Why family sucks.

We don’t choose this world and we don’t choose our families. Yet here we are and there they are. And therein lies the dilemma. Some of us are born lucky, however, into great circumstances, “great families” — whatever that might mean. These lucky few — and perhaps it’s more than a few, but I highly doubt it — come to love the world, and their families, through seemingly no effort of their own. Happiness just comes to them, as it were. “OMG how good is life!”, “Soooo good!”, “How about family though!? Don’t you just LOVE them!?”. For the rest of us, the experience is rather different. Although on a conceptual level, we might be capable of appreciating the inherent beauty of life, or the profundity of “unconditional” familial love, the kind of effervescent joy some people seem to just exude is genuinely puzzling — and often downright fucking annoying. “Life is good but fuck does it also suck,” “Yeah, family is great… in theory,” “FAMILY. YAY.” For most of us, this comes much closer to the mark of our experience than the rainbows and butterflies view of things.

Now of course, there is a massive continuum of experience along which we are all situated, with respect to our relationship to the world, in general, and our families, specifically. On one end are the rainbows and butterflies people who love everything and everyone, family above all. On the other end, there’s folk who have been twisted by their reality, for one reason or another — whether by abuse or trauma of another variety — which has led to a highly bitter relationship towards things. Most of us sit somewhere in-between. Our situations are neither the best imaginable nor the most insufferable. They’re just kinda so-so. It’s this garden variety of experience, that so many of us share, that’s perhaps the most tragic of all. For at least those on the abuse/trauma/genuinely-shit-situation end of the spectrum have something legitimate to complain about. The rest of us have it pretty good — or at least not all that bad — and yet we can’t seem to muster a convincing smile. For many of us, I’ll argue, this has to do with the quality of our family life, the nature of our relationships to our direct kin. Improving the way we interface with our family and thus our experience of them is key — or at least one of the keys — to developing something approximating an enviable inner life. Whether such a feat is in fact possible, however, remains an open question.

See, most of us have a particularly hard time with family. We find them infuriating at times, repugnant at others. And yet, despite this fact, most of us aspire to have better relationships with them. For while they appear to be rather shit humans, maybe even most of the time, on some level we know they’re good people — we might even go so far as to say we love them. With respect to our parents, specifically, most will tend to have a great deal of gratitude and appreciation. Even though things aren’t all rainbows and butterflies, we nevertheless thank them — if only in our own minds — for bringing us into the world. If nothing else, it seems better than the alternative. Perhaps we’re also grateful for the ways in which they’ve shaped us, the people they’ve helped us become. Although we mightn’t be as solid as we’d once hoped, we’re not completely shit, either — and that’s something. For that we thank them, give them credit. Finally, some of us might even admire our parents, consider them to be — in ways big or small — particularly remarkable people. And yet, still, we can’t fucking stand them. What’s up with that?

“If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your parents.”

Ram Dass

The difficulty inherent in family relations is not unique to family, something to do with the fact that we share blood and genes or occasionally the same toothbrush, but rather the difficulty that’s inherent in all human relations. That difficulty is simply amplified in family relationships, by virtue of their intimacy, the extent to which they reach into the furthest recesses of our lives. See, one of the great challenges of human relations is in meeting whoever it is that you’re relating to in the present moment. Easy as it sounds, when relationships have shared histories — whether family, friends, romantic partners etc. — it’s in fact extraordinarily difficult. The longer we’ve related to someone, the more inclined we are to let the past condition our perspective in the present. This almost invariably becomes an issue.

See, as human beings, we make mistakes. Our personal pasts are thus littered with fuck-ups, failings, and other things we’re less than proud of. What makes relating to those most closest to us in our lives — most especially, family — is that we can begin to feel smothered by our pasts, our historical shortcomings. Strive though we might to get/be better — better sons and daughters, better brothers and sisters, better friends, better lovers — it often feels like, no matter how hard we try or how much progress we make, we still cannot escape our past; that is, who we once were. While our internal self-model — how we see ourselves — is constantly evolving, we find that those around us continue to hold a model of ‘who we were’ that, at least to us, seems highly outdated. For instance, if you were once a lazy shit who never lifted a finger around the house, no matter how helpful you become, to your parents — at least it seems — you will always remain that same lazy shit you were when you were 12 years old. And that gets tiring.

