by Kenneth Stewart, Ph.D.

I lay there in a hospital bed in Fargo.  Pain from my broken leg and ankle hit me in waves and I’d scream to the nurses.  I clicked the button on the morphine drip over and over, enough to give me an overdose if it weren’t regulated by the electronics in the drip box. Still in daze over the recent nasty turn in events in a life that up till now seemed lucky.  I had narrowly escaped being killed by a spaced-out young woman in Bonneville on a flat, treeless county road north of the Fargo airport.  It had been 8:20 in the morning on a golden summer on the 1st of August 1991. The sun had been at my back while I was out for a quick 20-mile ride before a mid-morning meeting at the University.  I was 46.  My father had been 46 when he died in a freak ice-fishing accident three days before Christmas in 1962.  I was 17 at the time and devastated by the loss that came out of nowhere  - like that Bonneville on Cass County road 20 just north of the Fargo airport, sideswiping me going at least 60.    

As word got out about the accident friends started trickling in my room.  Later in the day Jena and Rahul showed up with a picnic basket smelling of fresh-baked bread and curried vegetables. No hospital food for me.  They were from Bombay, India by way of Virginia Tech and she was now an assistant professor with me in the Department teaching child development.  They lived just a few blocks from us and we got together frequently; visits to their house were an exotic treat with smells of cumin, cardamom, clove, saffron,  … coming from the small kitchen of their duplex.  We’d spend the evening gossiping about departmental and university politics, playing music, and playing on the floor with their son, Siddarth.  Both our families were outsiders in this prairie town and while my wife and I grew up in southern Minnesota, across the border and 300 miles to the south, they originally came from the other side of the world and a culture far removed from the corn and soybean farmland of Minnesota.   

They continued to bring me a variety of steaming, succulent curried dishes of Jena’s homemade Indian cooking each of the nine days I was in the hospital waiting for the swelling in my left leg and foot to go down so they could eventually put a cast on it and send me home in a wheelchair.  My right shoulder had also become separated from being thrown through the air and landing on my shoulder and back so crutches were out of the question.   We were close friends before the accident, but we became even closer after that.  Because of the care they showed me, because of their loving kindness and devotion to my physical and emotional well being, and that of my wife, I developed a bond of loyalty to them that can still stir tears to my eyes when thinking about the unselfish acts of care they showed my wife and I in traumatic time of my life.  Jena’s dark eyes, easy smile and quiet nurturing along with Rahul’s thoughtful intellect and soft, caring voice are gratefully imbedded in my memory from that time until this day.  Even though they have moved to California and we have moved back to Minnesota – we remain tied together in a bond of friendship and loyalty.

 In a culture of shifting allegiances, serial marriages, and ephemeral connections, the idea of loyalty can seem as outdated as the traditional nuclear family with a breadwinner father and a homemaking mother.  Yet loyalty in families goes even deeper than love and in fact is as much the basis of love as secure attachment is the basis for healthy development.  In their book, Invisible Loyalties, Nagy and Spark (1973) suggest that to the extent that we were reliably cared for when we were too helpless and vulnerable to care for ourselves, to that extent we develop a bond of loyalty that will connect us the rest of our lives.  If our parents have earned our trust by unselfishly caring for us, we grow up in their debt – a debt that is repaid through our enduring loyalty.  Wylie (1999), writing about family loyalty in the Family Therapy Networker,  said that “the experience of family loyalty is less like a high-minded moral choice  than a submersion in a soup of less noble motives, like guilt, anxiety, inertia.  Resembling a blind, compelling instinct, it is an allegiance no more chosen than hunger or the need to sleep.” (p. 23).  The family system’s bonds of loyalty can seem like something given without a second thought or can feel like a stranglehold around us, sucking us down into stale kitchens or stifling bedrooms while the hours tick our life away. 

 Ironically, the natural process of individual development means that one day the adolescent or young adult will leave home and to go on to a career or higher education of some kind and the parents experience an ‘empty nest’ with “losing the child” to college (Wylie, 1999).  Then the old bonds of loyalty must change in order for the young person to separate and individuate from their family.  It’s at this stage that problems can develop, especially if one or both parents – through their own depression or chronic illness or economic failures – keep their children home to care for them or support them.  Feelings of guilt, resentment, and anger can permeate the family as loyalty is demanded or expected – and willingly or resentfully given in return.  Most families get past this difficult stage and allow the development of their children to continue forward in their lives, not so much feeling engendering guilt as celebrating a new stage in family life. 

