Family Dynamics

There is a popular factoid out there, probably true, that most murder victims are killed by people they know.   It makes sense, if you think about it.   If you’re about to snap and take the extreme step of murder, why kill some random person if there is someone you know well enough to really hate?   Many murders, we are told, occur within the family.   Murderers no doubt feel justified killing some supremely provocative person close to them who has long been fucking begging to be killed.

Listening to a friend’s story last night about troubles in her family I thought of a familiar scenario.   The parents are at odds, the children are in the middle, or off to the side.   The kids naturally get drawn into the drama between the parents, forced to take sides, console, shoulder the blame for their parents’ misery, act as human shields when things get particularly ugly.

In most cases this is not a recipe for how to raise a murderer, except in cases where the parents frequently cut each other with razors, or beat each other bloody, during particularly rancorous fights.   Violence like that would up the ante, increase the chances of the child growing up with enough fear, insecurity and rage to become a killer himself.

Violence against others, widespread as it is, is less common, I think, than violence against the self.   In 2016 there were more deaths in the U.S. by opioid overdose, around 60,000 (a record for overdose deaths in the USA), than by gun violence, and that includes the tens of thousands of annual suicides by firearm the NRA angrily insists should not be included in gun death statistics.  You’ve heard the phrase “you are your own worst enemy”?   Dig it.   Be aware that you are one of the most dangerous motherfuckers out there, to yourself.  Keep an eye on that, my friend.

Much of what we suffer from is not our fault.   It doesn’t mean we don’t have to deal with our problems, mercifully, but it’s not our choice to suffer in many of the ways we do.   It’s not on us, bad as it also is for us, if we didn’t learn resilience from a family that had no clue about it.   We have to learn it by trial and error by ourselves, with great determination, over the course of decades.  If we are lucky we find a good friend or two who is on a similar journey, it helps greatly to compare notes and track progress.  Picture what kind of life skills you might acquire coming from this family scenario:

Mom is hardworking, reliable, tense, often short-tempered, or downright mean, to Dad.   Dad is not hardworking, but he is very affectionate, funny, supportive and sweet.   If you’re feeling afraid or insecure, you run to dad, who takes you in his arms, massages your shoulders, makes you laugh, makes you feel better.  If you need anything else, you go to mom.  Mom always comes through with whatever you need, no matter what.   Mom would walk through a hail of bullets for you.  The mystery is why this great person is often such a bitch to Dad. 

Picture the endless possible good reasons that Mom is such a bitch to Dad.   Dad gets drunk and rapes Mom once in a while, for example.  Or Dad is a serial adulterer and bad liar about it.   Maybe Dad wants Mom to catch him and that’s why his lies are so sloppy, so transparently stupid.   Maybe Mom has kept Dad out of jail by paying back money he stole in doomed embezzlement schemes, maybe more than once.  Could be huge gambling debts, or money stolen from a dead father’s credit cards.  Maybe he keeps getting popped for petty crimes of some kind and Mom keeps bailing him out, even the best shoplifters get caught once in a while.  Maybe Mom walked in while Dad was banging the baby sitter when you were a baby.   Maybe Dad, in a moment of rage, threatened to murder Mom’s family and then come back and burn her, her children and himself to death? Whatever fucked up scenario you can imagine, fucked up people, no matter how otherwise wonderful they are, regularly do very fucked up things.

But the statistics say that children of divorced parents have worse future life outcomes than the children of intact marriages, no matter how bad.  I’m not sure about the wisdom of that, but it’s a common belief.  I think there are marriages so toxic that everyone is better off, including, or even particularly, the children, when the hideous farce is over.  But say Mom believes that the best way to protect her kids is to project a healthy relationship between her and the husband she has many excellent reasons to be angry at much of the time.

Now this requires some complicated footwork.  The children must be shielded from their father’s dark side.   It would do nobody any good, reasons Mom, to have Dad admit that he is a serial embezzler, cheat, liar, fraudster, gambling addict, pornography addict, an immature person incapable of accepting fault, apologizing or changing, whatever the fucking thing is.  So Mom keeps the dark secret for everybody.  Nobody needs to know her issues with Dad.  It makes her ashamed, for one thing, which is a powerful reason for keeping secrets.  Some people refer to this kind of Mom as The Martyr.

In her house everything is always fine.   I grew up in a family where much was hidden.  At the same time, and though we fought viciously about it, there was some kind of commitment to being truthful with each other.   The honesty only could go so far, but we were all trying to be honest, as far as we understood things.   That value on honesty was a positive thing I took from a very hard situation.  It inclined me to search for explanations, for puzzle pieces that would help me make sense of the whole.  I am grateful for it, fucked up and painful as the surrounding circumstances were.   There was always an impulse to truthfulness, a value placed on candor, although it was also part of a terrible ongoing war in a very dark setting.

Picture the difficulty of growing up in a house where fundamental things are tightly guarded secrets.   If honesty is off the table, everybody has to agree not to seek the truth, or even imagine the many kinds of mischief and wickedness that flow from that agreement.    If there is violence that is hidden, treachery or exploitation that is covered up, the children in that house are unlikely get much insight into how to maintain an honest, intimate relationship.   They haven’t seen a healthy relationship between their parents, only a mysterious and perplexing riddle featuring a cool, laid back Dad and an indispensable, totally dependable and loving Mom, who unaccountably gives Dad an unending amount of shit.  

These children will likely be flummoxed when trying to form intimate relationships of their own, because intimacy requires mutual trust.  Mutual trust is not the same as a mutual agreement never to reveal secrets the couple considers shameful.  Trust is open, and impervious to fear, hiding shame is closed, and full of terror.   

I see this kind of shit, my brothers and sisters, the harm done to the children of people who decide to live this way, and it makes me want to weep.

“Uh… you’ve skated about as close to that line as you can comfortably skate, if you want to call any of that comfortable,” said the skeleton of my father.  

Yes sir.  Time to unlace the skates and get on with jotting down another great vignette starring you that I just recalled.    

“Well, get to it then, motherfucker!”

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