Category Archives: family therapy

Family Systems…the Gift that Keeps on Giving

As many of us return from spending time with relatives, this week’s post explores the murky waters of family relationships and how family bonds keep us stuck in behaviours that may not be in our  best interest.

Family, the gift that keeps on giving.

Now that the holidays are over, a common theme that I hear both in my office and out in the world is “The holidays were great, and let me tell you about my family!”.  Being fortunate enough to have family members to spend time with is often balanced with the dynamics that seem to haunt us like the Ghost of Christmas Past.

What Is It About Family Gatherings?  A Story…

Sylvia (age 40) is the youngest child in a large family.  Her mother (Marilyn) describes Sylvia as her mid-life gift.  After giving birth to four boys, Marilyn despaired of ever having a daughter.  She was thrilled when Sylvia was the result of a surprise pregnancy.  Sylvia’s brothers (Dan Jr., Paul, Greg and Jim) are much older than Sylvia.  Jim, the next youngest is six years older, and Dan Jr. (the oldest) is 15 years older and seemed to be more of an ‘uncle’ than ‘brother’ to Sylvia.

Sylvia’s childhood could be described as pampered and sheltered.  As the youngest child, and only daughter; her parents and brothers adored and protected her.  As a baby and toddler she was treated like a doll. When she became older, her life resembled that of a cherished bird living in a gilded cage.  After the death of her father (Dan) when Sylvia was 12, she became even more the focus of Marilyn’s attention and love.

Sylvia Breaks Free

As often happens with children who are constrained growing up, Sylvia longed to have a life of her own.  Her natural desire for independence and separation grew, and she chose to attend post-secondary school far away from home.  From being a young child, Sylvia had been interested in the arts and was excited to be accepted to a theatrical costume design program across the country.  While the transition was difficult (home sickness, learning the ways of the world), Sylvia thrived.  After graduation she was offered a position at a prestigious theatre company, where she has worked for the past 15 years–earning promotions as her skills and reputation increased.

Over the years Sylvia returned home for holidays and various other family events, but as these proved to be somewhat difficult they became more of a ‘duty visit’ than something she looked forward to.  Sylvia loved her family…and…

A Return

Sylvia recently visited her family to help plan Marilyn’s 85th surprise birthday celebration. As their mother’s health was starting to decline, the siblings had decided not to wait until her 90th birthday, but to have a big party at her next birthday which was two months away.

Sylvia was eager to participate in the plans, and looked forward to working with her brothers.  Unfortunately, things did turn out as Sylvia had hoped.

Welcome to the Family System

When we get together with family members we often fall into old patterns as others expect us (consciously or not) to fill specific roles.  How many times have we planned a visit with relatives, declaring that we won’t get into an argument with Aunt X or allow Sister Y to make us feel badly about ourselves, only find ourselves doing exactly that? It’s difficult to change those patterns as the strength of family systems is strong and the patterns run deep.

Sylvia was no exception.  The pattern started shortly after she arrived home.  Staying with her mother, Marilyn wanted to know where Sylvia was going, when she would be back, what she wanted for dinner and who she would be seeing.  Sylvia hadn’t experienced this level of scrutiny since her last visit home, and while she understood Marilyn’s patterns, she chafed under the over-interest.

The siblings met at a local restaurant.  Unbeknownst to Sylvia, her brothers had already been planning by email to put the basics in place.  This meeting was for final touches. Sylvia was ‘told’ rather than ‘consulted’ about how the event would unfold. When she voiced concerns about the location (not easily accessible to some of the elderly guests), she was told “Don’t worry, we’ve taken care of it. It will be fine”.  Her questions about the guest list were ignored as her brothers talked over her.  At one point, she thought that Dan Jr. was going to suggest that “she go out and play, while they took care of things”.  The more her brothers treated her as their little sister, the more she fell into that role–letting them make the decisions and dismissing her input.

On the Way Home…

Sylvia left her weekend visit feeling conflicted.  On one hand, she was glad that the plans were in place for the upcoming party; on the other, she had wanted to contribute more of her ideas and was surprised at herself for not speaking up. As a professional, she never had trouble voicing her ideas in a work environment.  Why with her family?

As the days went by, Sylvia became more and more frustrated at her inability to move beyond the age of 12 when interacting with family members, as well as their blind-spot in seeing her as a successful adult, and treating her accordingly.

