7 Reminders on Building Strong Family Relationships
At the end of the year, when most of the world celebrates family holidays, you can’t help but revisit the status of your own family relationships. As marketers work hard to paint perfect relationships in every commercial that comes your way, you almost become convinced that the need to navigate the complexities of yours is an exception rather than the rule.
The truth is, all family relationships are multidimensional structures where often polar feelings fit together. Kids love their parents but also hurt them the most. Parents want the best for their kinds but often confuse it with what’s best for them. We have a lot of expectations for our family, and stakes are high. That’s why it is hard when we struggle to connect with them.
Every time you feel an ocean-wide gap between you and someone who shares the same blood, it’s not a moment to withdraw further with a sigh “Well, this is my family.” It is a rather good opportunity to re-examine the beliefs you hold about your family and what makes a family strong.
Below are simple and actionable reminders that, at those very moments when you feel like your family is messed up in some unique ways, will help you strengthen your bonds with your relatives instead of weakening them.
1. Shared DNA Does Not Mean You Will Want the Same
Let’s suppose you get angry when your parents tell you to keep your head down and quietly work hard at a job you don’t like. Or you get upset with your cousins who seem content with their lives and whose ambitions stop at finding a good discount on a pair of shoes at a store. Careers, life aspirations, politics, personal health – all topics where we constantly find ourselves disagreeing with our family members.
If we share the same genetic code, how come our views of these things can be that different? To avoid conflicts, we put those topics into an ever-growing imaginary jar of things we disagree about. And then we either tiptoe around it or minimize interactions with those who hold different opinions. Both make us feel more disconnected as if we can never have a genuine conversation with our own family.
The reality is, DNA is powerful but it is not the only factor at play when people form their views. Your family members grew up at different times, surrounded by different people, reading different books, and going to different schools. Realizing that, you can stop expecting them to want the same things as you do.
Instead of cultivating a mindset that conflicting views are a family relationship killer, you can try to see how differences make you more diverse and, in a way, stronger as a group.
Instead of taking on an impossible-to-succeed task of changing your family members, learn to value them for who they are.
2. Do Not Get on a Mission to Explain to Them Everything They are Failing at
Have you ever felt an urge to coach your family members about things they are doing wrong in
their lives? The sense of responsibility to point out the mistakes on their path can be quite strong. Because, if not for you, who else would tell your single sister to go out more and try new places? Who else would make it clear for your father that he should have taken that job?
When you do it, your intentions might be good. That’s your way of offering support or sharing experience. You may even genuinely feel like you are providing solutions. Yet, on the other side, there is a person being reminded of some way she or he is inadequate in this world. Layer that on top of the issues the individual is already dealing with. No wonder they close down and pull away.
Understanding that it is not your mission to remind your family members of their failures is crucial for fostering relationships with them. They already know when they made their mistakes. Holding space for someone is different than initiating an unsolicited, impromptu “coaching session”. I
nstead of forcing someone into your interpretation of their wrongs, simply let them be. That means respecting your family members’ agency of their own mistakes, while not making them an agenda of every gathering. Your empathy is more valuable than your advice, however well-thought-through it might be.
3. Watch Out for the Ways You May Kill an Initiative
It is a high chance that, for you, plans-gone-wrong or no plans at all rank pretty high among the things you prefer to avoid. So, you resort to planning stuff in advance. Year after year, you arrange that family trip where you do all the work and everyone else just needs to show up. In your clan, you are a solid organizer of every gathering there is.
And, when, one day, you decide to let go of your usual role, nothing happens. No initiative comes from the other side and you can’t help but wonder if you are the only one who needs it. Congratulations, you may have perfected the craft of suffocating your family members’ initiative without even realizing it.
The desire to control our schedules and environment often leads us to preempt initiatives from our family members. You want things done your way so that there are no unknowns. And they, on the other hand, get used to this aspect being covered by you. So you end up disappointed with the lack of their initiative and they are genuinely surprised thinking that you loved to always do that.
