All of us have probably heard this saying at some point in our lives: blood is thicker than water. When people say that, they usually mean that family is the most important thing, or that a person’s relationship with their family members is more important than any other relationship that they may have.

But is it true? By what logic? And compared to what standard? These are the questions that we will explore in this article.

What does it mean?

There is no doubt that our parents and other family members are the people we have spent the most time with. So they are, indeed, the closest people we know, both historically and geographically. However, it doesn’t mean that these are the people whom we have the deepest, healthiest or most meaningful relationship with.

It doesn’t even mean that the relationship is good. Actually, it can be pretty bad, and the people in it are either unaware or even ignorant that this is the case. Yet, if they believe that family is above everything else, then they have no choice but to accept whatever is going on in that relationship, no matter how bad it is. Many go to great lengths to avoid these painful truths.

Why do people believe it?

There are several reasons for blindly believing that family is above everything else.

One, that’s what people explicitly or implicitly communicate to children. Therefore, the child grows up believing this message because they routinely heard it from the people they trust and are dependent on when they are the most impressionable, or they were punished for being “bad” and “disrespectful.” Here, in the dysfunctional family environment, “blood is thicker than water” is a tool for manipulation.

Two, there is a significant amount of social pressure not to question it. So if a person begins expressing doubts regarding the validity of this statement, they encounter a lot of backlash from the people around them, including from people who are supposed to be mental health professionals, relationship experts, respectable thinkers, writers, public figures, and so on. Here, those who would use “blood is thicker than water” for nefarious purposes are able to slide by because of its social acceptance.

Three, by questioning their family system—and family systems as a whole—the person often experiences inner pain. Accepting that your family is not so great, unhealthy, toxic, or dysfunctional is very difficult. And since many people are oblivious or in denial about this issue on a broader level, a person can feel very alone coming to terms with reality.

This acceptance, however, is what set’s us free—but it’s undoubtedly tremendously painful, too. It often brings us face to face with the childhood betrayal, loneliness, terror, and hurt that we experienced when we were children and, of course, the fear of abandonment that we may feel if we accept it as true or when we feel rejected by others for questioning it.

As adults, many people are still mentally dependent on their caregivers, to one degree or another. A lot of people will do whatever it takes to avoid certain realizations about their past hurts, to the degree of acting it out on others, behaving self-destructively, or even ending your own life.

The logic and use of it

The main purpose of “blood is thicker than water” is communicating that you need to unconditionally ‘love’ your family. But it is, indeed, about manipulation, either consciously or unconsciously. Usually it is applied unilaterally to children or adult-children, and the goal is to make you comply. “Respect your mother and father.” “They’re your parents.” “How dare you talk to them that way!?” “You should do more for them.” And so on….

The problem here is that words like ‘love’ and ‘respect’ are used to manipulate you into obedience. There are no objective definitions applied here. “You should love and respect them” simply means that you should do what they want or what’s best for them, even if it harms you or if you don’t want to. Here, it’s an unchosen and unjust obligation.

Not only that, it is also applied when the people you should “love” and “respect” have hurt you and don’t love, respect, or care about you. And often the child or the adult-child can’t even bring up their discontent and grievances because it’s “disrespectful,” or “you should just get over it,” or “they’re your family,” “it’s for your own good,” “they mean well / it’s not that bad,” et cetera.

You are not allowed to feel and think “badly” about “the family.” The problem is not their questionable behaviour, but your discontent with it. Yet “the family” has no problem expressing their discontent and expectations towards the child. See the problem and hypocrisy here?

The standards of love, respect, and responsibility

The truth is that family is nothing more than people. It is irrational to treat certain people fundamentally differently just because they are your family. It is unhealthy to accept abusive and toxic behavior from anyone or be submissive to people just because they are your family and call it ‘love’ and ‘respect.’

This behavior is neither love nor respect. And it’s not ‘good.’ In other words, when you refuse to comply with an unhealthy dynamic you are not being ‘bad.’ In fact, you are acting more healthy than those around you. Blind obedience is not a virtue.

Moreover, one could argue that parents and other caregivers should be held to a higher standard than anybody else in your life because of how much power a caregiver has over a child. Also, the child didn’t choose the relationship, and they didn’t choose to be born.

You can’t choose your family, and as a child you can’t protect yourself or run away from your family if they are mistreating you. With your family, as a child you’re stuck with whatever you have. And you have no choice but to accept whatever treatment they give you. At the same time, you don’t have perspective or the mental capabilities to accurately evaluate your situation because your environment is all you know and you are still developing. So, in a weird way, your chosen relationships are more like a ‘family’ than your biological family because they are chosen.

As an adult, you can learn, grow, cut the proverbial cord, hold people to more reasonable and healthier standards, become self-sufficient, let go of your irrational beliefs, reject manipulation, revisit your definitions of ‘love,’ ‘respect,’ ‘reciprocity,’ ‘mutuality,’ and ‘responsibility,’ and refuse to stay compliant, dependent, and disrespected.

Photo by: Michelle Weigel

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