In his epic novel, Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy penned one of the most captivating opening lines in literature. It is often translated as, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Whether or not you agree with this statement, it is a fascinating thought to ponder. It is a line that begs readers to consider the institution of family with nuance and complexity. Of all human relationships, family is the one that is most complicated, yet so commonly simplified.
But family is not the greatest of human relationships. It has the potential to be. Arbitrarily letting familial influences in your life because they are “family” doesn’t make sense.
Last fall, I left my parent’s home on a random Monday morning around 6 a.m. In that hour, I identified that place as being an abusive situation. While my parents had their regular morning session of prayer and Bible reading, I packed up a suitcase and left for work, not knowing where I was sleeping that night. I don’t blame them for my leaving. It is, and will always be, their home. They can operate in it as they feel fit. I just knew personally that I wasn’t going to subject myself to sustained attempts at emotional abuse. So I left.
Since that time, I have had to explain my ambivalence to my parents. The consensus from those who discuss the issue with me, with few facts or knowledge of my family dynamics, conclude, “Robert, apologize.” It is almost reflex to people who hear my story.
Somehow, my immaturity, my pride, my stubbornness, are what has kept me from their table in the months since. My response usually involves my general aversion to breaking bread with people who call me a “pawn of Satan” because of the “demonic forces” in my life usually quiets down the forgiveness talking point.
Understanding relationships, of all varieties, demands more consideration than simple talking points. If life was like Sim City, it might be easy to leave an abusive boyfriend. If life was like Sim City, it might be easier to call an estranged parent on Father’s Day. But humans aren’t at their best when we follow programmed mottoes for a happy life. Evaluating others’ relationships based on these talking points is both irresponsible and, at times, cruel.
Commitment to family isn’t demonstrated by blindly opening your emotions, health, and time to individuals whose commitment to you was genetically determined. The beauty of family is when people make a choice to honor each other’s physical and emotional health.
Judging a person’s date-ability, their capacity for friendship, or their personality based on their relationship with their family is irresponsible. D
on’t whittle down the dynamics of family to archaic or idealistic notions of what all families are. Every relationship is at its best when participants make a choice to build it up. Love is not at its best when it is given, and expected to be reciprocated, by default. Family is no different. Therefore, respect people’s ability to decide what role family ought to have in their lives.