The Family Myth
by Mark Sichel, LCSW and Alicia L. Cervini
What is the Family Myth and why does it have so much power over our
individual growth and our family relations? What happens when the Family
Myth, nurtured and prized for so long, meets its match at the hands of inevitable change? The answers to these questions can be shattering.
What is the Family Myth?
The Family Myth is a well-rehearsed notion, wholly false, about the nature of the family unit. The Family Myth dictates that surface appearance is more important than individual happiness: that what "ought" to be true must squelch what IS true. The Family Myth is the presumption that evey family member is compatible, possesses the same goals and loves one another. The Family Myth is a fantasy predicated on a like-it-or-not unified "we" -- a contract that no one seems to remember signing.
Common Family Myths generally are framed as "we" statements. "We all get
along wonderfully." "We all have the same goals and like the same people." "We are all loving and accepting people and we believe in democracy and choice." The Family Myth does not usually allow for "I" statements. The Family
Myth does not tolerate choice readily.
Why does the Family Myth have so much power over our individual growth and our family relations?
Family Myths are generally fantasies about the love, support, and caring nature of one's family of origin. This is what makes the dissolution of the Family Myth so terribly profound and earth shattering.
It is very easy to get caught up in the fiction of a Family Myth. The families we envision when the Family Myth is born are always happier, cleaner, better people than ourselves. The Family Myth is supposedly an ideal; unfortunately we don't always actually want to be what it is that we think we want to be. The resulting conflict between what we want in theory and what we want in reality is often a destructive one. Furthermore, in most cases, the fashioning of the Family Myth is not a democratic process. Not everyone even gets a say as to what the Family Myth is going to be.
Despite the decidedly undemocratic way in which the Family Myth is initially established, the idea of being shinier, better versions of ourselves or having the unconditional love and support of every family member is a seductive one. Consequently, in families where the Family Myth is actively propagated, we all eventually buy in. The pervasive and persuasive nature of the Family Myth is the reason you don't see blue mohawks in Norman Rockwell paintings.
When a family member makes a choice that is an act of independence --like a blue mohawk, or a spouse of another race, or an unusual hobby, or a career other than the family business-- the Family Myth is threatened and a rupture between family members necessarily results. The typical response to such a threat, by a family under the sway of the Family Myth, is swift retribution or even a family "divorce," whereby the offending family member is cast out.
What happens when the Family Myth, nurtured and prized for so long, meets its match at the hands of inevitable change?
In some cases people we see who are going through a shattering family "divorce" follow the laws of the Family Myth to a tee, not realizing that the tenets of the Family Myth are not necessarily what will actually make themselves or their family happy. In other cases, individuals in the family make choices or decisions that are blatantly in opposition to the Family Myth, causing deep rifts between family members. Let's look at two case studies:
Alice* had always felt that her family wanted her to marry a man who was strong, stable, a good provider, successful and committed to raising a family. So she did. The Family Myth demanded nothing less. She did not realize, nor did her family consciously realize, that what her parents really wanted was for her to marry a man who would blend in and be unimportant and powerless in relation to themselves. As a result, Alice and her new husband, James could not understand why they were constantly embroiled in bitter family arguments over seemingly inconsequential matters. They could not understand why Alice's parents were constantly provoking them. They did not know how to manage Alice's family from a distance without getting themselves into trouble. No one in the family understood that strictly adhering to the laws of the Family Myth with no room for compromise makes no one happy.
Grace had always been Daddy's girl and Mom's Mommy. After her parents'
divorce, Grace accompanied her Dad to social events and was his best
pal. Her mom, on the other hand, wallowed in depression and drug abuse for years after the divorce. Grace cleaned the house, cooked, and tried to be her Mom's therapist and best friend. Grace came to therapy to work on developing her career as a singer and actress in musical theater. She also worked out her
poor choices of men, and ended up marrying Rod, a successful restauranteur.
Not surprisingly, along the way she also became an independent adult,
breaking her ties with her dysfunctional parents.
Grace stopped being the caregiver for her mom, and instead gave her the name of a therapist. Grace became less pathologically involved with her Dad. Then, after she announced her marriage to Rod, both her parents stopped speaking to her. Grace was shattered. She had been punished for her emancipation. Grace was not aware that healing herself was against the rules of her family. She was shocked to realize that neither of her parents wanted to have connections and lives of their own, and yet they resented and envied Grace's new life. In this instance, the Family Myth was a rather dingy and broken-down one - not the utopian familial vision that most families subscribe to. However, in the most dysfunctional of families, it is not at all uncommon for the Family Myth to be the picture of dysfunction: "If I'm messed up then you'd better be, too."
Family members pay a high price for going against the grain. Grace had tired of putting her own life on hold and forced her parents to release her.
Alice and James excelled and surpassed her parents in their accomplishments and education with their independent thoughts and actions. Powerless in the face of these decisions, family members responded with "divorce," the casting out of the offending family member.
Births, deaths, marriages, ageing, holidays, retirement, career successes,
business failures - all the ups and downs of life - all have the
potential for challenging the Family Myth and creating shattering scenarios
for individuals. Both Grace and Alice were devastated by their
family's rejection of them. The loss of their parents' approval shook the very foundation of their lives, leaving them hurt, disoriented and depressed.
Over time, Alice and James were able to repair their family "divorce" by acknowledging the myths of Alice's family and learning to adapt to the family's need to feel that Alice and James were submissive and accepting of them. Of course, in this healing process, Alice's family had to learn to live with the level of distance and difference exhibited by James and Alice.
It took Grace many months to work out her differences with her parents. Room
had to be made in the Family Myth for Grace and Rod's marriage. Grace had to convince her parents that her own rejection of an unhealthy lifestyle was not a rejection of them.
It is neither necessary nor a good idea to give up hard won emotional growth in order to remain a member in good standing of your family. Neither should you sublimate all of your wishes and desires in order to please your family. But it is important to examine your own Family Myths. Once you understand them, you will be able to avoid a "divorce" in the family by negotiating safely the rocky paths that could challenge the Family Myth. Or, if a schism has already occurred in your family, it will be possible to see what steps can be taken to begin the healing process.
*The names of all clients have been changed to protect their identities.
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