How often have you heard the phrase ‘blood is thicker than water’? - Throw in extra points if it came from a family member who was trying to coax you into doing something for them or to get you to conform to their belief systems. Typically, this line is used to refer to the idea that the bonds of family are stronger than any other bonds that people can hold together; and many of us have grown up hearing this age-old adage, be it in our families who bring us up to believe this or the media and our schools that strive to engrave this into our minds from a very early age.
If we ask a 100 people what the adage ‘Blood is thicker than water’ means, most, if not all, will say that it simply means family relationships are the most important as the ‘blood’ represents family ties, which are said to be a deeper relationship than the connections we have with those we don’t share blood ties with (the ‘water’ in this case). It has become a phrase that we use to justify choosing family bonds over the bonds that we have made by choice. What we don’t see in this adage often is the various levels at which it is problematic - be it in terms of the very proverb itself, or in the light of science and also how in its most used sense it can be a way for toxicity to thrive within families. This piece will look to throw light on all these aspects.
Let’s first look at the proverb itself and the idea that we have been using it wrong all this while. Shocking to think, isn't it? The original proverb actually goes something like this: "The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb." - See? This has a completely different meaning, in fact the exact opposite! The proverb was originally intended to imply that the bonds we have made by choice are more important than the people that we are bound to by the waters of the womb. While this originally referred to the bonds built on the battlefield being stronger than that of family, it had nothing to do with the idea that today binds us to believe that the ties with our family are deeper than any other relationship. It in fact reflects that fact that the bonds we choose for ourselves (our “chosen family”) can mean much more than the ones you don’t have much say in as we are born with them. Interesting, isn't it?
Now let’s look at a scientific perspective to this. We know that blood flows differently than water, because after all they are different substances. Anyone who has ever gotten hurt knows that blood flows viscously and rather erratically. The similarity between blood and ketchup is something filmmakers are aware of, but there is a science behind it given that these materials are often referred to as “non-Newtonian fluids,”. Both blood and ketchup have flow properties that change depending on conditions, with some becoming more viscous, while others become less viscous. Moving forward, let’s not forget that the blood in our body can be affected by the chemicals within us. For instance, certain health conditions and medication can cause the blood to thicken or become thinner as well. If you look at it from the perspective of science, blood congeals & clots, while water always stays free!
One reality which the ‘Blood is thicker than water’ notion ignores is that sometimes, blood is the most toxic substance you might encounter in your life. The main purpose that this proverb often serves is to communicate that you need to unconditionally ‘love’ your family. Notions like “respect your mother and father.” “They’re your parents.” “How dare you talk to them that way!?” “You should do more for them.” and so on, are commonplace in many households, but the major concern here is that these ideas of ‘love’ and ‘respect’ are used to manipulate you into obedience. There are no objective definitions applied here. “You should love and respect them” simply means that you should do what they want or what’s best for them, even if it harms you, takes a toll on your Mental Health or if you don’t want to. Here, it’s an obligation, not a choice. In households where love and respect exists in a genuine way, notions like ‘Blood is thicker than water’ would never need to be thrown around in the first place, because there would be common goals, shared values and mutual respect, not this unhealthy manipulation or even gaslighting to get compliance! Additionally, very often it is hard to even bring up their discontent and grievances because "it’s disrespectful,” or “you should just get over it,” or “they’re your family,” etc. are thrown around. The truth is that family is nothing more than people and you don’t need to hold them on a pedestal if they are toxic or bad for your Mental Health. Know that it is unhealthy to accept abusive and toxic behaviour from anyone or be submissive to people just because they are your ‘family’ or because it all comes under the blanket of ‘love’ and ‘respect.’ Love and respect have to be earned, not coerced out of people.
There is no doubt that our family/ caregivers are the people we have spent the most time with which often makes them the closest people we know, both historically and geographically, but that doesn’t mean that they have to be those we have the deepest, healthiest or most meaningful relationship with. It doesn’t even mean that the relationship we have with the is good. Today, we live in a society which is so polarised and divided. Parents might berate or even disown their children for not not agreeing with their beliefs, for not following their religion, for living their truth or for going against their wishes to do what brings joy to the child themselves. In the name of notions like ‘family comes first’ or ‘It’s all about loving your family’, children are often victims to being forced to live a life of conformity to their family’s lifestyle rather than one of authenticity.
