“The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”
― Henry David Thoreau
We all have capital N – NEED for security, for safety – for relationships we can depend upon. While it is obvious that no relationship can be guaranteed to provide 100% safety, or security – and no relationship is impervious to lesser or greater betrayals.
Most of us expect that our families will be the relationships we can most rely upon.
Not all people experience their family in this way. Consider the 34 year old mother of two who said, “I remember growing up watching families on t.v, how they were there for each other, supporting each other. It was completely alien to me. I’m still trying to figure it out with my own family”
Or, as one man pointed out, “I still think of family as something to escape from.”
It can be really difficult to acknowledge family as a place of wounding or betrayal, difficult to remain in relationships that hurt and yet, also very hard to think to think about walking away. I’ve spoken to number of people who have chosen to distance themselves from family because they were keenly aware of having to pay a hefty price for remaining a part of their family. There may have been a number of spoken or unspoken ‘rules’: do not remember, do not challenge, tolerate intolerance, do not be authentic, do not feel your feelings, etc. There’s many reasons family members might clash. On the recent survey I have been circulating, some of those reasons included: “I’m gay. There’s no room for that in my family.” “My mom and I got along but only if I did things her way.” “I married a black African man. Goodbye family.”
When is enough, enough?
We can choose to ‘forgive’, we can choose to be silent, we can choose to suppress or hide parts of who were are. We can choose to maintain family relationships – but at some point, remaining in the situation may begin to feel a lot like self harming — this seems especially the case in families where betrayal and abuse are not distant childhood memories, but continue in the present.
Whilst reconciliation in families seems considered the ideal, possibly because our connection to tribe and family is such an integral part of our sense of identity – it is not always possible or desirable. Sometimes we cannot safely raise issues with family so that they can be resolved. Sometimes connection only provides further opportunities for shaming, blaming, abusing, harming.
Sometimes family members are absent through death, divorce or disconnection and we can’t connect even if we want to. We’re told that acknowledgment of hurts, apology and forgiveness may lead to reconciliation – but they are not always possible. We may have made previous efforts to reconnect, and been greeted by a closed door. Relationships involve two people and one person cannot carry the responsibility to heal, grow and nurture a relationship on their own.
Knocking on family doors until knuckles are bloody does not feel good. Neither does opening the door only to get sucker punched.
I often think of the Buddhist ideal of Ahimsa. Ahimsa, is the awareness and practice of non-violence in thought, speech and action. It advocates the practices of compassion, love, understanding, patience, self-love, and worthiness. So what’s Ahimsa got to do with non-Buddhists or with family estrangement?
Ahimsa could be considered an interesting framework through which to consider our responsibility to ourselves as well as to others. A pretty cool part of the idea of Ahimsa is that its not limited to how we treat others, we are included. How we treat, respect and care for ourselves matters too. Ahimsa is also not just about behavior. Behavior springs from the internal – the things we think and feel, things we say.
Ahimsa suggests that it is important to adopt an attitude of gentleness, of ‘do no harm’ to self, not only physically, but also mentally, emotionally and spiritually
This idea of ‘do no harm’ is very powerful when considering whether or not to maintain any relationship, including those with family. The idea that we can put ourselves first, and that indeed we must do so, opens a sense of ‘permission’ to protect and care for self. It means we don’t have to be doormats or victims if that is the price of maintaining family relationships. It means its ok to take ourselves out of harms way. It’s ok to put distance between ourselves and other people who would do us harm; even if those people are our family.
Ahimsa means we do not have to allow others to wreck havoc in our lives and stand idly by and allow it. I really like what the following woman had to say, both because she is able to acknowledge that trying to reconnect doesn’t seem possible in the moment but also allows room for things to change in the future: “My daughter cut me off when her father and I divorced. I’ve tried to reconnect, but each time I get nothing but anger and blame. I’d love to be able to work it through, butI have to stay away from her until something changes.“
No one can tell you if reconciliation is a desirable goal for you in your family circumstances and only you can determine whether distancing from a family member is genuinely a decision based on self love and the need to protect self.
It may also be worth remembering that decisions need not be frozen in place forever. It may be we need distance in order to protect and care for ourselves today and at the same time, it is possible to leave a door open in the event that people or circumstances change, as they so often do.