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Dublin: 13 °C Sunday 22 April, 2018

No family are like the Waltons. Some families are a nightmare

When family relationships break down it can be a shock for all involved because mostly they genuinely don’t know why.

Bernadette Ryan

“THE FAMILY IS the most difficult myth of our time, for nowhere do we more live a myth than in the realities of home life,” said James Hillman, American Psychologist.

We all like to remember our family through a Norman Rockwell lens or at the least convince ourselves that we were more like the Waltons than the Simpsons. In the same way as we like to remember our childhood summers tinged with the yellow glow of sunshine, so too we like to remember growing up in our families enveloped in the warm and golden hue of the hearth and home.

For some this may well have been the case. For others it can be glaringly obvious that family life was more akin to a nightmare and they harbour no such illusions or fantasies.

For many, the reality of family lies somewhere in the middle. The family is our introduction to the world, in fact for many years, is our world. This is where we learn the rules of engagement; how people treat each other, how things work, how love works, how love doesn’t work, how to get love. Love is the centre of our universe, the source of all life and our very survival depends on it.

Ideally love is unconditional, which literally means no conditions attached. I will love you for who you are. Love can also be conditional, I will love you if… and from infancy we know the deal. We know we need love to survive and we will do whatever needs to be done to get it.

The power of love

The psychoanalyst Carl Jung says that we come into this world seeking love and when we don’t get the love we need we seek power instead. So love and power can become confused or even fused from very early on. According to the psychiatrist R.D.Laing, whatever mental image we carry about our family it is a fantasy.

Whatever our ‘memory’ of things it is usually not the reality. This can be very evident when families get together and reminisce about their childhood, everyone has their own version of what happened. Sometimes they are widely different and contradictory, sometimes they are similar, but they are rarely identical. What is true for all individuals is their own unique experience of growing up in their family.

And very often that experience and family lore do not match and, in order to preserve the myth of the family, (we were too the Waltons!) the individual’s experience gets negated and sacrificed for the common good. So families can create a ‘scapegoat’, a ‘black sheep’.

“We don’t know what went wrong, we treated them all the same”. “My mother/father never understood me”. “I did everything my parents expected of me and it still wasn’t good enough”. When family relationships break down it can be a shock for all involved because mostly they genuinely don’t know why.

When families breakdown

Parents can feel deeply hurt and rejected by ungrateful children. Adult children can feel rejected by unloving parents. Siblings can feel compelled by a sense of rivalry and resentment. Bewildered, hurt and confused, sides get taken and the family rift widens and may descend into a deafening silence.

Let’s just leave the skeletons in the closet and either carry on as if nothing has happened or just avoid each other altogether. So, what can be done? As in all relationships communication is key. Talk things through and more importantly, listen. Listen to each other and really try to hear and understand the other. You don’t have to agree with them but you do have to respect their perspective and acknowledge their experience.

Just because it was not your experience it does not mean you need to invalidate theirs. If your feelings are too overwhelming seek some support before you address the situation. This will help to put clarity on things for you before you go blindly blaming everyone else for your unhappiness.

Take responsibility for your own input (not an easy thing to do) and try to have compassion for those who remain unaware of their own. If you feel you have done all you can you may need to draw a line in the sand and move on or perhaps put it behind you and walk away.

Either way in the long term, holding on to grudges and grievances only burdens the one who is carrying them. (Clearly there are situations of willful neglect and abuse which will need specialist support and guidance and are not the situations referred to here).

A major task of adulthood is to separate psychologically, emotionally and physically from our family of origin so as to set ourselves free to create our own adult relationships. If we do not take on this task we run the risk of recreating the very dysfunctional situations that cause us so much grief.

Bernadette Ryan is a relationships counsellor and psychotherapist with Relationships Ireland. For more information on their counselling services or to book a consultation you can contact them on 01 678 5256, email or visit Relationships Ireland also offers counselling for teenagers who are af ected by separation via the ‘Teen­Between’ service. For more information, visit

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Bernadette Ryan

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