January 26, 2007

Living in dysfunctional families

ARTWORK Dysfunctional Family With Hope by Noelle Enright

Something Like Life
Jan. 26, 2007

TWO years ago, I had the opportunity to interview a rather famous Chinese-Filipino businesswoman who was trying to move on after the pain of going through a lengthy legal battle with her siblings. Reports regarding the traded lawsuits and padlocked factories and offices of this businesswoman and her siblings eventually spilled over to the pages of major newspapers and gossip columns. Apparently, when the family patriarch passed away, control over the family business was gradually handed over to this woman by her mother and her paternal aunts, much to the chagrin of her brother, the eldest male heir in the family. As you know, in most Chinese families, the eldest son usually inherits the right to take over the family business.

Thus, this woman and her brother fought, splitting the family down the middle, pitting three siblings against the other three. To put an end to the family squabble, which probably had hurt their mother the most, the business was taken apart. Each group of siblings took a piece of the family conglomerate, running these companies separately from the other group. It was a practical solution, which the businesswoman told me would probably have met the understanding and even approval of their late father. She told me it was the only way to keep the peace in the family. Despite the shame and humiliation of a public feud, she is still hopeful that her family would be mended, and she and her siblings will get along again.

It would be a bit simplistic to say that the fight was just for the control of billions of pesos in assets. That it was just about money. But as most people who’ve grown up in rich large families will tell you, such fights over finances usually can be traced back to one’s youth. All that bitterness and anger almost always originate from slights (imagined or otherwise), jealousies, insecurities and a desire to be acknowledged for one’s self-worth while growing up. In fact, this was exactly what was revealed when the feud of this businesswoman’s family became public. Issues that were better left in their childhood were brought up again, and each sibling behaved exactly the way they did in their youth.

But, really, who among us have grown up in perfect families? Many of us probably belong to dysfunctional families like that businesswoman’s, and have parents who probably have major hang-ups, or siblings with lots of insecurities.

And while growing up in such an emotionally charged family environment, we tend to compare ourselves with our classmates or friends, and always think their families are better than ours. But rich or poor—and I’ve had friends from both side of the fence—there is always something or someone that prevents them from having normal family relationships.

What is “normal” anyway? A father who earns enough to support his family, who comes home straight from the office to have dinner with the family? The same for the mother who rushes home to cook a meal for her hubby and kids, and is still able to do the household chores? And drug-free kids who are respectful, brilliant, hardworking at school and helpful at home? I have yet to meet a family who is all these.

Being in dysfunctional families, however, doesn’t mean all gloom and doom. Sometimes such families prepare us for the real world when we grow up, and help us deal with the challenges of dealing with different kinds of relationships. While some may be crippled by their own trials with, say, abusive parents or sanity-challenged siblings, and become adults bearing the same psychoses, most others go on to learn not to integrate their emotional handicaps, becoming better people because of their experiences within the family.

Of course, it is difficult to accomplish this separation of our family life from the world outside. What we are today is a product of how we conducted ourselves, survived even, within our families. We sometimes carry these feelings and behavior over even in different environments. Someone who has no respect for his father, a drunk perhaps, may see authority figures as fools as well. Such that in an office situation, he would be inclined to regard his boss with the kind of ridicule and disrespect he feels toward his father. Then there are those who are emotionally mature not to let such family inconveniences hinder their own relationships with other people.

Sometimes when we read about family feuds and lawsuits over inheritance among the influential and powerful, I kid my mother that our family is lucky because we’re not rich. My sister and I would have nothing to fight over when our folks eventually pass. (Knock on wood!) Seriously, being related by blood doesn’t mean a thing when your siblings have different values from yours. While the same DNA runs through your veins, you and your siblings—or even your parents—will have differing characters. Sometimes you wonder how you can be related at all to them when you are as different from them as night is to day. And you think there probably was some mix-up at the hospital and your real kuya is probably growing up in someone else’s family!

Of course, we can’t choose our own families. We are born into them and have to accept each family member, warts and all. (Or we don’t have to accept them, it’s our choice.) It can be a struggle to survive the clashes of different personalities with different beliefs or opinions, and grow up to become responsible mature adults. What helps us maybe are the friends and people we surround ourselves with, and the relationships we form with them. Besides, we tend to compensate for the lack of any normalcy in our families by moving toward friends who fill our need for balance and harmony. If we choose them appropriately, our friends — our real family - can help us become better people. And all the hurt and pain we grew up with cease to be a burden.

(My column, Something Like Life, is published every Friday in the Life section of the BusinessMirror.)

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