Each Home A Mystery to Another

Rosemary Gray-Snelgrove

Some ideas are like those tunes you can’t get out of your head for days. The latest one such for me emerged from a TED talk given by Jordan Peterson, a man who not only has the great good luck live on Toronto’s Olive Avenue, but who also puts together philosophy, religion and psychology to great effect, giving us fresh ways to look at life. (He does this at the University of Toronto and in various venues such as TVO – Google will lead you to some, always worthwhile).

The notion was that no one knows what goes on inside another’s family. So now I’m seeing everything in that light.

The Impact of Serious Mismatch

We know about the impact upon us of nurturing, and the degree to which our natures interact with that family environment to shape our identities so that when we venture forth into the big wider world, we’ve got some basic equipment with which we operate. (Reference here to blog on Identity, [date])

But. Taking this reality a little further, I believe we’re inclined to think that what we regard as normal is normal for other people. We don’t see the peculiarities of our family environment. I now realize how much this leads us astray. And I think this error is a main element in some of the biggest mistakes we make.

Primary example: marriage. It may take years, but eventually we see that what He learned at home is entirely different from what She learned at home. The obvious differences (handling the toothpaste cap, noticing when dust turns into grime, comfort with animals in the home) surface and are worked out – or not – in the first few years. Enough disparity in several areas may well determine whether the relationship sticks.

The deeper habits, such as how emotions are expressed, what is considered risk rather than adventure, the practice of generousity including comfort with guests in the home: these take longer to become apparent and may lead to a whole review of what was thought of as a keeper of a relationship.

The Impact of Subtle Diversites

I’m looking here mainly at families of similar cultures. Cross cultural variation enters another realm – one I don’t know much about. Around us in Canada, successful long-term relationships between people of different cultures abound but I don’t know what is required in the way of accommodation, wisdom, or learning. Please provide Comments if you can illuminate the subject of cross-cultural relationships.

But the point of this blog is that I’ve realized that just about every modern marriage is actually cross-cultural. Perhaps not among people of tight-knit communities, but even Mennonites may have big variances in what happens behind closed doors.

Everyday Differences with Big Consequences

Space here allows just looking at the initial phenomenon – what are some obvious significant differences in home environments?

I think that the big red ball in the middle – for all – is emotions and how they’re expressed and responded to.

Emotions are Huge

Fear, subsequent anger, sadness, anxiety, embarrassment, joy? How are these expressed?

Is there censure if the emotion is (a) acted out, showing anger or hurt or exaltation by hitting, throwing, jumping, shouting, swearing), (b) verbalized with emotional words (“I hate you”, “You’re all awful”, “You always do this”, “I’m so happy”, (c) verbalized in a reasoned way (“you know I hate losing”, “I’m afraid when you’re like that)? When witnessed by a child, she learns quickly what’s expected. Don’t cry. The man can yell, the woman can’t. If you’re small, shut up. Lots of unspoken rules.

An example: some families forbid ‘fighting’ between siblings. Sounds good to me, at first blush. But if no anger can be expressed, what does the wronged child do with the sense of injustice and frustration? If there’s a bully in the bunch, does that ever become evident to people other than the victims?

If, from earliest days, a child is surrounded by people who have found a harmonious way (likely including humour) to acknowledge each other’s feelings and validate what each other feels – well, that’s probably a child born into heaven. But families that are trying to do this will be modeling something hopeful to their children.

So many of us, of course, fail at dealing with strong emotion and yet do provide nurturing environments. However, I think that many children learn very early that emotions are dangerous. Learning to “walk on eggs” is familiar to anybody living in a home with an addict (even expressing anger can be a kind of addiction). Emotions can be volatile and the unpredictability teaches certain behaviours. So do lots of other conditions that are completely random – bearing no blame, no fault. They just are, but they impact on a child in formation within that family group.

Other Areas With Big Implications

How does the family approach celebrations and community holidays?

This may have everything to do with faith communities and culture. Yet, even among those who are part of a celebrating community, the mood, the approach to the extra work involved in preparing, the absence or presence of joy, inclusion of all in the home, the dealing with pressure and tiredness : these can vary enormously. And will impact on how family members approach those holidays, birthdays, weddings, into the future.

How financial realities are dealt with remains private within households. We knew a family where the father, having lost his job, continued to act out the part of a working man for months, dressing, leaving the house, and returning at suppertime, in order for his family to not have to deal with the reality. Were pride and shame the motivator in that household? What would all learn from that?

Change: for some families, the spectre of change causes fear to flow. Moving home may be familiar to many: military families, clergy, many businessmen. For others, dread and deep anxiety would fill the household if the necessity to move away was presented. And few are prepared for the unexpected such as illness or death. The way that these are handled will vary enormously and give the children their sense of what is normal when change has to be faced.

The Norms – a Hidden Dimension of Identity
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So upon the question of what is the norm: here’s where the rubber meets the road. What do we learn to expect? What is normal, what is acceptable, what goes beyond the bounds, what are the bounds?

Our baseline emerges from our households. And every one is different. Isn’t it amazing that we ever manage to live with others?

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2 Comments

Filed under A Bigger Circle, Rosemary's entries, Uncategorized

2 responses to “Each Home A Mystery to Another

  1. Juanita Rathbun

    You are right when you observe that all of us bring different cultural backgrounds to a marriage. You do not just marry your spouse or partner , you really marry their whole family and even some extended family members. In my own case, having been an “only ” child, I know that my approach to saving/spending money was quite different to my husband’s approach. He was one of three children in a family where his father had a steady but not well paid job as a fireman. His mother, a retired school teacher, learned to be extremely careful with what little money she was “given” each week. She had to provide not only all the food and groceries with that money but she had to buy or make her own clothes too – and those of her three children. What an excellent manager she was!

    In my case, although we were not rich, my father had a good steady job as the lead plumber in a big firm all the way through the depression. My parents certainly knew how to save money and lived rather simply. I never seemed to lack clothes and toys. I was given piano lessons and was expected to continue my education at university. My parents were generous with their money. My father sent money to his widowed mother and sister in Vancouver on a regular basis. So I am the beneficiary of an excellent education so that I was able to take on leadership responsibilities in the school system to earn good money to finance my own kids college and university education.

    I was fortunate to be raised with parents who loved and respected one another. Both were soft spoken and I do not recall any arguments or harsh words. When I married, my husband and I loved and respected each other and we seemed to have the same goals and ambitions. I really cannot remember having any loud arguments , Some disagreements, of course, but never any violence or harsh words.

    Those are my thoughts on your weekly article.
    Juanita Rathbun

  2. It’s true we come from very different homes and habits, and don’t really realize it in the beginning. The differences we do notice are a source of amusement and even bonding at first, and may become more problematic later. What I liked most about what Jordan said was the part about “validating” each other. And Juanita several times mentions “respect”. It seems to me in the heady, early days of a relationship what we most give each other is that “respect” and “trust” and “benefit of every doubt”, and those things may become much more elusive later in the relationship as difficulties and disappointments arise.

    I see it as less a clashing of different habits, and more a change of attitude towards each other.

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