The first version of this article first appeared as a final project for the PSY101 course at the University of Arizona Global Campus on April 7, 2018. References and citations have been updated to the most current and relevant versions, as the topic is still highly salient, and the language has been tightened up.
“Blood is thicker than water.” It is an adage that is bandied about among families with strong pride in their traditions and levels of cohesion. It is used to explain strange coincidences when long-lost or estranged relatives find each other again. It is also used to admonish and shame those who would turn away from their nuclear families, regardless of those families’ toxic behaviors.
There are a few glaring flaws with using this “conventional wisdom” as axiomatic guidance. The first is that while the use of the word “blood” points to the connection of “genetic relations,” our English language does not offer a strong suggestion to its counterpart, the symbolism of “water,” except perhaps as a reference to distance or a shared community resource. Secondly, this phrase fails as an axiom in that it can effectively be proven or disproven given any number of circumstances. Nearly everyone can indicate at least one biological family member with whom they do not get on. Axioms are self-evident, necessary, and supported by demonstrations on every scale (Djijian & Hovhannisyan, 2020). Nearly without fail, “blood is thicker than water” is only ever used to justify circumstances from an external source to cow the individual who doubts the “power of family” (not self-evident). It is offered to explain away unlikely circumstances (not necessary), and it fails to prove itself in the face of countless real-life scenarios (not universally demonstrable).
The Problem Is With Translations
The main reason that the phrase in question makes no sense upon examination is that it is a poor translation of a phrase intended to mean the exact opposite of what the Western world has adapted. Though the exact original saying is lost, the most recent full translation we have is, “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.”
The core phrase dates to the oral traditions of the nomadic tribes of the middle east, first identified in text as an Arabic adage, roughly stating, “A milk kinship is greater than water of the womb.” The cultural context must be considered as the nomadic and later Muslim value placed on “milk kinship,” those who do not share common family but common community (Parkes, 2004). Due to the brutal nature of their environment and lifestyles, the idea of “adoptive kinship” in all western Eurasia became a much more powerful cohesive force among those peoples. This is the first implication that the greatest loyalty belongs to those who act in your greatest interest rather than those who are obligated by right of birth.
Later, the Arabic wisdom was adopted by the Hebrew tribes, and the cultural aspect of the “milk kinship” was interpreted (and translated) into the Hebrew language as, “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.” The focus of the more powerful relationship moves from community into a much more religious connotation, as the Blood of the Covenant now points to the willing commitment that one makes to the Temple and the spiritual path (Pustelniak, 1994). Those who have made the same commitment to their faith are the new “brothers and sisters,” and now the onus is put on the choice of entering into a relationship with others instead of, again, the coincidence of birth family.
Judaism is, however, community-based more than faith-based, and it is often viewed more as a culture than as a religion (Rocker, 2016). Many people who identify as Jewish also consider themselves to be secular, and the weight of religious devotion has no appeal to them. It is through this phenomenon that the “blood of the covenant” shifts slightly away from the Temple and back into the community. The word “covenant” means in the most basic sense, “an agreement between people” (“Covenant,” n.d.). It is a natural extension of this that we can surmise the spirit of the phrase as meaning that the people with whom one chooses to have friendships and relationships with – their own private tribe – will provide more loyalty and support among these members than, again, the coincidence of birth family.
So, how did it go so horribly wrong? The answer lies in the notoriously problematic process of translating Hebrew into any other language, especially English (Peters, 1892). Due to the absence of written vowels and the multiple connotations of words like “blood” (the cultural influence often lost further from contextual to literal translation), all the extra parts that made the original phrase so powerful were stripped away, leaving only “blood” and “water” to tell the tale. It reflects the same type of problem that scholars have in translating the word “love” from ancient and modern Greek: there were at least eight different words, each describing a different type of love, and none bearing any visual resemblance to each other (Hurt, 2013).
Transition to a False Axiom
It is impossible to know the exact moment or motivation for abandoning the original wisdom of the adage, but we can guess. In general, humans tend to be intellectually lazy. If they are given an easy answer that seems on the surface to make sense, then they will believe it without too much thought or question. As the Chinese saying of “three men make a tiger” suggests, if enough people believe a thing, then it will be thought to be true regardless of actual proof (Cong, 500 BCE).
