Tie That Bind...Bonds That Empower

...the Perplexing and Perilous Journey toward Healthy Family Valuing

Robert D. Caldwell

Among my earliest memories are occasions when I overheard my mother and father talk with zest, opinion, and compassion about the life struggles and problems of their brothers, sisters, friends, and of the customers who traded at my father's general store. One of his favorite stories was that of giving a small boy a much-needed bath in an old tub right in his office, an event the boy found great fun. My mother went to the county prison to teach reading and Bible study, never giving a thought to danger. For years, I imagined that my life was remarkably different from theirs; then, I took a closer look. I had been a minister--reflecting my mothers spiritual interest, a businessman--carrying forward a mercantile heritage which extended back several generations, and a psychotherapist--continuing the social involvement of both my parents.

We look like our parents, speak and act like them, express their values. If we were abused by our parents, chances are better than even that we will mistreat our children. If we were tenderly loved and supported by our parents, chances are high that our children will be sensitively appreciated by us. If high achievement was revered in theory and practice in our families, chances are we will make a lively impact in our time. The family is the environment through which we came to know ourselves. It is the matrix within which we made sense of our lives and in which the molds were cast from the malleable raw material of our psyche into the fixed forms that characterize our adult lives. We have no self other than the one that grows up in community, learning from interactions with our world about the acceptability, or not, of our behaviors. Nature designed us to want to prove ourselves to somebody. The "somebody" most of us have around are our families. What they tell by speech and behavior about whether we are approved, tolerated, or disapproved determines how we value or devalue ourselves.

Looking beneath the recent brouhaha over "family values," our passions pro-and-con about this subject may be reflecting a crisis in how we value ourselves. The return to "family values" may be an effort to believe that we have lost something of value in our not being able to hold on to models of stability and reassurance that the family is supposed to provide. Of course, the family is supposed to provide such values. Who else would or could? The family, alone, is able to impress and install values within us when we are most susceptible to learning, when the programs of the brain are being formed--when there is relatively limited information and a little bit goes a long way.


We cannot do otherwise than be influenced by our family's values--as they are part of who we are--either by mimicking, reshaping or rebelling against them. Negatively or positively our family's stance and style are determinative of our own. Of the Judds, who's the mother? who's the daughter? Of the Fondas, who's the most talented? Of the Kennedys the Hafts, the Ripkins--pick your generation.

Family as Single Organisms

Organismically, we are microcosms of our families. Nature and nurture--genes and environment--conspire to bond us "for keeps." There is a symbiotic cord that dictates a sense of being responsible for one another, that the performances of our children--and of our parents--are extensions of who we are. Witness the parents who refuse to relate to their children when their child marries the "wrong" person, or joins the "wrong" religious group. There are great numbers of parents who believe that "of course they will cut their daughter or son out of their will if they embarrass them or refuse to live life according to their standards." There are millions of men and women today stressfully and unhappily practicing careers their parents chose for them. Countless numbers of parents and children have no boundaries between them. They believe and act as though one were the possession of the other.

Family as Myth Makers

The stories the family tells set the expectations for family achievement, failure, dysfunction or harmony. One family may produce a line of physicians, another of lawyers, another of strong women, another of sick children. Many family gatherings, small or large, will be filled with stories of the triumphs and failures of the family in a style and content that carry that family's dominant themes. In the McEwen family stories of Scottish thrift were standard bedtime fare. The McEwen children became conservative bankers known for their expertise in helping people conserve their assets. The Klines lived out professional service stories: one grandfather was a pioneering ophthalmologist in his community, followed by his son who became the leading surgeon in his city, succeeded by the grandson who became the richest lawyer in his county. For the Baucombs the family myths celebrate quiet, solid citizenship: the patiarch was a beloved mailman and each of his children worked their way through college and settled in service jobs in their home town. And many families who live--and die--by their negative stories reap their tragedies repetitiously: The Janus family has been victimized as far back as memory serves--currently Mara is divorcing her second alcoholic husband, a phenomenon that also happened twice for her mother.

And there are unconscious myths, as well. In the Charles family the explicit myths are of faithfulness, religious conviction, hard work, and humility. The drive toward dominance is not acknowledge or owned, but has been enacted for generations in large land and manufacturing company ownership, community leadership, and national prominence in their church. In one branch of the family four children have become, respectively, a head of a Fortune 500 corporation, a president of a university, a lawyer of national prominence, a published author of several historical studies.

