I was raised in a home where the constant refrain was: “Blood is thicker than water.” Basically, our parents told us that we shouldn’t really trust anyone outside of family. Even if people were to say nice things to us, we shouldn’t believe anything they say because they are not family and probably don’t mean any of it. The problem was that I never heard anything terrific from my family. I did not feel close or safe with my parents who were very stern and cold. My two older brothers never paid much attention to me, and we are not close in any way. I was left feeling a void from my own family because I was just so different than all of them—I had different needs and was much more emotional than any of them. And I was afraid to take in anything positive from people outside my family, because I was convinced it wasn’t real.
I married well by most standards. My husband is a huge step up from my family in almost all ways. Unfortunately, maybe like many men, he is not capable of going deep emotionally. I feel he can go only so far, and then when I try to really vent to him, I lose him! I know that he loves me and cares about me, but when I try to have a really serious conversation with him about how I’m feeling deeply, he just doesn’t get it. I know he tries, but something is missing in him that prevents him from being able to see me fully for who I am and understand why I am sometimes feeling sad or lonely. He wants to get it but he can’t. It leaves both of us feeling very frustrated.
Our two children are grown and out of the house. I am totally mystified over the power of genes. My older daughter is almost a clone of my father, and my son is very similar to my mother. Unfortunately, they are both pretty cold and not on my wavelength at all in terms of the warmth I desperately seek. We get along, but when I try hard to take our conversations to a more meaningful place, so that we’re not just talking about politics or the weather, they tune out. It’s difficult for me because I’m the type of person who feels connected when I share my real emotions.
Over the years, as I started making friends, I started meeting like-minded women with whom I connected. But I never stopped hearing the message playing in my head that blood is thicker than water and that as much as I’m enjoying these relationships, they really can’t matter much since they aren’t blood relationships. Then I go back to my family and try to get from them what I’m getting from my friends, and I find myself disappointed and saddened. I know that my friends are a wonderful gift that entered my life during my adulthood, but I’m unable to allow them to fully satisfy me.
I can’t help continuing to try and get out of my family something that I know they aren’t capable of giving me. I feel like I get so much sincere love from my friends, and yet I don’t value it anywhere near enough. I take it for granted, or feel like it can’t possibly fill the void of the “real thing”—true love and connection with my blood relatives.
I guess what I’m asking is the following: Is it true that blood is, in fact, thicker than water and that what I’ve managed to achieve with my friends doesn’t ultimately count for much? And because of that, I continue to feel kind of unloved in the truest sense of the word, since friends can’t ever really take the place of family, so there is a missing piece inside of me. Or is that nonsense, and it’s time for me to toss away that refrain and teach myself that blood is not always thicker than water, without feeling like a phony or someone who is deceiving herself? Does any of this even make sense?
As I listen to the numerous and various struggles that we all deal with within our individual lives, I often find myself thinking about what my answer would be if we all lived in a perfect world. And then I come back down to earth and decide what my answer should be, based on the reality that the world we all live in is anything but perfect. It is a world that is imperfect in many ways and yet it still has much beauty to offer all of us. It’s a world in which the fortunate among us succeed in finding true peace and happiness, since they are capable of understanding the notion of “good enough.” Not perfect and sometimes far from perfect, but still worthy of joy and gratitude.
In a perfect world, we all get handed perfect parents, perfect siblings, and perfect children. In the real world, we have absolutely no say in the collection of people who wind up creating our immediate family. Sometimes we luck out across the board and the fit is great in every direction, with everyone on the same page in all that matters. But more often, kinks appear here and there and an individual can feel as though he or she somehow dropped from the sky into a family that can feel alien and unrelatable. Sometimes some of the connections feel great, while a few others don’t. And in some instances, nothing is working out the way we assume it should.
For those individuals who can look at all their family members with great satisfaction, feeling as though those connected to them by their DNA complete them in every way, it’s easy to feel as though blood is in fact thicker than water, and that family will always be their first line of defense as they march through life. That doesn’t mean that there is no room for friends to play meaningful roles within their lives, but when family members check all the boxes, it’s natural to turn to them first during good times and bad times.
But let’s go a little deeper and analyze what exactly we are looking for from our family members. In the broadest sense, I am going to say that we are looking for love. We want to feel love and we want to share the love that we hold within ourselves. And true love—generous, warm, kind, understanding, non-judgmental, steadfast … I can go on and on—is what ultimately matters. It’s what we all crave and what enables us to carry on with a sense of peace, safety, and purpose. Therefore, I will venture to say that, ultimately, the source of the love is not as important as the actual experience of being loved.
Though of course it would be wonderful if you could look at your parents, siblings, and children and feel your heart bubble over with warmth and appreciation, that doesn’t mean that you should pay any less attention to the relationships you have outside of your family. Treasure them not only just as much, but in some ways even more, because they are the people of your choosing who give you what you need, not because they have to but because they want to. Therefore, those individuals with whom you have connected in a meaningful way are just as powerful and just as capable of giving you everything that you crave. Minimizing their value is doing yourself and them a great disservice. Love is love. Wherever you find it, however it’s packaged, no matter the source, real love should be fully accepted and appreciated.
Despite the messaging you grew up with, you managed to attract and develop some very real relationships. Keep working on them. That’s where your energy should lie. Know that these relationships are no less real and amazing than the ones that you were taught to believe in.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals, couples, and families. Esther is presently offering phone, Zoom, and FaceTime sessions. She can be reached at email@example.com or 516-314-2295. Read more of Esther Mann’s articles here.