All Happy Families – An Essay by Lyuba Shamailova

(Painting by Nicolai Nikolaevich Baskakov, 1962)

Sometimes my sister and I will catch each others’ gaze across a room. When we lock eyes, it is as if our eyes smile at each other in recognition. I know that both of us feel something most others don’t. It is a mute emotional transmission we share in those fleeting moments. Our eyes say: “I’m okay” or “Come here, I need your help with something” or “Isn’t this hilarious?” or “I’m hurting so bad inside.”

I have met other sibling pairs who grew up in similar family dynamics: a “standard” nuclear family made up of a married mom and dad and two sisters who are a few years apart. Sometimes the sisters are very close, sometimes they have a rivalrous relationship, and sometimes there is nothing holding them together other than shared DNA. But sometimes, they’re just like my sister and me. They know what each other is feeling just by the sound of their sigh, the slight twitch in their smile, or by an almost imperceptible change in the tone of their voice. The same closeness could probably be claimed by very close friends or, perhaps by someone with higher-than-average emotional intelligence.

But this closeness between sisters is something deeper. I’ll tell you a story that I hope can demonstrate it better. A few years ago, my sister broke up with her first boyfriend and, in a dramatic turn of events, my parents and I began discussing the why, what, and how of the situation with her. The discussion quickly escalated into a full-on family fight that took hours to resolve. Exhausted after that night, once we had all fallen into a deep sleep, I woke up to a loud cry from my sister’s room, like she’d been hurt. “No, no, no,” she whimpered. I ran over to her room. She’d had a nightmare, I knew. I could tell what it was about: in her whimper, I heard the sadness over losing her first love, the shame over our parents getting involved, and the wish that she could go back in time and do things differently. In her whimper, I heard all of that, I promise. I brushed her hair back, kissed her cheek, and told her it’d be okay.

I’ve thought a lot about why some siblings shared this type of connection, and some don’t. An old Russian once wrote: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Though a person can be a generally jovial one, it is unlikely that any one person is happy all of the time. Similarly, it is doubtful that there is any one family that is always happy. Maybe things were vastly different in Tsarist Russia, and purely happy families really did exist but today, even picture-perfect families experience some moments of unhappiness. Coming from a family that might (big “might”) look picture-perfect from the outside, I will reluctantly divulge that we have spent almost as much time being unhappy as we have spent being happy. But I think every moment that we’ve spent unhappy—bickering, full-fledged fighting, cold-shouldering, enraged screaming—has left our moments of pure familial bliss that much more happy. I guess it’s all relative when it comes to relatives.

I’ve decided that no family can be earnestly labeled as either “happy” or “unhappy.” Instead, families tend to be a unique mix of the two. I speculate that the way a family processes conflict is part of what determines their overall proportions of happiness and unhappiness, as well as what types of happiness and unhappiness are exhibited. Happiness can be fleeting, it can be bittersweet, it can be deeply blissful. Unhappiness can be cripplingly depressive, it can be momentary, it can be irrational.

Families deal with turmoil in different ways: they may process it together or apart, they may resolve issues in a healthy way or sweep things under the rug, leaving them untouched for ages. Different families process different kinds of quarrels differently, resulting in emotions of happiness and/or unhappiness unique to them. For some families, the fighting, unrest, and subsequent resolution become like the mortar in a brick wall, holding together a mighty edifice. For others, the turmoil degrades into something like a sickly sugary syrup off of which bacteria feeds on to fester and foment more unrest.

Perhaps I shouldn’t go so far as to claim that every family’s unique emotional makeup is determined by how it processes strife. There are many other things at play, of course. But I will staunchly claim it as a key factor for my own family. The ways in which we recovered from and resolved our fights have very much informed our family dynamics. That might be because, for us, every fight becomes an excavation. When we bicker, everything ends up unearthed: every gruesome detail, every dirty secret. For better or for worse, we are brutally honest with each other. We end up thinking: “That was horrible, I know every nasty detail about them.” But then we keep on thinking: “Well, if that’s the worst of them, I guess they’re not that bad.” If you know the worst of someone and it’s really not that bad, maybe that makes them easier to love.

When I lock eyes with my sister, I see a lot of things. I see the good in her, the bad in her, everything in between, and, of course, I see two beautiful deep wells of love. On fighting, some people say “I wouldn’t fight with you if I didn’t love you.” But there might also be something to “Well, I wouldn’t love you if I never fought with you.”


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