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Does Family Really Come First?


By Hal Runkel, LMFT

It may seem heretical to even ask this question, but is it really best for me to put my "family first"? This motto seems to be the rallying cry for every family-strengthening organization. Whether it's "Put your family first," or "Remember, family comes first" or some other variation, the emphasis is always the same--be sure to prioritize the interests of the family above any and all others, especially your own. No wonder Dr. Phil's latest blockbuster book is simply entitled Family First.

But does anybody ever question this piece of wisdom? If you're anything like me, you usually just use it to beat yourself out of thinking selfishly, returning your focus toward those loved ones to whom you're attached. Instead of questioning the wisdom behind it, we usually question our own failings at living up to it.

Well, in keeping with the ScreamFree tradition of shaking things up a bit, I'm here to tell you--family does not, and should not, come first. Not if you really want your family relationships to thrive.

Here's why. "Family comes first" is an effort with great intentions. It is an effort to place a hedge around the family system in order to distinguish itself and protect itself from outsiders. In this way it serves to establish a healthy boundary around the family so the family can foster it's own unique traditions, heritage, and legacy.

But putting family first is not the best way to establish that boundary. And it runs into serious problems as children get older. More on that in a minute.

What family first attempts to do is establish loyalty as the highest governing principle for the individuals in the family. And that's how it becomes self-defeating. For an individual to have loyalty as her highest governing principle is to ask that person to not be an individual. Being an individual means thinking, feeling, and acting on your own, for your own best interests, for your own self-development. Demanding that an individual sacrifice and always think of the family first is to strip away the very uniqueness that individual can offer to her family.

Demanding loyalty to the group above all else is how criminal groups have always achieved the worst criminal acts in history. Think of all the acts of genocide, from the fascist Third Reich to the tribalistic wars in Rwanda. Think of all the communist regimes, demanding fidelity over freedom. Think of the "family" togetherness of organized crime families and street gangs. All of these groups sacrifice individuality for the meshing of the group. All of these practiced, and some continue to operate, according to the family first principle.

What has always thrived throughout history, and what continues to inspire, is the triumph of the thinking, feeling, and acting individual. The one who can choose to question the family and its practices, while still remaining connected and committed, is the hero. This is Gandhi. This is MLK. This is Abraham Lincoln.

Family does not come first because loyalty cannot question itself. Family does not come first because personal integrity has to. I want to create in my family an environment that respects the individual, one that celebrates disagreement and refuses to squash anyone just for the sake of calming my anxiety in the heat of the moment. I want my wife and children to know that my personal integrity comes before they do, because they need to know that I am choosing to be with them out of desire, not out of obligation. I want my children to know that they will eventually choose an outsider over us, and choose to start a new family with them. And that's not only acceptable, that's wonderful.

That's the type of family environment I want to create in my home, one that empowers everyone to respect themselves first and foremost, one that encourages both individual expression and family commitment. And that's the type of family environment I want to help you create as well.

It all begins with one step, learning to calm down.

Hal Edward Runkel, LMFT is an expert on human relationships. Through family therapy, organizational consulting, and professional coaching, he has developed the revolutionary ScreamFree Living approach to relationships. Seen by millions on iVillage Live (NBC) and the CW's nationally syndicated The Daily Buzz, Hal is the founder and president of ScreamFree Living, Inc., as well as the voice behind the ScreamFree Living book series. Hal is also part of the eHarmony parenting team and travels coast-to-coast sharing his ScreamFree relationship programs with audiences nationwide through teleconferences, web seminars, newsletters, training classes, and the book series. Watch September 4th for ScreamFree Parenting: The Revolutionary Approach to Raising Your Kids by Keeping Your Cool from Broadway Books and Waterbrook/Multnomah Press. For more information, visit www.screamfree.com

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