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Changing Perceptions of ‘Family’

‘Family’ conjures up memories, associations, hopes and fears in all of us. Here Lyn  explores the concept of family from cultural and psychoanalytic perspectives    Examples given feature images from our Emotional Learning Cards.

We all grow up surrounded by everyday representations of family created by advertising companies, TV scriptwriters and film makers who knowingly or instinctively exploit our primal urge for a form of tribal belonging.  Imagine a typical TV ad designed to sell something ordinary like frozen fish fingers or pasta sauce. The image projected is usually of an attractive white middle class family.  Mom is often presiding over an unrealistically clean kitchen, serving dad and two children, usually a boy and a girl. All smile appreciatively at mom. When we were young, we might have yearned to be seated at that table, nestled between a handsome father and a protective older sibling, being lovingly fed by our mother while we joke and chat happily together.  As the years pass, our fantasies may shift. Perhaps we wish we could be that mom or dad who seems to have the capacity to create a relaxed meal time without tensions mounting or petty arguments breaking out.

Since the birth of language – visual, verbal and written – and from the time cultural ideals evolved, we have been subjected to constructed notions of what ‘family’ looks like.  In the West, religious paintings depicted what is called the Holy Family comprising Mary, the virgin mother, God the father and Jesus, the son. Roles are assigned to the parental figures along gender lines.   Mary is conveyed as the maternal one, caring, protecting, comforting, reassuring and mediating between the child and God while God is seen to fulfill the paternal function, establishing laws, defining transgressions and granting forgiveness. Whatever our belief system, figures from creation myths and religious texts infiltrated culture early on, influencing society’s spoken and unarticulated views on the kinds of roles that men, women and children can take up, the power invested in them, what aspirations are deemed acceptable and which not and so forth.  The residue of this early shaping of societal norms remains with us, forming an archeological layer in the collective unconscious, upon which Images of family from advertising, popular culture, fine art,  films and books have been built which often function as a standard against which we compare ourselves.   

Language plays its part either reinforcing the status quo or challenging it and as such is a powerful tool. The words still commonly used to describe families often convey a value judgment. Families can be ‘intact’ or ‘broken’, ‘functional’ or ‘dysfunctional’, ‘nurturing’ or ‘damaging’. This tendency towards duality reduces and simplifies. As a society, we could easily change how we talk about families. Use of language is a good place to begin to tackle the idealised notions we may still hold. For example, we could learn to describe families as being ‘reconfigured’ rather than ‘broken up’.   We see too that the term ‘alternative families’ is gaining currency and carries the important message that there is more than one way of ‘doing families’.  

In reality, families are complex. Our experience of them is fed by the conscious and unconscious stories that we are told and that we tell ourselves as well as by the visible and the hidden ‘family rules’ that govern our family of origin.  These ways of thinking about families and of engaging with each other along with cultural or religious beliefs, are passed down the generations. Whether we are a lone child with a single parent, adopted or fostered or the product of a large extended or blended family, we will have inherited patterns of behaviour and lenses through which we see ourselves and our family.

Psychotherapists recognise how projections rooted in early family experience play out. For example, we all have views on marriage. Some of us carry strong memories of our parents’ marriage which colour our perceptions. Take Jan, a fictitious woman seeing a therapist  with a not uncommon problem. Jan sees marriage through the filter  of how she experienced her parents and has a fixed belief that marriage or even a live-in relationship will ultimately be mutually destructive, leaving both parties damaged just like the two ships anchored side by side in Zineb Sidera’s photograph ‘The Lovers’.   Jan thinks she has plenty of evidence from her own relationship history to prove this.

Changing Perceptions of ‘Family’A lack of faith in the capacity for reparation, formed in her childhood when she witnessed her parents fighting but never resolving the underlying issues led Jan to fear discord or disagreement.  Over the course of therapy, she could see how avoiding conflict with her ex- partner resulted in a buildup of repressed resentments and accumulated misunderstandings. Again and again, the unprocessed and unacknowledged feelings couldn’t be kept down.  Eventually they erupted, causing just the kind of damaging encounter Jan imgaines all marriages ultimately lead to and confirming the story she has told herself about how couples function together, firmly rooted in her own family of origin.  Sade, another fictitious composite portrait of a client, entered therapy with a similar issue. In her case, avoidance resulted in inauthentic behaviour.  Unspoken ‘rules of engagement’ were unconsciously agreed by both Sade and her ex-partner, Linda.  Fed by the belief forged in their own birth family experiences that differences openly discussed will inevitably trigger conflict, Sade and Linda tried to be rational at all times and to create a new model of relating. Anger was seen as ‘destructive male behaviour’ and steered clear of.  Sade and Linda’s partnership became increasingly sterile and finally died out altogether, leaving both parties bruised and feeling  the loss of their hopes for a productive, creative union, confirming the story that they told themselves that intimacy is ultimately more painful than pleasurable, whatever way you come at it.    Clients like Sade and Linda benefit  from exploring and deconstructing their core beliefs about couples formed in their early years.

