Unhappy families… and how to survive them!

Unhappy families… and how to survive them: Psychotherapist delves into the lives of eight households to reveal the patterns we inherit and how they can be adapted in a new book

  • Psychotherapist Julia Samuel explores the family throughout her new book
  • The London-based author uncovers what we inherit and how we can change
  • The book emphasises the need for the therapist to understand the back-story



by Julia Samuel (Penguin Life £14.99, 320pp)

Over the years, I have written many thousands of words about family problems, since they form a huge part of my Saturday advice column postbag. 

What’s more, my own family has always been both of vital importance in my life and its bane — and living with this tension between the two is the daily reality for so many of us. So I readily admit I began this new book by distinguished psychotherapist Julia Samuel in the hope that it might help not my readers, but me.

Samuel’s previous two books described her work with individuals. Now she turns her attention to the case studies of eight families. 

Bestselling pychotherapist Julia Samuel explores the family through her new book. The London-based author uncovers what we inherit and how we can change (file image)

She begins, ‘Every family has a story. A story of love and loss, joy and pain.’ The poet Philip Larkin memorably wrote, ‘Man hands on misery to man’ — and Samuel’s take on this is to note, ‘The unresolved stresses of one generation can be passed down to intensify the daily pressure of life on the next.’ 

The overwhelming sense is that, for better or worse, we are ‘trapped’ within our families. Many of us know freewheeling souls who believe they left their roots behind years ago. Not so, says, Samuel: ‘We may not see our family, but they are still a part of us, genetically, in our memories and our unconscious. We can never leave them.’ 

So, if indeed we are inextricably locked within our family structures, we might as well try to understand all we can about what Samuel memorably describes as ‘the fingerprint of love and loss’. 

As she advises: ‘Anyone looking at their own family would benefit by examining their inherited family patterns and behaviours to see what might need adapting.’ 

Eight families undertook this process with her, the pandemic making meetings by Zoom inevitable. This meant that the psychotherapist was able to talk to various family members at once — the logistics of which might have been daunting in normal times. 

The case studies Samuel chose were very varied. One family wrestled with the consequences of a question mark over paternity, raising the issue of how any of us might respond were we to discover that the man we had always thought of as Dad was in fact no blood relation. 

That leads neatly on to the issue of adoption itself, as faced by a gay married couple. Here Samuel emphasises the need for the therapist to understand the back-story: ‘It is rare for people to enter therapy because of wounds of the past; they come because those wounds are hurting the present.’ 

EVERY FAMILY HAS A STORY by Julia Samuel (Penguin Life £14.99, 320pp)

One story invites the reader to contemplate the long-term effect of a suicide on the family, while another asks how stepfamilies can find harmony when their relationship is built on conflict. 

In the eight case studies we are gently guided, along with the participants, towards a deeper understanding of the importance of honesty, self- examination and communication within all relationships. 

One of the most impressive features of this engrossing book is Julia Samuel’s extraordinary personal honesty. She readily confesses her own sense of inadequacy and anxiety: when she witnesses acute tension between family members, she actually feels the tension within her own body. 

Samuel gives what seems to me a perfect summing-up of best therapeutic practice: ‘I aim to have one foot firmly standing on their side, the other on mine. I want to let them know how much I believe in them while remaining separate enough to support them effectively.’ 

Are these happy stories? Yes, in the end — each chapter leaves us with the feeling that the family members have picked their way towards a deeper understanding of each other. If that’s not useful enough, Julia Samuel also offers ‘12 touchstones for the wellbeing of family’ — 11 pages of excellent advice worth a whole shelf of textbooks. 

And her conclusion is generous and all-embracing: ‘Through the multiplicity of these families’ lives you will see you are not the only one, that we all struggle with different versions of similar issues.’ 

In that awareness lies the miracle of real empathy — and the help I need myself.

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