July 24th, 2018
Every year July 24th marks Cousin’s Day. The Chicago Tribune published an article depicting the importance of cousins and how they impact our lives. Fieldview at Holland understands addiction affects the entire family, including extended family like cousins. Cousins are often a persons first friends, and we celebrate that special bond today.
In a 100-year-old photo, a young woman holds a gun in one hand and a cross in the other. The image is of Anahid Arakelian's great-grandmother Khatoun.
The photograph served as Khatoun's statement about the Armenian genocide sweeping the country at the time, Arakelian explained: Khatoun would rely on her faith to get her through it alive, but she would also fight to the death.
The old photo, found randomly inside a book, brought Arakelian, of Newport Beach, Calif., and her cousins together when she contacted them excitedly about finding it. That initial encounter created a launching pad for their relationship: Now the cousins contact one another regularly and make plans to meet in person. (Her cousins, incidentally, are as close as Pasadena, Calif., and as far afield as Uruguay.)
"Cousins are important because they share blood, no matter if they are first, or distant, cousins," Arakelian says. "Going forward, they are legacies of ancestors who set the course for the future and remind us of our perseverance, will, strength and courage."
According to a report by the popular genealogy website Ancestry.com, family trees now branch into the present as well as the past. Cousins are looking for one another. The website report says the 46 percent of people across the countries it studied "discovered living relatives they never knew about."
As Arakelian discovered, cousins matter.
"Cousins, extended family, allow psychological distance that immediate family cannot," says Providence, R.I., relationship therapist Larry Shushansky. "Relationships with cousins afford a certain space, a certain independence, that allows us to have different kinds of experiences with them.
"They can be a source of balance … affording the closeness and common bond that exists in families, as well as the psychological distance that is one step removed from the dependency that causes anxiety and conflict within immediate (family members)."
From that distance, cousins can become friends, acquaintances, mentors, people we bond with. They can be partners in crime at family functions, close or distant, advisers, long lost or newly found. They add dimension to a family.
Forging emotional bonds
Cousins can be the glue that helps hold families together on an intergenerational level, simply by telling stories about other family members when they get together. Some know family history that others don't, about places people have lived, experiences people have had. A cousin can tell you something about your parents that you never knew.
They can also offer an invaluable combination of familial bond and emotional distance.
"I've seen clients who had issues with their siblings that were mediated or bridged by cousins who had warm ties with both," says Kathy McCoy, a Sun City, Calif., psychotherapist and author who specializes in family relationships.
She remembers one instance in which two sisters were estranged but a cousin convinced both that life was too short for their calculated Cold War.
"They couldn't have heard that from one another, or even from another sibling," McCoy says. "But somehow a cousin — close but a little removed from the family-of-origin dynamic — was able to help."
Melissa Benhaim's father is one of 10 children, and for that reason, she has 30 first cousins — and she's as close to some of them as she is to her sister. Growing up, many lived close by, so they would have sleepovers and go on vacations together.
Many of her childhood memories are full of exploits with her cousins, she says.
Two years ago, she moved to Florida without close connections, but she had two sets of cousins she didn't know well but with whom she's since grown close.
"I can safely say that, without having my cousins here, my move would have been a lot harder, as the rest of my family is in the Northeast, and I really value the relationships we have," she says. "Although I might jokingly complain about the (sheer) volume of cousins and having to see everyone when I come home and answer all their questions, I can't imagine my life without them."
Just as some people have a lot of siblings, Benhaim has a lot of cousins — and they also come in handy.
She came down with a stomach virus on the way home from a road trip and was very sick driving home, so she stopped at her cousins' house. She ended up staying there for several days "as they took care of me the way my parents would have," she says. "I can't imagine how those several days would have been had I not had my cousins there, as I live alone."
Understanding what others don't
For Surabhi Surendra, a blogger from New Delhi, India, her cousins are "like supporting pillars." They aren't the backbone but provide support to her from a distance. They understand family customs and why those customs exist.
Her father, for instance, always focused on "simple living" that has included eating on the floor. Her thoroughly modernized friends might not understand, but her cousins do because they stayed at one another's houses as children for months at a time. In India, that's not uncommon at all.
When the cousins stayed at her house, they ate food on the floor. They get it. Since their mother and her father are siblings, the cousins share some "ideologies, and this helps immensely in fostering healthy and lifelong relationships," Surendra says.
Another advantage, she adds, is the ability to "talk about my family weaknesses with cousins. Friends who do not come from a similar background may never understand my feelings about my family, or they may get judgmental about them. But, my cousins always understand because they have also lived those (experiences) with me."
Like Surendra, McCoy has strengthened her family bonds by reaching out to a cousin.
"My father was both charming and abusive, kind and cruel," McCoy says. "Up close I experienced him in all ways, but somehow, years after his death, his negative traits stood out more in my memory." But a cousin who spent summers with her family told McCoy that what she remembered most was his kindness, his sense of humor and his gift as a storyteller.
"Thanks to her, I started to remember him in a different way — not forgetting the difficult times — but appreciating anew what a gifted and loved, though complicated, person he was," McCoy says. "And I felt more at peace with my past, thanks to my cousin."
Shushansky, who is writing a book titled "Independent Enough" that explores the relationship theory of cousins, says cousins help pass down traditions, values, heritage and valuable stories that might have been lost.
Simple stories, he says, allow other cousins to know and understand different generations, new layers of relationships and personalities about people they didn't really know.
"All in all," he adds, "cousins are very important to families in a lot of ways. We just don't give them enough credit."