relationships

Stress During the Holidays

Stress During the Holidays

by Mary Martha Abernathy, LPC

This is a time of year full of stress. We are quickly approaching Christmas, Hanukkah, and the New Year.  This is a season when we spend a lot of time celebrating both with friends and family.  It can also be a time where we experience increased stress and pressure.  Knowing you are soon going to be spending long hours with your family, how do you prepare?

Below are some tips or ideas to help make the holiday celebrations more manageable and enjoyable.

Exercise: Research shows that exercise can help to increase your positive mood and fight against feelings of anxiety and depression.  Exercise while with family can also provide that needed space for quiet or reflection, smaller group conversations, or stress relief, and it can create a personal “time out” from the stressors you are experiencing.

Change your Intake: Limit certain foods and beverages during the holidays.  “Eating your feelings” may help for a short time, but it won’t change once the sugar has worn off or the alcohol is no longer in your system. Also, change your physical and emotional intake.

  • Caffeine can mirror symptoms of anxiety in our bodies.  If you are already feeling anxious about the holidays cut back a little on your intake or switch to decaf.  Increasing alcohol may seem to help in the moment, but it can later impact your sleep and mood.
  • Change up the environment.  If you start to feel overwhelmed, take a short walk outside (even if it is only to the mailbox or to your car).  Listen to some relaxing music or watch a funny video. Create a break in the day to clear your head and check in with your own emotions. Changing the experience around you can help to recalibrate your mood.

Reality Check:  When you get stuck talking to Aunt Mildred, who is telling you how to live your life, graciously break away from the conversation and connect with someone with a more positive attitude. That connection can be via personal contact, a phone call or even a text.  Use your social network to your advantage! Do an internal check of the facts from your conversation or experience.

When our thoughts become misconstrued or faulty it can lead to more negative emotional experiences and more stress in our relationships.

Prayer/Mindfulness/Meditation: Take a few moments each day during your holiday season for reflection.  During this time, take time to notice and observe.  Use your five senses to experience the season by noticing the decorations, the lights, the sounds, the special foods, the activities, clothing.  Be fully present while wrapping gifts, paying attention to the feel and sounds of the paper.  Push all the thoughts from your mind but the present moment.  Take time to give thanks, rejoice and celebrate the kindness you have experienced.

Does Validation Matter?

Validation: Why it matters.

 

by Mary Martha Abernathy, LPC

We have all experienced a situation where we have not validated a person’s beliefs or behaviors as we interact with them.  We also know what it feels like for someone to ignore our feelings, minimize our experiences, or change the subject of a conversation when the topic really matters. Validating our own feelings and those of other people is an important skill to have and to hone.    

What is validation?  Validation means “acknowledging that a person’s emotions, thoughts and behaviors have causes and are therefore understandable”.  

To validate someone means we are looking for the kernel of truth in another person’s perspective, even if we don’t agree with them.

Why is it important?  Well, it shows that we are listening to the other person and that we are trying to understand them.  It helps to strengthen our relationships because we can avoid a power struggle over who is right by validating the other person.  When we don’t validate others, it hurts.

How do we do it?  Pay attention to what the other person is saying.  Actively listen and reflect back to them what they are saying, without judging them!  We have to use our observation skills and we have to be pay attention to the conversation.  It is important to notice the little things, how is the person standing, are their arms crossed, is their face red, do they look like they are getting ready to cry?  All of these clues help us in conversation.  

We need to notice how a person is acting, listen to what a person says, and respond according to what we see and hear to help create and improve connection in relationships.

What’s the impact?  Like I said, validation helps to create connection. Validation challenges us to be present in conversation. We have to be listen to what the other person is saying in order to respond in a way that helps a person to feel understood. Validation can de-escalate a situation because you’ve avoided the fight and acknowledged the other person’s experience.  

Give it a shot!  

 

 

 

 

Information adapted from DBT Skills Manual for Adolescents, Rathus, Jill H., and Alec L. Miller. “Validation.” DBT Skills Manual for Adolescents. New York: Guilford, 2015. Print.

Boundaries Part 1: What are they?

