By Steve Pavlina
One of the most difficult matters to confront with respect to family relationships is that you don’t control the entire relationship yourself. Whether the relationship thrives or withers isn’t up to you alone. As the saying goes, it takes two to tango.
When major family relationship problems are encountered, it’s common to attempt a control strategy. You try to get the other person to change. Sometimes this approach works, especially if your request and the other person are both reasonable. But many times it just leads to frustration.
On the other hand, if you can’t change the other person, maybe you should just accept them as they are. That’s another strategy that sometimes works, but this one can also lead to frustration and even resentment if your needs aren’t being met.
There is, however, a third alternative for those times when changing the other person and accepting the other person as-is are both unworkable for you. And that option is to change yourself in a way that solves the problem. This requires that you redefine the problem as an internal one instead of an external one, and then the solution will take the form of an expansion of your awareness and/or a change in your beliefs.
An internal way of viewing relationship problems is that they reflect back to you a part of yourself that you dislike. If you have a negative external relationship situation, it’s a reflection of a conflict in your own thinking. As long as you keep looking outside yourself for the answer, you may never resolve the external problem. But once you start looking inside yourself for the problem, it may become easier to solve.
What you’ll find when you tackle such problems is that you harbor one or more beliefs that perpetuate the relationship problem in its current form. Those beliefs are the real problem — the true cause of the unhealthy relationship.
For example, consider a problematic relationship between yourself and another family member. Suppose you hold the belief that you must be close to every family member simply because they’re related to you. Perhaps you’d never tolerate this person’s behavior if it came from a stranger, but if the person is a relative, then you tolerate it out of a sense of duty, obligation, or your personal concept of family. To push a family member out of your life might cause you to feel guilty, or it could lead to a backlash from other family members. But genuinely ask yourself, “Would I tolerate this behavior from a total stranger? Why do I tolerate it from a family member then?” Exactly why have you chosen to continue the relationship instead of simply kicking the person out of your life? What are the beliefs that perpetuate the problematic relationship? And are those beliefs really true for you?
I love my parents and siblings unconditionally (I have two younger sisters and one younger brother). However, I haven’t had a particularly close-knit relationship with any of them for many years. There was no major falling out or anything like that — it’s just that my personal values and lifestyle have moved so far from theirs that there isn’t enough basic compatibility to form a strong common bond anymore. My parents and siblings are all of the employee mindset with a very low tolerance for risk, but as an entrepreneur, risk is my favorite breakfast. My wife and kids and I are all vegan, while my parents and siblings celebrate the holidays with the traditional consumption of animals. I don’t recall anyone in my family ever saying, “I love you,” while I grew up, but with my own kids I’m very affectionate and strive to tell them I love them every day. My parents and siblings are all practicing Catholics, but I left that behind 17 years ago in order to explore other belief systems. (Technically within their belief system, I’m doomed to hell, so that sorta puts a damper on things.) Even though this is the family I grew up with and shared many memories, our core values are so different now that it just doesn’t feel like a meaningful family relationship anymore.
Despite all these differences, we’re all on good terms with each other and get along fairly well, but our differences create such a big gap that we have to settle for being relatives without being close friends.
If you operate under the belief that family is forever and that you must remain loyal to all your relatives and spend lots of time with them, I want you to know that those beliefs are your choice, and you’re free to embrace them or release them. If you’re fortunate enough to have a close family that is genuinely supportive of the person you’re becoming, that’s wonderful, and in that situation, you’ll likely find the closeness of your family to be a tremendous source of strength. Then your loyalty to family closeness will likely be very empowering.
On the other hand, if you find yourself with family relationships that are incompatible with your becoming your highest and best self, then excessive loyalty to your family is likely to be extremely disempowering. You’ll only be holding yourself back from growing, from achieving your own happiness and fulfillment, and from potentially doing a lot of good for others. If I retained a very close relationship with my birth family, it would be like putting a lampshade over my spirit. I wouldn’t be the person I am today.
My way of dealing with my family situation was to broaden my definition of family. On one level I feel an unconditional connection with all human beings, but on another level, I see people with whom I share a deep compatibility as my true family. For example, my wife and I both have a strong commitment to doing good for the planet as best we can, which is one reason we each find each other attractive. And that’s partly why she’s my best friend as well as my wife. When I see people who are living very, very consciously and deliberately and who’ve dedicated their lives to the pursuit of a worthy purpose, I have a strong sense that on some level, those people are members of my family. And this connection feels more real to me than the blood relationships I was born into.
Loyalty is a worthy value, but what does it mean to be loyal to one’s family? Since loyalty is very important to me, I had to refine my view of this concept to place loyalty to my highest and best self above loyalty to the people I was born with. That was a difficult mental shift to make, but in the long run it has given me a sense of peace. I realize now that family is a concept which is capable of extending far beyond blood.
What I’m suggesting is that in order to solve family relationship problems, which exist at one level of awareness, you may need to pop your consciousness up a level and take a deeper look at your values, beliefs, and your definitions of terms like loyalty and family. Once you resolve those issues at the higher level, the low level relationship problems will tend to take care of themselves. Either you’ll transcend the problems and find a new way to continue your relationship without conflict, or you’ll accept that you’ve outgrown the relationship in its current form and give yourself permission to move on to a new definition of family.
You see… when you say goodbye to a problematic relationship issue, you’re really saying goodbye to an old part of yourself that you’ve outgrown. As I became less compatible with my birth family, I also gradually dropped parts of myself that no longer served me. I drifted away from rigid religious dogma, from fear of risk-taking, from eating animals, from negativity, and from being unable to say, “I love you.” As I let all of those things pass from my consciousness, my external-world relationships changed to reflect my new internal relationships.
As within, so without. If you hold onto conflict-ridden relationships in your life, the real cause is your inner attachment to conflict-ridden thoughts. When you alter the mental relationships within your own mind, your physical world will change to reflect it. So if you kick negative thoughts out of your head, you will find yourself simultaneously kicking negative people out of your life.
There is a wonderful rainbow at the end of this process of letting go, however. And that is that when you resolve conflicts in your consciousness that cause certain relationships to weaken, you simultaneously attract new relationships that resonate with your expanded level of consciousness.
We attract into our lives more of what we already are. If you don’t like the social situation you find yourself in, stop broadcasting the thoughts that attract it. Identify the nature of the external conflicts you experience, and then translate them into their internal equivalents. For example, if a family member is too controlling of you, translate that problem into your own internal version: You feel your life is too much out of your control. When you identify the problem as external, your attempted solutions may take the form of trying to control other people, and you’ll meet with strong resistance. But when you identify the problem as internal, it’s much easier to solve. If another person exhibits controlling behavior towards you, you may be unable to change that person. However, if you feel you need more control in your life, then you can actually do something about it directly without needing to control others.
I’ll actually go so far as to say that the purpose of human relationships may be the expansion of consciousness itself. Through the process of identifying and resolving relationship problems, we’re forced to deal with our internal incongruencies. And as we become more conscious on the inside, our relationships expand towards greater consciousness on the outside.