Though of course it goes both ways. Just as your past seems to be held against you, you begin to hold your parents — or partners — pasts against them. An eye for an eye, right. Now, not only do you begin to bring your model into conflict with their self-model, their model is also conflicting with your self-model. Like rubbing sticks together, shit begins to get heated. What’s more, in addition to the conflict that’s created as a result of these divergent models, you begin to act from a place of frustration and resentment and just general bad vibes. The negative interactions that begin to characterise such relationships become self-reinforcing; whatever problems you had at the beginning compound to the point of absolute disrepair. You can’t stand them and they can’t stand you, bad vibes beget further bad vibes and so it spirals.

Now part of what makes this so tough to swallow, is that outside of these relationships, the self-model you have is reaffirmed by other people whom you meet in the present — people who see you for what you are in the moment, without any prior conditioning. While there’s part of you that remains wedded to your past self — influenced no doubt by the projections of your family and other long-time relationships — the other part, the part that thinks you’re now something else, is overjoyed when this view is affirmed by others. “See, I knew I was right!”, “I AM a good person!”, “I’m more than just a lazy shit!” Etc. Although this feels good, for a bit, it can actually amplify the bitterness/resentment you’ve begun to harbour towards your family. You begin to brood, reflect on how misunderstood you are, how even your VERY OWN PARENTS! don’t know who you really are. You then become self-righteous, indignant, salty. Invariably, shit gets worse.

So conditioning is part of why family sucks. In addition to the banal fact that we spend more time with our family and too much time with anyone gets annoying — idiosyncrasies become nerve-grating etc. — conflicting models of each other make for conflicting relationships. There’s another thing going on, though; another source of conflict. That is, the conflict between value systems.

Again, the thing with family is that we don’t choose them. But yet we’re supposed to tolerate them — love them, even. Where the rest of our relationships are decided upon, and thus for the most part entirely consensual, our family relationships mostly endure out of a sense of obligation. It’s a custom we’ve developed — that we should stay with our families — through thick and thin and the rest of it. Yes, we may not have picked them, but they’re our FAMILY, and for that reason alone we should love them and be there for them etc. That’s the general sentiment. Now this is what’s unique about family relationships. Of course, you can make the case that such an obligation also exists across other relationships, and to an extent that’s true. However, family’s a special case. Although marriage entails an obligation of a kind, they’re much easier to escape than family. As a culture, we take our commitment to our families much more serious than to those we swear an oath to. Just look at the divorce rate.

The rest of our relationships we tend to select because of some kind of compatibility between value systems, between ours and theirs. Values — and beliefs, which for our purposes are the same thing — are very much the foundation of relationships. Vegans hang out with vegans because they care about the same kinda shit — the cows or the planet or whatever. Whether for better or worse, we select relationships based on the existence of shared values. You know, like attracts like.

While we tend to hold a great number of values in common with our parents, there also tends to exist differences or divergences in values. And though it’s far less common, it might even be the case that we value very few of the things our parents do. Now this wouldn’t be all that difficult to stomach were family relationships — specifically those between parents and children — like the rest of our relationships, i.e. our friendships. If we have a mate that cares about some thing and we don’t particularly, it’s usually no big deal. Unless that thing is homicide or, say, masturbating on planes. Outside of truly hectic differences, we don’t, as a rule, find ourselves aggrieved by our friends ways of life when they don’t conform to our own. We let them do them. Our parents, in contrast, (being our parents) tend to feel more of a ways about our values. If we don’t conform to their expectations, they let us know about it. In their minds, their values are not just values but the values — they’ve spent their lives acquiring them, after all, and so they tend to feel pretty strongly about them. Moreover, they’ve long held the job description of helping us grow up, of making sure we learn to care about that which is worth caring about. When they see us, their children, diverging from their hopes, it’s deeply hurtful. On some level, it must surely make them feel like failures.

