In my non-literary expert opinion, one of the finest American authors of the 20th century was Pat Conroy. He balanced skillful storytelling with vivid and thoughtful prose. And his subject matter, based heavily upon his own dysfunctional family origins, generally revolved around the domestic strife that he and his siblings witnessed as kids.
As a practicing counselor, much of what I deal with flows from issues tracing back to the client’s family of origin. In Conroy’s seminal work, The Prince of Tides”, Conroy encapsulates the nature of childhood trauma (and eventual frustration in adulthood) with the following narration from the novel’s protagonist, Tom Wingo:
“I don’t know when my parents began their war against each other – but I do know the only prisoners they took were their children.”
That bit of narration always stuck with me, years after I read the book (and Barbra Streisand butchered it into a movie to advance her cinematic career). But that’s another story. It has become a cliché to observe that all families are dysfunctional. I do not believe that. To test out that opinion, try this little experiment. Ask a friend, or even a sibling, if they believe that their upbringing was unhealthy or impaired in some way. If they had to pause to consider the question, it probably wasn’t! Those of us who sprang from such a crazed “jack-in-the-box” family culture will quickly reply in the affirmative, if asked.
Okay, some of us were luckier in our lineage than others. So what! Or more relevantly, what do we take from those experiences, be they good or bad? The answer, I believe, is to be found in our ability to gaze into that metaphorical mirror that I often reference and write about. In last month’s newsletter, I discussed our individual “blind spot.” It holds elements of our personality that we overlook or do not recognize.
We all carry our personal history, in this case our family of origin with its virtues and quirks, into our present. If we are parents, how do our children, regardless of their age, see us? Young ones probably only experience raw fear or confusion when faced with ongoing conflicts between their parents. Teens proceed into resentment and anger over such continuing chaos . And those negative feelings calcify into blind indifference as adults, leading them into their own relationship failures.
If we are not parents (or our children have “fled the nest”), what legacy are we acting out with our mates? Is it a mindless kabuki of unsatisfactory co-habitation or a reasoned consideration of our own choices as we relate to our mates? Are we tainting our current relationships by acting out past defensive reactions of fear, resentment, and withdrawal?
While this notion may make us squirm, the fact is that, unless we are truly mentally ill, we choose our own behaviors. We are truly the “architects” of our lives, especially with those we love.
If we grew up in an unhappy and unhealthy house, it makes no sense to live in a duplicate of it. If we don’t like the “house” that we live in now, we are all free to re-build it. Waiting for the house to change itself is foolish, irrational, and unproductive. And fleeing that house in search of another simply invites a re-run of the previous, sad, story.
I recommend a trip to the hardware store, buy (or learn) some new tools, and let the renovations begin!
Spouses may divorce, but parents are forever.