We live in a culture where if you have your parents(s), sibling or other blood relatives, it is considered unimaginable to not have them in your life. If you end up not having them in your life, it is often considered to be an abnormal and you will be said to be the one with the major ‘flaw’, but we need to break out of these shackles. It is not only wrong but also a very damaging idea. While there may be some kind-hearted family members who treat their loved ones with genuine care, love, respect and care, there are some who are outright bad for us. Toxic family is a reality which we cannot turn a blind eye too just because it doesn’t fit into the rose-tinted picture of a ‘family’ that has always been painted for us by others, our schools, the media and society at large. There are many people who live with this horrific reality of having family members who are manipulative, deceitful, aggressive, abusive, rageful and emotionally unhealthy - and this list of harmful and toxic traits can really go on.
If anyone in your life is the detriment to your Mental Health, wellbeing or becomes the reason behind unnecessary dysfunctionality, even if they are related to you by blood, you don’t need to put up with their toxicity. We need to understand that the notion of ‘family’ is so much more than the blood that runs in our veins. Family is those who love you, who make you feel safe, feel supported and have your back, no matter what. They wish the best for you and are your biggest cheerleaders, not because they have some ulterior motive or something to gain, but simply because you mean a lot to them. This notion of family doesn’t have to be your blood relatives - they may not come with the titles of ‘father’, ‘mother’, ‘aunt’, ‘sibling’ or ‘grandparent’, but think about it, are these not hollow words if those who hold these titles are abusive, toxic or manipulative? The problem with titles like these are that very often they become excuses to take advantage of people or treat them badly. There comes a time where the title just isn’t enough anymore, and you have to come to terms with who the person behind the title truly is and see them for their toxic nature. Family should not be defined by blood lines, titles or shared genes but by those who love you and treat you with kindness. Family isn't about walking on eggshells or being sent on guilt-trips for following your passions. While families are meant to be safe havens ideally, realistically they most often bring the deepest pain and heartache. Titles of family members don’t denote emotions that are expected of them and that is why it is important to choose who you’d rather call ‘family’. The idea that blood makes you related, but loyalty makes you family is one we need to pay more heed to. For many, your closest friend or a romantic partner might be more of your ‘family’ than several of your blood relatives simply because of the way they make you feel, and that’s ok. Know that often in the armor of ‘family’, you can find some of the most poisonous people you’d ever come across. Those who stand besides you in your battles and victories both are your family and it is the bonds of love, respect and loyalty which are far deeper than mere genetics.
We have grown up being told that blood relations are the deepest possible connections in humanity, but it is time we relook at the way we look at our connections and relationships with others. The most important relationships in our lives should be those which are good for us, our Mental Health and those which instill hope and happiness. If a blood bond is toxic, it is best to try to move out of that. It is ok to break out of those shackles like that of ‘Blood is thicker than water’ which are used more often than not by toxic family members trying to induce a feeling of guilt and an obligation to feed into it. Dropping toxic people, especially family, helps you in an immense way. There are people in this world who love you and you deserve to be surrounded by those who genuinely care about you and your wellbeing. Family isn't everything if you are surrounded by toxicity - you will be better off, happier, healthier, and safer, without these family members in your lives. It is absolutely okay to cut out toxic family members out of your life.
We can see that not only are we using "blood is thicker than water" incorrectly as the current usage is also opposite from the original meaning, but the current usage is also extremely problematic. While some may still argue that blood is thicker than water, while you might want to point out the flaws in that notion, you should also know that whatever be the case, blood is not thicker than peace of mind. Whatever be the case, don’t let this phrase become a guilt-trap for a life sentence to live with toxicity. Embrace the relationship you have with yourself and with those who actually love you, care about you, stand by you and lift you up: Blood or not.
Written by: Yash Mehrotra
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