In the same vein, when a kid (as in child of a parent) becomes aware of the fact they don’t value precisely the same things as their parents, it can in fact be a pretty rough moment. Those people you once idolised, the human beings that sold themselves to you as symbols of Enlightenment, are in fact just as clueless as the rest. And yet they’re telling you what to do! Who you should be! How fucking dare they! It’s a bit like realising the emperor wears no clothes. You feel like you were sold a lie, had the wool pulled over your eyes, duped.

It’s at this point that many family relations fall apart. That is, when we realise that they’re not who we thought they are and they think we’re not who we’re supposed to be. A valid question to ask at this point is, Should we let them fall apart? Given we didn’t choose them and we’re forced into the world and what not, why does it matter if we up-and-leave? Are our relationships with our families not simply the most poignant example of the ‘sunk cost fallacy’? Or is there something else we’re not considering?

Here, it’s contextual. Many people, I believe, would indeed be far better served by abandoning their families entirely, severing ties. While there’s something admittedly beautiful about the “family always sticks together” mentality, if you’re in an abusive family dynamic or your parents/brothers/sisters just generally suck, you should probably get the fuck out of there. To hell with family in such a case. Maybe you’ll get a better one in the next life. Or maybe not. In any case, we should never let our circumstances define us, or determine our well-being, and family is no exception. An unpopular position, perhaps, but nearly half the US population likes Trump so what does that even mean, really?

Most of us, though, should probably stick it out. For all their frustration, families are actually pretty great. Not always, yeah, but some of the time. Having people in your life that have your back — when it counts — no matter what is not something to turn your nose up at. Even if they don’t fully “get you”, that’s what friends — if not partners — are for. The fact that they challenge our assumptions, our values — our ways of Being in the world — can, when viewed in the right light, actually be the source of immense value in our lives. We can think of family as a sort of anti-virus for our personal philosophies. Should we keep an open mind, they might alert us to the fact that there are in fact bugs in our operating systems.

On a purely pragmatic level, most of us simply won’t ditch our families; accordingly, it pays to learn to live with them. Whether or not we like the fact, our well-being is largely contingent upon the quality of our interactions with them. The relationship between kin, in evolutionary terms, is hardwired in its psychological importance. On some level, when our family relationships are dire, our brains shit themselves — for it suggests a major crisis. Back in the day, without one’s family, one’s survival prospects were pretty grim. Today it’s the same — only different. For strictly selfish reasons, then, it makes sense to do what we can to make our family relationships tolerable — more aspirationally, maybe even GOOD.

Now how to do this? To be honest, I haven’t the slightest clue. The only recommendations that suggest themselves are extremely squishy — “Love them for who they are,” “Be your best self,” etc. At least conceptually, the idea of meeting them in the present makes sense; as in, not bringing your preconditioned biases to bear upon your every interaction with them. See them for who they are NOW. Of course this is easier said than done. After all, if overcoming preconditioning was easy, so too would family. I guess the way to go about it, in practice, is to do all the things people suggest for cultivating presence — yoga, meditation, psychedelics, and so forth. Maybe you could destress by taking to some of those adult colouring books — who knows, perhaps that’ll do the trick.

So, yeah, family sucks. And that sucks. By making them suck less we would all benefit greatly. But how? Who knows. I started this piece with the intention of illuminating, for myself and others, how we might reconcile the differences between ourselves and our families — the psychological tension that creates so much conflict in our lives. It dawns on me, however, that I have no practical idea. Beyond hand-waving gestures, I’m as clueless — if not more so — as the next. What’s clear, though, is that family is a deeply human problem. Cliche though it most definitely is, we cannot fix our families ’til we fix ourselves. The work, as always, is our individual humanity — that most curious/ethereal stuff we impose on the world, to good or ill effect.

PS If someone figures it out, please let me know.


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