Yinka Shonibare’s ‘Dysfunctional Family’ has many layers of meaning. One way of reading it is as a representation of how families carry images of themselves in mind. Each family member may have their own picture which often differs significantly from that of other family members, reflecting the fact that we all experience our family in ways entirely unique to us. Maybe one child feels nurtured and valued while their sibling suffers from being misunderstood and marginalised.  Or a family might consciously or unconsciously  hold a shared image of themselves as somehow ‘alien’ or ‘dysfunctional’, like the figures in Yinka Shonibare’s sculpture,  perhaps feeling deep shame about their perceived lack or about their family secrets.

Changing Perceptions of ‘Family’Psychotherapists recognise that we come into being before we are even born.  As soon as our conception has been confirmed, our mother or both our birth parents will have conscious and unconscious fantasies about who we are, who we might become and where we fit into family history.  This ‘baby in mind’ isn’t a fixed entity but will represent many different aspects of memory, desire and fantasy.  For instance, take the mother-to-be whose own father died. If she had a fulfilling relationship with her father and still misses him, she may unconsciously hope that her baby will be a boy. If this turns out to be the case, the boy might be imbued with projected qualities of the dead father that mother so badly misses. She may find herself convinced, for instance, that her new born has ‘the same eyes’ as her father or is as stubborn or fiercely independent as he was.  If the baby is a girl, the mother may experience a pang of disappointment and it might take time for her to let go of her hopes for a replacement love object.  Often a parent will see the physical qualities and the personality of the baby through this unconscious filter

Even before birth, personality traits can be ascribed. For example, a mother might perceive her often active, kicking and moving unborn baby as a feisty, robust infant, full of energy and purpose.  She will have a reaction to this, possibly labelling it as a sign that the baby is going to be a handful and ‘too much to manage’ perhaps even feeling potentially overwhelmed in anticipation.  Or she might describe these qualities with pride, taking them as proof that her unborn infant is assertive, healthy and strong, wanting to make him or herself known. Once the baby is born, the mother and those around her who have also imbued the unborn child with imagined characteristics will hopefully be able to adjust to the reality and see the baby for who she or he is.

These examples give a rather crude picture of what are in fact subtle and nuanced unconscious processes. Brazelton and Cramer’s book ‘The Earliest Relationship’ sensitively illuminates the ways in which present and past experiences give shape to internal representations of the baby in the minds of both parents.  It is human nature to project consciously and unconsciously onto the baby.  In a good enough relationship, the parents continually adapt their reading of their baby based on their lived experience. The characteristics assigned to the baby early on gradually drop away to be replaced with a new and more reality based understanding.

The five main roles assigned to children which most of us are familiar with are ‘The Hero’, ‘The Good Child’, ‘The Mascot’ who may be the family clown, ‘The Caretaker’, ‘The Lost Child’ and  ‘The Scapegoat’ used by the family as a container for all their troubles so that they can project an image of being ‘perfect’ except for the one ‘problem child’. These roles serve the function of keeping relationships predictable and maintaining a distance from messy emotion or a shameful past. The family can then ‘look good’ in their own eyes as well as in those in the external world.
The desire to ‘look good’ to others is a powerful force and stands in stark contrast to being in touch with the ups and downs of everyday life. If we manage to project an almost perfect image then we imagine that this will be reflected back to us and we can defend against exposing our own shameful parts not just to others but to ourselves.  The sometimes deeply felt wish to ‘look good’ means that, like the woman in Kate Walter’s painting entitled ‘I Can’t Hear You’, we unconsciously block out, deflect and avoid taking in information that might challenge or disrupt our image of ourselves and our family. When this happens, we can no longer learn from experience and our energies are taken up reinforcing the picture we present to the world rather than evolving and developing.
Changing Perceptions of ‘Family’
 We can all benefit from accepting that every family will have painful complexities to deal with as well as much potential for pleasurable experiences.  Looking into our own family stories and legends and thinking about the resulting roles we’ve taken up in the past (or still revert to in the present) is a useful  – and endlessly fascinating – place to start.  We’ll see how the role that we might have in our family of origin is often repeated in one form or another in the role we unconsciously take up at work, in our social worlds and in our more intimate relationships. No one fully escapes this but identities and patterns of relating aren’t fixed; we can re-shape and re-construct them in light of new insights and increased awareness.

Written by Paddy Chatterton