If you were one of the lucky people, raised in a happy loving family, you’ve most likely emerged with many of the skills and strengths necessary to form lasting healthy relationships…and you are probably NOT reading this blog right now.
Unfortunately, far too many people were raised by parents filled with good intentions but plagued by bad, sometimes destructive habits from their own childhood upbringing. These ghosts of the past, if not recognized, can haunt our families.
Our histories pack a powerful punch when we’ve buried (or tried to bury) old feelings as a way of avoiding the pain associated with them. Unfortunately, the unfinished business from our childhood and previous relationships also tends to get projected onto and then played out with our partner and/or our children. It is sad but true that the people we love the most in the world become the unwitting victims of this process.
Our emotional brains allowed us to survive as a species. We had to learn–and then be able to respond very quickly–about what or whom to approach and when to run like hell. Memories, especially ones with strong emotions, get wired into our brains without our awareness. Events that remind us of an emotionally charged experience from the past then trigger the same thoughts, feelings and body memories.
The emotional mind reacts to the present as if the past event were happening again. The combat veteran who leaps into the closet at the sound of a door slamming is instantly back on the streets of Iraq running for cover. Luckily, most people don’t suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a severe syndrome now widely publicized and better understood. But our brains are wired the same. Every one of us has our “emotional triggers” or “buttons” that move our emotions to the foreground and our clear thinking gets derailed.
Although getting our buttons pushed can be unpleasant, the good news is that if we bring awareness to the painful aspects of our past, we can begin to exert more conscious control over our reactivity. I have addressed more about this process in a blog dedicated to just this topic. Another way to rise above our past conditioning is to take an honest look at what skills we have and what we might be missing.
The reason that my psychologist husband and I co-wrote our book, How’s Your Family Really Doing was to put resources and information directly into the hands of interested consumers–including all the people who would never seek professional help. In our therapy practice, as we gave couples and parents specific tools for how to get along better and bring out the best in each other, we kept getting the same feedback: “Why didn’t we get taught these things in high school? Therapists echoed, “Why didn’t we learn this in graduate school?”
What are the 10 Keys?
Burrowing through piles of professional literature and drawing on personal and professional experience, we assembled the ten keys to a happy, loving family. Decades of research have demonstrated that families can successfully achieve the task of raising children who are able to live independently and establish harmonious relationships of their own. The first step is to take an honest look at how you are doing on these dimensions.
- Key #1 Talking and Listening
- Key #2 Expressing Feelings
- Key #3 Adapting to Change
- Key #4 Sharing Time Together
- Key #5 Who’s In Charge
- Key #6 Closeness and Distance
- Key #7 Accepting Differences
- Key #8 Seeing the Positive
- Key #9 Effective Problem-Solving
- Key #10 Parenting Together
Once you have determined how you are doing with each of the ten keys in the present moment, it is time to uncover how the past has impacted your present relationships. Sometimes we have been determined to parent our kids differently than how we were parented–and we have succeeded. At other times, the negative patterning persists.
In addition to befriending our emotional hot spots, doing a thorough assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of our family of origin (the name given to the family or families we grew up in) can pinpoint the tools we are lacking. Just as a medical doctor would not begin treatment until after a thorough examination, the first step towards improving your relationships is to take a closer look both at your strengths and at the places that could use some attention and work.
One of the most common stumbling blocks to building loving relationships is often our experiences growing up. Since we rarely meet and marry someone whose childhood upbringing is the same as our own, our strengths and weaknesses can rub each other the wrong way. It can be extremely enlightening for both members of a couple to do The Family of Origin Assessment, and then to talk about your differences and similarities.
The next step is to develop an action plan for change. How’s Your Family Really Doing? also offers practical tips and tools for each key as well as an annotated bibliography describing dozens of self-help resources currently available. Once you know where to focus—and know that change is possible—you are well on your way to creating a happy loving family of your own.