Family relationships, Friendships and spiritual work
Perhaps the issue that comes up most often in dealing with spiritual seekers is the issue of family relationships.
We can class these relationships into two categories: current and legacy relationships.
By current I mean the relationships we have with members who are part of our everyday existence now: those we share a home with, those for whom we have an ongoing responsibility or commitment, maybe paying for their education, those we are involved in business with, shared responsibility for caring for maybe elderly parents, those with whom we have financial or other involvements, and so on.
You’ll notice that in each of these relationships there is an element of an ongoing contract. We don’t usually think of relationships in terms of contracts but basically that is what is going on. Sharing a home involves unwritten and usually unarticulated contracts about how we are going to manage our daily living with another. Contracts mean that you give something in return for something else.
The old-fashioned contract between husband and wife was, she was provided with a home and food in order to have children and he got a home and family to come to, if he provided for them. Having children automatically creates a contract of dependent and dependee until such a time as the dependee is fit to provide for themselves. It’s not by its nature a lifelong contract.
Like all relationship contracts, they change over time and run out when no longer relevant or needed in order to fulfil their original needs.
As long as the contract is working, everyone involved having their needs met, at a fair rate of exchange, we feel good. We feel love. In a well functioning family everyone in the family is in on the contract of family survival. Children care about each others welfare.
This is what CS Lewis calls “Affection” in his book The Four Loves. It is the most basic and immediate kind of love. It is conditional love. It is a powerful influence in our lives because of the strong feelings it produces in us. After all, it arises out of the survival need.
The second kind of family relationship that arises is the legacy relationship. The original contract has run out. We no longer need or want to have particular needs met by the person who used to meet that need for us. Children become independent, wife becomes independent, husband want to fulfil his sexual needs elsewhere, and so on.
The contract needs to be re-drawn in order to keep the relationship alive as opposed to becoming a mere arrangement or maybe scrapped.
The thing is that we are not usually aware of the changes in the contract as it happens gradually over time. Circumstances change and so do the contracts or the value of them.
For many people the contract with their siblings, which used to be based on mutual welfare becomes redundant as the children leave home but they are left with the strong feelings of affection or maybe resentment from that time.
The feelings last a lot longer than the usefulness of the contract. This is why people still have strong feelings about their family of origin long after they have left that situation. The hidden contracts are so powerful that they do not dissipate automatically, even after they are redundant. We need to revisit these contracts, allegiances, in ourselves in order to re-draw them and bring them up to date.
Contracts include expectations, motivations, beliefs, and so on. Usually we think that the other party have the same ideas about the contract as we have. They may have quite a different idea of say what is expected in this contract. One in a family may think it is the obligation of other family members to help them in a difficult time, another may think it’s a case of everyone for themselves.
The underlying contracts manifest as guilt, resentment, longing for the old days or friendships, feeling abandoned, expecting help, feeling mis-understood and so on.
In a family where there was good affection and friendship between the family members, we want it to continue even after we have left home. The memory of the friendship outweighs the current relationship, the nature of which has changed over time.
This is why people often wonder what happened to their friendship with siblings. We feel that we have grown apart and feel the loss of it. We want the affection to remain, despite the circumstance no longer being able to support it. We are now having our needs met elsewhere and the affection goes there.
The difference between family relationships and other friendships is in the contract.
With friends we have lighter, less binding contracts. The contract might be to play golf together or share some mutual interest. It might be, having children of the same age that we share play time with them. The thing is that friendships are usually based on simpler, clearer contracts, not many sub-clauses as with family contracts. And, we still get the affection we crave.
We don’t usually think of our relationships in terms of contracts, because they are the norms of society. We just go along with society not realising that society has imposed contracts on us. Examining our relationships is a good way to become aware of what contracts we have unwittingly bought into and re-evaluating them in terms of valuable they are to our current life situations.
This is really about bringing what we are unconscious of into consciousness and in that way coming to know ourselves. We come to know what contracts we have made, not just with others, but with ourselves because basically every contract we make with others is really our best effort at getting our needs met. These needs are based on assumptions and beliefs that are usually hidden from view. So, uncovering the contracts is a way of uncovering our hidden assumptions and beliefs. This is getting to the root of our ego, which is what is veiling our true nature from us.
We may come to see that we always act in a subservient way to authority or that we are inclined to take on authority in every situation because we have found that this is a good ploy for getting what we want. Seeing this we are likely to also see what this is costing us, maybe in terms of self honesty or something else.
My writing is always about self-knowledge, attempts to point others towards ideas that may be beneficial in coming to know yourself and in that way see how you have been blinded by your own hidden contracts, the ones taken on unconsciously in childhood.
CS Lewis in his book The Four Loves describes them as Affection, Eros, Friendship and Charity.
Affection and Eros are both arise from instinctive, tribal, biological, gregarious roots. By “charity” I understand him to mean what nowadays we would call unconditional love or what the Greeks called Agape. But, friendship, as he describes it, is love that does not have the strings attached that that go with affection and eros – no contracts or at least non-binding contracts. He says this is the purest kind of love between people, because it is freely chosen and not emotionally encumbered.
Richard Rose, Jesus and Buddha all spoke of the value of true friendship. I think that what happens to many of us is that we expect or want to find friendship in family but this does not often happen. It can happen but something must change along the way to turn that relationship of affection into friendship.
We long for friendship but in a society which does not value friendship for its own sake we may not have thought about it.
Lewis says that real friendship is less understood and less valued in this era than in Greek times. Real friendship is what many long for but maybe have not been able to distinguish it from affection and eros.
I’ll leave you with a few quotes on Friendship.
One of the most beautiful qualities of true friendship is to understand and to be understood. Lucius Seneca
There is nothing on this earth more to be prized than true friendship.
Friendship… is not something you learn in school. But if you haven’t learned the meaning of friendship, you really haven’t learned anything. Muhammad Ali
Friendship is always a sweet responsibility, never an opportunity. Khalil Gibran
Sometimes being a friend means mastering the art of timing. There is a time for silence. A time to let go and allow people to hurl themselves into their own destiny. And a time to prepare to pick up the pieces when it’s all over. Octavia Butler
My best friend is the man who in wishing me well wishes it for my sake. Aristotle
The only way to have a friend is to be one. Ralph Waldo Emerson
When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. Henri Nouwen
A friend is someone who gives you total freedom to be yourself. Jim Morrison
Friends are the siblings God never gave us. Mencius
The language of friendship is not words but meanings. Henry David Thoreau
and the last word goes to Oscar.
True friends stab you in the front. Oscar Wilde