Artist: Bernadette Curtin
As we near the end of our lives we start to question many of the things we have accepted or taken for granted and or have adhered to over our lifetime. For some of us, this may include questioning the role of family and family relationships. We may question, for example, have our family relationships been positive and nurturing, supporting us to grow and evolve, or have they caused us some form of harm, making us question ourselves and influence our life decisions?
A great deal of research tells us that positive relationships are good for our health. What happens if our relationships within family are not positive and nurturing?
Thanks to the concept of family, we have sayings such as:
- “Blood is thicker than water” – Regardless of the behaviour, I have to back my family even if it has caused harm and regardless of how I really feel.
- “I brought you into this world, I can take you out” – Family gives us ownership over another – even the right to kill.
- “Family comes first” – A false loyalty often at the expense of others.
- “I would kill for my family” – What gives us the right to kill, yet family does; it happens all the time.
Let’s pause here for a moment and ponder the following.
Did you know …
The home is a much more dangerous place than the streets?
- A study in America found that 60% of victimisations happen within the home,
- 79% of murders reported were committed by loved ones, and
- Most homicides are reported to happen within the home (Finkelhor et al., 2009).
And did you know …
- Having a supportive and caring family has been shown to increase a person’s overall health and wellbeing.
- However, the opposite can also be true. Research has found when family is filled with stress, conflict and dis-harmony, the health of family members can be negatively affected (Unite for Sight, n.d.).
And did you know …
That by 2030, globally, mental ill health is projected to cost $16 trillion American dollars (The Carter Center, 2018). That figure looks like this $16,000,000,000,000! 😮
Studies have found poor quality and non-supportive families cause both physical and mental harm (Mental Health Center, 2017).
If poor mental health starts in the home and the rates are so high that mental ill health services can’t keep up (which is true), then shouldn’t we be asking what is happening in our homes?
If this was an orphanage or a like organisation, such as schools, where the rates of death were higher than on the streets and those graduating were developing mental ill health, wouldn’t we launch an enquiry into that orphanage, school or organisation? But when it is family – somehow it gets a free pass from that level of scrutiny.
A study that followed children over a ten-year period showed that positive relationships among children and their relatives led to more positive, healthy behaviours in life. Their physical health, capacity to take care of themselves and make healthy choices, was directly connected with their family experiences as young children (Thomas, Liu & Umberson, 2017).
Could it then be said – given the rates of ill mental and physical health, that we are getting it very wrong.
The fact that lifestyle behaviours are one of the leading causes of mental and physical ill health (Allianz Australia Limited, 2021) we could say that many individuals are not getting this level of care in families and are not leaving their family homes feeling capable of dealing with the world, but in fact the opposite, feeling incapable. And, as such, they are turning to lifestyle behaviours as a way of coping, such as increased alcohol consumption, over-eating, drug taking, sexting, gaming, gambling and etc.
As a psychologist I see first-hand the negative impact family can have on a person’s ill mental health.
Clients often share how they have felt at odds in their own homes and felt like the black sheep of the family. They have shared with me all the times they had been yelled at and abused, not hugged, not told they are loved, treated roughly or unfairly – a stressed parent taking it out on their children because they can – a jealous brother or sister constantly picking on and abusing their sibling … and it is explained away as “he/she didn’t mean it, make up, you are family, just sweep it under the rug”. Please note this happens in almost all homes to some varying degree, whether it is a polished or rough surface the underlying messages are the same, ‘Be as we are and do and think as we do’. How often do adults state that they become this or that profession because that was what their father was, or what their father or mother wanted? How often do we say our religious or political affiliations are based on what we were raised as, as if we didn’t have a choice?
But if we go back to the example of an organisation, if someone was being bullied at work so much so and or being told exactly how to think, act and align, to the extent that they were starting to develop low self-esteem, lack of self-worth, sliding into levels of depression, stress, anxiety, self-harm, suicidality, would that organisation have a duty to hold the abuser/bully to account and if not, would that organisation risk being sued? But no such thing exists in family – it is excused, covered up and accepted because it is family. Technically family does have avenues of recourse, such as being able to report domestic violence and child abuse, however, how often do these complaints get made? Often families cover up these abuses, in the name of family (Davey, 2016).
As you will read in the Guardian article by Davey (2009) a great deal of covering up can happen within families and the impacts are devastating and, if not dealt with, life-long.
The above example is an extreme one, covering up sexual abuse in the name of family; this does not always occur, but what about the smaller cover ups, made to feel bad if you don’t follow a particular ethos, such as sexuality, religious, racial and or political views? And what about different values and standards, like to gossip and talk ill of others, versus not liking that and finding it hurtful. What do you do when this is different to your family’s values and standards?
If this is the reality of a person’s family they often, if not always, start to question and doubt themselves, because we don’t yet have a world that questions family, we just question the one that does not seem to fit into the model of family they have been born into. We question the individual, not the majority – as the saying goes “majority rules”, the odd one out must be wrong.