Boundaries Part 1: What are they?

by: Courtney Hollingsworth, LPC, EMDR Trained Therapist

“The whole concept of boundaries has to do with the fact that we exist in relationship. Therefore, boundaries are really about relationship, and finally about love.” – Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend

It can be very confusing to determine when it is appropriate to set limits. Many of us feel we are never supposed to say no, set limits, or let others down. This can be especially difficult in our families, the place where we originally learned about relationships and boundaries.

Common questions:

1.       Can I set limits and still be a loving person?

2.       What are legitimate boundaries?

3.       What if someone is upset or hurt by my boundaries?

4.       How do I answer someone who wants my time, love, energy, or money?

5.       Why do I feel guilty or afraid when I consider setting boundaries?

6.       Aren’t boundaries selfish?

What are boundaries?

  • Property Lines

    • In the physical world, we have boundaries that are easy to see: fences, signs, walls, lawns, etc. The owner of the property is responsible for what happens on their property and non-owners are not. After finishing mowing our own lawns, we don’t then take care of our neighbor’s lawns. Likewise, we don’t let our neighbors dictate how we landscape our lawns, nor do they do it for us. And if someone throws trash all over our property, that is considered a problem.

  • They Define Us

    • They define what is me and what is not me.

    • “We are responsible for the things that make up ‘us.’ We have to deal with what is in our soul, and boundaries help us to define what that is. If we are not shown the parameters, or are taught wrong parameters, we are in for much pain.” – Cloud & Townsend

How Boundaries are Developed

  • Boundaries are built throughout life, but the most crucial times for this development are during childhood, when we are learning limits and ways to relate to the people and world around us.

  • Significant people in our lives teach us how to “do” boundaries, for better or for worse. To understand fully what has shaped how you do boundaries, it is important to look at how you were taught to do them as a child by your primary caregivers.

    • Were you taught that setting limits for yourself was ok?

    • Were you allowed to have your own opinions and make age-appropriate decisions for yourself?

    • What kinds of reactions did you receive when you expressed hurt, disappointment, or anger? Were these emotions “allowed?”

These questions can begin to help you understand how you were trained in they ways you could set limits, say no, define yourself, and use your voice…..all boundaries. After thinking through the answers with regards to how you grew up, go back over these questions with other significant relationships: best friends, girl/boyfriends, spouses, in-laws, bosses, adult children……

Why are some relationships just harder?

 

Why are some relationships just harder?

by: Andy Gear, LPC, EMDR trained therapist

I’ve recently seen some articles asserting that ‘if people just communicated and committed to their relationship, then their problems would go away.’ While communication and commitment are very important, I think this overlooks the many people who are committed and communicating but still struggle.

In fact, I find that many people that come in for couples counseling are deeply committed and are communicating very clearly. Then why are these relationships still difficult?

We have outside stressors

Many of the sources of relationship difficulty have nothing to do with the effort invested in the relationship. In fact, studies show that some of the biggest predictors of relationship difficulty are largely outside of the couple’s control:

  • Poor health
  • Infertility
  • Miscarriage after 20 weeks
  • Low income
  • Multiple children with ADHD
  • Partner with mental health issues
  • Death of a child

If your friend seems to have an easier relationship than you, it may have more to do with your different stressors than it does with different effort. Actually, I find that most couples that come to counseling have been working tirelessly on their relationship. If they weren’t trying, they wouldn’t be coming to counseling. But with major or persistent stressors, communication can become a minefield. And it’s not always as easy as learning a few communication skills.

I am overjoyed when I see people who have easier relationships. But there is something uniquely encouraging about a couple that is still trying after years of difficulty. It takes a special type of courage and commitment to seek the help you need to better love your partner, even when it’s hard.

Our families are different

The families we’re born into also impact the ease or difficulty of our relationships. For better or worse, parents model what relationships are like, and some people have better models than others. We can choose to act differently than our parents, but in stressful times we tend to fall back into the patterns we saw modeled (or against the pattern, in an equally harmful overcorrection).  

Parents teach us what love is, how to show it, and how to receive it. They also teach us how to view ourselves. If our parents were neglectful or abusive, they gave us a distorted picture of our self. Without working through these issues, this lack of self-worth will lead us to look for that worth in our partner—creating challenging and often volatile relationships.

This requires more than a simple resolution to change. It takes awareness of how our families impacted our view of the world, relationship, and our self. Since our families tend to be our normal, we often need an outside perspective to help us heal from this impact. This doesn’t mean that you are too weak to handle it alone; it means that you are strong enough to pursue what is necessary to change it.  

