What makes a healthy family? Two of our three children have married in the last two years. Obviously our new children-in-law come from families with different traditions and perspectives on family. This is a no-brainer to acknowledge, but can really challenge these newlyweds as they try to blend, adopt, release, and adapt in ways that will one day constitute their view of healthy.
It turns out that the experts agree that there is no one way to build a healthy family. There is no formula. I think that most of us would agree in principle that a decent family is one that helps the family members grow up into healthy, productive people who will leave the world better for having been in it for a time. Virginia Satir, a noted family therapist (1916-1988), has been quoted as saying that “Feelings of worth can flourish only in an atmosphere where individual differences are appreciated, mistakes are tolerated, communication is open, and rules are flexible – the kind of atmosphere that is found in a nurturing family.” From her perspective, a healthy family is a nurturing family.
Satir believed that a family system that isn’t willing to change, that isn’t willing to do better as it learns more about how to be a healthy family, is a system that creates and perpetuates dysfunction. From this perspective, families who thrive are ones that become experts at how their family system operates and learn how to readjust when something gets out of balance.
In my family system, my parents and mother-in-law learned how to adjust when their own children moved into adulthood and created their own family systems. I really appreciate how, after a few false starts and tears, the generation before me taught me how to release our children from the burden of our own expectations of what constituted a family holiday celebration. I tell my own adult children and their spouses that we are flexible and happy with whatever they choose to do during the holidays. And then I make sure that I take responsibility for following through on that promise. It isn’t always easy, but it is one way Pete and I are trying to learn flexibility and nurture the development of the next generation of families under construction.
This cannot happen if one is codependent, looking for others to validate our own sense of joy. If you had some run-ins this past holiday season with codependency, please don’t think that this issue will magically disappear before the next holiday season is upon us. Let’s do our work, so that we might be the kind of people who can appreciate individual differences, tolerate mistakes, keep open lines of communication and maintain – above all else – flexibility.