When you start noticing places where you might preempt initiatives from your family members, you will begin allowing them to connect with you on their own terms. They might not always be the way you prefer it, but a two-way relationship is a stronger tie than when you are the only one always holding it together.
4. Unquestioned Bailouts May Be a Path to Severed Relationships
You may take your family members’ financial struggle personally, especially when you do well. You would never think twice to give a helping hand to a relative in a time of difficulty. Yet oftentimes the real difficulty is misrepresented, and your help turns into a form of sponsorship.
For example, you work in a big city, and your second cousin from a small town asks you to help her son get a job. Or your sister has a bad credit score, so she asks you to put a car lease on your name. You surely see how you are in the position to facilitate things here. At the same time, you know that you are assuming both reputational and financial responsibility that will stay there for a while. And, no matter what you do, this will always be a background theme of your relationship with this relative.
Saying “No” to a favor or a financial help request from your relative may raise their eyebrows. More so, it can make you feel like your own values are clashing somewhere deep inside. It’s hard to underestimate the manipulative powers of these situations! The guilt for not caring enough for a person or a cause may turn your firm shoulder into a hanger for others’ responsibilities.
At this point, something you wanted to avoid by doing a favor – alienation from them – becomes inevitable. When you recognize this trap, a firm “No”, however hard, will be something that eventually preserves a family tie.
5. Do Not Let the Resentment Grow
You might recall from your experiences the times when you chose to shut down a major disagreement with a family member. You did not resolve it, you both simply moved on pretending it never happened, switched to a different topic to not draw anyone’s attention to an argument. “After all, we are family“, you thought and “this is not the right time to start unbundling things.”
The problem is that you both carried away a seed of resentment toward each other. And resentment, unaddressed, has the propensity to grow. Each party to the conflict starts looking at each other through the prism of an unresolved issue. A smile becomes a manufactured face expression. A mental accounting of who hit how many times activates. And your attempt to diplomatically move away from an argument in order to avoid a bigger problem brought you straight into that problem.
Not letting the resentment build with your family members requires patience. When you want to deal with a problem on the spot, your relative might not be prepared for it.
A simple thing you can do is start listening to the other party and, instead of trying to come up with counter-arguments, make an effort to understand their view. Look at the world through their mental frame. After they’ve let the steam out, they might be able to see your point too. And finding in yourself an ability to acknowledge other’s points of view definitely makes you more connected than estranged.
6. You Do Your Part
In family relationships, it’s easy to name others a culprit. Take a moment, and you will have no problem pointing out what they are doing wrong. For example, your Dad might not know how to express his feelings. Your brother might always talk about his issues only. You Mom might be convinced that she is always right. The list can go on.
Further, you might have no trouble creating a comprehensive guide of simple tips on how they can connect with you better. Yet, every time you have an urge to do just that, think what each of those tips means for you doing your part. For one, you might habitually mirror the same behaviors without realizing it. Secondly, you may create the very environment for your family members to act exactly the way they do.
Doing your part means taking responsibility in fostering family relationships, not simply being a passive recipient and a casual critic. That means, asking yourself questions:
How do I contribute to escalating things I want to avoid?
How do I facilitate what I later complain about?
And, if doing your part means initiating, checking in, visiting, or listening – you do that!
7. You Do Not Have Infinite Time
No conversation about strengthening family relationships is complete without a reminder that these relationships are not infinite. Sometimes, people who you are used to seeing around become the ones you take for granted.
Though intellectually, you understand well that one day they will be all gone, applying this to practice is a different story. In the realm of a busy life, it becomes “I value my family in general, but right now I have no time to talk to my parents.”
A simple reminder to self that you don’t have infinite time with your family makes it clear that it is not about “in general”, but rather about “right now”. Because we can theorize and make mental notes on how to deal with relatives in various situations in the future. But nothing lays a better foundation for strengthening the family relationships than dialing a family member and saying “Hi” to them, right now.