Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Friends and Lovers: The Family You Choose

I'm not sure who coined the phrase that friends/lovers are the "family we choose", but I think that it is very fitting for this discussion. The last blog entry dealt with unhealthy family of origin relationship patterns, and I promised to follow up with a post on how these unhealthy patterns may impact "relationships of choice" (e.g., friends and romantic partners). Before diving into unhealthy relationship patterns in "relationships of choice" (ROC), I will first briefly explain how family relationships are foundational to other relationship development.

The foundation for ROC is built upon family relationship experiences. "Family" is defined as any unit or configuration in which you were raised (e.g., two parent, single parent, with grandparents or other relatives, etc). The way that you seek and participate in relationships stems from family relationship patterns. It it is important to understand that family relationships may be perceived and experienced differently by each member and, while there may be common themes (e.g., parents were distant or not supportive, there was a lot of fighting), the impact of these experiences varies from person to person even within the same family. For example, it is not unusual for siblings to navigate friend or romantic relationships in very different ways even though they grew up in the same home. Parents/guardians may have treated siblings differently or the family environment may have changed over time (e.g., the family's financial situation may have improved or worsened, the addition of or loss of family members, etc), which would impact an individual's perception of his/her experience in the family.

Thus, the environment of the family and the way in which you were treated growing up impacts the way you seek out and interact in ROC. This is works out well if you were raised in a family that was supportive, loving, and open to change (i.e., healthy family environment), but it may be a challenge if you were reared in a family where members were put down, physically, emotionally, or sexually abused, or alienated. Keep in mind that these family descriptions are extremes and most families fall somewhere on the healthy/unhealthy spectrum. Nonetheless, the family acts as a base for the development of what I'll call a "relationship identity", which includes an individual's expectations about how he/she is perceived by others (e.g., accepted, rejected, or invisible/ignored), how he/she initiates and engages in ROCs (e.g., fearlessly, hesitantly, not at all/isolates self, trusting, distrustful), and any "baggage" that he/she brings into the ROCs (e.g., "I am unlikeable", "I am unloveable", "I always mess things up").

So how exactly do these family of origin relationship patterns manifest in your ROCs? Discovering this involves a bit of introspection. Here are some questions that may act as a guide:

- How did individuals in your family get along in general as a whole? Did people cooperate with one another or were things hectic or tumultuous? Was there cohesion or did everyone do their own thing?
- If you had siblings, how did you get along with them? What are sibling relationships like now?
- If you were raised with two parents, what did you observe about their relationship with one another? Was it close and overtly loving (e.g., physical and verbal affection) or was it more distant?
- Does there exist a pattern of romantic relationships in your extended family? For instance, are extended family members generally married or divorced and/or single? Do family members hold romantic relationships in regard or are they discussed with disdain or contempt?
- How did your parents interact with their peers? Did they have close friends or were they more reserved? Were you encouraged to trust others or taught to be cautious or distrustful when forming new relationships?

Now think about your own ROCs- do you see parallels between relationship patterns observed in your family? Do you react to your friends and/or romantic partners in ways that are similar to what you observed or were taught? It may be helpful to compare notes with peers from your family who may be able to help you brainstorm about family relationship patterns and/or norms.

A follow up blog post will take a look at ways to go about breaking the cycle of dysfunctional or unhealthy relationship patterns.

~ Dr. Stanley

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