Family Dynamics: ageing parents and lots more
For many maturing men, the family is one of the more immoveable and baffling parts of their life. After all, you can’t divorce your parents, or retire from being father to your kids. Bustups within a family can be some of the most bitter and hard to resolve. And on the other hand, family life can be a great source of sweetness in your maturing years. This chapter explores some of the main changes and issues you are likely to face in this lifestage: our journey starts with ageing parents, moves on through grown-up kids, and completes with brothers and sisters.
Have you ever thought about the character or flavour of your extended family as a whole? If they were a movie, what would it be? Gone with the Wind? Four Weddings and a Funeral? Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? The Flintstones? If you remember the idea from Chapter 2 that you may repeat the same dramas and stories in your life, see if that’s true for your family. It amazes me how often I see patterns repeating in a family, such as the role of the eldest child, conflicts, infidelity, addictions.
As George Bernard Shaw said, ‘If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance’. If you can gently start to name the patterns you see, and spread that awareness through even part of the family, things may start to change. Bringing humour and visibility to family dynamics can be very healing. The favourite game at gatherings of my family is Therapy (it’s a board game from Milton Bradley), in which players rate themselves and each other on questions like how judgemental/patient/dreamy are you?
It could happen sooner, but for many men it’s somewhere beyond fifty that they meet a watershed point, where their parents become dependent and fragile, and leadership in the family passes to the next generation. This change may happen in smooth ways or bumpy ones, but it is often a big emotional challenge for you as a maturing man. Suddenly you feel older, closer to death, carrying more responsibilities.
Many years ago, when my father was in his healthy early seventies, I was phoned out of the blue from Massachusetts by Steve, an American friend. I almost never get calls from the US, so the mere fact of him phoning was a big deal. Steve’s father had died completely unexpectedly, of a heart attack, in his late sixties. Steve simply said to me, “I’m calling to urge you to say whatever you need to your father before he dies, now. However healthy he is, don’t wait. “
That call moved me deeply: I followed Steve’s advice, and the conversation I had with my father led to a much more open and deep relationship between us for the fifteen years until he actually died at 89. So just imagine, if your father or mother was dying today, what would you want to say now? Most parents judge themselves pretty harshly, so it could be very healing for them to hear you say that you know they did their best, that you thank them for all the good things they gave you, that you forgive them, that you love them.
You may have spent a lot of your childhood and adult life feeling angry toward your parents, as I did, but you’re all losing out if you remain stuck with this. For me, losing my marriage at 49, and seeing how my parents supported me and my kids, woke me up. I finally realised that the parents I was angry with were young, naive, over their heads, and long gone. When I looked at my parents as they now were, I saw two good hearted, loving people who still had their blind spots, but who were giving me a lot of support, despite my shortcomings. When I finally chose to forgive them, it enriched all our lives. If you’re finding this hard to do, think what you would like as a parent from your kids, whether or not you actually have any. Surely you need understanding and forgiveness, and so do your parents.
When your kids become adults
How has your relationship with your children evolved as they move through the teenage years and into adulthood? How do you imagine it in the years ahead? Often these relationships don’t evolve gradually, but in fits and starts through major events: leaving school, a new home, a wedding, and sometimes through major arguments as well. Modern times are tough ones for any young adult to find a steady sense of self and earn a good living: so you may find that your kids are under stress and uncertainty at the same time as you are.
Your relationship with your children may have all kinds of flavours during your maturing years. They may resent you for having grown up in easier times, and for having more wealth than they do. They may expect you to make things right still, and bail them out. Or you may find that the friendship between you really deepens, and that you can all help each other. This can be quite an edgy time between you and your kids, and it’s a period when your relationship with them probably needs to be reinvented several times over.
A couple of guiding principles I would suggest are these: be honest about what’s going on for you in your life generally, and if something feels awkward between you and your kids, name it and try to discuss it with them openly. Secondly, treat them more like adults, meaning that both you and they have your own views, and your own needs, and some balance needs to be found between them. You don’t have to do everything for them, and sacrifice yourself, but nor can you expect that they’ll be completely independent of you. This section highlights some of the typical issues you may face.
Brothers and sisters
I hate my brother. The only reason I speak to him is because you never know when you might need a kidney.
Tensions with adult brothers and sisters are commonplace, but rarely discussed. When a men’s group reaches a certain level of safety, I find that this issue often emerges, and it’s a painful one. These problems are thorny because they are usually long-standing, embarrassing, and feel insoluble. What commonly happens is that conflicts, roles, attitudes formed between children as they grow up in the original family continue far into adult life. Think about your own family. Did the oldest sister boss the other kids around? Did the youngest son have it easy, and escape his share of duries? Can you see the same patterns, decades later, and are they still resented? As Jane Mersky Leder author of a book on this subject says, ‘Our siblings push buttons that cast us in roles we felt sure we had let go of long ago: the baby, the peacekeeper, the caretaker, the avoider… It doesn’t seem to matter how much time has elapsed or how far we’ve travelled.’
The solution which many families adopt is that siblings (ie brothers and sisters) keep their distance from each other, and try to stay in the zone of superficial politeness. This is why big events like Christmas, weddings and funerals can be the scene of family upsets: when you have large numbers of the family together, for an extended time, with alcohol loosening the usual restraints, buried tensions start to erupt. If you’re a witness to such upsets, remember that the two mature adults in front of you are really only a few years old.
Families and how to survive them by Robin Skynner and John Cleese. ISBN 978-0749314101. This book does not focus particularly on the maturing years, but it offers some quite deep insights into the dynamics of couples, parenting and families, drawing on some of the best sources in such areas as family therapy. The book was first published in 1983, so some of it may seem a bit dated now, and the reference resources are not current. Robin Skynner is a leading psychotherapist, and this book does a good job of bringing some complex ideas and professional approaches into a form which mainstream readers can understand – with some effort.
The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner. ISBN 0-7225-3623-2. Although written for women, this book is very useful for anyone trying to understand and improve family dynamics by changing the way they handle their own anger and other family members’. Much of the book focuses on relationships within extended families.
Family Constellations: This is a powerful method to explore, understand and help clear difficult dynamics within your family, including negative patterns which may repeat across generations. It was developed by a German therapist, Bert Hellinger. Unfortunately there are a mass of different websites for various individuals or groups offering Constellations work. The only one I have personally used and can directly recommend is Judith Hemming, see www.movingconstellations.com. I suggest you ask friends who may recommend someone, or else surf around the websites and see who feels good for you. Just do a web search on ‘Family Constellations UK’.