 Family loyalty is also where we get some of our first experiences of justice and fairness. Nagy and Spark (1973) employ an accounting metaphor to explore the give and take of family life, a kind of “balance sheet of credits and debits” or what is due to us or what we owe to others.   We carry around in our heads some form of this balance sheet that shapes our sense of justice or fairness.  We can have a sense lingering resentment if we feel that what we are putting into a relationship outweighs what we are getting back in return.  And too, if we’ve been given to, cared for when we couldn’t care for ourselves, cared for in ways that struck as especially kind and generous.  

But, to the extent that we feel we were not cared for as we should have been or not treated fairly by those who should have done so – our primary caregivers - but instead were neglected, abused, or abandoned, \we grow up with a sense of “destructive entitlement” and go about the rest of our lives trying to redress the injustice we felt was done to us.  For the rest of our lives we displace our anger and rage onto the rest of the world in an attempt to balance the scales of injustice we innately carry deep in our bones. A son abused by his father in turn abuses his son – on down through the generations in a multigenerational chain of “displaced retribution”.   

Who or what we pledge our loyalty to lies at the very core of our identity.  Indeed, one might understand the developmental task of forming an identity in adolescence as a series of choices adolescents make as move from group to group searching for one they might invest their emerging identity into in order to bond with perceived sources of strength and pride.  Cliques, gangs, or groups of buddies get our loyalty and we get theirs.  Sports teams – representing not just our schools, but in some cases, our whole communities, benefit from our loyalty on a Friday night or a Sunday afternoon.  We sing the team song, scream the cheers and wear the colors of home team.  We even sing the National Anthem at sporting events – probably one of the few times it is sung in public ceremonies – as a symbol of national loyalty to the country.  We tear up, our throats get lumps in them as we sing those words.   And many a fan’s self-esteem or general mood rises and falls depending on the outcome of the game.  Our loyalties are tested each year as the Vikings find more ways to choke at the crucial time in the regular season or playoffs.  Yet, even if the pass is not well-defended in the opposing team’s end zone or the field goal is missed, Vikings fans are not likely to cross the border and become Cheeseheads.  That doesn’t mean that fans won’t curse ‘Da bums” or call them the Red Sox of football.  Loyalty fought for – if even vicariously – isn’t easily given up.  

 Yet, in spite of its primordial hold on us loyalty in marriage is too often the weak link in the loyalty chain according to Nagy and Spark (1973).  In order to successfully marry and bond with our new partners, we must forsake the more fundamental ‘vertical loyalties’ of our families or origin for the newfound ‘horizontal’ loyalty to our spouse.  And when children come along, loyalty can shift again to a deeper devotion to our children over our spouse.  Divorce too often ends up in a fight for the kids when horizontal loyalty of marriage is forsaken for the vertical loyalty to one’s offspring.  We have all witnessed separated adults in tears fearing the ‘loss’ of their kids to their spouse in a custody battle – which is as much a battle for loyalty as it is a battle for custody, and something core to identity hangs in the balance.  Wylie (1999) tells us to look closely at the words of the wedding ceremony, for if you do, she says you will find that most of the words are more about loyalty than love.  Sticking together through thick and thin seems easy in the flush of the wedding ceremony and young love.  But, like broken Indian treaties, the grass isn’t always green, the sky isn’t always blue, and rains don’t always come when they are needed.  

 Understanding those who seek us out for help requires that we inquire into their connections and disconnections.  It also can be that we look deeper into their connections and use the frame of loyalty to appreciate the sometimes irrational fierceness with which some bonds are held.  Loyalty isn’t so much a choice as it is primitive response to our early caregivers, our children, or our tribe.  If we can come to know and show appreciation for the indebtedness that binds people to caregivers, children or tribe, we can help the therapy move forward.  Loyalties can also bind us at times and keep us as characters in someone else’s story rather than as characters in our own preferred story.  If, as author Rick Bass once said, that all literature is about loss – then all stories are about loyalties fiercely adhered to, challenged, or finally given up.  


Wylie, M.S. (1999).  “The Ties that Define.”  FamilyTherapy Networker, May-June, 21-31.

 Boszormenyi-Nagy, I. and Spark, G. M.  Invisible Loyalties.  New York:  Harper & Row, 1973; Brunner/Mazel, 1984