Family Ties

The word ‘tie’ has several literal meanings and when metaphorically viewed in terms of ‘family ties’ it provides an interesting insight into what happens in some families.  In my opinion, one of the worst created fashion items for men – the tie – a piece of material that is knotted and pulled tight around the neck – can symbolise quite powerfully the ‘ties’ that bind the family.  It is remarkable how tied (excuse the pun) that many men are to their ties; there are some men who would never venture out without a tie!  I recall several times being confronted at business conferences about not wearing a tie.  Given that what another person says is always about him (or her) I enquired ‘what is it about my not wearing a tie that bothers you?’  The most common response is that ‘you should wear a tie!’  When I respond ‘and where does that law come from?’ the person is faced with their own ‘tie’ of conformity and the loss of freedom of choice.  The male relationship with a tie is not at all unlike family ‘ties.’  Much of my work with adults is helping them ‘to cut the family ties that bind’ so that they can find their own unique life path.  Depending on how tied in they are, it is a challenging, painful and threatening process.  When family ties means living your life according to ‘shoulds’, ‘should-nots’, ‘have to’s’, ‘musts’, ‘ought to’s’, the transition to freedom of choice is difficult.  It is not unusual for some individuals to get lost in this transition and find themselves in the limbo land of passivity and indecisiveness.  Considerable patience and support is required to liberate the person from this arid place.  Examples of ‘shoulds’, should nots’, ‘musts’ are:

  • ‘you should always agree with me’
  • ‘your place is at home’
  • ‘you should not have a life of your own’
  • ‘you shouldn’t say ‘no’ to parental demands
  • ‘you must come home for Christmas’
  • ‘you shouldn’t smoke or drink’
  • ‘you shouldn’t contradict what your parents say’
  • ‘you should work hard and be successful’
  • ‘you should allow us to be involved in your decisions’
  • ‘you should take care of us’

Relationships within a family or couple relationship is where each appoints the other the guardian of their individuality and freedom to live one’s own unique life.  This certainly makes sense in a couple relationship compared to the more common expectation that lies behind ‘tying the knot’ – ‘I am nothing so you must live your life for me’ or ‘I am nothing so I will live my life for you.’  This entanglement means that neither partner dares attempt to unravel it because their security lies in their enmeshment with each other.  Such a relationship is more commonly know as a co-dependent one.  The challenge for each partner is to belong to self and bring fullness and confidence to the relationship rather than the emptiness that binds his partner to him and vice versa.  The source of such ‘knotted relationships’ is how each of their parents related to each other when they were children and how their respective fathers and mothers related to each them as children.  After all, the first adult couple relationship that children usually witness is that between their parents.  It is often the case that later on as a son or daughter you unconsciously repeat the relationship that existed between your parents with your partner or you attract a diametrically opposed relationship (the opposite extreme).  The ties that bind have now multiplied.  It is likely you continue to be tied in to your family of origin and now you find yourself enmeshed with your life partner.  Where there are children, it is inevitable you will either want your children to live for you or that you will live for them.  There is not doubt that the ties that bind are transgenerational and the only way that the passing on of such dependency ties can stop is by adults examining how they are in relationship and that often what they want their partner (or child) to do for them, is what they need to do for themselves.  Support in the guise of guardianship of each partner’s solitude helps the process of belonging to self and cutting the ties that bind the couple to each other and to their families of origin.

Dr. Tony Humphreys is a clinical psychologist and author of Myself, My Partner.