How the System Works
Atom, artwork

In a previous post, I explained that being part of a family can be compared to being in a baby’s mobile.  Families are systems, with each member of the system having a specific role to play–either consciously or unconsciously.  When we get together, we often fall into our old patterns.

Just like the bonds that hold electrons to a nucleus in an atom, the bonds that hold family members together are just as strong!  Though not made up of nucleic energy, family bonds are made up of traditions, rules, family secrets, codes of behaviour and alliances.

The System is Tricky!

Family systems are difficult to alter because they are tricky.  Why?

  • We don’t know that the system is there.  When we are born, we enter a system that is already in place.  Unless there is a sudden change to the system (i.e. through death, marriage, etc.) systems tend to change very slowly.  Asking a family member to explain their family system is often like asking a fish to describe their lake or ocean!
  • As humans we want to be part of the tribe.  Prehistorically, not being part of a tribe or group often meant death as we needed group attachments for safety.  We are social creatures, and we will put up with a lot in order not to be isolated–even putting up with negative behaviours from others.
  • The system doesn’t like change.  A family system is like a mobile, whose parts will do whatever it takes to stay in balance.  If one member starts to rock the boat by changing/challenging current habits or beliefs, they will experience disapproval (or change-back behaviour) from other members.  Sometimes this pressure for the ‘rogue’ individual(s) can even include the threat of expulsion from the system/family.
Ideas for Sylvia

On the way home from her family visit, Sylvia took the first step in changing her family system–she started to question her part in the dynamics.  If she wants to take on a new role in her family, she may want to tread carefully by trying the following things:

  • Approach an individual sibling that she feels close to and ask about his perception of how things work in the family.
  • Depending on his response, Sylvia can decide how much to share about her experience and observations.
  • Use gentle language.  “I wonder…” is a good place to start as it suggests an attitude of curiosity rather than judgement.
  • Use the communication tool of “When you do this, I feel…” instead of “You make me feel…”
  • By raising the awareness of even one sibling (Sylvia may choose to repeat this conversation with each brother and her mother) the system will alter.

The amazing thing about family systems, is that if one person is successfully able to change their behaviour, the system can’t help but change!

And now…as I write this we’re in the middle of a deep freeze.  So, what can be more fun than a video of cats discovering snow for the first time?  Enjoy….

 

 

 

Triangulation: The Trouble With Triangles

I wasn’t very gifted when it came to high school geometry.  The logic evaded me, and I couldn’t see the point of learning how to prove that right-angled triangles were “right-angled”. However, if my Grade 10 math teacher had told me that triangles were linked to relationships, I would have been very interested!

In a recent post, I explained that if you are in a family you are part of a “mobile” or family system. In this post, we’ll look at a specific relationship habit that can have a negative affect on the quality of family life.

A Story…

Jane, Sue and Rob are middle-aged siblings. Their parents (Marjorie and Ed) recently sold the family home and are in the process of downsizing their possessions before moving into an apartment.  The siblings agreed that the home needed to be sold as both parents were starting to suffer from age-related ailments and having trouble maintaining the property.  Because they all lived in different towns from their original home, they were unable to help their Mom and Dad as much as they would have liked.

In the beginning all was going according to plan.  The house sold quickly, and a suitable apartment was found. However, things started to change once Marjorie and Ed started to pass on family heirlooms.

One day, when Sue was visiting her mom, Marjorie mentioned that she was struggling to find a place for her china cabinet. While she loved the piece, it wouldn’t fit in the new apartment.  Sue, who had always loved the cabinet, offered to move it into her home as she had the space. Marjorie was relieved as her problem was solved; and she would be able to see her cherished cabinet when visiting Sue.

Later that week, Rob called his parents to check in.  Marjorie shared that Sue had offered to take the china cabinet.  Rob was speechless!  His daughter, Rebecca, had always loved the cabinet, and he had expected that his parents would have offered it to her. Rob wasn’t angry at his mom as he understood that her memory wasn’t what it had been; however, he was furious with Sue as she had always known how much Rebecca wanted the cabinet.

Rob seethed all the way home and called Jane to let her know what Sue had done. As he ranted, Jane started to remember past grievances that she had with Sue. Then the conversation really took off! By the end of the call an hour later, both siblings felt better and had decided that Sue had behaved badly.

