Don’t I Always Have to Say Yes to Family Invites?: The Truth of Healthy Family Dynamics

Sandra was considered the black sheep of the family. She worked in national parks, farmed, and was a stay-at-home mom while her siblings were lawyers and corporate managers. Family reunions consisted of golf games and spa appointments, which Sandra rarely attended as she and her family were out camping, hiking, or rafting.

Over the decades Sandra experienced the normal emotional progression of a black sheep. As a child and teen she struggled with sadness because she “wasn’t like everyone else” in her family. Her siblings and cousins excelled at sports and extracurricular activities, while she spent time alone in the woods. Fortunately about the time her sadness shifted into depression, a neighbor noticed her interest in nature and began to have Sandra over for tea to discuss local birds, plants and animals. In college and her early 20’s Sandra began to discover herself and rebelled against anything having to do with her family. She stopped going home for the holidays, became a vegan, and started leading rock climbing expeditions on her breaks. Sandra’s 30’s brought marriage and babies and her husband asked if it wasn’t time to reconnect with her family. Initially she was treated like the prodigal daughter, but soon she realized it was the same old system. If she and her family expressed opinions or ideas different from everyone else, they were hushed, ignored or ridiculed. If they attempted to fit in it was made clear they “weren’t doing enough.” Sandra came in for counseling because, just like when she was a child, she was feeling sadness and depression.

Sandra began working on the final step—acceptance and letting go. Her extended family had their values and behavioral patterns, and she and her immediate family had theirs. They weren’t going to blend or compliment, they were simply too different. In order for her to move forward in her life she needed to let go of seeking their approval, accept the differences, and find the reasonable amount of contact that she and her family could healthfully accept. Sandra discovered some cousins that loved camping and began to schedule regular camping trips with them, however contact with the rest of her extended family was very minimal (she and her husband attended part of the family reunions every 5 years).

There are many healthy ways to relate to one’s family of origin, and different circumstances require different choices. What works best for you and your family?