Is blood really thicker than water?
Modern families experience countless challenges, many of which are unspoken and laced with shame. Many families choose not to see or address these challenges, for fear of stigma, more shame, and further harm to family members.
In Joy Society, we are dedicated to promoting holistic well-being for professionals, leaders, and business owners. While acknowledging the individual, cultural, and historical forces impacting our family relationships, we can also evaluate our individual experience within our family. We can choose to re-focus on our personal and relational well-being, and how unspoken family challenges may impact us negatively.
Our first experiences of social and emotional support occur within our family, and as young children, it is common to normalize our family relationships and dynamics. As divorce rates increase, and blended families become more common than traditional “nuclear” families, the stigma associated with non-traditional family structures does not run as deep.
There has been clear progress over the last 50 years in reducing shame around divorce and blended families, allowing more freedom to choose healthier family structures, rather than stay in unhappy or unhealthy relationships. However, this progress does not always support families in addressing certain unspoken challenges, often influenced by social, cultural, and historical factors, that affect the individual and the family as a whole.
Family Bonds: Cultural and Historical Context
In American minority groups, and Eastern cultures that value the collective over the individual, “blood ties” are often given more weight. The expectation that the family stays together, no matter what, is implicitly understood or explicitly spoken.
Family bonds take on a different level of significance for groups of people that have faced certain historical struggles. For Black Americans, this is especially relevant. Throughout U.S. history, Black families were (and still are) disproportionately ripped apart by slavery, racism, segregation, lack of access to education, violence, poverty, and incarceration. Strong family bonds and social support networks serve as an important buffer when faced with the impact of structural and institutional racism.
The Elephant in the Room
Each individual family (and really, any group of people that regularly spend time together) has unspoken “rules.” Sometimes, they are helpful and keep the family functional. But other times, these unspoken “rules” lead to unhealthy and even harmful behaviors.
Some common unspoken family “rules” include:
- Don’t talk about uncomfortable topics
- Don’t express negative emotions toward a family member
- Deny problems within the family
In the case of childhood abuse, domestic violence, or other kinds of family trauma, these unspoken expectations only serve to prevent families from healing.
Individuals who decide to cut ties with a toxic family member, or speak out about abuse within a family, can face further isolation and harm, and risk losing even healthy or positive family relationships. This can be further complicated by the historical and cultural contexts discussed above, making it even harder for individuals in certain minority groups to address family challenges.
When we look at the question of whether blood is thicker than water, the answer is more complex than “yes” or “no.” Some better questions might be: how do we know when family loyalty is no longer serving us? How do we accurately evaluate our family well-being, and what actions do we need to take to improve it?
Sometimes, choosing to cut ties (even temporarily) with a family member that is causing you harm, is a necessary step to protect your psychological or physical safety. This decision is difficult and complex, and creating new social and emotional support outside of your family is essential.
In our Joy Society community, we define family well-being based on mutual respect and positive, healthy connections. “Family” can be defined however you choose. Often, it includes more than just those who you share blood with.