Being part of a family (no matter how many people it contains) can be confusing. One of the things I love about therapeutic theories are that they can be explained in graphic detail. Just like taking the red pill in the Matrix, once you understand the concept, you can’t go back! You see the dynamics everywhere! Theories about family structures are a perfect example.
Depending on the type of therapy, there are different ways to explain family systems. When working with couples or families I often use the graphic of a baby’s mobile. When you look at the mobile on the right, all the pieces are in balance. Nothing is wonky or out of place. If the mobile’s characters had human emotions, I suggest that (though they may or may not be happy), they are comfortable with the status quo.
But what happens if the one of the characters makes a change? What happens if one of the members leaves the mobile or a new member joins? It slides out of balance.
Families and Mobiles–Meet John and Sara Smith
John and Sara (both age 60) have been together for 30 years in a traditional-style marriage. They have two children (John Jr. (JJ) and Ben–ages 28 and 25). JJ recently announced to his family that he and his girlfriend Carley had decided to start living together as they were recently discovered that they were expecting a child. This news was a big surprise to John and Sara as they didn’t think that JJ and Carley were in a serious relationship, plus it was unlike JJ to spring news like this. However, they liked Carley and were excited to become grandparents.
All went relatively well for the first few months. JJ and Carley found a place to live and both their families helped them to move in. There were a few rough spots on move-in day as the two families had not yet met. Even though everyone was on their best behaviour, Carley’s mom (Donna) voiced her definite ideas about where her daughter was moving, and John and Sara found themselves ‘biting their tongue’ a few times throughout the day. The Smith family mobile was starting to sway.
Throughout Carley’s pregnancy, she and JJ spent a lot of time at John and Sara’s home. As they started to make decisions regarding their child’s upcoming birth, it became clear that Carley and JJ made decisions in different ways. JJ, who has always been close to his parents, tended to consult them before committing to anything. Carley, on the other hand, was used to making her own decisions due to her mother’s strong opinions. The Smith family mobile was rocking.
During one visit, Carley overheard JJ asking Sara’s opinion about a home vs. a hospital birth. He told his mother that Carley felt strongly about having their baby at home, but that he wasn’t sure as this was Carley’s first pregnancy and he was afraid that something could go wrong. Carley was furious! She loudly let JJ know that she felt betrayed that he discussed their ‘private’ issues with his mother. Carley told Sara that she “needed to mind her own business”. “JJ was now her partner ‘first’ and Sara’s son ‘second'”. The mobile had tilted and moved out of balance.
How Family Systems Stay in Balance
As noted above, the individuals may or may not be happy in the family system, but they are satisfied with the status quo. This status quo is kept in place by the roles (both physically and emotionally) each member takes on, as well as the expectations that each person has of the others in the system.
The system is also held together by traditions, family secrets, communication styles, and other things that make each family different from other families.
What Happened in the Smith Family?
If we look at the Smith family before Carley’s arrival, their mobile was in balance. Theirs is a long-standing system (30 years), with ‘ways of being’ that have slowly evolved over time. John and Sara had a strong base and provided the role of ‘sounding board’ for their sons. JJ and Ben were encouraged to ask their parents for support when making decisions. They had always done so.
Sara, as the only female in the family, saw herself as the ‘nurturer’ and had developed a close relationship with her sons–especially JJ as he was her firstborn. In a house full of men, Sara saw her role as bringing “some softness” into their world. While John worked outside the home to support the family, Sara had chosen to work part-time so that she had more time for her family.
In this story, a few things happened to shock the family mobile.
- With Carley and JJ’s decision to live together, Carley has now entered the family mobile. A new piece has been added.
- Once the baby is born, another character will be added.
- Sara is no longer the only female in the system, and will need to adjust to this.
- JJ is now not only Sara’s son, but also Carley’s partner.
- Family roles will undergo major changes as members become grandparents, parents-in-law, uncle, father, mother, sister-in-law, etc.
When we add in Carley’s family system, things become even more complicated if the two families spend time together. Plus, we’ve only looked at the Smith family system/mobile. Similar events may also be happening in Carley’s family mobile.
A New Family System: The Smith Family Mobile Back in Balance
As out-of-kilter as this mobile looks, it is possible for this family to have balance. However, they will need to create a new mobile that incorporates the new family members, roles, communication styles, and ways of being. It will take time, trust, respect and the ability of family members to communicate with each other.
Now that Carley and JJ have their own family, they will be creating their own individual family system that interacts with the systems of their original families.
One of the hopeful things about families is that they can be resilient. Sometimes family systems do dissolve because of negative changes, but often individual members can work together to create new systems. Any event can change the system–including positive ones. If we look at the Smith family, the building of the new mobile may start with something as simple as Sara asking Carley’s opinion about a family event. Perhaps John will comment on how well JJ is fulfilling his new role as a father and talk about his early experiences as a parent. Ben may be a catalyst for the family as he becomes an uncle.
The road to a new family system will be bumpy, and well worth the effort.
And now, here’s a classic scene from the Matrix…enjoy!