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Blended FamilyFamily relationships are messy business. I have yet to meet someone who didn’t have some relative in their family with whom they had difficulty connecting. Many people dislike certain family members with such intensity that they have totally severed all contact. I have known siblings who never talk with one another and children who have either disowned or been disowned by their parents.

What makes family relationships so difficult and so different from friendships? I don’t believe there is a single answer. There are many things that go into family dynamics. They are very complicated, often years in the making, with many nuances. In this post I want to deal with just one aspect of family relationships.

We have often heard it said about family members that we wouldn’t choose many of them as friends. It is also common to hear people complain that family members often presume a level of intimacy unwarranted by the nature of the relationship that has been established. “I don’t feel close to my aunt (cousin, brother, sister, etc.). Why does she ask such personal questions?”

Comparing family members to friends and using similar criteria for assessing family relationships as we do in our friendships, though common, may not be appropriate. There are significant differences between family intimacy and friendship intimacy.

Family Intimacy

One obvious difference is that we do not choose family members. Family members are either on the scene when we arrive or appear in our lives through no choice of our own. In the case of blood relatives (as opposed to in-laws), at least one party has known the other since the day he or she was born. We become part of each other’s life, if not on a daily basis, on many occasions throughout our lives. We hear their name spoken on a regular basis and everyone in the family knows or knows about the other person. By virtue of this common history, a history that we share with no other, there develops a sense of intimacy that is quite different than with friends. People within a family share common experiences, common memories, and a common history and ancestry.

Of course, much of this commonality may have occurred during the early days of our lives. Nonetheless, despite time apart, there is a sense of connection. Simply knowing that the other person shares so much history in common with us, may give us a sense of intimacy that we share with few others.  It is this commonality, along with the finite number of people with whom we share that history that gives us a sense of connection with these folks. We call these people “family.” That sense of special connection, whether we like those people or not, gives us a sense of familiarity (a word derived from family), and, in a sense, a type of comfort knowing that we are not completely alone in the world. We have our people.

It is this sense of connection that I referred to as family intimacy.  Family intimacy does not necessarily contain the same type of emotional sharing and vulnerability that we may have with good friends. In fact, we may not feel particularly close to a given family member. We may even dislike their personality, how they live their lives, their values, and have little by way of common interests. Yet, there is a family bond…”my obnoxious Uncle Marty.” Uncle Marty may be obnoxious, but he is still Uncle Marty.

We should not expect our relatives to meet the same standards that we would expect of our friends any more than we should expect our office mates to meet the standard we hold for friendships. They are not friends. They are co-workers. Similarly, relatives should not be held to the same standards we may have for our intimate friendships. As long as our relatives are not toxic (see my previous post in this blog, Dealing with Toxic Family Members), if we adjust our expectations we can have civil, if not close or intimate, relationships with them.

Friendship Intimacy

We choose the friends with whom we shall become intimate. We select from the people we meet during the course of our lives those people who become our friends. School chums, co-workers, colleagues, neighbors, and people we meet at various functions, form the population from which, by mutual selection, we choose our friends. And from this select group of people we choose those few who will become our intimate friends. It this latter group with whom we will share our emotional lives, our struggles, our travails, our thoughts, dreams, and hopes. It is with these people that a mutual trust develops and with whom we may permit ourselves to be vulnerable. We may share our day to day lives with these people, keeping abreast of what is going on in their lives and following up on developments in their lives.

It is rare that we may feel this type of friendship intimacy with our relatives. Though it may stimulate a sense of longing when we hear that someone is best friends with their sibling, for example, we should not expect this type of connection with a relative simply because he or she is a relative. If it should occur, be grateful and enjoy it!

Family members are in a special category…they are family; they are the only people who will be family forever, whether we like it or not. The best that can be hoped for from our friends is that they become “like family”. This is the highest accolade we can give a friend despite how we might feel about our actual family. We seem to long for a sense of family, we try to create a family, we speak of “extended family” or “family of choice”. It does not necessarily mean that we are as intimate with all family members as we might wish. It is not required once we look at these people through the lens of simply being family.

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[Dr. Dreyfus is a nationally recognized clinical psychologist, relationship counselor, sex therapist, and life coach in the Santa Monica – Los Angeles. The profits from his latest book, LIVING LIFE FROM THE INSIDE OUT along with his other five books, are being donated to charity through the website Book Royalties for Charity and can be purchased through Amazon.com. Please become a fan on his Facebook Fan Page by indicating “like” on the page by clicking here. You can also find more tools to help you experience a more fulfilling life by clicking here to visit his website.]