Blood is Thicker than Water, Part II
by: Jonathan Hart, LPC
Back in February, I wrote a blog called “Blood is Thicker than Water”. You can find it here. It might be a good idea to check that post out before reading on.
Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Welcome back! Just in case you didn’t actually go read the previous post, I’ll give you a quick summary: The main thrust of that post is that we keep “holding out for healthy relationship” with family far longer than we do with anyone else because family relationships are so vitally important. We still maintain our limits, and we don’t settle for less than the real deal, and we keep at it.
I used the image of the vehicle that starts making funny noises. We don’t “just deal with it” when that starts to happen. We do what is necessary to get it fixed. The problem is that some things on cars (and in relationships) are not fixable. This brings us to the question in family relationships: At what point is persisting in relationship futile or foolish based on the other person’s lack of willingness to move toward healthy?
The short form of the question is, “When do I quit trying?”
The answer is, “It Depends.” It depends on the actual nature of the relationship. We have varying levels of intimacy with different people. Some are genuinely close and emotionally connected. Some are truly intimate. For some relationships, deep intimacy is not expected or required. A friend of the family might stop by for a visit, but we might feel odd if they were to begin sharing their closest struggles and marriage woes. It would feel “too close”.
Some Immediate Family relationships feel “too close” like this: “She may be Mom, but I don’t tell her things like this because she couldn’t handle it/I’d never hear the end of it/she’d tell all her friends/she’d use it against me…”
The categories in the diagram do not describe the blood relationship, but the nature of the relationship. Dad may be a nice guy, but we have to keep the conversation about sports or things go south in a hurry, then the actual relationship may be more in the “Acquaintance” circle than “Immediate Family”. I can have friends that are so deep and close that they actually belong in the “Immediate Family” Circle. The functional question is “who are they to you, really?”
This can be a challenging question to answer, especially if the family culture says that “Siblings Equals Close, period”. It’s especially hard because deep down we *want* real and close relationships with close family and friends, no matter what the actual relationship is. Pretending the relationship is closer than it really is becomes wearying and is always silly. We have to start by acknowledging the actual nature of the relationship, before we can proceed. Once you’ve done that, then you can begin the process.
- Relax. Start letting yourself be OK with relating according to the nature of the relationship. You can release any guilt you may experience because the relationship isn’t closer. You can’t make it happen alone. The guilt only makes you go back to pretending something is true that isn’t.
- Reach. Imagine what the next tier closer might be, and begin reaching for it. This is important: don’t try to go from “Acquaintance” to “Close Personal Friend” all at once. You’ll scare them. Only reach for one tier at a time.
- Give it time. Deepening intimacy and connectedness is a process and generally does not happen overnight. You may be hungry for a better sense of connection, but they might not realize what’s missing.
- Pay attention. If they flat-out reject any overtures or offers of legitimate closeness, if they accept and then take advantage of your vulnerability, or if they continue to identify you as the problem (the “Take it or Leave it” stance), this may be as close as is possible for the foreseeable future.
- Repeat steps 1-4. Ideally, the other person will eventually be able to recognize what you are doing and reciprocate. IF they do, everybody wins better relationships. If they do not…
- Repeat steps 1-4 in increasing time increments. Maybe you make the offer of “closer” once a month for a while, and get the same answer every time. Maintain your current position for several months and then offer again. Continue this process and lengthen the time between offers a little at a time, and you will eventually discover the equilibrium point at which they are willing to operate with you.
This is effectively the “process answer” to the question of “When do I quit trying?” This may mean that you will never have a “Daddy” relationship with your father, but you can operate kindly and respectfully as acquaintances. You’ll have to grieve the loss of your father (Yes, grieve. As though he died), but you won’t be expecting an acquaintance to be a “Daddy” to you, either.
Ultimately, unless the relationship has been vicious, brutal, fully abandoned, or otherwise horrible, you are never completely out of relationship with someone who is related by blood. Even in the case of the horrible relationships above, even in the absence of any contact whatsoever, there is always a biological connection. Even at its best, navigating these relationships is complicated and messy. Trying to keep up the appearance of a “Normal Family” can be exhausting when “normal” isn’t true … and let’s be honest… What does “normal” even mean, anyway!?
So, step back, find your footing, acknowledge what is true of the relationship, and then carefully, slowly, reach for more. You will either gain a closer relationship, or be able to relax into the best relationship that is legitimately possible with the person in question.
Look out for Blood is Thicker than Water, Part 3: What Does Holding Out for Healthy Look Like, Anyway?