Thanksgiving is practically synonymous with family. And while many people talk about the importance of being thankful at this time of year (including me), and spending time with family, we do not often talk about the actual lived experience of being with family. We wax poetic about the importance of family, or about how important family is, about how wonderful it all is. The lived reality for most of us is that family is complicated. Sometimes good, sometimes bad, but almost always complicated. It’s an interesting phenomenon– societal message about family, the polite conversation about family, is how wonderful it is. But talk to nearly anyone honestly about family, and the reality is more tangled.

Family occupies a central, revered place in our psyche. It is depicted as a sanctuary of unconditional love, a haven where we find solace and support. Society perpetuates an idealized image of family life — a picturesque tableau of harmony, love, and unbreakable ties. This portrayal, while uplifting (and perhaps sometimes true!), can inadvertently feed unrealistic expectations, leaving us to grapple with the contrast between societal ideals and our lived experiences. Because of this disconnect, we are left feeling… estranged? Like something is wrong with us? Out of the mainstream? We see the idealized form of family that “everyone else has” and then compare that to our own more complicated experience, and conclude that there is something strange about our situation.

There’s a disjunction between public perception and private struggles. Behind closed doors, families grapple with conflicts, misunderstandings, and unspoken tensions that contradict the notion of an unblemished familial utopia. The incongruence between societal expectations and the real-world dynamics of families can leave us feeling isolated and reluctant to acknowledge the difficulties we face within our own kin.

Family relationships, as all relationships, come with challenges. While family relationships can offer unparalleled emotional support and a sense of belonging, they can also be a source of profound stress and emotional turbulence. Often, these are two sides of the same coin– we are most distressed by the people we care most about. Sibling rivalries, generational gaps, and differing values can create tension.

Siblings may find themselves at odds over divergent paths in life. Parents, driven by the desire to protect and guide, may inadvertently stifle the independence of their children. People who end up taking different paths, or developing different sets of values and priorities, spring from the same family and so come into contact with each other. You might not normally talk about politics with people who see things differently, but in a family, Uncle Ned wants to tell you about the latest political development.

Sometimes, family is a source of trauma. Abuse happens in families, drug use happens in families. Parents make mistakes. Children say awful things. Siblings hurt each other. Navigating relationships, or systems, that are both nurturing and destructive is complicated– to say the least.

The fact that tension, difficulty, and adversity are present in families does not mean that those are the only things present. Our family can be a source of tremendous love, understanding, and belonging. It can be the place we return to when all other doors are closed, the shelter from the chaos of the world. Family can be that idealized version we all sometimes think about. The difficulty that families face together, and overcome together, can create belonging unlike any other. The mis-match between expectations (idealized family) and reality (complicated) causes us to suffer.

Our experience of family as complicated, as a source of both joy and tension, of relief and anxiety, of pride and distress, is not an aberration but the norm. The idea that other families are perfect but mine is filled with problems is a fiction. Having feelings toward your family that are complicated does not make you an outlier– it puts you in the mainstream. If we can embrace the reality of our messy family, and let go of some idealized version, we will suffer less. What is strange is our collective idealization of family, our belief that somehow the messiness human relationships does not apply to the people with whom we are close, or the people with whom we share the most genetic material.

Happy Thanksgiving!

-Dr. Justin

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