There are actually a lot of rules that govern unhappy families, but here are three that I come across often while working with families, going to (eavesdropping at) the grocery store, eating (spying) at restaurants, and having a family full of human beings of my own.
1. Thou canst mistreat thy family members however thou wishes; but woe be unto the poor outsider who mistreats thy family members.
Picture yourself at a children’s little league game. The loud father two rows in front of you is yelling at his son to “Get busy and look alive down there! Whatsa matta with you, son? Get off your lazy keester and go after the ball!!”
Is Dad upset that someone has called his son “lazy” in public? Not at all! Until a teammate’s Mom in front yells, “Yeah! Quit being so lazy and move!” Ruh Roh! Now Dad is on the move in full red-faced, protective-Dad mode, “Hey you! No one talks to MY little boy like that!” Hmm.
So, how to break Commandment No. 1? Make a habit of listening to how you speak to your family and imagine how you might feel if a stranger spoke to them the same way. Use your protective instincts to filter your own harsh words. Children and spouses are often hurt more by the thoughtless and unkind words of a family member than by those of strangers.
2. Assume thou knowest all there is to know about thy family members.
Really? Just because you live in the same house and perhaps swam in the same gene pool, you can read your family members’ minds? Of course not, but when was the last time you sat down with your ten-year-old after losing a game or your significant other after a tough day at work and asked how they were feeling about it? And then really listened? If you and your spouse are going through a separation or divorce, when was the last time you sat down with the kids and just asked them to fill you in on their experience?
Breaking Commandment No. 2 is simple: get curious about your loved ones. Pretend you DON’T know everything about them (because you don’t really – I just put that in for the stubborn few who still think they do!). ASK your family members how they are doing, how they are feeling, and what they need and want right now that you might be able to offer or help with. You just might get surprised, but you will certainly get to know something you didn’t know before.
3. There is always tomorrow to spend time with thy family; today hath more important tasks.
First of all, I am really glad we don’t all talketh like this anymore. Second, “tomorrow” doesn’t always come. Children grow up, parents tragically die untimely deaths, couples divorce, and sometimes, before we know it, our opportunities to actively love our family members are gone. The decisions that we make today about how to spend our time and energy will probably be the same decisions we make tomorrow, and the next day, and the next.
I would really like to say that breaking Commandment No. 3 is easy, but it isn’t. It is, however, simple. Prioritize some time with your family each day and plan the rest of your day around that. Make sure that at some point during the day you have time to be with your family, during which you, and they, are unplugged and tuned in to each other. Learn the fine art of saying “No” to outside people and distractions that interfere with your time with your family.
There is a saying I have heard many times, that at the end of our lives we aren’t likely to be thinking “Gee, I wish I had spent more time at the office.” At the end of the day, it’s really all about how well we have loved the people who are most important to us — but we do it day by day, every day.
So get out there and break some commandments! Thy loved ones will thanketh thou!