When Loyalty Is a Dirty Word

It’ll be difficult. It’ll be painful. Every fibre of your being will scream at you not to do it.

And afterwards, you’ll be free.

Loyalty is an interesting concept. It’s one of those popular values – like honour, courage, justice – that we universally talk of as a good thing, but never really sit down and define. Most of the time, because it’s not necessary to.

You’re probably loyal to tons of things in your head – to yourself, to your partner, to your family, to your friends, to the company you work for, to your football team etc… And so as long as none of them are in conflict with each other, it’s smooth sailing. The difficulty comes only when they butt up against each other, and suddenly you have to make a choice.

This emotional tension provides ample ammunition for manipulation. If somebody wants you to behave a certain way, all they have to do is imply that if you don’t, then you’re being disloyal to them. And that can be more than enough to shame you into picking their side, no matter how you truly feel.

Nowhere else is this more prevalent than in families. So my question today is: When they are in conflict, how do you choose between loyalty to your family and loyalty to yourself?

Well, in one sense, I’m not the person to ask, because I honestly haven’t been there, at least not in any kind of dramatic way.

Whilst we don’t agree on everything – and something would be wrong if we did – my immediate family and I do seem to share a pretty big belief-space common ground. The specifics might differ from one of us to the next, but our views on the way the world ought to be, and how the people in it ought to act, don’t tend to stray very far from one other.

Broadly speaking – and I hope they don’t mind me putting words in their mouth – we all tend to agree that when it comes down to it, a human is a human. Race, gender, sexual orientation, class… who cares? If those things are more important to you than humanity, we don’t want you at our table.

Growing up this way, however, has been both a blessing and a curse. On one hand it makes me feel very privileged. I am grateful that my family have never threatened me with the label of disloyal for having the audacity to do what I do and believe what I believe. The day is hard enough to get through without having to choose between your family and your integrity.

On the other hand, it makes it incredibly difficult to understand the hell, the sheer emotional terrorism, that so many people go through, at the hands of the people who raise them and supposedly love them and are supposedly looking out for them. My heart breaks when I realise that what I’ve experienced my whole life wasn’t normal. It was a luxury. A heaven of sorts.

I think of you who follow whatever fucked-up religion you were born into because it’s easier to stay and suffer through it – despite how ugly it is to you – than to leave and risk the fallout.

I think of you who don’t apply to university because your Jeremy Kyle family sneer at you for considering it. I think of you who don’t want to go to university, but apply anyway because your snobby family sneer at you for considering anything else.

I think of you who don’t bring your boyfriend home, because he’s black, and your Dad has made it abundantly clear what he thinks of “those people.”

I think of you who don’t bring your girlfriend home, because you’re a girl too, and your Mum said over and over again that she wants “proper” grandchildren.

I think of you and my heart breaks because I can’t pretend to understand what you are going through. But even so, that doesn’t change my stance. I believe there is only ever one correct answer to my question from earlier.

So: Loyalty to your family or loyalty to yourself? You already know what I’m going to say.

Yourself. In a heartbeat. Every time. For no other reason than because it’s the right thing to do. Always.

Remember, it’s possible – and ideal – to be loyal to both yourself and to your family. And in a perfect world, this is the reality we would all enjoy. But it’s not a perfect world, and sometimes there is conflict between the two, and when there is, only one can win. And it should always be you.

This doesn’t mean you should abandon your family, or run away at the first sniff of a disagreement. No. Conflict is good. Disagreement is good. It’s healthy… when it comes from a good place. But you know what’s not a good place? “My way or the highway.” Threatening the people you’re supposed to love and protect and care for. Branding them as disloyal because they aren’t behaving exactly as you want them to.

Relationships are a two-way street, and healthy ones are built on mutual respect. Meeting each other halfway. Finding a way to see that your differences make the relationship richer, not poorer.

Do you know what you call a relationship not built on mutual respect? Abusive. Families who inflict this kind of terrorism on each other – in the name of loyalty, or love, or blood – are ABUSERS. They might not hit you and they might not swear at you. So what? They are expecting you to be something you’re not, and they’re more than willing to emotionally manipulate you to do it.

A family can be the most beautiful thing in the world. But if yours won’t accept you on your own terms, if they require that you betray your values and your principles, if they try and force you to put loyalty to them over loyalty to yourself… screw ’em. I mean it. Seriously. Screw ’em. Life’s too short. As I said at the top:

It’ll be difficult. It’ll be painful. Every fibre of your being will scream at you not to do it.

And afterwards, you’ll be free.

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