I don’t believe in family loyalty.
Read that one more time: I don’t believe in family loyalty.
The first time that thought entered my head, I was horrified. I actually felt ashamed. I promptly told myself, “What a terrible thing to think! How could you even let that thought run through your mind? Get rid of it. Never think that again.”
But a few days later, it came back to me. Hearing it the second time, I was still shocked, but this time I was able to take a look at why. And after a lot of thinking, I’ve really accepted it.
I don’t believe in family loyalty. And I don’t think you should either.
Here’s the story of how I got here.
I’m telling this story, my story, for the people who grew up in a family similar to mine. That is, a “normal family”.
I wasn’t physically abused. My parents were relatively normal (albeit more religious and “overprotective” than my peers’ – my friends judged them this way growing up, and I’d agree with the assessment now). I got presents on Christmas and ate three meals a day my entire life. My father was a programmer and owned his own small business. My mother was an accountant turned housewife. I had four sisters, and we all went to public school. Totally normal.
And yet I’ve had (almost) no contact with both of my parents going on three years now. I haven’t seen them for longer. What happened, you ask?
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact start of this story, the precise point when our relationship took a plunge. But the tide started to shift when I went to college. I grew up “sheltered” (again, using my high school friends’ words). My parents were generally critical of any friends I had who weren’t Christians. I wasn’t allowed to date. And if I ever voiced an opinion contrary to theirs or doubt in something they told me, I was presented either with stonewalled silence (from my mom) or semi-aggressive baiting (from my dad). That led to me not having contradicting opinions. I was passive and agreeable on everything. With everyone, not just my parents. I liked to keep the peace. I felt a sort of Christian duty to do it.
I didn’t know it would be, but going to college was like a breath of fresh air emotionally. I felt free to think what I wanted. That was the point of college anyway, right? You get to exchange ideas with others and “discover yourself” and be free.
My idealism surrounding college started to fade very quickly though. That’s another story in itself, but know that I wasn’t just unfulfilled and miserable, I was borderline depressed. I cried and felt this heavy sense of dread in my stomach all the time. I called my mom to talk about the things that made me angry or upset (my classmates and teachers seemed disinterested and “checked out” of life, my classes were either boring or not challenging/growing me, etc), and she told me to “stop being prideful”.
In the middle of my second semester of college, I stopped talking to my mom about how unhappy college was for me. She didn’t understand, and talking to her only made me feel worse.
Towards the end of the semester, I had a disagreement with the violin professor on a particular assignment, and so I set up a meeting for us to talk about it. I mentioned this meeting to my mom. And then my mom forbade me from going (how dare I have the arrogance to “challenge” my professor in her expertise and authority). I went anyway. My professor and I sorted everything out and our relationship improved dramatically. But my parents were furious that I disobeyed them and challenged my professor in the first place.
My mom and dad started calling me almost daily after that. They thought I had too much pride. My mom said she was having supernatural dreams about me being out of control. My mom would call me crying, and my dad would call me yelling, and so I stopped answering their calls. Not out of recalcitrance or personal strength – I was scared out of my mind. I believed them that I was going to Hell and that I was a terrible person. I was weak and couldn’t handle it. So I stopped answering the phone.
They turned off my phone shortly after (and emergency credit card) as a way of saying, “Well if you won’t talk to us, you won’t talk to anyone!” Then they emailed me asking what time and day they should pick me up from uni at the end of the semester.
And the insane thing is that I never replied. I had no idea what I was doing. I just had this weird, inexplicable feeling that something bad would happen if I went home. It was probably a totally crazy feeling. But I chose not to reply and not to go home that summer. Instead I called my older sister (who was married and had a child, and was living in another city at the time) and begged her to pick me up and let me sleep on her couch. I thought the drama with our parents would blow over after a week. I felt certain that they would apologize for overreacting about my meeting with my professor and disillusionment with school.