We get stuck in a cycle

Couples often get stuck in patterns of relating that rob them of their joy in connecting. These cycles have nothing to do with their effort, compatibility, or how much they love each other. In fact, the fear of losing the other is often what escalates the conflict.  

The most common negative cycle is the pursue/distance (or attack/withdraw) pattern. People usually aren’t even aware that they are in this cycle. Most often, each partner simply sees the other as being unnecessarily critical or distant. It is hard for people stuck in this pattern to see the bigger picture.

Beneath this cycle, both partners truly value their connection, but they seek to preserve it in different ways: the pursuer by attacking  (to get through to them) and the distancer by withdrawing (to avoid conflict). Their mutual attempts to save the relationship (seen as criticism or lack of care by the other), only escalate the problem as each person doubles down on their ‘go-to’ strategy for preserving the relationship.

In these cases, demands for more communication will only push the withdrawer deeper into his bunker. Instead, we need help gaining awareness of our own role in the harmful cycle, so that we can interrupt it and develop a healthier pattern of relating.

Everybody’s relationship is different

It isn’t useful to compare our relationships to others, because everyone’s history and circumstances are different. Learning a few communication skills may be very helpful for someone whose relationship has had few stressors, had model parents, and hasn’t been stuck in a cycle.

For others, there will be too much anxiety and conflict in the relationship for communication skills to be the answer. This doesn’t mean that your relationship is doomed, that you don’t love each other, or that you aren’t compatible. Relationships are messy, and life often leaves us in places where we need help sorting out the pieces. In my opinion, one of the surest signs that someone loves and is committed to their partner is that they are willing to seek help during the hard times.

Don’t Judge?

Don’t Judge?

By Jonathan Hart, LPC

To judge is to form an opinion, or to form an estimate or evaluation.  When I hear “don’t judge” in the way it seems to be most often used -particularly social media-  I think about how impossible it seems.  We judge things all the time.  We all instinctively form opinions about everything from food to cars to people.  We can’t avoid having opinions.

SERIOUSLY?

I think the intent of the “Don’t Judge” maelstrom is mostly well-intended.  I think a better word for what people are trying to say would be “Don’t Condemn”.  It seems that nobody reacts negatively when I judge someone to be pretty or smart or competent.  It is when I move from judging to expressing contempt for others that I have crossed a line.

My opinion about the relative appearance of a person is powerless in and of itself.  When I state that a person is ugly in appearance, I am revealing my perception about that person.  I am not stating a fact.  Another person could find the same person attractive.  Neither the positive nor the negative opinion a) alters the actual appearance of the person in question, or b) measures the worth of the person in question.

What is more, asking me not to state my opinion or to change my opinion is to devalue me.  It means that my thoughts and feelings don’t matter or shouldn’t exist if they disagree with yours or make you uncomfortable.  I don’t have to call you handsome if I think you look like a troll, nor does the fact that I think you look like a troll make you in fact, a troll.  It does not even mean that you are actually, objectively, “ugly”.  I am not bullying or being contemptuous when I state my opinion.

My opinion becomes contempt when I attempt to declare the worth of a person or thing.  If I look at the person I deem unattractive and proceed to tell them, “Your mother should have aborted you,” I am expressing contempt.  When I say “You should wear a bag over your head so the ‘rest of us’ don’t have to look at you,” I am expressing contempt.  I am declaring what you are worth (an objective reality) on the basis of my subjective perception.  I express contempt for your being, which I have assessed on the basis of your appearance exclusively.

We are devastated by opinions because we equate them (and often they are expressed) as measures of our worth.  We are devastated because we somehow have come to believe that our worth is actually connected to what the other person is saying.

The vast futility of contempt is that it absolutely cannot do what it is trying to do: change the actual innate value of the thing (or person).  

Having an opinion does not make me a jerk.  It’s how I express that opinion that matters.  I can hold it for my own self and leave others to make their own assessments, or I can condemn the object of my opinion as worthless.  Either way, how I express my opinion says more about me than it does about who or what I am describing.  –Jonathan E. Hart, LPC

Blood is Thicker than Water, Part III

What does “holding out for healthy” look like, anyway?

