Growing up, I always saw my family as the epitome of “normal”: I was raised in a home with two married parents and one sibling, within a close-knit community of cousins, aunts, and uncles. It was a relatively peaceful and not at all dramatic upbringing, and I was sure that, for better and worse, there was absolutely nothing notable or unusual about the way we operated as a group. Then I got an advanced degree in couples and family therapy, and that picture of unremarkable normalcy fell to pieces. Looking at our dynamic with the cool, objective eye of a professional, I saw all sorts of idiosyncrasies that distinguished us from other clans and that would come to influence the person I became. For example: My parents loved us unconditionally, but we weren’t the center of their lives on a practical, day-to-day basis. They definitely had their own lives that didn’t include us, and they pursued them without guilt or apology. I think this is great, but it also made me into someone who is extremely uncomfortable being the center of attention, because I am just not accustomed to it. Also, at my house, everyone was (still is!) constantly talking all the time, even while we were watching TV or driving or gardening or whatever. Silence was never golden to us—in fact, we took it as a sure sign that someone was furious or extremely upset about something. It took me a while to understand that most people are more comfortable with silence than I am, and why—I still have to remind myself that it usually doesn’t mean anything at all. And finally, despite our nonstop crosstalk, we were always super polite to one another, and to outsiders, so it comes naturally to me to be nice to people, even the ones I may secretly want to destroy. (That last one may just be a Southern thing.)
Let’s talk about the family dance. That’s not some weirdo event like Motherboy from Arrested Development, but rather the unspoken set of rules that every single family operates by. There are explicit rules, like what chores you’re expected to do and when, but the family dance is the stuff we all just accept as “normal” without even questioning how other families might operate. You know how the first time you spent the night at someone else’s house as a kid, you were kinda weirded out by what they ate in the morning and how they behaved at the breakfast table, and how the parents asked you what you wanted to eat instead of just serving you whatever? That was an early look at some other family’s dance.
It’s important to take a step back and figure out what unspoken rules exist in your own family, because, whether you love or hate the way your family interacts, you carry their unspoken rules with you into school, into your dorm room, into your work, and into your love life—the rules of interaction we learn during childhood become blueprints for the rest of our lives. If, for example, when something goes wrong, your family puts a lot of emphasis on figuring out who’s to blame, rather than figuring out how to learn from the mistake and move on, you may find it difficult to admit guilt as an adult, opting instead to try shift responsibility for your mistakes onto others. If your parents always dictate meal decisions, and those decisions are invariably made with health in mind, you might have a hard time deciding for yourself what and where to eat when you live on your own, or you may constantly want to eat at fast food restaurants because there’s no one else dictating your meals. If birthdays are severely downplayed in your home, whoever you fall in love with may feel like you aren’t celebrating their big day enough. None of this should make you feel trapped, though—whether you had a happy or troubled family life growing up, once you figure out the unspoken rules of your household, you can decide for yourself which rules stay, and which ones you want to change. Like, it was very stressful for me to have dinner with my husband’s family for the first time—they are all much more reserved than my family, and I thought I had done something wrong and was waiting for a huge fight to blow up. It took me weeks to understand that the reason I felt so stressed out at their table was that silence equaled trouble in my childhood home.
The best way to figure out the unspoken rules in your family is to ask yourself a ton of questions, and if you feel comfortable doing so, have your friends answer the same questions (just the stuff in bold) about their own families and compare your answers. Comparing notes with friends will put your family’s dance into context—things you might think every family does may be completely unique to yours. Here are some sample questions to get you thinking. Again, there are no judgments in any of these questions or answers—there is power and value in every family dance.
1. Who is in charge in your family? Are your parents the ultimate authority, or are the kids allowed to discuss things they find unfair with their parents? Or do your guardians kinda let you figure things out on your own? The answers to these questions might give you some insight into how comfortable you are with taking the lead in a project, or standing up to authority.
2. How are birthdays celebrated? People can have radically different expectations about what will or will not happen on their birthday, and it’s never a bad idea to figure out where your own expectations came from.
3. You’ve done something really, really bad. Who is the first person in your family you tell, if you tell anyone at all? Who are you most concerned about finding out what you’ve done, and why? (hat trusted confidante could well become a model for the types of people you trust, even the types of people you’re attracted to, later in life. And if you feel like you can’t tell anyone, know that you’ll have to work to get yourself to open up to friends and other loved ones—do this, it’s worth it.
4. How do meals happen at your home? Is there a specific ritual to them? Do you all eat together or separately? Are you allowed to watch TV or use your cellphone during a meal? What kinds of conversations happen during meals? See above in re: Kumail’s reserved family vs. my chaotic one.
5. Who is the comic relief in your family? Is there someone who can be counted on to bring up issues no one else is talking about? Who bolts during conflict, and who just wants to get to the bottom of it? What would happen if any of these people stopped playing their assigned role? We get so good at these roles that it’s easy to just keep playing them for the rest of our lives, and expecting other people to play the complementary ones.
6. How is affection shown in your family? How has that affected what kinds of affection you’re comfortable with today?
7. When someone is angry in your family, how can you tell? One person in a friendship might be comfortable yelling when they’re mad, which might make the other person feel upset or even scared—just because of their contrasting family dances.
8. What does support look like in your home? How do you know that your family is behind you on something you’re working hard on? It’s worth it to recognize other kinds of support that you’re not as used to, so you can feel them when they’re directed at you (who would say no to more support in their lives?).
9. What do conflicts look like in your family? How are they usually resolved, if they are resolved? How do you deal with conflict outside of your family home—does it echo your family’s way?
This information may be something you want to share with your family, or it may be something you just keep to yourself, so that you have a better understanding of how you interact with the world. The point is that examining your family dance is something you do for yourself, and to help you see your relationships without the tangle of your own emotions clouding things. For example, for years I thought my dad just wasn’t big on showing affection, but then I realized that he shows affection by taking meticulous care of my car. To him, taking care of the thing that carries me around was how he took care of me. Realizing this unspoken rule of my family helped me come to terms with the idea that we don’t get to choose how others show us love—we just get to choose whether or not we accept the love they are showing us.
I don’t want to give you the impression that once you figure out the steps of your own family dance, your family will magically become more supportive and understanding of one another. But when you start uncovering answers to these questions, you become a bit of a scientist, with almost an outsider’s view of your own crew, which will help you understand what makes you work (or not work, as the case may be) as a group.
Now that we’re creating our own little family, Kumail and I get to choreograph our own family dance. The main unspoken rule we have is that whoever has had the less stressful day takes the lead on home chores. This works on most days, but when we’re both equally stressed, it can get hairy, with each person expecting the other to pick up our slack—which just leads to more stress for both of us. This is something we’ll have to be careful of when we have a kid of our own, because I don’t want our family dance to convince my future child that they can’t deal with stress on their own or turn the volume down on it temporarily when someone else needs them.
The environment you’re raised in is massively important in shaping how you interact with the world, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t change your shape at any time in life. No matter how your family dances, take the steps that work for you into the rest of your life—mandatory pancake Sundays, when to say no, how to work collaboratively, whatever—and scrap the ones that don’t. And you then comes the fun part: making up your own dance steps, even when you’re a family of one. ♦