Family Loyalty (Where Does It Start and Where Does It End?)

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Family Loyalty is one of the most challenging issues for many people to deal with.  Oftentimes, people who struggle with the separation of personal responsibility against the “tug” to meet family obligations end up living conflicted lives.  These people are often shamed into “going the extra mile” for a family member based on a sense of obligation to ancestral binds instead of following their practical intuition. The true victims in these relationships are the ones who cannot pull back from trying to solve every problem that plagues their family members. 

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There are a range of influences that motivate these conflicted individuals; yet self-preservation is not one of them. The challenge for people that feel the compulsion to always support their family member is determining where loyalty begins and where loyalty must sometimes end.


There are two main types of issues at play.  One is the responsibility to the nuclear family and the obligations to the extended family.  The nuclear family is typically all of the people that live under the same roof.  In most cases this will be a mom, dad, brothers and sisters. Another way to look at it is the nuclear family is the husband, the wife and their kids. The extended family is everyone else.


The struggle with dealing with one’s nuclear and/or extended family could vary.  It depends on the closeness within each subgroup; however the common challenge is the same.  There is a strong sense of loyalty to those bonded by blood and therefore a feeling of personal responsibility to “be there” whenever a need is present.  In extreme cases, the demonstration of family loyalty is not limited to legal acts of kindness and empathy.  Some family bonds are so strong that one may commit illegal acts of retaliation against people who hurt any member of their family regardless of which group they are in. Over the years there have been numerous crimes committed by thoughtful individuals who decided to protect an extended family member to the point of going to jail and thereby sabotaging their responsibility to the rest of their family.  In this situation, the impulse to help one family member overrules the sane choice.


The question I pose is this: When is enough… Enough?  At what point should individuals pull back from the initial desire to help a family member at the risk of hurting themselves; whether financially, legally, emotionally or all of the above. When does someone have the right to say, “I am not going to help you even though you are my blood”?


Let’s be honest; we all wanted to say it at one time or another.  In fact, there are many of you who want to say it on a daily basis.  However, we remain tormented at reaching those decisions for fear of abandoning the ones that share our DNA. As the conflictions rage within us we rationalize our decisions by saying, “If I don’t do it, then this loved one will end up in a bad place; or with a bad experience; or this or that”!   In any case, our conflictions weigh more heavily than our judgment and ultimately we give into our default modus operandi. 


At some point we need to apply situational decision making to the choices we make. Situational Decision Making means that we look at the specific situation and not just focus on the fact that it involves a member of our family.  In situational decision making one must get all of the facts by asking provocative questions before taking any action steps.  These questions could include the following:

  1. How old is the family member with the need?
  2. Why is the family member in the specific situation?
  3. How many times has this family member been in this type of situation?
  4. What did the family member do to contribute to them being in this situation?
  5. Will helping this family member, change them in a positive way or simply get them out of a bad situation?
  6. What is the likelihood that this family member will repeat the behaviors that got them in this situation in the first place?
  7. What impact does helping this family member have on my responsibilities to my nuclear family?
  8. What could likely happen to this family member if I say No?
  9. Am I willing to temporarily lose the relationship with this family member if I say No?
  10. What would Jesus do?  This may sound funny but it’s not.  Even God allowed the children of Israel (His people) to suffer in the wilderness for forty years in order to teach them a lesson.

The key is establishing parameters and guidelines to your acts of kindness.   One cannot merely respond to a need without considering all of the facts of the situation and assessing the larger context of helping out in the first place.  It’s quite possible that in some cases the greater good is served by not intervening in the situation. This is especially true in cases of older family members that repeatedly make bad choices. For those individuals your acts of loyalty serve as an enabler to their stunted growth.


Consider the story of the Prodigal Son found in the Bible, book of Luke, chapter 15, and verses 11-32.  It’s a story of a son who left his rich father to go out into the world and squander his money.  At the end of the story, the father lovingly allows his son back home and forgives him for his failures.  Many people focus on the act of forgiveness by the father and completely miss the true meaning of the story.  The prodigal son did not come back home until he lost everything. He was ultimately in dire straits and then realized the error of his ways.  It is at that point where the father receives him back and forgives him for his mistakes.


This is a story that is applicable to all of us. There are times when we must allow our family members to learn hard lessons in order to make them better for the future.

It’s a difficult choice to make.  However, it may be the truest act of loyalty we can give.


By: G Anthony Knowles


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