By Jonathan E. Hart, LPC

This blog presumes you’ve read the previous two in the series.  If you haven’t, Click HERE to be taken to the first entry.

Now that you’ve recognized that your family member is not the person that their job description calls for, you’re beginning to take some steps.  You’ve come to understand that, for example, Dad is not in the “Parents and Siblings” ring of intimacy.  He is more an “Acquaintance”, based on the way that the relationship feels and works.  You’ve started to give yourself permission NOT to call every week because you don’t call your other acquaintances that often.  You’re arguing with the guilt that arises from being a “bad child”, and with the healthy compassion that comes from seeing him struggle with loneliness.  You’re resisting the impulse to go in and rescue him.Levels of Intimacy

And you feel like you’re being mean, cold-blooded, and harsh.  You’re being told, “You’ve changed, and not for the better.”  Other family members are calling you to convince you to “seek reconciliation”, or to chew you out for your “bad attitude”.  The pressure becomes enormous, and you sometimes forget what you are fighting for.

“Holding out for Healthy” is hard.  It means defying everything the relationship in question has taught you all your life.  It means holding on to the desire for real intimacy, even if your hope that the desire will be fulfilled looks too remote to be realistic.  A very old aphorism says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick”.  It means clinging tight to the idea that a healthier relationship with your father is worth the loss of the false intimacy you’ve been used to all your life.

Because what you’ve been used to all your life was not real.  It was a counterfeit of relationship and, when you tried to use it as currency, you discovered you’d been cheated.  Which would you rather have: A fist full of play money, or nothing?  It’s a trick question.  You’ve got nothing either way.

The hard truth is that when you start operating according to the way that the relationship actually exists, you are not changing anything about it.  You’re merely speaking the truth about it for once.  You’re finally allowing the natural outcome of Dad’s way of being to actually touch him for once, rather than protecting him from it.

The reason the relationship persists the way it does is likely due in part to the fact that nobody has dared to tell him what it’s like.  Nobody has named the fact that the Emperor has no clothes.  Naming it to him hurts, but it also offers him the chance to see that what he’s doing is hurtful, and provides him with an opportunity to grow.

“Holding out for Healthy” invites the other person into a better place themselves.  It calls them to be a better human being, to seek healing for their own wounds, and to acknowledge the wounding they have done themselves.  They will either be able to do this, or they won’t.  Even if you can step into one ring closer with them, you have more than you’ve ever had before, and that is wealth indeed.

“Holding out for Healthy” also leads you to healing of your own.  This relationship loses its power to define you because you are actively defining the relationship.

What does Holding out for Healthy look like?  It’s a mess.  It’s painful and it rocks the boats of a lot of people.  You’re not going to do it well.  But doing it at all represents a change that has real value on your own life, and — potentially —  in the lives of those you love.  It’s worth the risk.

 

 

Why am I so angry?

By: Andy Gear, LPC, EMDR Trained Therapist

Why am I so angry? 

The_Scream-picture

Do you ever ask yourself “why am I so angry?” Or maybe your life just feels way too frustrating and stressful. If so, this may be a sign of a deeper issue.

It’s tempting to blame others for our frustration, but irritants don’t have to cause outbursts. There are other choices; you don’t have to live like this. Here are four ways to change your life:

1. Notice the difference between the emotion of anger and our response to it. 

Anger is an appropriate response to legitimate injustice. But most of us don’t notice the transition from emotion to reaction.

That is where we can get ourselves into trouble. We feel like it is one big reflex that we have little or no control over. But that is generally untrue.

Slowing down our response allows us to notice the choices we are making. 

This is where anger management techniques can be useful. Breathing exercises, mindfulness, and other such skills can help us slow down our physical reactions and choose how we want to respond.

2. Notice your expectations.

Anger often springs from our unrealistic expectations. We are not entitled to a problem-free life, and life rarely goes as planned. As obvious as that sounds, our anger often reflects these illogical expectations.

It is important to objectively examine our expectations. If we find ourselves consistently frustrated by traffic, it is likely we have unrealistic expectations of what driving in a city is like.

Cars will cut us off, lines will be long, people will make mistakes, and customer service will be laughable. Accepting these as a given will drastically improve our enjoyment of life. The world isn’t out to get us, even if it feels that way sometimes.

