We should not beat ourselves up for the depression and dejection many of us feel this morning. The western civilization (and in my case, the evangelical Christian) ideal of family is flawed and false. Rather than a day of gratefulness, for an alarming number of Americans, it was probably a time of tension, shame and guilt, unreasonable expectations, disappointment, resentment, and even anger. Ask yourself, did your Thanksgiving Day resemble the Publix television advertisement?
For many of us, though hard to admit and even harder to verbalize, our friendships are far more layered than the relationships with our family. This may be due to time constraints, distance, political and religious differences, and other psychological reasons sometimes beyond our control. Ask yourself, if a family member was not family, would you choose them as a friend?
I saw a Facebook post yesterday that had a photo of three smiling people that said, “Family is everything.” And yet, I know (like the majority of Facebook posts) that this does not tell the truth about that very dysfunctional family. Why then, did that person put up that post?
Because they have been programmed by family, society, and religion, to believe it is so.
Children trained to be dependent are usually unable to break the chains of family control. Unfortunately, Gina and I have family members who were raised to be independent that have married into families that require (verbally and/or subliminally) absolute dependence.
I call them Cult Families. Much like a sex trafficker grooms his victims, so the authoritarian father figure (which is sometimes the passive-aggressive matriarch) programs and rules their family and thus has an unnatural hold on them for the remainder of their lives. No matter how old they are. Many of the characteristics of a cult are present in these families—especially when they gather for traditional events such as Thanksgiving.
Submission: Complete, almost unquestioned trust in the authority figure who is often seen as a prophet, apostle, or special individual with unusual connections to God. This leads to family members giving themselves over psychologically and trusting them for their spiritual welfare.
Exclusivity: They teach that family is one of the few true religious and political systems or one of the few true remnants of God’s chosen people.
Persecution Complex: Us against them mentality. Therefore, when someone (inside or outside of the family) disagrees with family doctrine and/or behavior, it is interpreted as persecution, which then is interpreted as validation. The authority figure says something like this, “We know there will be great persecution by outsiders for our beliefs in the last days.”
Control: Control of family members’ actions and thinking through repeated indoctrination and/or threats of loss of salvation, receiving curses from God, or a place to live, or inheritance, etc.
Isolation: Minimizing or forbidding contact with family members who disagree with the authority figure. This facilitates further control over the thinking and practices of the family. Loss of access to children and grandchildren is used as punishment.
Love Bombing: Showing excessive attention and love to a person in the family by others in the family, to help transfer emotional dependence.
Special Knowledge: Instructions and/or knowledge are sometimes claimed to be received by the authority figure from God or the Bible. This authority figure then invokes their position as the patriarch or matriarch—the head of the family—and has the exclusive right to inform the family.
Indoctrination: The teachings of the group are repeatedly drilled into the members, and the indoctrination usually occurs around Special Knowledge.
Salvation: Salvation from the judgment of God is maintained through association and/or submission with the family, its authority, and/or its Special Knowledge. Unquestioning obedience supposedly brings spiritual and financial blessings.
Group Think: The family’s coherence is maintained by the observance of policies handed down from those in familial, religious, and political authority. There is an internal enforcement of policies by family members who reward “proper” behavior, and those who perform properly are rewarded with further inclusion and acceptance by the family.
Cognitive Dissonance: Avoidance of critical thinking and maintaining logically impossible beliefs or any beliefs that are inconsistent with other beliefs held by the family. Avoidance of and denial of any facts that might contradict the family’s belief system.
Shunning/Ghosting: Those who do not keep in step with family policies are shunned, ghosted, and/or expelled.
Gender Roles: Absolute control of gender roles and definitions. This severe control of gender roles sometimes leads to sexual exploitation and in some cases physical and/or emotional abuse.
Conformity Standards: Often a common appearance is required and maintained. For instance, family members that look or act radically different are ridiculed or shamed. “We love you, but we would love you more if you looked or acted more like us.”
The Cult Family is just one example of a dysfunctional family. There are many more. The plethora of articles this past week in the media and jokes by famous comedians about family, political, and religious division further reinforce this fact.
Gina and I recently discovered a relatively unknown movie on HBO Now called Family Fang. The multi-layered performances by two of our favorite actors, Nicole Kidman and director-star Jason Bateman, gave extra depth to its sharply observed look at domestic dysfunction. To our surprise and consternation, as the movie drew to an end, we both burst into tears.
The movie provoked much-needed questions and conversation about how fucked up a family can be and it reinforced the cliche that “everyone’s got one.” I hope the repercussions of Thanksgiving with family (positive and/or negative) will give all of us hope and confidence to say, “Family is NOT everything,” and to explore the few things in life that are.