Jessica Iron Joseph
Friends are the family that you get to choose. How wonderful is that? We can choose our own support networks, people who share similar interests and values to us, and probably the same sense of humour. My life wouldn’t be the same without the wonderful people who I am lucky enough to call friends.
But what about the ones you don’t choose? Our families? It occurred to me a few years ago that I probably treat my friends differently than I do my own family. With friends, I am usually careful with my words, and I try to be respectful towards them. I avoid topics that I know may be sensitive to them. I am patient and flexible and I try to celebrate them and get them thoughtful gifts when opportunity strikes. I think I also become more fun when they are present. In short, I work at being a better person because I want these friends to stay in my life. I think it is the unspoken understanding that they are choosing to be a part of my life that makes me try to earn that honour.
Now family, on the other hand, is another story. We do not choose our families, just as our families do not choose us. It is a mystery how we end up with the people who become our relatives. If your family is anything like mine you will have a range of personalities around the dinner table. You’re probably closer to some than others, whether immediate or extended. Having spent years with this wide range of people you probably know their quirks and flaws better than they even understand them themselves.
Yet it is with family that we often display our ugliest versions of ourselves. It is to our families that we are rude, abrupt, impatient and critical. Because they are “stuck with us” we don’t monitor our behaviours, and we are easily irritated by them. We are selfish, arrogant and entitled to some degree or another. We behave in ways that we would never behave around our friends.
I think these behaviours are often carried into marriages. At first we treat our spouses as dear, treasured friends, so everything seems magical and we inevitably fall in love. But once things become serious, perhaps when we get engaged or move in together, or even when vows are exchanged, they become family -- thus our behaviours toward them also change. The Jekyll and Hyde in us comes out.
I truly believe divorce rates wouldn’t be so high if people stuck together during hard times and began to treasure each other like they once did. But divorce is one of the few instances where it is legal and somewhat morally accepted to remove a family member.
When I first contemplated the difference between how I treated friends and family I decided I was going to start working on my relationships with my siblings and my mother, and anyone else who I thought I could be closer to. There wasn’t necessarily drama or strife present in these relationships, but I felt that needed to treasure these people better than I had been doing, to more or less treat them like friends rather than family.
I didn’t wait for reciprocity, which I think is a killer to relationships. I don’t believe that all relationships are fair, or ought to be. I think keeping score creates more damage than good. When you consider how different people can be, adjustments will probably need to be made because each and every one of us has specific needs and a different story. Some people will always need to be invited to things, and some will consistently try our patience more than others, etc.
I started to really listen to my relatives when they said things like, “Well, you know how she is!” or “You know what he’s like.” I usually did. And I wondered why many of us constantly push against the tendencies of others, or make snide remarks and sit in judgment of them. Why we believe that our solution is the correct solution for their lives.
Knowing the flaws and quirks of family members is an advantage, actually. These are all keys that tell us exactly how to care for them in a unique way that only they can appreciate and benefit from.
Instead of telling my family members what they needed to do to better themselves, or better their lives, I bettered my behaviour. Instead of talking I listened. I bit my tongue and practised patience. I gave more than I took. I offered more than I expected in return.
I accepted them and rather than getting annoyed by their habits, I anticipated those very habits, and responded in a new and positive fashion. I began to tell all of my family I loved them. I focused on compassion, rather than resentment. I forgave.
I’m sure I’ve slipped up here and there. It’s really an awful lot of work and consciousness to change long-time habits. I still work every day on improving my family relationships. But I’ve witnessed my relationships grow, whether certain members were aware or not. My relationships have all become deeper and more meaningful. And as I get better at my one-sided quest, I constantly find more opportunities to improve more of my relationships.
Maybe you’ve been blessed with a truly harmonious family, full of love and joy all the time. If so, you are very lucky! But if this isn’t the case, and you’re more like me and my family, rather than waiting for everyone else to change, see what you can personally do to improve the situation by solely focussing on your own behaviours.
It’s worth a shot. Trust me, your family will notice the difference, and maybe even be inspired by you.
Jessica Iron Joseph is a Prince Albert freelance writer. Her column appears every fourth Friday in rotation with Sharon Thomas, Lori Q. McGavin and Kevin Joseph.