Why is family disharmony deeply distressing?

Families are partly created and partly selected. Yet, the anticipation that extended family members will be bonded, supportive and sharing during good and bad times helps us feel safer, secure and connected to those whose positive regard and caring is needed throughout life. Yet, in many families one may find certain individuals who are more bonded to some members, while less enamored by or even distanced from others. Not only is an alienation within some family members unfortunate, it may also destabilize the unity of the extended family. How can we unite with others who may be different from us and accept them as enhancements to us individually and collectively?

Bonding instincts are often initiated by survival considerations in humans and most other species. The group affiliation has facilitated the sharing of talents and resources that ultimately increased the chances of survival for all the members of the “clan.” Though today we live in a more individualistic culture, the emotional, intellectual, social and bonding benefits of family members and friends routinely underscores our worthiness and reassures us of greater safety in times of need.

Psychologically, we need to have social and emotional bonds with others who validate our worthiness and desirability, as we enhance theirs. Those who have an acrimonious circle of family and friends are less likely to emotionally, psychologically, socially or personally thrive as well as do those whose social and familial connections are deeper. The enrichment of knowing that we are liked, respected and socially desired by others is essential to sustaining our self-worth and confidence. Aloneness and loneliness often lead to doubts about one’s merits and value to others.

Humans’ most desired validation is sought from those whom we respect, cherish and love. A lessening of social and familial bonds is often interpreted as a loss of value and desirability. Thus, discounting arguments, fights, isolation or gossiping about another may temporarily bond the parties who engage in it, but also assures that the participants in these behaviors are likely to repeat this conduct with others about the listener.

Having self-dignity and respect for others models one’s fair attitude and acceptance of those who are unlike them. When family members who are expected to advance each other’s esteem take the liberty of discounting a third individual to create a bond with the listener, one must be assured that this habit is likely to also be used against him/her.

One of the more emotionally disturbing experiences is being a witness to family members’ mistreatment of each other. Spouses who argue and discount one another in front of their children, friends, family or strangers, indirectly exacerbate the shaming of each other in public.

Not only do all religions disallow these habits, but all listeners are hurt and shamed by this occurrence, as well.

Listening to mates argue and discount each other in public, is a double humiliation; one for the mate and the other for the uninvolved listeners who cringe for the maligned party and may be at a loss to right this wrong.

How to remediate a verbal assault of another:

If we choose to get involved, we may tell the abuser, “It does not appear to be like you, to insult your wife in public.”

With family members or children, we may say, “We are a fortunate family that we are loving, affirming and kind to one another, even when we don’t agree about the issue.”

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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