Not much has changed since ancient China, though today there are millions more “men” and thousands more “tigers. ” Dr. Harold Kelley (1992) expanded on several examples of how the public tended to act on “conventional wisdom” that functionally had no bearing on a positive outcome and often caused more problems, such as a mother jostling an infant that had fallen asleep at the nipple. The mother intended to coax the child into continuing to feed, but the result was that the child became cranky and irritable at being woken from a fitful sleep (and full tummy).
At the intersection between “poor translation” and “intellectual laziness,” naive psychology emerges. As psychologists attempt to describe concepts to lay-folk (often journalists), the listener believes that they already have an understanding of the topic, assimilating the information into their existing schema rather than accommodating for new data, to use Piaget’s descriptors (Needham & Jacobson, 2020). When humans believe that they understand something completely, they simply stop listening most of the time, negating any further explanation.
Thanks to the internet, overwhelming access to information of all kinds (false, true, and questionable) makes the “tigers” far more compelling, especially in the weakness above of the listener to engage in rational questioning. Much of the responsibility lies firmly at the feet of journalists (both professional and amateur) who have not been adequately educated in the ways of science: it is exceedingly rare for any experiment or study to reach a solid “conclusion. ” Journalists are story-tellers, and in their schema, each story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. When psychologists cannot provide an ending – only an ongoing stream of “to be continued” – the (usually honest) mistake of drawing a conclusion is made (Begley, 2017).
Thus, through a lightning-fast game of “Internet Telephone,” a psychologist’s study suggesting an outcome gets interpreted by a journalist, who then cites the suggestion as a conclusion. The reader takes that conclusion and decides that it makes sense, often relying on bias confirmation to support it, and they share the story to others, often summarizing the article into their own words. More and more people see the summarization, each one translating it into their own personal mythology. In only a matter of weeks if not days, a psychologist’s side-note of the correlation between exposure to monkey butts on the internet and the increased instance of infidelity becomes a “cultural fact” and probably a meme – MONKEY BUTTS CAUSE INFIDELITY.
As we discussed in the previous section, that same method of mistranslation and reinterpretation led to the assimilated knowledge that the substance of blood is, indeed, thicker than the substance water. However, this lends a false sense of “truth” to the adage, creating a Hasty Generalization logical fallacy (Logical Fallacies, 2021). As an example, in the best-case scenario, people might think about how ridiculous a connection between pictures of monkey butts and cheating is. In the worst case, pictures of monkey butts and even monkeys themselves are censored, banned, and maybe even outlawed, much like the ban on microbeads in soaps was started by a “complete fantasy” of a study with no bearing in reality (Enserink, 2017).
The Danger that “Thicker Blood” Poses
In a society fraught with problems derived from prejudice and fear, believing in some make-believe super-power of Family can lead to materially tragic ends. Family members can easily share the same genetic and epigenetic propensities for severe mental issues. Consider the difficulty that many psychologists and psychiatrists experience in successfully diagnosing bipolar: children especially who have positively identified this trait often experience intense difficulties in their family units following diagnosis. When other family members exhibit and carry bipolar traits (mania, depression, moodiness, defensiveness, extreme reactions) but who are not similarly positively diagnosed, a child or adolescent that is not honestly supported by their family has a much higher rate of suicide and self-harm (Algorta et al., 2011).
Additionally, when examining the problems associated with young homelessness, the strength and health of familial bonds is cited as the single largest contributing factor. When a child runs away from home, it is never “just because. ” No one runs away because “they’re bored. ” Instead, the child has been abused emotionally, physically, or sexually; is neglected or ignored; or is rejected and unsupported in their gender or sexual identification. If blood was truly “thicker” than water, what child would be rejected by their parents, and what parent would allow their child to leave? The imaginary strength of the family unit is put to the lie, whereas the kindness and compassion of non-relatives and sometimes even strangers are the strongest indicator of a positive outcome for these homeless youth (Cutuli et al., 2020).
The fact is that the humans with which one shares genetic commonalities are still just humans – messy, complicated, and remarkably imperfect. In a 2011 study among hundreds of men and women suffering from depressive symptoms, the presence of positive emotional support was indicated as a significant factor in improved mental condition and decrease in suicidality. However, the directness of relation was not a factor: the pattern of gender demographics and family-versus-social support was inconsistent across all groups, suggesting that the manner of relation had almost no bearing on the actual outcome. Positive results were found in the health and strength of the support being provided (Pettit et al., 2011).
