Family Language


The emotional language of childhood attracts you to familiar people and situations: chemistry.

Have you known someone who says, "I'm with my partner because I love her [or him] despite the fact that she's mean [or irresponsible, or gambles compulsively, or whatever]."? The psychological truth is that the person is with the partner not despite this problem, but because of it! "Family language" is the emotional communication of your family, the family you grew up in and the one you may have made as an adult. New York City psychologist Ed Campbell talks about how people around the world learn whatever language they speak from listening to their parents. "The parents don't have to say, 'Purse your lips to make the wh sound' or 'Touch your tongue to your front teeth to make the th sound,' " says Campbell. "Children are just little sponges who learn to speak as their parents do." You learn emotional communication the same way. Not by your parents saying, "Be warm and loving because it feels better to you and the people around you" or "If you 'dish it out,' you'll feel strong instead of humiliated" or "If you can put up with people being mean to you, you're a superior person," but by observation,  experience, and a child's efforts to be like the parents in order to try to get the parents' love and approval. What's truly fascinating is that the child is unaware that any of this process is happening!   

To carry the family language analogy a bit further, imagine that you are an English speaker on holiday in France, and that you don't speak or understand French. You've lost your Berlitz book, your translation app on your phone isn't working, and you are frustrated and unable to function in the ways to which you're accustomed. Then across the way you hear someone speaking English. What do you do? I'm going to guess that you breathe a sign of relief at hearing the familiar, and you zip right over and strike up a conversation.

Thats what it’s like when you’ve learned an emotional "language." If what you learned was warmth and love, you'll gravitate toward warm and loving people, because that's familiar. However, if you grew up in a family with one parent who dishes it out and the other parent who takes it, being around warm and loving people will leave you feeling like the English speaker surrounded by the French-speaking crowd—uncomfortable, frustrated, and unable to function in your customary ways. If you spot someone who is not so nice or is a martyr, you'll unknowingly relax at the familiar feeling and gravitate toward that person, not despite the similarity to your childhood experience, but because of that similarity. This is the whole idea of history repeating itself until and unless you understand it. 

This plays out in the world of work, too. Have you known someone who has had one abusive boss after the other, or has found something horribly wrong with every company where he or she works? Well, who's the common denominator in all of these work situations? This person! Who's the common denominator in a string of failed, unsatisfying relationships? This person! Is this random or "destined"? When I say destined, I don't mean some magical force at work. I mean that the person is "primed" through the family language of childhood for these ultimately unsatisfying situations. 

If you've been in a number of unsatisfying jobs and/or relationships, therapy can help you understand the family language you learned and its effects on your life today—and learn a new language that will help you function in a different way, so that you can override the pull to familiar dissatisfaction and be able to make room for joy in your everyday life.