On Loyalty Binds

From the MERRIAM-WEBSTER DICTIONARY, this is what is said about the word “loyalty”: “Loyalty implies a faithfulness that is steadfast in the face of any temptation to renounce, desert, or betray.”

The quality of loyalty can be expressed towards another person, a country, a team of some sort, a product brand, etc. The relational context I am particularly concerned with here is between people. An individual can find themself in a bind of loyalty between two other parties whereby they feel somehow pressured to be less connected to one party than the other. Inner feeling states of anxiety and, often, guilt, arise over the sense that they will be somehow betraying one person over another by being also in positive connection with that other. A common example is when a child feels they are betraying their biological parent if they develop a close bond with their other bio. parent’s new spouse/life partner. And that bio. parent may or may not indeed be putting external pressure, however subtle/nuanced, on their child to not become close to the stepparent. Unprompted, children, in their bond with each of their birth parents, tend to already feel internally like they are somehow abandoning their parent(s) by developing closeness with their new stepparent(s). As a young child, I was in a loyalty bind between my bio. mother and former step/foster mother, then, much later as an adult, for a while between my former step/foster mom and current stepmother. Loyalty binds in blended/step families can and do occur for adult children as well.

That all said, loyalty binds can show up between friendships and coworkers, among other social contexts. Some people can be possessive and expect loyalty to them to mean loyalty to another/others has to be less or non-existent. The factors and situations where these binds arise are hard to quantify. Some people can carry around an internalized sense of loyalty binds where none exist, particularly if they grew up experiencing a loyalty bind within their family of origin and/or with a very close friend.

Try and be aware of loyalty binds that arise for people, both actual ones and for people who have an internalized sense of them as automatically accompanying any efforts to be close to more than one person within a social context. As discussed above, these commonly, likely inevitably, occur within blended/step families, such as within my own family of origin. But, these challenges can and do happen in other types of relationships as well. Patience, compassion, and curiosity are good to practice with ourselves and others in these situations.

Internal Family Systems trained family therapist Patricia Papernow is a compassionate and eloquent expert on loyalty binds within step/blended families and on other unique dynamics that arise within these types of family systems. To inform and deepen my work with individuals coping with an array of family histories and challenges, I will be reading her book Surviving And Thriving In Stepfamily Relationships: What Works And What Doesn’t.

2 thoughts on “On Loyalty Binds

  1. As I didn’t experience growing up in a blended family, I can only imagine the emotional challenges those binds created. I’ve listened to and witnessed them in action in the family I married into, and found it very painful even as just an empathetic bystander.

    There are, as you acknowledge, so very many varieties of loyalty binds—and sources of fear and hurt from whence they might arise. I’ve been an unwitting participant in one among friends in which I was much closer (friends only) with one person than with his wife, and her jealousy put him in an icky loyalty bind (and left me feeling guilty and bewildered).
    I haven’t sat with this thought at all…it just struck me that, like so many other conceptions that frame our ways of being in this world, many people conceive of “loyalty” in a kind of binary way. As if by being loyal requires complete exclusivity somehow. I may truly be an alien because I have always believed (and experienced my own to be) hearts to be stretchy enough to accommodate quite a variety of loves and different facets of loyalties. I’ve learned that’s not the case for a lot, if not most people.

    Liked by 1 person

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