Family dynamics are complicated because each player is unique, which makes the mixture a combination of personalities, belief systems, and history. Children reared in the same household have different interests and abilities. This is not news, but knowing the reality of the situation does not always make dealing with it easy or pleasant. The individual uniqueness often causes tension and unstable relationships because the drama and sharp tongues can leave lingering hurt. Keeping the family togetherness intact requires more than a spoonful of love. A bit of maturity added to the heaping unconditional love and spontaneous forgiveness can dissolve a toxic situation.
While issues arrive as soon as children are born and sometimes health problems loom large to color the scenario, hindsight reveals that the average problems and stress remain miniscule when children are young or teenagers. When they reach adulthood and assert their independence which we have taught them, job and education choices can cause conflict. Our lives are ripe with minefields of potential riffs in families.
One of the pitfalls that can cause lasting damage comes when the family unit enlarges to include spouses with their families, traditions, and history. When an adult child makes a questionable choice choosing a spouse, parents need to remember that they are no longer in charge. Our baby has become an adult even though we still feel responsible. With their marriage, we can accept the decision and make the best of it or show our true feelings and risk alienation of our child, sometimes forever. The latter is not an option I would choose.
I am very fortunate to have in-laws I like and love, but even when diplomacy, respect and love are abundant, trouble can surface. How we handle it and support our children are key elements in future relationships. My mother’s wisdom rings in my ear often. As I started dating and some of my friends married before graduating from college, she cautioned me about the necessity of finishing college before marriage. Since she was a single mom with two daughters to support, she was keenly aware of the need to be able to support yourself. “I hope you marry Prince Charming and never have to work a day of your life, but Prince Charming could die the next day.” The security of being able to support myself should the need arise was comforting when Paul was flying in Vietnam with shrapnel hitting his plane seven times. One element of angst was eliminated.
She, also, said, “As long as you graduate from college, I’ll never say anything about whom you marry.” She kept her word even though my choice was the opposite of our family makeup: a Northerner, Catholic, and several years older with prematurely grey hair. However, he did have a steady job. Her goal was to have harmony within the family. She had done her job to rear us daughters; now our lives were ours to manage with her on the periphery, an emotional comfort but not the boss.
Another test for families comes when grandchildren arrive with the competition between siblings and the grandparents’ desire to play a role in the grandchildren’s lives. After the initial euphoria of the birth, we grandparents need to ease into our positions, assess both parents’ expectations and take the lead from them. If family vacations started when our children were young and then continued with spouses and grandchildren, a natural progression of bonding ensues, which can promote gradual familiarity and camaraderie.
Having grandparents occasionally step in, allowing a respite for the parents and children, is a welcomed treat for most parents. When our grandchildren were 5 to 8 years old, we took two at a time for a week at Disney World. With good grades required before the trip, we took them during school with homework assignments completed every night. The first two trips were with sisters, but afterwards same sex cousins were companions. Those trips supported our effort to ensure the extended family knew each other well.
Family drama may surface anytime even during a vacation, but with determination reigning and peacekeeping as the goal, tranquility can eventually return. Awkward tension may surround the unit for a while, but even that can dissipate. When we are part of the problem, we must be ready to acknowledge our role and be gracious. Saying “I’m sorry” comes easy to some and sticks in the throat of others. Perhaps saying, “What can I do to make this right?” would work. Determining what is most important and keeping the end goal in focus is always paramount to retain family harmony.
“In family life, love is the oil that eases friction, the cement that binds closer together, and the music that brings harmony.” (Friedrich Nietzsche)