If we were born into groups and we felt that we didn’t fit that group we would simply feel free to exit that group and find another. This may not be that easy, such as exiting a religious group, as a loss is more than likely going to come from that, but it is still your right to exit, but family does not afford us this same choice. When that group is family, we are not as easily afforded that constitutional right – we actually question ourselves and wonder why we can’t fit in or why we are not loved like we have been fed to believe we should be.
If you were in a group that:
- Barracked for a different football team – You could leave.
- Treated people aggressively thinking it was okay to beat someone up because they didn’t like or agree with them – You could leave.
- Was jealous of you – You could leave.
If you were in a group that:
- Constantly picked on you and called you names – You could leave.
- Demanded how you dressed and who you could or could not associate with – You could leave.
And sadly, so on and so on.
However, when it is family, although you can leave, the premise will always be that something was wrong with you.
So, what can you do?
As the saying goes, we can pick our friends but can’t pick our family – what if we could redefine what family is and what if we could pick?
To support with this let’s look at the origin of family.
The origin of family is said to have stemmed from Roman times, it’s original title from its Latin word ‘Familia’ (Gill 2019). The meaning of ‘Familia’ “the triad with which we are familiar, two parents and children (biological or adopted), as well as enslaved people and grandparents”. It is stated that the purpose of the Roman Family was to “transmit morality and social status across generations” (Ducksters n.d.). The German philosopher and socialist, Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), argued that the traditional and widely accepted model of family, was created with capitalist intentions and as a means of control (Engels, 2010). As you will see from both versions, family it seems has been created, similar to religion, as a way to dictate behaviours and values as an ultimate way to control.
The general modern-day definition of family is “a group of one or more parents and their children living together as a unit” and “a group of people living together: household”. (Definition of family - Google search, n.d.)
Based on all three descriptions above, one thing is common, family is defined as a group of people. So, what if we did get to choose our own group of people?
What if we re-defined family and made family more about an alignment to what you feel is true by virtue of the standards and values you hold, and not feel obliged to change or lower your virtues or standards to align to the virtues and standards of the family you may have been born into? This does not mean you have to “dump” your family, it just means that you no longer feel the need to change/alter/drop who you are to fit into the model of family you were born into.
By NOT dropping, altering or changing who you are, you are setting a new standard for all.
What if we proposed that there is actually no such thing as family – that in truth there is only Brotherhood – a movement of Oneness, with the purpose that all move for the expansion of the All.
Family in its current form, and confirmed by its origins, as stated above, moves in the divide of, ‘mine and your family’, ‘mine at the expense of others’ – as testified to by the COVID generated toilet paper fights that occurred all around the world, as everyone was taking care of their own and not considering the whole. This level of separation ultimately has an impact on us all. What if a model of brotherhood stated that each of us has something unique and special to bring to the All, each of us having a piece of the pie that completes us as a one brotherhood?
Could this be the model of living in the future?
So rather than the usual power struggle in family, the negotiation of who holds the power in the relationship and whose needs have to be met to make the relationship work, what change might we see in the world if we were to instead ask each other “How can I support you to be the All of who you are for the All we are?”
“The truth is we are all ONE, a united family called Brotherhood, with each and every one of us holding the key to return all our brothers back to the Oneness we are from.”
By Caroline Raphael (BPsych, MAPS, FDRP)
Allianz Australia Limited. (2021). Lifestyle diseases - Health guide - Allianz Australia. Retrieved from https://www.allianz.com.au/life-insurance/news/lifestyle-health-issues
The Carter Center. (2018, November 16). Mental illness will cost the world $16 USD trillion by 2030. Retrieved from https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/mental-illness-will-cost-world-16-usd-trillion-2030
Davey, M. (2016, October 26). 'Like a spider that keeps building its web': Family of sexual abuse survivor speaks out. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/aug/29/family-of-child-sexual-abuse-survivor-speaks-out-secondary-victims
Definition of family - Google search. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.google.com/search?client=firefox-b-d&q=definition+of+family
Ducksters. (n.d.). All about the ancient Roman family. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/ancient-roman-family-118367
Engels, F. (2010). The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Penguin Classics, UK
Finkelhor, D., Turner, H., Ormrod, R., Hamby, S., & Kracke, K. (2009). Children's exposure to violence: A comprehensive national survey. PsycEXTRA Dataset. doi:10.1037/e615642009-001
Gill, N. S. (2019). All about the ancient Roman family. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/ancient-roman-family-118367
Mental Health Center. (2017, June 8). How does family life affect mental health? Retrieved from https://www.mentalhealthcenter.org/how-does-family-life-affect-mental-health/
Thomas, P. A., Liu, H., & Umberson, D. (2017, November). Family relationships and well-being. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5954612/
Unite for Sight. (n.d.). Family dynamics and health. Retrieved from https://www.uniteforsight.org/gender-power/module1