People (even close friends and family) are not required to respond the way we prefer. If your pet peeve causes you consistent irritation, consider giving it up. It is unlikely that people will suddenly change.

3. Notice what anger tells us about our boundaries.

Anger can be a useful sign that our boundaries are being invaded. It warns us that something needs to change.

You may be too busy, too tired, or living an inauthentic life. Stress and exhaustion can significantly impact outlook. We may need to learn to say ‘no,’ pursue healthier relationship, or live more in line with our values. 

This may involve downsizing to what you really care about or pursuing a goal that is truly significant to you. Otherwise our deep seeded discontent may come out in unexpected and sometimes violent ways.

4. Notice what’s behind the anger.

Anger is often a secondary emotion. It is generally not the first emotion we feel. It is a reaction to softer emotions like anxiety, sadness, or hurt. But we often prefer anger over admitting that we are hurting.

Anger allows us to feel more powerful or in control, but it prevents us from dealing with the real problem. We neglect the roots of our problem—such as anxiety, depression, grief, or trauma.

Going straight to anger stops us from communicating with our loved ones about what’s really going on. Sharing our feelings of hurt or rejection would allow them to reassure and comfort us. We could have healing conversations that lead to greater connection. But communicating surface anger leads only to defensiveness.

Noticing what comes before the anger helps us to deepen our relationships through those healing conversations. This awareness also allows us to seek healing of the root issues that are driving our anger.

When we pursue this healing, we find that anger no longer holds power over us. We now have the capacity to respond differently.

Say Goodbye to Life-Sucking Fears

by: Lianne Johnson, LPC

Learning to acknowledge the fears we have within ourselves and with others is the first step to becoming free from them.

Perhaps Franklin D. Roosevelt was onto something when he said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Having a fear of something isn’t bad.  In fact, sometimes our responses to fear can save our lives.  We sense danger, so we run.  We are swimming and running out of breath, so we get to shore.  Fear itself isn’t the problem.  It is what becomes of our fear that matters.  Once our fears begin to control us – limit our life, change our thoughts/beliefs about ourselves, irrational behavior surfaces – this is when a fear becomes problematic.
A fear not dealt with has the potential to overcome us to the point of robbing our joy in life.
Anything can become a fear.  Nothing is too far from its reach.
Oftentimes I find people hating what they fear yet, unwilling to change.  I can’t say that I blame them.  After all, even though they hate what they fear and want so badly for it to change, it is also known to them.  Theoretically, they have already lived with their fear for a number of years, and have become accustomed to how it limits their life and restricts their happiness.  Asking someone to take the risk learning to let go of their fear, is one of the scariest risks I ask of people to try in my job.  Asking people to give up the known for the unknown requires much trust, courage, and vulnerability on their part.  Asking them to believe change is possible is the first step.
What are you fearing?
-Not being good enough?
-Letting people down?
-Being abandoned or rejected by those you love?
-Being a bad parent?
-Not having enough money to pay your bills?
-Not being liked?
-Loosing your spouse?
-Never being happy?
-Something bad that happened in your past?  
-(insert your fear here….)
Are your fears limiting your life?  Are they altering your beliefs about yourself?  Are they causing you to act in ways you normally wouldn’t?  
If you answered yes to any of the above questions then seeking help is your next step.

What do we do when ours fears begin altering how we live our lives?

1.  Acknowledge your fear is controlling or altering the way your think and live.
2.  Seek help.  Ask friends for support. Find a trusted counselor to help you.
3.  Believe change is possible.
These steps may sound trite, but believe me they are not!  These initial steps are hard and require courage and vulnerability.  You are choosing to step out into the unknown and say, “I want something better than what I currently have.  I want to take back control of my life!”  This is no easy task to begin engaging in.
Some of the common fears I see people struggling with actually have nothing to do with something outside of themselves.  Usually, I find people most fear something having to do who they are, how they perform and how they perceive the need to measure up to others, or being good enough or perfect enough to be loved.   If I just described you, know you are not alone in your struggle.  I hope you will reach out for help because freedom from your fears is possible!

Blood is Thicker than Water, Part II

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”.

Levels of Intimacy

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.

    1. 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.
    2. 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.   
    3. 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.
    4. 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.
    5. 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…
    6. 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!?

Concept image of a lost and confused signpost against a blue cloudy sky.

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?

