Families in America appear to be disintegrating, and with them, our collective mental health.
In a column headlined “What’s Ripping American Families Apart?” in the July 29 New York Times, David Brooks reported that 27 percent of Americans are now estranged from a member of their own family, and 40 percent have experienced estrangement at some point.
“The most common form of estrangement is between adult children and one or both parents—a cut usually initiated by the child,” Brooks wrote.
American parents are twice as likely to be estranged from their adult children as parents in Israel, Germany, England and Spain.
Oddly, this is happening in an era when many parents are investing more time and money than ever in their kids’ happiness.
That investment could be feeding their children’s discontent, Brooks said. Young adults describe feeling smothered. They long to escape mom and dad and lead their own lives.
Brooks thinks family estrangements of various types, not just parents from children, are related to a broader “psychological unraveling” in the U.S. (He doesn’t say whether family problems are the causes or effects of that unraveling.)
“Major depression rates among youths aged 12 to 17 rose by almost 63 percent between 2013 and 2016,” he wrote. “American suicide rates increased by 33 percent between 1999 and 2019. The percentage of Americans who say they have no close friends has quadrupled since 1990 ... Fifty-four percent of Americans report sometimes or always feeling that no one knows them well.”
Whether it’s the chicken or the egg of this crisis, hard feelings between parents, adult children or other family members certainly aren’t doing us any good.
But families have always been stressed. For perspective, the Bible comes in handy.
Start in Genesis and read forward. You’ll encounter motley tale after motley tale of intrafamily squabbles, up to and including jealousy, fraud, rebellion, incest and fratricide. Cain and Abel. Noah and his sons. Jacob and Esau. Lot and his daughters. David, Absalom, Tamar and Amnon.
Read’em and weep, friends. I can’t help but chuckle when I hear people extol the virtues of the “biblical family” and hold it up as an exemplar. The Bible makes your own dysfunctional family look like Andy, Opie and Aunt Bee.
Although family rifts date to the Garden of Eden, they remain incredibly painful, and they do have serious implications for our culture.
After 65 years of living in families and 40-plus years as a minister trying to advise other families, I possess no sure-fire, one-size-fits-all fix for folks who can’t abide their kin.
Indeed, some kinfolks should not be abided. Some are obsessively manipulative. Some are sexually, physically or emotionally abusive. If you have relatives like that, the healthiest thing may be to love them from a distance. A long distance.
But while all families are dysfunctional, most aren’t that dysfunctional. They’re worth salvaging. They’re just riven by the pedestrian quirks, surly dispositions and narcissistic inclinations that afflict all humanity.
I refer to the Bible again.
In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul laid down a counter-intuitive model for forging strong family relationships. His advice has often been mischaracterized by both theological conservatives and theological liberals, each for their own ends. (Paul might be the most consistently slandered of all Bible characters.)
Still, 2,000 years later, his is still sage advice.
He says all members of a family—parents and children alike—should see themselves as willing, humble servants to every other member.
The husband is to lay down his life and desires in favor of his wife’s, even as Jesus loved the church enough to be willingly die for it. The wife is to lay down her life and serve her husband, respecting him as if he were, in fact, Jesus incarnate.
Parents are to selflessly nurture, teach and gently correct their kids, taking care not to make them angry. The children are to serve, obey and honor their parents.
Everybody is to rein in his or her ego for the greater good. They’re to prefer the desires and rights of those they live with over their own.
I’ve never seen a family live out this selflessness perfectly. It goes against the grain of who we fallen humans are.
For what it’s worth, some scholars think St. Paul himself was divorced. It could be he had trouble following his own advice. Or maybe it was his wife who got mad and left. Who knows?
Still, his precepts, if difficult to obey, can teach us.
He implies that creating a strong family requires humbly bowing—even to dunderheads who at times may not deserve our service or be grateful when they get it.
We’re to take pains to love the unlovable. We render service to God by serving them, because God loves them, and we want to show our thanks to God because he also loves us in our self-delusion and hubris.
St. Paul believed that to the extent every family member follows the ideal of self-surrender, then, paradoxically, everyone will end up affirmed and fulfilled.
But even when the others fail their duty to serve, we’re not excused from ours. The giving has to start somewhere. Or, as I tell my wife when we’re in a thorny moment, “It’s time one of us acted like the adult in the room.” Then I add, “I nominate you.”
That last part is a joke. If my family is to become a refuge of warmth, compassion and healing, the change must start with me. Your family’s healing has to start with you.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.