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How Your Invisible Family Loyalties Can Dictate Your Behavior

I find it fascinating to consider all the invisible forces in our lives, like the invisible nature of love, insecurity, and attachment. Yes, all involve feelings but they also have the component of a kind of energy that in some way influences our thoughts, feelings and behaviors.

One of these forces is invisible family loyalties, which is the brainchild of Ivan Boszormenyi- Nagy. [An aside: I was fortunate enough while attending graduate school to be a student of Dr. Nagy and learned many of his amazing philosophical approaches to life directly from him. It was an incredible honor that changed my life!]

According to the website The Visible Consequences of Invisible Loyalties – Lindsey Hoskins & Associates, “Hungarian-American psychiatrist Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy wrote poignantly about the concept of ‘invisible loyalties’ in family therapy. Invisible loyalties are characteristics and behavior, usually those which govern or impact our relationships with ourselves and others, which are passed down through generations—not by choice, but unconsciously, and often detrimentally, as unwitting homage to those who came before. For example, a man who resented his father’s drinking or for the distance it caused in their relationship becomes an alcoholic who is distant in his own relationships. A woman who is hurt and frustrated by her mother’s criticism of her as a child grows up to harshly criticize those around her.”

You may want to pause and think about some of the things that happen in your family that sometimes don’t make sense, especially when some behavior that is obviously unhealthy is a characteristic of others in the family like parents, grandparents and great-grandparents or aunts and uncles.

Here is a possible explanation. The article from Lindsey Hoskins and Associates goes on to say, “But why do they—and many of us—allow this to happen? Why do humans assume the very characteristics and behaviors that hurt them when they were at their most vulnerable? It seems illogical at first glance, but our psyches have their reasons: we want to absolve our parents, and other attachment figures, of the choices they made that hurt us; we want to normalize and minimize the pain we experienced in order to absolve them; most earnestly, we want to feel close to them, we want to feel loved by them, we want to feel worthy of them, we want to be accepted and positively regarded. So, we become what we despised and resented, and we tell ourselves this is what life is, this is what I deserve, this is what people do, this is the best I can be.”

I wonder if some of the issues around prejudices against people of a different faith or race might relate to someone’s invisible family loyalties, causing incorrect but powerful hidden beliefs passed along from generation to generation.

So, are we condemned to always repeat the past or are there things we can do? The article goes on to give us some reasons for hope: “We let go of invisible loyalties—and their dysfunctional consequences in our lives and relationships—by developing cultivating visible loyalty. Or, more accurately, voluntary loyalty. The process of enacting voluntary loyalty looks different for different people, but they include a few of the same basic insights. Our attachment figures are not perfect. Along the way, in the past and in the present, we were the victims of their imperfection. Neither their imperfection, nor our victimhood, need define us now, or determine our choices. We can love them, we can appreciate them, we can accept them, but we do not need to accept their burdens. We can choose to love ourselves well now, even if we were not loved well before.”

I remember Dr. Nagy saying that you have to deal with a certain amount of guilt when you set out to break an invisible family loyalty. You can feel as if you are betraying something that has always been important in your family. He said the antidote for that guilt is to think about who will no longer be burdened by unhealthy family loyalties to some belief and action. He suggested that you think about your grandchildren because there is something about thinking long-range into your family’s future that can help make this an easier task.

In my family on my mother’s side there is a long history of alcoholism. Because my father did not have this kind of invisible loyalty and often talked to me about his beliefs, I was able to avoid ever drinking. My children and now my grandchildren seem to be very healthy in their beliefs and behaviors around alcohol as well.

That’s the good news about invisible family loyalties: if we can become conscious of them, we can access the power to interrupt destructive patterns in our families. Powerful, huh?

Invitation for Reflection

  1. Is this the first time you have heard about invisible family loyalties? If so, what are your initial thoughts, feelings and other reactions?
  2. Did this information provide an opportunity for you to reflect on some of the beliefs and behaviors in your own family and to consider the possibility that invisible family loyalties are influencing those beliefs and behaviors?
  3. Consider other families you know and interact with, including extended family members, in-laws or close friends. How might you now view some of their beliefs and behaviors through the lenses of possible family loyalty?
  4. Is there anything specific in your belief system and behaviors you might want to now address through these lenses?

Diane Wagenhals, Director Emeritus, Lakeside Global Institute


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