In the first two parts of this series, I focused on how to establish new connections and deepen connections with your friends. This article will discuss suggestions for improving the depth and breadth of the connections that you have with members of your family.
As with the topic of friendship, countless numbers of books and articles have been written about family relationships. However, let me throw a few more ideas into the mix:
That’s right! You need to respect your loved ones. Whether the person is your spouse, child, sibling, or parent, you should treat him or her with respect. I often find that people treat their loved ones with less respect than they would a stranger. For example, I think most people will agree there are few things in life that have more importance to them than their children. Yet, I once watched a parent explode at her child because the ice cream she bought for him fell off of its cone and onto the floor. The child had done nothing to cause the accident, but the parent behaved as if he had turned the cone upside down on purpose and shaken it. I doubt if she would have behaved this way toward a stranger or a new acquaintance. Social norms would discourage her from raising her voice in reaction to the misbehavior of a new acquaintance. Instead, she would probably ignore or make light of the behavior.
Don’t Take Them for Granted
This idea goes hand in hand with the idea of treating your family members with respect. Your behavior may have slowly changed over time. It has not happened intentionally, it just happened. It may have began by forgetting to employ those common courtesies. For example, do you still treat your spouse the same way that the you did when you were dating? If not, why not? Do you say “no” to your children’s requests out of habit rather than for a good cause? If you do, how does that benefit the relationship with your children? You should treat those you love better than acquaintances, friends, or business associates. If you do not, consider changing your behavior today.
Do you remember to say “goodbye” to each member of your family before leaving the house? Do you ask them how the events of their day have gone when they return home in the evening? Do you give your spouse a kiss every morning? These are just a few examples of common courtesy that may have slowly vanished over time from your interaction with your family members. Consider whether you treat your family better or worse than new acquaintances and adjust your behavior to give them the proper amount of respect.
Build Them Up, Don’t Tear Them Down
As easy as it is to forget to take those we love for granted, it is even easier to begin focusing on a loved one’s negative points rather than emphasizing what he or she is “doing right.” An old maxim of family therapy is that what ever you love most about someone when your relationship is new will become something that you come to dislike about that person as time goes on. You may come to view your spouse’s strong will and determination as stubbornness after years of marriage. If there are traits held by your spouse, children, siblings, or parents that you dislike, consider whether those same traits could be viewed in a more positive light. Also, consider how you talk to your family members. My mother always said, “you catch more bees with honey than with vinegar,” and she was right. Your opinions are more likely to be heard and responded to positively if you express them in a positive tone. “I know that you are tired after a long day at work, but it would really help me out if you would put your shoes away in the closet rather than leaving them in the middle of the floor” is a message that is easily heard. However, the statement, “I’m not your slave! Pick up your own shoes” is a message that will probably result in the shoes always being left in the middle of the room where you will trip over them. Listen to how you express yourself with your family members. It takes practice, but a message with a positive tone will be responded to much quicker than a message filled with anger and sarcasm. Also, don’t forget to “catch” your family members when they are doing something that you like and compliment them for their actions. It’s a great way to show how much you appreciate them as well as reinforcing their positive behavior.
Be the Same Person with Your Family Inside and Outside of Your Home
As a therapist, I have noticed that families have “inside” and “outside” behavior. They may act like the Nelsons from the “Ozzie and Harriet” television show when they are in public, but like the Bundys from the “Married With Children” series when they are at home. Not only is it confusing for children to have this type of inconsistent behavior, but it is destructive to an adult relationship. Move your “outside” behavior inside your home. You’ll find that your positive statements, behavior, and emotional expressions that you make toward your family members will cause them to behave more positively toward you as well. The secret is: they may not even realizing why their own behavior is changing!
Set up a Family Meeting Schedule
It is important for couples, parents and children, and all the members of a family to have the opportunity to discuss issues and maintain an open line of communication with one another. However, it is difficult to have those discussions with today’s hectic lifestyle. I always suggest to my clients that they have either a specific meal that is attended by every member each week (e.g., Sunday dinner) or that they schedule a specific meeting time each week. That time does not need to be specifically devoted to deep conversation or a discussion about a negative event. For example, family members can spend the time playing a board game that will inevitably facilitate discussion. Children can propose changes to family rules. Stories can be told about how parents handled a problem when they were children that one of the young members of the family is now experiencing. However, family meetings should also be used as a time to discuss a child’s problems at school or a parent’s view of a child’s behavior. Couples should also have separate time to spend together. An “adult meeting”, which is another name for a “date”, for Mom and Dad is also an important meeting that will promote a strong marital relationship.
These are just a few suggestions about how to improve family relationships. Once again, they focus on positive behavior and the expression of feelings. Just remember: my mother was right. Honey is much tastier than vinegar!
Copyright © 1999-2012 Susan C. Rempel, Ph.D.
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