The most prominent dangers in buying into the concept of the “magical power of family” are that it removes the accountability from family members to treat each other with respect and it conditions people who have been raised in dysfunctional families to accept toxic behavior from others outside of the family. Palliative care facilities regularly witness the emotional toxic dynamics between family members, especially around end-of-life events. Perhaps because of the sense of entitlement that one feels as part of a family, those who have had dysfunctional dynamics tend to carry that forward even into moments that require the most selflessness and compassion (Holst et al., 2009).
What’s potentially worse is that those toxic relationships are justified in the family setting, they continue throughout the lives of the people affected. Those who are never held accountable to toxic behaviors by their family (because, hey, they’re family) believe that they have a right to treat others in the same way, especially if that behavior has been abusive and the family has been cowed or complicit (Dutton, 2007). The anecdotally high prevalence of toxic family dynamics is considered as a legitimate variable due to the extreme difficulty in attaining correct statistics: abusers and victims both notoriously under-report unhealthy environments, as children or adults (Sharples, 2008). “Hurt people hurt people,” which is to say that abuse in childhood can be a somewhat reliable indicator of abuse as adults (Dixon De Silva et al., 2020).
While it is easy to dismiss the prevalence of family-based abuse dynamics as something limited to a home setting safely “behind closed doors,” the fact is that the tacit acceptance of toxic and abusive behavior has a very real economic impact as well. When dealing with toxic leadership, for instance, companies experience incredibly high turnover rates (employees quitting, often unexpectedly), resulting in thousands or millions more dollars per year in training and replacement costs (Hitchcock, 2015). Workplace bullying (an extension of entitlement to abusive behavior) can also negatively impact the physiological and psychological health of victims and bystanders alike (Kivimäki et al., 2003).
The Solution Lies In The Original Meaning
The rate of attrition in the workplace around the presence of a toxic personality traits points to the most natural and most efficient solution: to leave the presence of the perpetrator(s). Because the original real phrase permits us to demote family ties, we are now able to free ourselves from the bonds of abuse, neglect, and aggression. A full exploration of this concept has revealed that we are each responsible for executing our personal agency according to our greatest good: we are not obligated by blood-ties, genetics, or a common name or names to tolerate or take part in toxic behaviors.
This is not to suggest that one should eschew all blood relations merely because they are blood ties. Instead, the standard must be set that if we would not tolerate a toxic behavior from our friends, coworkers, or colleagues, there is likewise no requirement to accept it from family members. If one finds that they share healthy bonds with siblings, parents, and extended family, then those relationships should be fostered and nurtured – but based on continued healthy behavior, not on the fact of family.
This topic is particularly difficult for many people who suffered at the hands of abusive and controlling parents and relatives: the need for acceptance and the fear of disapproval often hangs like the Sword of Damocles over their heads. Many who feel trapped in the toxic family dynamic turn to drug and alcohol abuse, self-harm, and suicidal ideation. Luckily, once aware that each person is the master and decider of their own relationships, many therapies are available that can help an individual recover their sense of self separate from their toxic family origins. Gestalt therapy, cognitive behavior therapy, and a slew of other programs can rebuild a solid foundation of identity away from abusive and toxic conditioning.
“The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb” is an invitation to police the quality of your interpersonal relationships with an equally high standard of treatment, regardless of a person’s genetic relation to you. It is a far more powerful sentiment and far more useful than the “conventional wisdom” that “blood is thicker than water.” In addition, it is also an invitation to consider one’s manner in treating their own relatives. To what extent do each of us take the quality, quantity, or manner of our family relationships for granted? How might each of us be complicit in perpetuating harmful and toxic relationships? Complete abandonment of these relationships is only necessary in the worst offending cases where perpetrators refuse to acknowledge their behavior. Though humans are indeed messy and complicated, they also generally desire to be happy and have positive relationships. Often, this is enough to inspire self-reflection and change, improving the long-term prognoses.
If they do not wish to change, if they do not desire to improve, you are more than welcome to select a new tribe of people who do love and support you as the idealized version of a family should. By the ancient Arabic wisdom, you are freely permitted to enter into your own non-womb-water covenants.
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