Family as Arbiters of Mood

As surely as family stories establish the expectations for behaviors, family mood establishes the norms for emotional tone--joy, exhilaration, quietude, rambunctiousness, depression, hopelessness, hopefulness. Families are ruled by the moods of their members, often one member in particular. In the Lorenzon family the mother is always bedridden, filling the atmosphere of the home with complaints of illness and depression. So embarrassed was her son that he rarely brought a friend home, and he worried constantly about his mother's emotional and physical state. As an adult, he has suffered with depression and timidity. In the Balastar family, nothing, not even the jailing of one son and the unsettled bed and marriage hopping of a daughter, derails the mother's gracious spirit and ardor for life. In spite of these ills, and of a husband who does little more than hang on, each of her five children bring themselves into continual engagement with life with a confidence that something very positive will emerge for them--and, as with their mother, it always has.

Family as Custodian of Rituals

There are rituals of memory, invisible connections, inflexible expectations that bind us to one another. There are families who gather from far distances each year to commemorate the death of a critically significant member. There are the powerful compelling sounds of the pied pipers of family gatherings that bring family members from far-flung places to honor weddings, funerals, and initiation rites. There are meal rituals, politeness and rudeness rituals. There are rituals of illness, and of sex, and of bedtime. There are lateness and promptness rituals. There are rituals of teasing and of letting-alone. There are rituals of harmony and of conflict. Al rituals establish patterns of predictability and safety; they make experience comprehensible and minimize overwhelm. We need to continue our rituals, for with them we feel that life-is-as-it-should-be.

In Patricia's home her mother and father, successfully and harmoniously married for more than fifty years, always had breakfast together no matter what time each needed to leave home in the morning. Breakfast began their day in a way that was reassuring and warming--and they credited this as one of the key ingredients in their happy life together. Patricia could never understand why her husband, who seemed loving enough, and who agreed with her that it would be enjoyable to start the day together, somehow managed always to be too rushed, or tired, or out-of-town to join her in so starting the day. In their couples therapy she became aware of the power of her family-installed expectations; he learned that his training, which included a mad rush by his father to the metro after downing a glass of orange juice, had been almost opposite from Patricia's. Even with good will, it took the couple several months before they could work out respectful and satisfying ways to integrate their separate histories into a pattern both could live with. Such is the power of installed ritual--we feel it is "the way life is," and transcending it demands high consciousness and intention.


Nobody wants to grow up. It is the single hardest thing we do in this life with the possible exception of preparing to die. We hold on to our parents and our parents hold on to us. Our family was never good enough, so we try to deny its shortcomings, or remember the joyous and loving times selectively, or fabricate them out of whole cloth. Or perhaps, through a reverse turn of mind, we remember the family only in negative frames--creating our family history as a monstrously abusive period in order to give explanation to the emptiness of soul we feel. Idealized memories, positive or negative, are ways we remain the child of our histories.

Growing up is so scary, so intimidating, so riskful, so lonely. We come into the world, not by choice but pushed from behind by generative, cultural, and evolutionary forces. We did not request To Be, and, in the beginning, we are not treated as though we were responsible for ourselves. The possibility of self-responsibility happens incrementally, with our putting up a whale of a lot of resistance alone the way. There are so many good reasons to remain children: We can believe that "father (and mother, and older people, and authorities, and smarter people, and...) knows best" and consequently never own that we are the only ones in charge of our knowing and our actions. We can avoid dealing straight-on with the evils and ambiguities of the world. We can avoid confronting our own sense of shame for being failures, forever coat-tailing on the family legacies--fantasized or real. We can deny our aloneness, the ultimate singularity of our perceptions, experiences, and performances. We can ignore the enescapable bonds of our family that we can neither loose nor reclaim as a warm womb. We can escape taking the risk of occupying our own space in the world--out on a limb, all by ourselves.

We hold on to our parents to the detriment of becoming adults by strategies learned as automatic responses--conscious and unconscious--within our families: Togetherness Rules. This family never gives a thought to separating. We assume that whatever the family does is right. We stay in each other lives at every juncture. Holidays, weekend outings, observances and celebrations, frequent phone calls--virtually everything runs through the family filter, where it is purified of alien influences and made to reflect the circumscribed expectations of this single entity--our family. Image Is Everything. Being the picture of a healthy family--if nothing else--is the central operating dynamic. It's Too Late. We calm down our inner prompting to candor by rationalizing how "they did their best and it would only be cruel to confront them now." Business Deals. We create a dependency in which we need each other in some financial or material way. This a marvelous recapitulation of childhood for both parent and child--to enmesh one's finances so thoroughly that one "cannot get by" without the other. Changing The Past. Wherein we attempt to "remember" differently or reinterpret our histories in ways to make for "better" childhoods. This takes a lot of time, since it involves doing violence to the way our neurons have logged in historical information and--in many cases--contradicts the continued information stream from the behavior of the still-alive parents. Change the Present. This can involve a wide variety of sub-strategies. We often undertake confrontation and harangue, or it can be "subtle" cajoling and "gift-giving" (a favorite being a "free" ticket to a "life-changing" seminar or a self-help book given by us hoping that the "experience" will make the recipient into what we desire). Finally, now that we are adults, we want to approach our family members with the expectation that surely this time, they will "get it right." We attempt, once again, to make our parents into "good parents."