 

Blood Is Thicker Than Water

by Jonathan E. Hart, LPC

“Blood is thicker than water.”  

It’s an old saying. I don’t know where it came from. The meaning is that family relationships are more important than any other. You’re supposed to be loyal to your family first and foremost, because “They’re blood”. The genetic familial bond is deep and powerful.

Use your imagination for a moment.

Imagine you have an acquaintance who routinely cuts you down, employs guilt trips or unreasonable expectations to get you to do what they want, yells when you let them down, or tells you that you don’t measure up to their expectations. Perhaps they aren’t as directly difficult to handle, but many of the conversations you have with them feel “off”, like they’re doing something inappropriate, but you can’t quite put your finger on it.

Now imagine that when you mention or resist any of these ways of communicating, they shrug and say, “I’m doing the best I can. Don’t judge”, or “This is who I am, you need to figure out how to deal with it,” or, “You’re too sensitive,” or “You know, it’s for your own good.”

How much time would you want to spend with this person? How often would you want have them over, or pay them a visit, “just to catch up”? Would you want to take your kids over to their house and leave them in this person’s care for a few hours while you went on a date with your spouse?

I’m guessing that the answer is somewhere between “Not so much,” and “Are you kidding me!?”

And yet as a relationship therapist, I routinely see people who place themselves and their children in the path of people who relate in these hurtful ways. These are not reckless or foolish people. They are common, everyday folks who care about their families and friends, who are careful parents and thoughtful about their choices.

And yet, when I ask them why they would want to make themselves or their children vulnerable to someone who treats others so harshly, they reply, “It’s important to maintain a connection with this person! The kids need to have this relationship.” All the while they acknowledge that they feel the pain of being treated this way, and though they feel like withdrawing, they refuse to do so. Parents acknowledge that the way the people in question treat their children to is inappropriate as well. They feel a protective instinct, but routinely squash that instinct in favor of maintaining the connection.

The reasons these wounded people (whether they are parents or not) offer for why they persist in this pattern of maintaining connection with relationally reckless others are many, but generally have one theme. See if you can pick it out:

“But they’re Family!”

“The kids need their grandparents. They need to know where they came from.”

What am I supposed to do? He’s my father/ She’s my mother.”

“I have to stay connected. I can’t just NOT have relationship with them.”

“I have to put up with it and do damage control after.

“What am I supposed to tell them? They have to change who they’ve always been just to please me?“

One of the hardest questions I have to ask anyone is, “If it was anyone else, would you be so willing to put up with it?”

The answer is pretty universal. “No. But… they’re not just anyone else. They’re family.”

“Blood is thicker than water.”

Except it’s not. And it is. Let me explain.

Because a person is related to you by blood does not give them carte blanche to treat you as they will. It does not mean you have to take whatever they say or do no matter what. It does not mean you MUST maintain connection with them in spite of the history and/or ongoing damage they do in their recklessness. If you wouldn’t put up with it from a friend, acquaintance, or stranger, you don’t have to put up with it from family. Period.

“Blood is not thicker than water.”

Except it is.

The difference between “blood” and “not blood” is not what we have to put up with, it’s that we keep on reaching for healing. It’s not that we accept whatever they have to offer, but that we hold out for healthy relationship. We don’t give up on the relationship quickly, but we also don’t settle for less than what it is supposed to be: healthy, mutually affirming, encouraging, strengthening. We resist recklessness in family relationships more than in any other precisely because they are so important.

If our vehicles start making funny noises, or dripping fluids from strange places, we don’t generally say, “But it’s my car. I just have to put up with it.” If our physical bodies start making funny noises, or dripping fluids from strange places, we don’t usually say, “But it’s my body. I just have to learn how to deal with it.” In either case we take steps to seek the cause, seek a remedy, deal with the issue, and keep confronting the problem until it’s fixed. (OK, you might end up having to sell your car, I get it. I’ll deal with that in Part II.)

The difference between family relationships and other relationships is the persistence we use in seeking healing. “Any other a-hole can take a hike, but this a-hole is family.”

Maybe blood actually is thicker than water. And maybe we’ve gotten confused about what that idea actually looks like in real life.   –JEH

Click here to be taken to “Blood is Thicker Than Water, Part II: I Tried, But They Won’t Change! Now What?” And click here for Part III