Family is defined as being the people who you are related to by blood or by marriage, or the typical unit of parent(s) plus children, but of course, everyone’s experience of family is different. In the end, it boils down to who you grew up with or who you think you should have grown up with, as well as what your familial support system is in adulthood or what you think it should or could have been but isn’t. Basically, even if a person didn’t grow up with, for instance, their birth parents or in what they feel is the ‘typical’ version of family, that person has a mental and emotional perception of what family is or what a particular family member should be like.
In childhood, we have a very limited amount of choice and control over who we live with or spend time around. In theory, in adulthood we have a hell of a lot more choice and control– we can choose who we want to surround ourselves with and who we want to continue to engage with.
Of course in reality, it doesn’t always work that way, not because we don’t have that choice and control but because of how we feel and perceive family. Bonds, love, need, loyalty, shared history, unshared history, expectations, obligations, guilt, fear, hopes and dreams plus more, all influence the way in which we interact with our family in adulthood as well as what we feel that we ‘should’ be doing. It can significantly affect how free we perceive ourselves to be and how we choose and engage in our interpersonal relationships.
Our family can represent the hopes we have for ourselves. If they do well, if they change, then we can feel that we will be alright and that we can evolve, even though this is something that is not conditional on our family.
Family is a construct, representing our emotional perception of a series of connections, some by blood, some by marriage, and some representing people who have been responsible for our care or who we had to live with, even if they didn’t fit neatly into the blood or marriage box, or if we’d had a choice about it… we wouldn’t have chosen this family member for ourselves. It is an ideological construct because it’s subjective and much as we might try to reach for general society’s view, our views on our families are all unique because they represent our met and unmet needs, expectations and desires.
Society teaches us that family is a group of people who all like and love each other which is really like saying, family is a group of people who all like and love each other because they have to or because they ‘should’ and therein lies the problem because ‘should’ gives the impression that this is the rule, that it’s enforceable and that it happens naturally.
What we forget is that with all the best will in the world, some people encounter problems, experiences, fears, ideas and personal motivations that alter their feeling, perceiving and relating, so we don’t get the like and love experience out of them.
‘Family’ doesn’t mean that you should all have the same values or that you will all automatically have a lot in common. Sometimes it becomes clear that the length and breadth of what you have in common with your family is that you share blood.
This is why dealing with a TFM can be so painful – the closer the connection and we wonder why they behave or feel about us as they do, especially when we might go to a lot of effort to show our love, feeling rejected because they don’t live up to our ideals or recognise us and so we don’t feel that we can be our ideal or recognise us either, and the further away the connection is and we wonder why they have such a problem with us considering that we don’t have the extended shared history or we don’t see them all the time. It can cause us to wonder what we’re ‘provoking’.
Our relationships and the dynamics within our family are about connections and a lot of what influences that connection and also distinguishes family from say, everyone else, is that there’s history since year dot with some or all of the members. That history doesn’t just represent the history we share with them including our various experiences plus each member’s subjective view of things, but it also represents what came before us, some of which we may or may not be aware of. In talking to many people who have struggled with TFMs, there’s a recurring theme of not knowing much about the backstory of the people in question, so what has happened with that person in other areas of their life or before our time or even before their time that is influencing some of their thinking, feeling and behaviour today; or, they do know some of this and for some reason, don’t see it as pertinent to the situation because they are over-empathising and blaming themselves and so limiting their view.
Our perception of what we think family means suits our vision, our aims and our needs, but does not always account for the bigger picture. As a result, when we encounter a TFM, it can feel deeply personal, as if their character and behaviour is designed specifically for us. When it’s several family members, we can feel ganged upon and wonder what we’ve done to deserve this or feel ‘rejectionable’ and even abandoned, and this is understandable because dealing with a TFM feels like an assault on our roots in some or a lot of respects because, family is where of all places, we expect to be accepted, to be supported and to be loved.
Our perception of family, both ideals and the reality of them, cause us to do things, both positive and negative, that we would not do with others. We might love our family freely and be vulnerable in ways with them that we wouldn’t be with friends or romantic partners. On the other hand, if we encounter a TFM, we swallow our feelings to help us avoid them in the short-term but it takes its toll. Accepting our feelings is an all-important step to freedom and feeling better about the relationship because we can deal with the situation from a more honest place.
- We don’t choose the family that we are born into in sense that, unlike all of the other relationships that we have, we have the option of a discovery phase. We can get to know, for example, a romantic partner and be free to not pursue it etc, but with family, whatever we’re dealt with personality, experience wise, we have to deal with them.
- No family fits neatly into anyone’s cookie cutter view of it because it’s got a set of individuals within it– they are not clones and try as, for instance, a dictator-style TFM might try to control everyone, that’s not possible. At least one family member will serve as a reminder of the truth – that you cannot control the uncontrollable or hope to rule others and for there not to be an uprising of some sort.
- We don’t have to like all family members, especially blood relatives. Really, we don’t. If more people owned up to the fact that they don’t like ‘everyone’ and that sometimes, we have cause to not like a family member, there would be a lot less resentment and forced relationships in the world. You can love and care about a person but realise that you don’t like the way that they behave or how their pattern and expectations affect you. You can also love a person but realise that you can’t be around them.
- We don’t always feel as if we fit in with our family and this can cause us to question ourselves or to question what the message is in being with them. Our desire to be loved, accepted and supported may mean that we hold ourselves back because we think these are conditional.
- In your family, even if everyone says that they want and feel the same thing, that’s not how it plays out when egos come into the fray. One person’s interpretation of love and loyalty for instance, can be very different to someone else’s.
- A big part of dealing with a TFM is connecting with those feelings that you’ve suppressed and repressed but that haven’t gone away. That emotional charge is hurting you.
- In adulthood, family becomes about the people you choose for yourself rather than what in some instances may feel as if it’s imposed upon you. It means you can have more choices about the way in which you engage with the family you’ve grown up with and who you add into the mix – friends, lover, supporters and beyond.
JOURNALING: If this person wasn’t your family, would you be putting up with this? Is this person (or a group of TFMs), someone you would willingly choose to have in your life? It’s important to ask yourself these questions and try to answer honestly from your gut without judging you or the feelings that come up and in fact without feeling as if you have to make an overt judgment about them either. Judge the situation.
If the answer is no, then you now have a springboard to explore your beliefs around what family is and what family ‘should’ do and whether any of what you’re agreeing to, whether it’s passively or not, is compromising your boundaries and affecting your self-esteem. You can also look at whether you’re expecting this person to be someone that they’re not. If there are things that you do differently with this person to everyone else, why are you making that exception? Exploring your feelings about this person doesn’t mean that you’ll have to tell them to jog on but it again, helps you understand what it is that has influenced the way that you’ve engaged with them up until this point.
If you would put with [whatever it is that makes them ‘tricky] in your other interpersonal relationships (so excluding family), how is this decision functioning for you? Is it harming you or helping you? Are you happy within these other relationships or do you feel similarly?
If you would choose this person to have in your life, what are your reasons? This helps you to get a sense of the positives that this person has brought to your life. Are the things that you like about him/her based on the past and you haven’t seen [this side] for a while, or is it a case of when it’s good it’s good but when it’s bad, it’s awful? If it’s the former, explore your feelings about the change you’ve noticed and if it’s the latter, how is dealing with what may be extremes, affecting you?
TASK: This process is going to bring up feelings because in order to deal with your TFM situation, you have to acknowledge the feelings you’ve tried to push away. This is a good time to start a Feelings Diary so that you can make a note of what’s coming up about this TFM but also learn from what’s coming up from doing this project. The guide is in the resources.