Jan 29, 2021
Earlier this month, in a piece for The Atlantic, Joshua Coleman described an epidemic that’s not COVID but that’s also afflicting America: family estrangement. As a psychologist who specializes in family therapy, Coleman reports that his practice is flooded with older parents mourning the loss of contact with their grown children and with grown children angry and hurt by conflict with parents. “The rules of family life have changed,” he said.
The more recent changes in family structures and dynamics he described have only added to the pressure already felt by earlier stressors. For example, the Industrial Revolution, which moved work from inside the home to out, completely upended family life in all kinds of ways. The more recent forces of family estrangement, on the other hand, don’t come so much from the outside as from the inside.
Coleman quotes Stephanie Coontz, the Director of Research at the Council on Contemporary Families, to clarify this point:
“Never before have family relationships been seen as so interwoven with the search for personal growth, the pursuit of happiness, and the need to confront and overcome psychological obstacles.”
This shift is bigger than we might suspect. Coontz continues,
“For most of history family relationships were based on mutual obligations rather than on mutual understanding. Parents or children might reproach the other for failing to honor/acknowledge their duty, but the idea that a relative could be faulted for failing to honor/acknowledge one’s ‘identity’ would have been incomprehensible” (emphasis added).
In other words, we used to understand our families in light of our duties to them. Now we are increasingly understanding our families in light of their duty to us. What’s more, we increasingly think that their primary duty is to make us happy.
Haven’t we seen this same sort of approach play out in other areas of our lives? “My spouse and my marriage should make me happy.” If not, divorce is the only answer, no matter how it impacts the children. “My church should make me happy (and agree with all of my opinions).” If not, I’ll find another one, maybe online. “My work should leave me fulfilled.” If not, it’s my work’s fault.
The same pop psychology, self-care, find-your-bliss platitudes are plastered all over social media: get rid of “toxic” people in your life who make you feel unhappy. Surround yourself only with “positivity.” Don’t let other people suck the “energy” out of you. Not only is it good to ditch the people you don’t like, social media will give you the impression that it actually makes you brave and laudable and strong.
All of this is, of course, a nearly perfect inverse of biblical counsel. From Paul in Ephesians 4: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” Paul assumes that living with others requires some “bearing with,” which probably implies that we require some “bearing with,” as well.
Family members make mistakes, of course. In cases of abuse, severing a relationship may be necessary and justified. Sometimes, however, our family members are simply annoying. Maybe they merely point out where we’ve gone wrong, and there are times parents warn children off a dangerous path because of their own painful experiences. To automatically confuse tough love or even disagreement with being “toxic” is not only to serve our own pride, it’s foolishly to sacrifice an essential relationship.
We need the wisdom and care that only comes from those who know us best. We need what Proverbs calls “the faithful wounds of a friend” (Prov 27:6). In this fallen world, families will never be perfect, but God designed them to be the first and best safety net we should all have.
Over the last several years, the generation gap has clearly widened, especially over three issues: sex, technology, and Trump. Over the last year, COVID and masks have been added to that list. All of these issues matter, of course, and there aren’t “two sides” to all of them, but these relational splits in our families – not to mention our churches and friendships – are too often not born out of wisdom, and certainly not out of the biblical instructions for how we should treat our families, but out of a social media, YouTube comments-section sort of mentality.
The family is a sacred design that was gifted to us by God. We ought not squander it. We have duty to serve it. If we do, it will be another way for Christians to be counter-cultural, another way for us to live for something bigger than ourselves and our own happiness.