Occasionally, we begin to realize that trying to force a fictitious past into our memory, being nostalgic for a childhood that never was, is a doomed-from-the-start enterprise. We can be so shamed, so terrified, so accustomed to doing the same rituals of meeting and parting, to sharing the same myths of victimization and conquest, that we dare not venture into any risk of individuation. But in spite of our fears, there beckons from within and without the "still small voice" of creation, the call to go beyond, to draft before-unknown configurations. There are compelling reasons that growing-up is worth the effort.

Only Grown-ups genuinely heal the hurts of their past. As long as we remain a child, we are always trying to get others to "treat us right," to "make up for" for the bad things that happened to us. The hurts of the past are the incompletions of the past. As we become separate beings, as we become strong, the past becomes healed by being incorporated--with all the realities of its pain and injustice--into the healthy present. It simply becomes part of the fabric of our lives. History doesn't need "healing" any more for we are "whole" and the darkness of childhood become part of the textured pattern of our lives.

Growing-up is the only way to temper our rage. As long as we are subordinate to our families, then negative memories are painfully re-experienced as victimizations. We are never as powerful as the "other"--whether a parent, or another adult, consequently we respond from the "under" position. Rage is the aggression of the non-confident child. It is the most powerful and influential thing we can do from the "down" position. But it never get us beyond the "down," as rage kills others and self.

Marisa knew she had to confront her father. In the eyes of the community and her passive mother he had seemed a model parent, but she carried with her vivid regrets and resentments about his verbal teasing and seductiveness when she was in her teens. Her older sister had sexually abused her, and when she had told her father, he refused to believe it and told her to forget the whole thing. He joined with her brothers in taunting her about her boyfriends and her emerging female body. And now, in her thirties, there were many gatherings which seemed always to be marked by her father aggressively courting her friendship. Often she became sick at her stomach at these get-togethers, for any effort on his part to be affectionate drew her secret rage. She knew she had to confront him about her history and her feelings. She did--and hers was not a happy outcome in terms their relationship. As happens so often, he denied the history she knew so well. Yet, from her moment of speaking to him, with help from her husband and friends and other healers, her renewal began.

Growing-up is the best way to love our families. When we feel stuck to our families, we may call it "love", but looked at more closely our feelings will include generous portions of guilt, shame, fear, inertia . There are many meanings of "love" but the most prized ones have large portions of self-determination and choice. This "love" comes from freely offered feeling and commitment that gives not because we "should," because something is expected of us, but because it is the most fulfilling and releasing experience we can have. Only persons who have established some distance from their families, who don't "need" them, can have this sort of bonding and connection with them.

Clara, after 37 years of being with her mother and brother on Christmas, told them that on the next holiday she was going to Club Med with her boyfriend. Her family, caught unprepared for this "obvious abandonment," was grumpy and uncivil for three months. But, slowly Clara noticed that from them emerged a new level of respect for her opinion and that she was less taking-for-granted. Her spirits, her confidence, and her appreciation for her family began to rise. Further, in the time that her family was less than gracious to her, she began to depend more on her friends for companionship and support and found with them an equality and satisfaction that she could not get from the "little-girl" stance she so often had taken with her family.

Growing-up is getting real. None of us can be only "gown-up", there will always be in us the "child" of our families. None of us remain entirely the "child"; to maneuver in the world it is inevitable that we will become, in some aspects, "adult." We are all made, and we all make ourselves. We make ourselves out of that of which we are made. And we go from there. That is both everything there is to it and all there is to it. That's real.


