What I Owe

Monday, April 23, 2012
Relationships are hard. Sometimes, relationships are really hard. But unless you're finding a cure for cancer or saving the world from mad men,* they're the most important thing about being human.

So being who I am, I spend a significant amount of time trying to determine what I owe those people in my life with whom I have a relationship. Because OBVIOUSLY I can't just wing it. That's just CRAZY TALK.

And the more I think about it, the more complex the answer becomes. Do I owe someone something simply by virtue of blood? How much blood is required before the obligation kicks in? Do I owe more to my "family by choice," because I accepted the obligation freely?  And what do you do about obligations to family members who turn out to be reprobates? My answers to these questions have changed as I've gotten older, and I suspect they'll continue to change.

I used to think that my obligation to my blood relatives was inviolate, but I got over that. That obligation is not inviolate. There are any number of things that would lead me to a decision to kick a family member to the relationship curb, and walk away with no regrets. If I'm related to people who are racists, who hold others in contempt simply by virtue of an accident of birth, who treat others badly as a matter of principle - and I am - then I can't see that I owe them anything at all. The most they deserve is a kick in the ass as they shut the door behind them. I've had to make that decision, and I can't say that I've regretted it. If you're a reprobate, you do not deserve my obligation, and I will not feel guilty about withholding it. The only exception to this is the obligation that I feel I owe to my children. They're always going to be my children, no matter what.

I used to think that relationships with blood relatives rather than friends was the cornerstone of my relationship matrix, and I got over that, too. While I have deep, meaningful, and long-term relationships with people to whom I'm related, I also have deep, meaningful, and long-term relationships with people I've met through serendipity, or chance, or mutual interests. I now realize that there's no special value to the blood relation based relationships compared to the family-by-choice relationships. A longer history may offer deeper roots with my relatives, but common interest, emotional support, and love often offers deeper commitment with my friends.

Now, in my midlife, I have come to the conclusion that my obligations to those with whom I choose to have a relationship are completely and utterly voluntary. And for me, they're at least partially dependent on whether or not the people I choose are willing partners in that relationship, whether or not they behave with kindness, with understanding, with compassion. And I accept the responsibility that I have the same obligation to them.


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*Not mutually exclusive.

8 comments:

JstPam said...

You have it right! Nothing wrong with "picking" your family!

Stacey said...

As you know, I wholeheartedly agree. It doesn't mean there's not sadness at the loss of a relationship I choose to sever. I do find I am more sane when I divest myself of 'unhealthy for me' relationships(shocker, I know)
This takes hard work and I applaud your ability to evaluate and execute; it's not easy, but it is necessary. Well, in my book anyway.

Random Michelle K said...

Yes, but, I do think there are *some* caveats to this.

If someone is sick / in pain / suffering, I think they deserve leeway. ie, my great-aunt (bless her heart) has been on Lithium since I was a child. She gets a lot of leeway from the family because that illness changed her personality. She didn't used to be fretful and anxious and say things that were inappropriate. That all came with the onset of her illness.

It's not right (IMO) to diss her because something broke in her brain and turned her personality upside down. Instead, we just ignore much of what she says because she is no longer capable of filtering.

If she wasn't family, would we put up with it? Probably not. But we (as a family, not me as an individual) remember who she was before, and know that if we didn't love her, no one else would.

But that is a very very very hard line to walk, and I can't blame people who have walked away from her, because she is NOT the woman she once was.

Janiece said...

Michelle, it's a complex issue, and I think you know how I feel about mental illness and supporting those who suffer from it. I hope I would try and react with compassion and kindness not only for the ill family member, but for other members of the family who make decisions differently from me.

Random Michelle K said...

I know. And that wasn't a comment to you per se, just wanted to note (to your other readers) that there are cases that are even MORE freaking complex.

And my great-aunt is probably a perfect example, since at this point the majority of the family has only known her "after" self. For people like me, there is no before, except from what I was told by my grandmother and aunt.

Should we expect to her act like a rational person after all this time? There is a valid argument for that. But she hasn't. So people are well within their rights to write her off.

As you said, it's a complex subject, and one each individual has to make for themselves, but I can understand why someone might choose to remain faithful to a family member who everyone else would kick to the curb--and vice versa.

Megan@MondayMorningMusings said...

This is the third (?) time you have written a post revolving around this topic (that I've read).

It seems to me that you are still struggling with this. Are you trying to convince us or yourself? Why the guilt behind the brave, confident facade? What is keeping you from believing your own words and moving on? Not looking for answers, just wondering out loud.

Janiece said...

Megan, I am struggling. I stand by my decisions and believe they're the right ones for me, but it's never easy. And the details aren't really for public consumption, therefore the generalized commentary rather than something with more specificity.

Anne C. said...

Thank you for being a complex human being, Janiece. I would hope that if one of my family members or friends was cutting me out of their life, they would have put some thought into it. If it was as simple as "Ciao, don't let the door hit you on the way out," it wouldn't bee a very important relationship to you in the first place. It's the ones you really *want* to work out that are the most painful when it can't.