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August 15, 2010

Recipe for Family

My younger sister has entered a phase where her seeming pastime is to repeatedly lament the quality and repairability of our family. Long story made short, I had typical teenage angst until I went away to boarding school (not because of behavior) in 1995—just months before my parents divorced. My sister bore the brunt of the separation alone and I move on my own shortly after freshman year of college. Today, she and I live walking distance from each other, yet neither of us really see the other nor do we maintain more than occasional obligatory contact with our parents.

This is most certainly a dysfunctional home. It is by no means bad, but there’s no one calling it ideal. “Ideal” and “broken” are two different things. My sister sees friends, coworkers, and acquaintances who seem to pretty unanimously have more frequent interaction with their family, and that of a higher caliber. While I question the sampling—the grass is always greener, after all—my greater inclination is to identify the recurring theme that exists within these examples yet is absent in our situation.

Over the years I’ve come to recognize the shortcomings that have led to my familial awkwardness. I believe that these, spun positively, create the basic ingredients for successful family.

  • Shared Experiences There is no family without a common thread. There must be something that you can relate to/with in order to maintain a familial culture. This is Intercultural Communication 101: perceived cultural similarities are what allow us to make the connections that build the foundation of our grouping. Even if events are not experienced by all parties, communicating the experience allows for understanding and, hopefully, sympathy. In the last 15 years or so, I’ve had about 10 addresses (which includes time spent living overseas); I moved too frequently to generate large quantities of mutually experienced events and failed to update others as I moved on. This has lead to a bifurcation of one life into many—the most stark being the disconnect/reconnect I experience when visiting Korea.
  • Physical Proximity. While not the most important aspect, closeness allows for greater preservation of shared values and experiences. It also allows for an atmosphere of family to develop. Close proximity means you see the good and bad; the experiences that are conveyed are not one-sided but real and near to your own. Moving away from my family at a young age and not returning to my home state had a significant impact on the frequency with which I engage with childhood friends and family in non-obligatory situations.
  • Active Maintenance. Consistent habits help to counter balance life’s centrifugal forces. Though spokes start from a center and spread in every direction, the inner and outer hub create a zone where divergent intents can still act cooperatively. Those who amicably share a location but develop varying interests often still find camaraderie, and maintaining daily/frequent contact has nurtured relationships when those involved are forced to be very far apart. Unfortunately, I’ve never been good at maintaining anything; let alone relationships.
  • * Commitment.* Nearly every conversation I have with my sister about this ends with me offering a theory to be proven: If she, Fru and I made a commitment to have one meal together each day for 90 days, the quality of family-ness between the three of us (I believe) will skyrocket. After that, it would just be up to us to provide active maintenance. I’ve committed to something similar with Fru as we build our marriage; my sister’s being in the area is based on a commitment I made to be closer to her, and I’m hoping to draw others to the area as well.

I don’t think my family is broken. With a little effort, small steps could create fantastic improvements. I think that in all relationships—not just mine, not just with family—these elements are proven keys to group-making and group-keeping. Feel free to adjust my recipe to fit your palate.

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