There is hope for the future because God has a sense of humor and we are funny to God.

~ Bill Cosby ~

The Fun and Games of Family Dynamics

November 17th, 2011 ~ Est. reading time: 3 mins, 35 secs

Family dynamics never were for the fainthearted.

Face it. Families can drive you crazy at times.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe in family. Just that family life poses some major challenges at times.

What I’ve found is that many people feel their family is particularly problematic. Comparing their domestic situation with those of their friends, they feel that they drew the short straw.

This is understandable for two reasons: Firstly, because people like to portray a good image, it’s less obvious where the problems are. You can see this evidenced every day on the Internet, where people paint themselves as happier, healthier, and wealthier than they really are.

Secondly, our family history and its problems are in our face on a daily basis. So no wonder we feel our family’s troubles are worse. Unlike the problems we see elsewhere, we feel ours with every fiber twitching.

Mind you, there are a fortunate few who really do enjoy consistently well-functioning family relationships. But they are so remarkably rare as to be curiosities. For the most part, real families hide a simmering hotbed of conflict, misunderstanding, and drama. Which explains why we need them so much.

In that ferment we are forced to face issues we’d much rather ignore. We have to cooperate, and accept the messy facts of life in a real and personal way. You probably already know, but that’s how we grow.

Were everything perfectly rosy and nice, with sugarplum fairies flitting about merrily in the background, we’d coast. There would be no need to mature, deal with pain, or make sense of hardship. We’d be living with our family in a TV commercial  world, skipping in slow motion, hand-in-hand, blowing dandelion clocks in the sun.

But that kind of existence never seems to last longer than the ads.

Happy as some families seem to be, what matters happens beneath. Take one family I recently met. A couple, Sara & Joe, with two kids and a dog, called Tip. Their son, Tom, is midway through university in another state, whilst their daughter is still at home whilst she finishes college.

Joe is a laid back kind of guy, whereas Sara is deeply into control. Both tend to favor their daughter Cheryl, who coincidentally, has them wrapped around her little finger.

Cheryl needs to be adored so much her distorted opinion of herself steers the family wherever she wants.

Tom, on the other hand, is more like his father. So he is happy keeping a low profile out of town. Living away from the family circus gives him a sense of freedom he never feels when he is at home.

On the face of it, this small family looks harmonious enough. Even ideal. But the relationships function without much honesty. The mother-daughter relationship is complex and could well come adrift as Cheryl reaches adulthood.  Feeding its complication is the lack of closeness between Joe and Sara. Joe’s easygoing ways might keep winning everyone’s approval on the surface. But beneath it all, he cannot grasp what’s going on. Deep down he secretly wishes Sara would be his romantic partner rather than his supervisor. But he doesn’t want to risk creating any conflict. Nor does he want to assume more responsibility in the marriage. For all the wrong reasons, Joe, being a creature of habit, chooses to let things roll.

Sara, meanwhile, keeps working hard to keep everything under her control, lest her insecurities start to surface. She too doesn’t want to face the emptiness in their relationship. Instead, her mothering role gives her a safe place to call the shots.

Cheryl may not understand what is driving her parents’ attentions, but she plays the game with compliance. Winning her parents’ affections over her brother Tom, she has no trouble getting them to buy her yet more things, take her where she wants, and ensure she always gets her way.

Cheryl’s manipulation is so subtle, and the emotional pull so habitual her parents don’t see it. Besides, it gives them the perfect excuse to avoid the pain of their own relationship and still feel everything is okay.

This family’s gameplay is nothing unusual, given the way we tend to handle relationship pain. But, unless it is recognized and faced, the tail will keep on wagging the dog.

It will be interesting to see what happens to Cheryl as she embarks on her own long-term relationships. Will Joe and Sara work out their own marriage issues when she goes? And will Tom gradually drift away from his family, only to repeat his father’s approach in his own relationships?

The potential of family difficulties to tear us apart are ever present. Yet the reverse is also true. In the midst of the human drama we can make much more of our lives. With honesty and fortitude, we can accept the mess. Realizing life isn’t neat we can greet the results of growth. If our family life is lacking or predominantly filled with pain, honesty gives us a choice. No matter what our family circumstances at least we have one ace card up our sleeve. By deciding, we can turn to face the strain in our family and start creating a brand new script.


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