May 6, 2024

The Longing for Belonging

Josh Gentine

the longing for belonging

Our natural tendency as humans is to separate the world into a We-They (or Us-Them) paradigm. We are like this; They are like that. This paradigm has been in the spotlight the last several years, however, this post is not about those challenges highlighted in mainstream society; the We-They I’m focused on is the We-They paradigm that exists in families.

Many families refer to themselves as Us, a united body. However, if you push on the soft tissue within the family, it is easy to find the We-They. The We-They occurs when select members of a family band together around an idea or behavior that is different from other members of the family. These differences are typically couched in an undertone of good-bad, or right-wrong. Parenting is an easy place to spot this; We parent like this; They parent like that. We do this when our kids are naughty; They do that.

This is not an indictment of our natural tendency to form bonds with others (especially family) around common behaviors, interests, or ideas. However, this micro-tribalism within a family creates separation between family members, a separation that for your family member or relative is painful, even if not expressed. And, equally as natural and powerful as the We-They, is the longing to belong. Family is often the deepest, richest relationship we will ever have. Whether by blood or the bonds of marriage, family is family, but when family becomes a place of separation, the pain is real.

In my work advising families, I see the repercussions of the We-They micro-tribalism. While often dismissed through a minimization of the differences or a humorous back-and-forth, the We-They paradigm can create significant tension when the pressures of major decisions are applied to the family system. For example, when a family-in-business is exploring its future options, tribes emerge less around the decision and more around the We-They of the past. We-Theys that have no bearing on a decision are the first things that challenge alignment.

Let me give you an example.

One of my clients struggled with creating alignment on the go-forward strategy for their business. The debate was around how aggressive to get in the industry: stay the course and stay conservative or lean into an acquisition strategy and grow inorganically. During our conversation what I found was that the different branches of the family were not talking about industry dynamic, but how different members of the family spent money years ago. Their dialogue included phrases like, “Of course you want to sit on your hands, you’ve never spent a dime on anything for us.” And “Unlike you, I value having money, not spending it.” This volley back and forth was about the past, not the present; it was a live-action demonstration of the We-They dynamic.

The reason for writing this post is simple: I want to challenge you to explore the We-Theys in your own family and identify those areas where under-the-surface micro-tribalism exists. You may not be faced with a major family (or family business) decision right now, but at some point, you will, and when you do, the longing to belong, to belong to your family, will be the most important desire you can ever imagine, and all you will want, is Us.

*This post is inspired by Jerry Colonna’s book, Reunion.

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