Posts Tagged ‘dysfunctional families’

The holiday season is generally associated with the idea of bringing families together, but sadly, these gatherings have gained a reputation for frequently unraveling into a contentious, and at times hurtful, mess.  I wish I could make a solid case that this is an unfair stereotype, and in some cases it undoubtedly is; but many times it is not.  As I’ve pondered the reason for this unfortunate pattern I’ve begun to notice how differently people seem to handle familial relationships as compared to other associations.  Aesop asserted that “familiarity breeds contempt,” but I would say that it more often breeds complacency and presumption.  When interacting with family members we often presume to know their story, and thereby conclude that we know what they’re thinking or feeling.  Sometimes we even presume to know why they think the way they do.  We seldom seek to understand their position because we assume that we already know it.  And too often, we presume that our shared history and/or heredity gives us license to forego common courtesy in the way we express our viewpoints.  Most of us are apt to approach neighbors, classmates, coworkers, and even strangers, with a great deal more consideration than those who are closest to us.


I’m sure that most people can think of an obnoxious non-family member that they’ve been required to deal with, and chances are those folks were extended far more grace and patience than a parent, sibling or child might have received.  On a daily basis we associate with people who may be a challenge for us, yet we usually learn to deal with them in a way that at least preserves the necessary connection.  Unfortunately, we aren’t always willing to expend that kind of effort on our own families, even though those are the relationships that should be most valuable to us.


If you’ve ever seen a couple walk through a genuine period of courtship, it is a lesson in being invested in a relationship.  The best marriages I’ve seen are those where the spouses never quit courting each other.  The best parental relationships I’ve seen are those where the parents treat their kids with the same kind of consideration and respect that they expect from them.  But for too many, that’s way too much work.  It is easier to try to manipulate or to evoke some sort of positional authority.  Inevitably, we reap what we sow, and that is especially true within our families.  If we don’t like how family members treat us, it may be worth taking a look at how we are treating everyone else.


I continue to marvel at the petty little things that keep families torn apart, sometimes for generations.  Even though many would site the deterioration of the family unit as a root of a lot of of our social ills, there seems to be little sense of urgency in cultivating and maintaining the family bonds that remain.  In fact, the dysfunction of the family has become a punchline in popular culture.  At this point, our young people have been raised with the idea that this is just how families are.  I believe this is why so many of the emerging generation are no longer bothering with the institution of marriage, and that many of those who do take that step often do so for the purely pragmatic incentives of gaining insurance benefits and such.


As we head into the heart of yet another holiday season I would suggest that the greatest gift we might have to offer our families is a renewed commitment to the relationships of those who are nearest to us.  Instead of rehashing all the old issues that have kept us splintered, maybe we could remind each other of what makes each one precious.  Maybe we’re too jaded to get our families to resemble a Norman Rockwell painting, but surely we can do better than a rerun of “Modern Family”.


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I was my parent’s problem child, which isn’t to imply that my brothers and sister were perfect.  We all went through our rough periods, but I was the one who consistently struggled, and routinely required a lot of parenting.  To be sure, my low points reached far greater depths than I ever would have imagined, and looking back, it’s a wonder that I wasn’t more permanently damaged by some of my woeful choices.


Those struggles were not a byproduct of passive or poor parenting. In fact, my parents were extremely proactive in raising all of us.  I was just the kind of kid who desperately needed an abundance of support, guidance, accountability, and ultimately strong boundaries; all of which my parents readily provided.  I knew what was right and what was expected; unfortunately, I frequently chose to forge an alternative path.


If folly is bound up in the heart of a child, I seemed to be born with a double portion to work through.  Because of this, it was essential that one of the earliest revelations of my father was that of an authoritarian.  Though he was loving and caring from the beginning, recognizing him as the ultimate authority was pivotal to my early development.  Had I not been forced to adhere to some external standard, which I recognized as being greater than myself, it is likely that I would have continued to live out of the futility and chaos that has so often reigned within my own heart and mind.  I guess another way to say it is that because my will had to bend to his will, I learned that my will (e.g. what I thought, what I felt, what I wanted…) was never the final word.  Undoubtedly, few lessons in my life have been more valuable than that one.


Though I did eventually manage to become a fully functional adult, I also continued to make questionable choices in my life, which I believe kept my father’s paternal guard up.  Though he treated me with the dignity and respect due a fellow adult, to some degree he still had to view me through the lens of his struggling child.  Though I didn’t recognize that at the time, it became evident to me, when some years later, it changed.


That change occurred when I was in my early thirties, and the life that I had carefully built crumbled before my eyes.  As I cried out to God, my will finally began to genuinely yield to His, and my life began to dramatically turn.  As those changes took root in me, I noticed that it also changed how my earthly father related to me.  He was more relaxed, less paternal and more like a friend.  A few years later, when he became terminally ill, we had some amazingly frank conversations about God, life, death… where he spoke in an unguarded way; like you would with a trusted confidant.  Though my father passed away shortly after my fortieth birthday, I will always treasure those moments of friendship that we shared in his final years.  Though I was honored to be called his son, it somehow seems even more profound that he might also have considered me his friend.


Ultimately, I believe this pattern of relationship reflects what God intends for His children as well.  He says that fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.  If we don’t begin by recognizing Him as the ultimate authority, and greater than ourselves, we never yield our will to His.  Though we may speak of Him highly, and even claim to be His, we live life on our own terms, guided by our own ideas, and going in the way that seems right to us (which the Bible says, “leads to death”).  When Jesus first gathered the disciples, they related to Him as Rabbi (i.e. teacher), which was a position of great authority in Jewish culture.  They called themselves His servants and referred to Him as “Master”.  It wasn’t until the night before His death that Jesus bestowed upon them the title of “friends”.


Unfortunately, modern philosophies on parenting favor the idea that parents ought to relate to their children as friends over the more traditional authoritarian approach; but in practice this generally creates dysfunctional family relationships.  Children raised in this manner remain self-centered, compulsive, demanding, and disrespectful.  As in so many other aspects, Western Christianity has mirrored the culture by frequently trying to introduce the heavenly Father as “friend”; but like the earthly counterpart, this does not produce a legitimate or functional family.


If we do not first recognize Him as Lord, and come through the cross of Christ, we have no incentive to die to ourselves and to live through Him.  We might call Him good, and look to Him for provision, but we live in our own strength, and by our own sense of righteousness.  Though I do believe that God ultimately wants to be able to relate to His children as friends, I also believe that this is a distinction that we must grow into over the course of time.  As it was with my earthly father, I would be forever humbled to one day be counted a friend to my Father in heaven.

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