As the saying goes, “change is the only constant.” While our family may well be a source of stability for us, families and the individuals within them regularly change. Though many of these adjustments will strengthen and enrich our families, in the short-term we often experience these changes as unsettling.
Marriage, births, divorce, death, family blending, adoption, etc. – all shift the landscape of the family. How do holiday traditions change once grandma dies? Are your aunt’s new adult step-children included in the annual family photo? How does your relationship to your brother change once he gets married and how do you build a meaningful connection with his wife? Similarly, how do you develop a relationship with your mom’s boyfriend – what are the rules? What feels comfortable?
Most families struggle initially to welcome new individuals into their tribe. We worry “outsiders” will not appreciate our values, norms and traditions and will disrupt the sense of unity in the family. For business-owning families, this risk to family alignment can feel particularly threatening. Yet every system needs renewal and a family needs a new generation for continuity. The infusion of “new blood” almost always strengthens the system, bringing skills, ideas and traditions that add richness for all in the family.
In addition to adjusting to new players, each person within a family is always evolving by virtue of life experiences. How is your cousin different now that he has been working as a teacher for the past five years? How has your brother changed since he became a father? How has your aunt changed since she retired from her day-to-day leadership in the business? How has your sister changed since her scare with cancer?
Yet, because we all play a “role” in our family system (smart one, accommodating one – or, in the business setting: the leader, complainer, micro-manager…), our closest family may struggle to see the change in us, just as we may resist recognizing the changes in them. Our reasonable assumption that we know our family members and our comfort in the constancy and connection to our past they represent, often blinds us to the ways they have changed or evolved. While this is understandable, it can create enormous emotional distance between family members who feel increasingly as though their family “doesn’t get them.” This can be a terribly isolating experience and represents a far greater threat to family unity than any new family member every will.
It takes a great deal of effort to see past the role you want your parent or sibling to continue to play and experience them for who they really are today. Yet it is essential to make this effort to bridge the distance that time so often creates. Question your assumptions and seek to proactively see and understand the changes in your family members’ lives. At the same time, approach newer family members with an open heart and mind, seeking to appreciate all that they can bring to your family. These attitudes will enable you to have more authentic and rewarding family relationships – something we would all hold as a key life priority.