The Ties that Bind, the Ties that Strangle

by Mark Sichel, LCSW and Alicia L. Cervini

Sadly, the ties that bind are often also the ties that choke, suffocate, and punish. People have a great deal of difficulty comprehending how and why family fights and ruptures can occur. To more fully understand some of the trauma you may have experienced with the family you grew up with, or with the new family you have created as an adult, it will help to familiarize yourself with two specific concepts:

1- Separation
2- Individuation

Separation and individuation are normal and healthy phases of human development; they are psychological processes that begin in the first year of life and resurface, in various forms, throughout childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. While the natural processes of separation and individuation are sometimes painful for various family members to experience-- often resulting in family conflict--they are an inevitable part of healthy development for the individual.

The successful process of separation is the source of our personal autonomy, our independence, our ability to assert ourselves, and our capacity to make choices. The first act of separation occurs in early childhood when a child first says "no". When a 2-year-old says "no" to her mother, she is exercising her natural instinct to separate from her mother. As a person ages and there is more power behind the "no" (a young child can say "no," but she does not yet have the power or autonomy to enforce her "no"), it is increasingly difficult for the parent, who naturally thinks that "parents know best," to let their child take the risks that her "no" implies. Separation is often difficult for parents that love and desperately want to protect their children.

The successful process of individuation creates each person's identity, uniqueness, interests, points of view, likes and dislikes. The first act of individuation occurs in early childhood when a child first says "me" and "mine." "Me" indicates that the child is developing an awareness that there is a difference between her and everything else. Individuation is also a natural, healthy instinct for children and, like separation, can be either fostered by parents, or discouraged by parents. Individuation in teenagers and young adults is often difficult for parents to accept because it is hard for the parent to witness the being they brought into the world liking, believing in, or doing things that they themselves would not.

Certain dysfunctional families tend to punish evidence of both these developmental struggles in their children. Often those who choose to separate and individuate are seen as traitors. In dysfunctional families, choosing health, growth, progress, or sobriety could all be seen as a rejection of the family. It is surprising to think that successful, psychologically evolved, healthy and sober people could be cast out by their families of origin as "black sheep," but this is not an uncommon occurrence in a dysfunctional family.

So, families who have extreme difficulty accepting separation usually treat their children and relatives who have successfully separated as if they were deserters. Families who have extreme difficulty accepting individuation usually treat their children and relatives as if they were snobbish or devaluing their familial roots. Do either or both of those scenarios sound familiar to you? Whether you are the perpetrator or the victim, understanding that separation and individuation are normal processes and working to accept them as such or working to accept the struggles of those who can't, can help to heal the familial wounds.


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