Category Archives: family

The Role of “Family” in Relationship

Over the years (more often than not), I have heard story after story about how stressful family gatherings are around the holidays. In fact, there is an entire product-based industry capitalizing off this stereotype. (One of my favorites is a funny dishtowel I spied in my aunt’s house):

Now, not every family is dysfunctional, of course, because every experience of family is highly individual. What may appear to be “bad” to someone else, is “normal” or even fun to the person experiencing it. I’ve heard stories of yelling, fights, and behavior that would lead an outsider to believe that everybody hates everybody – when the reverse is actually true. Then I’ve heard stories of happy peaceful dinners, where after the fact everyone goes home and breathes a sigh of relief to no longer be in the company of their relatives. The bottom line is: There is no “right” way to be family (despite what the Hallmark Channel wants us to believe).

How you personally define “family” is what matters. The traditional definition of family (from Dictionary.com) uses the phrase “a social unit,” and I think this most accurately describes what family means: It’s a unit.

In our life, we can have more than one “family” unit. There are work families, friend families, church families, fitness families, etc. In my experience, though, I’ve come to learn that we all have two specific families: family of “blood” and family of the heart.

Every social unit in our life falls into one of these two categories, and for some, the family of blood is also the family of the heart. But whether it’s our fitness family, church family, friend family, work family (etc.), all of these “families of the heart” have one thing in common: relationship.

Relationships are connections that we make based on something shared and require mutual investment, maintenance, and commonality. In our family of blood, we have shared DNA (in the case of adoption, it’s the bond that is shared). And yet, shared DNA (on its own) is not enough to sustain a relationship.

This is why we see so many fights or dysfunction around traditional family gatherings: the assumption that shared DNA, alone, is a relationship. It’s not. That would be like saying a shared cubicle wall is a relationship. It’s circumstantial.

Every healthy relationship requires nurturing, mutual respect and investment, as well as a genuine interest in each other. The circumstances upon which two people are brought together (such as shared DNA or an office wall) are not enough on their own to create a healthy relationship. They’re the cause for coming together, but it’s what happens after that makes the difference.

What transforms shared DNA (family of blood) into relationship (family of the heart) are all the little, consistent, and thoughtful things that we would do in any other social situation in which we want to build connection with another human being… and it requires reciprocity. Without reciprocity, it’s not a relationship, and no shared biology can overcome that.

So, as we spend the next month gathering, sharing stories, and possibly feeling less connected than we think we “should” (darn those Hallmark movies!), perhaps it’s a good time to let yourself off the hook and remember a simple truth: shared genetics is not a reason to expect relationship and connection. Unless both parties are invested, it can become an exercise in frustration (as all the stereotyped products have shown us).

However you define “family” is up to you. For me, I think of it as people who have my back, and know that I have their’s, regardless of whether we share any biology.

12 Years Today – 4,380 Days

I’m glad I’m not French. No offense to the French, I actually love the country, the food, and the people… but twelve years ago on Bastille Day, our lives changed forever. If it were any other normal day, I maybe wouldn’t remember the anniversary (which is a weird thing to say) of my dad’s stroke. But it’s Bastille Day in France, and I remember hearing the Marseillaise on the news in the airport as we waited for our flight from Dallas to Chicago. Now the Marseillaise is forever associated with my father’s stroke (hence, I’m glad I’m not French), which means every July 14th – I remember. Extreme crisis can do that: take one thing and affiliate it with another unrelated thing – forever. I’m just glad it wasn’t pizza.

In the back of my mind, I’m writing a book about this experience, I’ve tentatively called it 4,092 Deaths and Counting. The title is a work in progress, because today is officially 4,380. Four thousand three hundred and eighty mornings of “different.” Of love, of loss, of joy, of heartache, of gratitude, of patience, of frustration, of fear, of anger, of relief, of hope. 4,380 days of being human and living alongside dying. It’s not for the faint-hearted, I can tell you that.

Almost exactly a year ago, dad transitioned to a care facility. So, we’ve now had almost 365 days of a different kind of “different,” one that requires both more and less fortitude. Easier, in some ways, and more challenging in others – overall, though, this doesn’t get easier. I think there was a time when I thought it would. Alas, I was wrong. I wrote about it in an article a few months ago: Trapped Out of Love. (If you haven’t read it – you can read it here.)

For his part, Dad seems to be doing well. He enjoys the activities and commotion at his new residence, something that was sorely lacking here at home. The staff love him and call him “smiley,” because he is always smiling. Some call him “Judge,” because he was a lawyer – which, as you can imagine, he gets a kick out of. Mom goes to visit him several times a week, and I am able to get there every weekend – usually bringing him his favorite contraband in the form of lunch. (The pizza gene is strong!) In nicer weather, we take walks outside where there are ponds and wildlife galore. Dad also really enjoys plane-spotting, as the campus is somewhat in the flight path of two airports. All in all, it’s a simpler life for him, one with a grace and ease that accompanies living in a care facility.

For us, it’s a relief to know he’s being looked after by medical professionals 24/7, while still causing some guilt over not being able to keep him at home. That’s the conundrum of aging and illness, isn’t it? Deciding on what’s best for the patient, as well as what’s best for the family. Often times, those needs don’t match up. And even though he’s not physically at home, he’s still here in some intangible way, every day.

So, each time I think of counting the days, I hear the lyrics from Rent in my mind: “525,600 minutes, how do you measure, measure a year… how about love?” I’m pretty certain we’ve measured 12 years in love… alongside all the other emotions that come with the territory. And so, we continue to do so – for how many more days, nobody knows.

Now, perhaps, there’s a reason for the Marseillaise after all, with it’s simple echo of: “Marchons, marchons!” And so we do.

Afternoon walk with Dad on a summer day