He describes his family-of-origin as “like walking into the 1950s … like watching an episode of “The Sopranos.” He describes his family as “committed and respectful.”
Well, certainly committed. Powerfully, even savagely committed. His family is not merely Mediterranean, but Old World Mediterranean. Each member of this family would, in turn, lay down in front of a train for the other. Take a bullet for the other. The bonds of “Old World Mediterranean” families are stunning, really. (See My Big Fat Greek Wedding.)
The rub with these kinds of families is the tendency to interpret the family bond as de facto evidence of respect. Meaning, if we practice the bond, ergo, we must be respecting each other.
What sometimes/often gets neglected in this kind of family system is a deeper expression of respect. There are times when the most beautiful respect I can offer you is to allow you to loosen the bond of family. To allow you the space to be truly yourself. The time and space not to define yourself in the collective bond of family; rather, to make the choices that strengthen you defining yourself as yourself.
What some families define as “respect” is, when examined more deeply, more a blurring of ego boundaries. Fused relationships are not the same as respectful relationships. Which isn’t to say that our intention is to disrespect. But it is to say that authentic respect allows for space. For separateness. Fused relationships are powerfully bonded, indeed. What we examine, however, is not the power of the bond, but the health of the bond, not to mention the health and wholeness of the people sharing the bond.
An extreme example: Domestic violence relationships are powerfully bonded. But the bond is a pathological fusion.
Another extreme example: Mario Puzo’s book The Godfather introduced us to the Corleone family. For them, the bond was the respect. Sure, you could marry, but no way were you going to make a healthy move into a more individual (differentiated) life with your spouse. Nope, you stayed put – geographically and psychologically – and your new spouse was absorbed into the Corleone family system. Efforts to loosen the grip of the fusion were first discouraged, then shamed, then refused, then, ultimately punished.
I’m saying this nice man’s use of “The Sopranos” as metaphor is not lost on me.
The bedrock of healthy relationships is “I am not you.” This confession is the ultimate expression of respect. Which is to say that no expression of love can be entirely respectful without it.
Sometimes we must do injury to the bond in service to respect and self-respect. Yet, ironically, allowing for this “injury” makes possible an even more powerful family bond.
Spouses will, from time to time, (unconsciously) loosen their grasp and practice of intense marital connectedness, because a time has come to be more intentional about the next stage of self-development. These times of greater separateness are stressful to the marriage, but so normal and so necessary. And, in the end, these times of greater separateness usher in a time of even deeper and more powerful marital connectedness.
Healthy parents are willing to do the suffering – and it is a suffering – of letting children loosen the grasp on family bonds. This means watching our children behave in contradiction to our preferred dreams for them. It means not-so-secretly admiring the way they stand up to us, confront us, especially when we deserve it. It means watching children inevitably oppose, contradict, subordinate, or even flat defy one or more of our most treasured values or ways of seeing the world. It means watching them loosen their grasp on family bonds so they might ally more passionately with peers.
I was lucky. My mother and father did a sterling job of balancing the equation of duty to family vis the need for healthy separateness.
More than 2,000 years before Sigmund Freud, long, long before the advent of a psychoanalytic view of the world, long before we coined the word “differentiation,” … well, the early Hebrews sensed this struggle between family bonds and what constituted true respect for family members. It’s right there in the Hebrew scriptures. Listen to them describe the necessary precursor to a healthy marriage: “And a man shall leave his mother, and a woman shall leave her home, and the two shall become One Flesh.”
What’s the first, necessary ingredient to a great marriage? Or, for that matter, to a whole and thriving adult life? You gotta leave home. Geographically, it’s as easy as renting a U-Haul. Psychologically, it’s an ongoing journey. An ongoing negotiation of respect.