Dateline Stratford & Orangeville Ontario – Ian O’Neill, M.Div.: there are 5 personal characteristics that can build healthier family relationships.
Therapists over the years have come to understand there are five characteristics you need to be aware of if you are going to deal with serious disagreements within your family, and here’s the kicker; they apply first to the person in the family who wants to see the change! In my family that was me. Oh boy. In fact, if you are the first to decide positive change is desirable and necessary in your family guess what? Yes, you know what I’m going to say next; you are the one who will have to change first. No one ever said living with other people was easy!
Perhaps Mahatma Gandhi said it best;
“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.”
That quote comes courtesy of ‘Sarah’s Blog’, Sarah did some background research to determine exactly what Gandhi said, because most of us think of that quote as reading ‘be the change you want to be in the world’, which is also a good way of putting it.
This all sounds very weighty, doesn’t it? But give yourself some credit! You obviously have what it takes to do the work of improving your relationships, you’re here at this blog! Read on.
Here are the five personal characteristics we all need to improve upon to build healthier family relationships.
First, to build healthier relationships we need to have a sense of our own limits and the limits of others. You’ve probably heard the word ‘boundaries’ being used when people talk about these limits. ‘We have to respect boundaries in our relationship’ is a phrase you might hear at work or when someone is talking about family relationships. “Boundaries” refer to a good understanding of where one person’s personality and influence legitimately ends and yours begins. What defines you and what defines the other person should be about each of you defining yourselves from within and allowing others to do the same. That’s much easier said than done, many people routinely experienced violation of boundaries to a greater or lesser degree in their family of origin, and they often find themselves treating their children and and their spouse and even their co-workers in a similar way. This can lead to serious difficulties in relationships, including children who cling to their parents too much, or the opposite; ‘helicopter parents’ who ‘hover’ over their children even after they have left the nest and begun studying at university or college! Both these cases are examples of boundaries not being sufficiently observed.
The second characteristic you need to build healthier relationships is clarity about what it is you believe. Improving family relationships is no time to be wishy washy. OK, it’s time to ask yourself ‘what would I die for?’ and alternatively, ‘what is not worth fighting for?’ These are important questions because they give you the self-understanding needed to know where boundaries begin and end. Again, it’s not easy! It’s really about finding the deeper and deepest parts of your personality and character, the authentic person within yourself.
The third characteristic needed when building healthier relationships is the courage to take a stand. If you know your limits and you know what you believe it is easier to take a principled stand. Other family members might be disapproving; but if you take a principled stand with love, it gives you creative strength that can benefit you in the long run and often in the short run as well. Even if the message coming back at you implies ‘you can’t think, act, feel that way and be a part of this family’ you will have the ability to stand your ground, on principle, and with love!
The fourth characteristic is the ability to stay on course. An angry someone in your family might try their best to sabotage your best principled efforts, but no matter, because the fourth characteristic is perseverance, the ability to follow through toward your vision for a healthier, better life for you and your family. It’s really about the emotional and spiritual stamina to stick with that big goal I discuss at the beginning of this article, which essentially reads ‘to become the change in the world you want to see, especially in your family’. Amen.
The fifth characteristic is the ability to stay connected. Wow! That means being flexible and not reacting negatively to those who are reacting (perhaps negatively?) to you. Yes I know it’s tough. Staying connected means you don’t give in to the impulse to just ignore the other person or cut them off all together. No. Healthy family life is largely about healthy communication, that’s not to say there aren’t times to remain quite, there certainly are, it is implying however that healthy family connections start from a place of unconditional acceptance, of non-judgment and love. It’s easy to see why the help of a pre-licensed professional such as myself might be necessary from time to time!
The above principles were developed out of ‘Bowen Family Systems Theory’ first developed by a pioneer in the field, the late Dr. Murray Bowen.
I owe a debt to my instructor and mentor, Raymond Antao who made an excellent presentation on this subject recently, and it was his talk that inspired me to write this article. Thank you Ray.