But they never did. And I never backed down either. Some 10 fiery email exchanges occurred since then. But it’s been mostly radio silence. 3 years.
It’s not socially acceptable to put distance between yourself and your family.
But it doesn’t have to be socially acceptable for it to be the right thing to do.
I’ve been ashamed of my story precisely because it’s so extreme. I’ve felt like my choices and reactions are invalid or uncalled for because my parents never physically abused me. I’ve had countless people tell me that I’m unreasonable, or that I’m the crazy one, or that I need to reassess my priorities or make up with my parents because “they surely love me”. “They’re your parents,” they say. “They’ll always be your parents. You can’t choose family. Family is forever.”
I believe without a doubt that my parents love me. But I don’t believe that I have to be in a relationship with them “because they’re my parents” or even “because they love me”. Frankly, I don’t like how they express their love. They aren’t innately deserving of my love or affection or time or energy or money or any resources of mine at all. They don’t deserve my loyalty or unconditional love “because they’re my parents”. And I’ll go further to insist that no one’s parents do.
You choose to love someone not because they’re related to you, but because you feel they deserve it.
Loyalty & Unconditional Love
I don’t believe in blind family loyalty. I also don’t believe that family is entitled to unconditional love. But I do believe in general loyalty and unconditional love. Most people would point at Jesus right now, and that’s cool if that works for you, but it doesn’t for me. I feel no connection to Jesus at all, despite being an evangelical Christian for the first 19 years of my life.
Instead, my archetype example of loyalty and unconditional love is the character Uncle Iroh from the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender. No, I’m not joking. At all.
If you haven’t seen the series, I recommend it just for seeing how the characters Iroh and Zuko interact together and how their relationship evolves throughout the series. Spoilers ahead.
Zuko has been banished (and physically scarred) by his father, who’s the king of his homeland. In order to regain his honor and be accepted back home, he has to capture “the avatar” (10 year old, super-powered kid – don’t worry about it). Zuko’s uncle Iroh accompanies him on his quest.
Zuko goes through some serious shit. And Uncle Iroh stands by him through everything. Every single thing. And then at the end of season two, Zuko faces a choice: either stand by his uncle and be a banished prince forever, or betray his uncle and be accepted back home by his country and family as a hero.
Zuko betrays his uncle and has him thrown in jail. The first time I saw the series, I was pissed. How could he do that? After everything Iroh did for him? Anyway, when Zuko comes to see his uncle in jail, understandably, his uncle doesn’t say anything to him. He just kinda ignores him. Zuko says some mean things and storms out. But then, as the season goes on, Zuko has the realization that his family is batshit crazy and that his uncle was right all along. He goes to break him out of prison, but his uncle has already escaped and there’s no telling where he is.
Zuko leaves his family and his country and goes out to do what he feels he’s meant to do. And near the end of the final season, he finds his uncle by chance. Zuko waits by his bed all night for him to wake up, and finally is able to apologize. The insane thing? Uncle Iroh forgives him.
The two things I love about this relationship
The obvious thing I love about this relationship is the fact that Zuko wasn’t just a little shit, he was a monster. He did some awful things and majorly mistreated his uncle. His uncle of all people did not deserve that. And yet Uncle Iroh still forgave him. Iroh forgave and loved him anyway.
But the main thing I love about this relationship is the fact that Uncle Iroh is untrusting when Zuko visits him in prison. He’s totally justified too. It validates his eventual forgiveness because he was mistreated and he knows it. You shouldn’t forgive someone unless you both know and feel that what happened was wrong.
Uncle Iroh did not give Zuko a free pass because “ahh, what’cha gonna do? He’s family!”. When Zuko back-stabbed him, Iroh was like, “This majorly sucks. I’m so disappointed. But I guess you live and you learn. Life goes on. Gotta break outta here and get on with my life.”
