Mind Matters — The Meaning of Family

In the past two weeks I have been attending some major conferences and I want to share with you my reflections. One meeting addressed family therapy themes; the other, the issues of trauma. I heard many speakers—neuroscientists, clinicians, researchers—discuss how best to help individuals and families heal from past traumas and stresses; and also how to create healthy contexts to prevent some traumas in the first place. While I went to learn hopefully how to be a better therapist for my clients, I also wondered how I could share some of the general knowledge that I learned in a larger frame than just my office. One of the topics that arose at the family therapy meeting was the concerns of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community. At the trauma meeting, one of the issues discussed was sexual abuse and incest in heterosexual families.

So my meandering mind goes back and forth between all the information overwhelming my brain and bumping into memories and experiences stored there about families I have seen over these 30-plus years. My experience in the field tells me that heterosexuality of a family is no marker for success in mental health terms. Over the years I have witnessed families where fathers and stepfathers have sexually abused their daughters (or stepdaughters), where siblings (who were probably abused by someone themselves) have molested their siblings, where the alcoholism and drug abuse of a parent has led to emotional and physical violence to both the other parent and to the children.

Meanwhile I have met families in which one parent finally “comes out” as gay. The ensuing divorce may be difficult, as most are. Yet, of the families I have encountered in this scenario, the parents reconcile their differences and the children manage the situation and are able to maintain a solid relationship with both parents, even as the gay parent settles into a relationship with his or her new partner (after marrying, in states that permit that).

It is not wise to romanticize and sentimentalize either supposedly traditional marriage (study the history of family and you will find that, conceptually, “family” in the past is not necessarily as we perceive it today) or marriage between gay partners. As heterosexual marriages have gone awry so too can gay marriages. Rather than focus on the sexual orientation of the partners however, better that we as a society would focus on what happens between two people, no matter the gender. If only we could create a tradition where family meant loving, respectful, honest, open, caring relationship between partners who would in turn raise loved and loving children who felt cared for not abused, who felt wanted not neglected, who felt safe not fearful, who felt respected not shamed.

That is the core of the care that families should impart. That is the true focus of the family.