united front in dealings with their offspring. Most of us didn't grow up in such an environment. Our parents did the best they could with the knowledge they had and yes, we were damaged alomg the way. As part of growing up, there may be a period of resenting parents/childhood but it's only a stage. Even the worst possible parents need forgiving, especially those who have hurt us the most. Remember forgiveness is for the forgiver, not the forgiven. 

So, if we accept that none of us had perfect childhoods and parents are not to blame, what is left to do?
The best thing is to reflect honestly on our upbringing, look at the positive qualities of it as well as the hurtful. Most importantly, we need to look at what we learnt, how those lessons are integrated into our present lives and what we might like to change. There is a direct line between the source and each of our behaviours, attitudes, responses, thoughts, beliefs etc. Once you find the source, you can release the root cause of whatever it is that's not working for you in the present. If, for example, your problem area is money, think back to your parents' attitude to earnings, saving, spending, jobs and so on. It's quite likely that you might've picked up bad habits or negative attitudes about the financial area of life from what you heard, absorbed or inferred . Change your mind and you'll change your life. 

A common complaint I hear in counselling has to do with family style. Let's say a woman from a very demonstrative, open family background marries a guy whose family don't show affection or speak about their feelings. This scenario is rife with possibilities for misunderstandings, unless the two people involved are enlightened sufficiently to see these differences and compensate with a lot of tolerance and patience. 

Family influence is sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant. At approximately 30, we begin to view our families in a new light. We see them more objectively, as if a set of blinkers has been removed. They appear more ordinary, more human and much more flawed. If we accept this new insight, our relationships with parents and siblings will actually improve and deepen but we always have the option to reject the less-than-wonderful version of these people or continue in denial and avoidance, dooming ourselves forever to superficial interactions. 

When we become adults, our relationships with family members have to change to some extent, no matter how much we resist. It's through family life that we learnt codependence originally. If we wish to change this way of living, we need to shed such entrenched habits as handing over our personal power, taking on problems and emotions that don't belong to us and seeking our self-worth in the eyes of others. Many of our behaviours are obsolete and no longer part of our identity but we have to consciously choose to discard them. A good example of this is the habit of worry which is passed down from generation to generation. 

Family style can include such other things as temper, stress and poor communication. Years ago, a client in his 50s was up for an assault charge because as he explained to me, in his family, every argument/disagreement/conflict was settled with hitting. Another told me she always thought that cooking was stressful because that's how her mother worked in the kitchen throughout her childhood until she grew up and watched, in amazement, other women preparing food easily, smoothly and with joy. 

Look at all your past influences with compassion and evaluation rather than judgement. Decide what you want to keep and what no longer feels right for you. Enjoy the best of your family legacy but don't feel guilty if you need to reject some or even much of it. We are not our families; our families are not us. We are PART of a family but we are all on our own individual, separate journeys. Maintaining healthy boundaries, being quietly assertive, holding onto personal power, relating out of desire and not duty, staying detached from old arguments and issues - these strategies will keep you walking your own path and allow you to love without clinging and need, communicate honestly without hurt and think your own thoughts, be your own person.

Loving with open arms is not something families do easily or well. As children turn into adults and then into parents themselves, this is an invaluable lesson to foster, one that allows breathing space and the best kind of love - unconditional and unselfish. 

Families bring out the best and the worst in us - if we embrace all that we are then we must also accept our families just as they are, with all their foibles, flaws and failings. The best of family brings us love, support, solidarity; the worst, criticism, interference, demands. Take the best from your family of origin and and give your best to the family you create. You owe yourself that and you deserve it. 

Family life is a microcosm of society and global interactions, a small part of a larger whole, which we have the power to change and enrich. Make peace with this and with the past; love fully in the present and prepare the way for a much more positive future. 

Dr. Charmaine Saunders is a therapist, columnist and 6-times published author in Western Australia. she writes regularly for various publications and is a university lecturer and sought-after speaker.