A few weeks later, the siblings met at their parents’ home as arranged to help with packing. Sue was confused and hurt by the distance she experienced from her brother and sister.  She had no idea what had caused the chilly reception. As the day progressed, she started to remember times in the past when her siblings had sided together against her. She thought about how often she had felt excluded. The day was uncomfortable for everyone–including Marjorie and Ed, who had no idea about what was going on.

The next day, Sue called Marjorie to complain about Jane and Rob’s behaviour.

Welcome to Triangulation

The relationships we share with family members can be stressful. Sometimes they become intense, and as we cope with a current difficulty, past challenges come back to haunt us.  Uncomfortable emotions such as anger, sadness and frustration can arise, and we want to lessen our discomfort. Triangulation occurs when we pull in a third party to help decrease the heightened, negative emotions we are experiencing with the first person.

Triangulation is a habit…a way to make ourselves feel better. In our story, Rob triangulated Jane into the situation with Sue. He was able to let off some steam and continue with his day. Sue pulled in her mom as a way to cope with her negative feelings regarding her interaction with Jane and Rob the day before.

The Trouble with Triangulation

Often, we don’t see that there is a problem with this way of coping. We vent to a third party and then feel better. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. We may be able to move on in the moment, but the original issues don’t get resolved.

When creating triangles becomes a family  habit, relationship problems are pushed underground where they fester–only to be brought up the next time the triangle is set up. Past issues between Jane and Sue were unearthed and discussed when Rob reported on his current dissatisfaction with Sue.

Because of triangulation, past hurts are more difficult to heal.

A Particularly Harmful Type of Triangle

The above story deals with triangulation between adult siblings and a parent–leading to ongoing painful relationships. However, when triangles are created between a parent and non-adult child the repercussions are much worse.

When couples are having relationship difficulties, it is often tempting for one (or both) members of the couple to triangulate in a child/young adult as a way to decrease their feelings of tension.  This can range from complaining to a child about a partner’s bad habit to a full-on disclosure about what is causing a relationship breakdown.  Sometimes parents will speak to each other ‘through the child’ to avoid having to talk face-to-face.

Ideally, in a family system, the parents are the “head” of the household.  For healthy maturation children need to know that the adults in the system are stable as they provide a “united front”. By triangulating a child into adult concerns, we are robbing them of that stability. We may end up pitting the child against a particular parent, damaging that relationship. A child/young adult’s self esteem can be damaged as they learn that “half of their gene pool” is not acceptable.

If you feel the need to complain about your partner to your child, please stop! If you cannot speak to your partner directly, find someone else you can speak to until the situation improves.

Ending Triangulation

Triangulation is a habit.  Like any habit, with work and awareness, we can choose to do something different.  But how?

  • When feeling upset about another’s actions, resist the urge to bring in a third party. We can practice self-soothing tools.  Go for a walk, have a bath or shower, watch a movie or read a book. Find something that will distract you from the painful emotions until they have calmed enough that you can look at them from a rational vs. emotional mindset.
  • Refuse to be brought into another’s triangle. Getting involved in drama can be exciting! However, we’re not doing ourselves or others any favours. Rather than getting caught up in the story, you can help the other person to calm down. Encourage them to speak to the person with whom they are having the difficulty.
  • When you are calm and ready to talk, start a conversation with the person who is the source of the negative emotions. This may take some time and require outside support–especially if this has been a pattern for a long time and there are deeply buried resentments.
A Word of Warning!

Triangulation can be a difficult habit to break. We use it because we may experience some immediate relief. Not triangulating is hard. Taking the first step to speak to another about what is bothering us takes courage and we can’t predict  how they will respond.

When we change our pattern and refuse to take part in a triangle, the person inviting us in may become angry.  It’s important that we hang in there and gently explain that we don’t want to continue in this behaviour.  Again, this takes courage and consistency.  It may take awhile, but you will see positive results.

Triangulation–Not Just in Families

Once you become aware of the triangulation dynamic, you may begin to see if everywhere–at work or in friendships.  Where there are two people interacting, there is the potential for triangulation.

Being swept up in a triangle can be exhausting.  We can choose to do something else!

An now, where was Homer Simpson when I was in high school?  Enjoy!

Part of a Family? Welcome to a Mobile!

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.

Families and Mobiles

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!