There is nothing easy about growing up. It's a tough job, but if we are to move beyond being forever beholden to parents (to authority), if there is to be any creative movement in civilization, someone has to do it. Here are a few suggestions:

Make your family a prime project for understanding. Accept that being a child of your parents is fixed. It is a part of you both physiologically and psychologically. You are bonded to your parents in ways either diminishing or empowering, and how this balances out is, for the most part, up to you. It is in your best interest to learn from your family. If you are to differentiate from them, you had better have a pretty good idea of who they are, their loves, hates, habits, biases, moods and predilections and their capacity for listening and withdrawing. Every increase of knowing your family will add to your knowing about yourself. Knowing begets understanding; understanding spawns acceptance; acceptance of your actual history provides an arena to work through your hurts and claim your joys. After all, your families are simply other persons trying to make it through life a day at a time, and like you, with mixed results.

Confront your fears about being on your own. It is natural to wonder if you can exist

without fulfilling family directives. Clara remained unmarried for forty-five years because her mother did not sanction her relationship with her "one true love." Even after her mother's death she remained "just a friend" with her beloved, not wanting to violate mother's memory. Such a story sounds extreme, but it epitomizes the invisible, hypnotic, "enforcer" power of the family. Adulthood is a huge undertaking and is justifiably begun with "fear and trembling," but in facing your fears you will find--by that act alone--you will have already taken the hardest single step in dealing with them.

Acknowledge your grief at the loss of childhood. You can't give-up being children easily. "Being taken care of," having limited responsibilities, crying and being comforted by "big people," playing with unconscious abandon--these aspects of childhood are very attractive, and for chronological-adults, very seductive. Of course, aspects of these states of mind and being go with you through life, but they are experienced differently as adults than as children. In allowing yourselves to honor and to grieve your childhood, you are able to begin to release the dependencies of childhood and make way for self-determination and personal ascendancy.

Accept awkward and painful adolescence as a necessary step. Growing-up is not a pretty sight. Adolescence, the period for moving into adulthood, is hardly a time of grounding, sensitivity, rationality, or clear minded purpose. Whatever your years, a period of developmental "adolescence" seems required of those who would grow-up. Becoming in charge of yourselves, while not disclaiming your family ties, means going against a lifetime of things being expected one way--suddenly you are coming from another angle, and you, your family and community can become frustrated and confused.

Confront family members with whom you are incomplete. Though you may have added several convolutions to your brain thinking up excuses to avoid being straight with your parents about the way you actually feel about them, you will further expand that portion of your brain that has to do with shame-reduction and self-care by going to these family members and telling them your stories of hurt, fear, disempowerment, shame. You are under the spell of your parents--the belief implanted by them in almost magical ways: that you will die, or roast in hell, or be a grossly bad person should you confront them in ways that they have declared taboo, that threaten them. The subconscious message is that you will be cast out from family and community and never worthy of re-entry (the classic shame motif). Ultimately, you define yourself or "they" define you. Ultimately, shame wins out or pride does. Ultimately, it is "us" or "them."

It is not for nothing that this phrase became so popular: "I want to tell them where to get off." You literally must believe it yourself and find the skill and courage to communicate to your parents in some form or fashion that they must "get off." Running your life is not a joint venture. There is room for only one. That can be the other--the parent (or surrogate)--or it can be yourself.

Develop your own loving community. You fare no better in life than the quality of your relationships. You cling to your historic families out of fear that you cannot establish new circles of support, warmth, engagement, and love. Stop setting yourself up for bouncing from the pillar of pleading for love and acceptance, to the post of raging indignation for what has been withheld from you. It is your nature that you cannot break away from one pattern--of behavior or connection--unless you are confident you can go to another which will be more rewarding.

Give priority to developing friends with whom you are able to express your actual feelings, hopes, and emotions--even, and most especially the "dark side" of your personality. It is the "dark side" that was rejected in your family; it is this "dark side," this unowned part of yourself, that is always looking for the family's acceptance, but which cannot--because of the families fears, and rigidities ever be accepted. (A family Catch 22: what you want from the family, they can't give. They don't have it. That is, of course, why you want it.) For you to heal you must go outside the family for acceptance. Only when venturing beyond can you gain the strength to face and be part-of your family, for then you will not need everything from them and will be more free to grasp what is available. You are on the way toward honest self-acceptance.

Make an open rhythm between your historic family and the life you live now. Seek to escape or deny your heritage and it will nag at you, divert you, sneak up on you, eat away your confidence and well-being. You are your family, and as you acknowledge and accept and integrate your family history into your life today vital new connections and possibilities will abound. This is the path to experiencing your family, not as ties that bind, but as bonds that empower.

Robert Caldwell, M. Div., C. P. C., has a private practice of individual, group, and couple psychotherapy in Bethesda, MD. He can be reached in 301-652-6180.