Family of Origin: Patterns and Particularities

After last week’s episode about attachment and epigenetics, Dan asked a few friends what kind of terrain it feels like they’re walking on when they talk about their families of origin. One person mentioned rolling hills—the reality of some uphill work, but with moments of beauty and downhill ease—other folks mentioned terrain like quicksand, thin ice, and a rocky uphill climb. We imagine that will be familiar for many of you: the sense of danger and fragility, the fear of drowning or being consumed. As we’ve said before, these are deep waters we’re wading into.

Dan: “Our sense of self—our proclivities and desires and identity—arise within the matrix of the complex world of abuse and trauma, of heartache and goodness, of joy, of victory, of all sorts of things. We are not, on the other hand, merely a complex bundle of determinism. We are not just a compilation of cultural and familial expectations. We are co-created by God, by our families, and in our own interaction with God and with others, we shape a sense of who we are. But we need to take into account how our family of origin has opened the door to who we are.”

As Dan engages a few crucial categories for engaging family of origin, much of the conversation centers around the idea of loyalty—which is so often twisted into the belief that telling painful stories, naming your experience, and trying to leave and enact a new way of living are all a form of betrayal. A false sense of loyalty tells you to stay in your place, don’t rock the boat, make whatever excuses you need to assure yourself that this is just the way things are. But any form of leaving—whether it’s going to college, getting married, or choosing to disrupt generational patterns—brings that need for acquiescent loyalty into question.

“Will you begin to name what is true, knowing it is not something one does in one week, one month, one year, but is an ongoing revelation?”

Dan: “There cannot be ownership of a new world until there is some form of death to the old. Which means you have to depart, you have to end something of the loyalty structure to your mother and father in order to create a new world on your and other people’s behalf.”

Dan also invites us to wrestle with other key categories, including dissonance, conflict, and loss. Anything that disrupts the status quo has the potential to highlight realities that have long gone unseen and unnamed. Disruption and grief can be powerfully clarifying, bringing to the surface what family systems often fight so hard to keep hidden.

Dan: “It’s in the midst of all forms of death and loss that we begin to get greater clarity as to what has this unstated, unnamed realm actually produced.”

As we begin to identify the dynamics at work in our families, and as we grow the desire to speak truth and tell our stories, Dan argues that it is essential to focus on both patterns—the 30,000-foot overview of themes and repetition—and particularity. For example, rather than talking vaguely about our parents and their collective relationship with their children, Dan encourages us to reflect on what makes each person in the system unique and on the particular dynamics that emerge between them.

Dan: “We need to understand that honesty is not dishonor. […] Naming what is true is simply creating a context where we can own the reality of what we became, how we chose to respond, the unique advantages and disadvantages of being in our home. All that needs to be seen as not dishonoring.”

Toward the end of the episode, Dan offers a prayer on behalf of all of us wrestling with these categories. Because we cannot do this work alone: The depth and complexity of our family stories, and the powerful structures that we develop as a result, cannot be fully engaged in an honest, honoring way without the comfort of God.