Family Is Never As It Seems: Lessons from Downton Abbey


If we could all believe Violet's observation, we'd be a lot less stressed and a lot happier

Once again, I will spend my week encouraging many of my therapy clients to tune into Downton Abbey.  Not for the fabulous fashion or the historical intrigue, but for the remarkable extent to which the challenges faced by the show's characters in the hypothetical 1921 British countryside reflect the challenges I hear about every day.  This week, the most timeless and powerful observation comes from the ever irreverent and brutally insightful Violet Crawley (also known as "Granny") played perfectly by Maggie Smith. 


As the mother of the Earl of Grantham, Granny spends the episode watching her son struggle to come to terms with significant challenges with all three of his daughters.  His eldest, Lady Mary, saved Downton from financial ruin through her husband Matthew's infusion of a tremendous inheritance.  As a co-owner, Matthew complains to Lady Mary, 

Looking through the books, there appears to have been a great deal of waste...half the assets are underused or ignored entirely.

Mary encourages Matthew to speak to her father.  But Earl Grantham is defensive about his own role in Downton's financial demise, and brushes Matthew's concerns aside for another day.  Earl Grantham's middle daughter, Lady Edith, has just suffered the humiliation of being jilted at the alter.  In a noble attempt to deal with her pain and lost direction, Edith decides to write a letter to The Times voicing her opinion that women deserve the right to vote.  Earl Grantham is less than pleased with his daughter's newfound journalistic pursuits.  Worst of all, his youngest, Lady Sybil, has married the Irish chauffeur, Branson, who is embroiled in scandal.  Branson was present during the violent burning of a stately Irish Manor and flees Ireland without Sybil to ask Earl Grantham to intervene on his behalf.  Lord Grantham is outraged and is not afraid to speak his mind:

Good God Almighty!  You abandon a pregnant woman in a land that's not her own, you leave her to [fend] for herself while you run for it!...I find your actions despicable, whatever your beliefs!

Earl Grantham desperately vents to his mother,

Other men have NORMAL families with sons-in-law who farm or preach or serve their country in the army!

Granny is completely un-phased and gives a succinct and wise reply,

Maybe they do, but no family is ever what it seems from the outside.


As a therapist, I hear a lot of clients describe their relationship and family struggles as "abnormal" or "shameful".  Whether it is 1920 in England or 2013 in the United States, there seems to be a tremendous tendency to assume that other families are perfect or, at least "normal" and that the every-day struggles faced in so many relationships are such a poor reflection on the family as a whole that they leave people feeling isolated or even defective.  A client once told me that when he overdosed as a teenager, his mother's first response was to be furious because she had a personal relationship with one of the nurses in the emergency room and she worried what others would think.  Another client opened up about the fact that she was abusing drugs, and her parents' first question was who in the neighborhood already knew about the problem.  They said they would only get her help with the condition that she promise to tell no one of her "transgressions."  I cannot count the number of clients I have worked with over the years who resort to psychiatric medication when it is absolutely necessary, and then proceed to torture themselves with worry that others will find out and see them as "crazy" or "weak". 

If only we could all give into Granny's insightful observation and realize that ALL families struggle behind the closed doors of their real lives.  Sometimes these struggles can seem extreme or dramatic, but what makes them far worse is subsequent worry that the very fact that a struggle exists is a shameful referendum on the family unit as a whole.  If we all worried a little bit more about how the people we love most are feeling, and a little bit less about the outside world is thinking, it would likely reduce a tremendous amount of anxiety and leave us all a lot happier.

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