Bringing Extended Family Relationships Closer

In times past, and even now in some parts of the world, each member of a family had their fate tied up with the other members of the family. They all had to pull together or the survival of all of them was in danger. They shared a purpose. They all shared a very concrete, in-your-face-from-dawn-to-dusk purpose: Survival. And they shared the purpose with each other but not with "outsiders" because the family was husband, wife and kids, and maybe also parents of husband or wife. Sometimes siblings. They all lived together and relied on each other and so shared the same fate.

There were things to do. Urgent, necessary things. And of course, while human beings are accomplishing necessary things, they will also talk to each other and form relationships. And unified, coordinated effort often creates a bond between people.

This historical reality is where we get our reverence for "family." Why is family so sacred? The reverence we have for family is a remnant from the past when conditions were different. The realities have changed, but our underlying belief system hasn't been updated.

You'll often see two people who survived an ordeal or fought in a war or even went through boot camp together forty years ago still treat each other like good friends. For a short time they shared a real purpose, and that experience is so rare in our modern world, it shines like a beacon through the years, brighter and clearer than all the comparatively superficial relationships those people have had in the last forty years.

Purpose is essential. It is the core of a relationship. Without it, there is no real bond. There may be superficial interaction, there may be social intercourse, there may be mutual entertainment. But that is nowhere near a real relationship — a relationship based on, centered around, and springing from a shared purpose.

Times have changed. Most families don't have to pull together to survive. In fact, most families couldn't think of a unifying purpose if they had to. I don't mean "carrying on the family name." That's not a real purpose. A purpose is something you have to strive for. It isn't something that happens as a matter of course. These days, the purposes of the individual members of families tend to be diverse and unrelated. Their purposes are unrelated.

But a real relationship with someone means your purposes are related.

Politicians and preachers are always complaining gravely about the "disintegration of the family" in America. Probably the greatest cause is our affluence, which hardly seems like something to whine about. There are no necessities that bind us with our blood relations — no urgent, concrete things that need to be accomplished together. That's what relationships are made of at the root, and so we don't really have relationships with our relatives. We go through the motions of relating, but it's empty. We can tell there's something wrong with it, but can't quite put our finger on it.

During the Great Depression, many families were put back into a survival situation, and they bonded closely. Their fates were tied together. People who lived through those times recalled later that their family was closer than it had ever been before or after.

When a group of people put out effort for the day and it all adds together to make mutual survival, you can eat dinner together and socialize and there will be relationships, because your purposes are related. But when you just eat together without the tied-together purpose, something is missing. Something is lacking: No joined effort toward a shared purpose. What's missing is the real basis of true relationship.

Often in today's world, people sometimes feel closer to the people they work with than they do their own spouses. They share purpose with their workmates. If spouses aren't working together to accomplish a shared goal they both feel is important, they don't really have much of a relationship, and they usually don't know what's missing. The relationship itself (its health, its well-being) cannot be the shared purpose, because its health and well-being depend on a purpose outside the relationship.

So if you want to feel closer to the people in your family, find (or create) important purposes you hold in common with them, and make those purposes the central focus of your relationships.

Adam Khan is the author of Self-Help Stuff That Works and Cultivating Fire: How to Keep Your Motivation White Hot. Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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