It wasn’t until Zuko came back to Iroh and said, “I was a shitty person that doesn’t deserve your forgiveness, but I still have to say how sorry I am,” that Iroh forgave him and welcomed him back into his life.
So all of this is to say that I do believe in loyalty and unconditional love. Some people are absolutely worth loving. But some people aren’t.
Relationships as business transactions
You should at least “break even” in every relationship in your life. That is, you should be getting something out it. What you get should equal what you give.
I don’t mean money or material things. I mean, you should get some degree of emotional or psychological support, you should be learning something from that person, you should get some fun out of the time you spend together. It can be literally anything. But you should be getting something out of EVERY relationship you’re in. You should get at least as much as you put in.
Gratitude vs Indebtedness
And there’s another rule: you should never feel indebted to anyone. Do you feel like your friend helped get you out of depression, so now you owe them all the time/money/energy in the world? Stop. Now. Gratitude is beautiful. But don’t ever let your gratitude turn to debt. You can be thankful and you can show it. But when you start to feel like you “owe” them, the relationship will become unhealthy very fast.
So you should get something out of every relationship, and you should never feel indebted to someone for something they did for you in the past.
This model should be applied even (especially!) to your familial relations. Parents included.
Oh, did your parents coddle you for 18 years, pay all your expenses, keep your tummy full? That’s lovely. You don’t owe them anything. Your relationship with them is always a business transaction. Are they bringing at least the same amount of value to your life RIGHT NOW than they’re taking out RIGHT NOW? Yes? That’s healthy. Keep the relationship going. Are they draining your mental/emotional/spiritual/psychological resources RIGHT NOW more than they’re helping out RIGHT NOW? Time to reassess the relationship.
Investing in unprofitable relationships
To draw on the Zuko-Iroh relationship again, I do believe that some people are worth investing in or waiting on. But like in the story, you should be ready to cut your losses at some point. You need to establish boundaries, at least privately, and decide the timeframe or emotional reserves you’re willing to spend on an unprofitable relationship. And then you need to stick to it. Cut your parents out of your life if they cross the line. It’s for your own good and happiness.
Why my parents are out of my life
To go back to my personal story, the reason I haven’t been able to reopen a relationship with my parents is this: they take out more than they give me. They give me no emotional or psychological support. They aren’t fun to be around. The only thing I’m able to learn from them at this point is how not to treat people (and how emotionally damaging religion can be). I don’t believe they’re worth investing in. They’ve changed over these past three years, but none of the changes have been an improvement to my mind.
So that’s the story of how and why my parents are out of my life. I’m telling it with the hope that someone will be able to learn easily what I’ve labored hard for.
I am not a victim – and you aren’t either.
It took me about 2.5 years to get here. Until the 2 year mark, I believed that I was somehow a victim of fate. I felt that my parents “did this” to me, that they abandoned me, that they disowned me. Now I firmly believe that I cut them out of my life. And I’m taking responsibility for the failed relationship not because I think I’m solely responsible for it (it takes two to tango, as they say), but because I am responsible for my life and my happiness. I choose to accept what’s happened to me, and I also choose to keep the rift between my parents and me. They’re gone. I did this.
And the insane thing is that I believe this falling out with my parents was simultaneously the most traumatic and the best thing that ever happened to me. It was truly devastating. A lot of religious guilt was wrapped up into that. But through this experience, I’ve become the person that I’m meant to be. I make mistakes, but I’m strong. I still fail a lot, but I have real courage and grit. I have my own opinions, and I’m not afraid to share them. I love who I am, quirks and shortcomings and all, even if others don’t. And I would never have gotten here if my parents hadn’t shut off my phone that day. Their coldness toward me sent me scavenging for sweater. And let me tell you, I found so much more than that.
So take a look at your relationships now. Especially your familial ones. Are you getting something out of them? Are you driven by a sense of guilt or indebtedness? Are these people truly worth investing in? For how long?
I don’t believe in blind family loyalty. And I don’t think you should either.