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Chapter 1

THE LIFE CYCLE OF THE FAMILY


The family is a system of emotional and relationship interdependence with identifiable and predictable stages.

This life cycle (1) begins with courtship and marriage and ends with the death of a spouse, and spans multiple generations. The basic stages include:

Stage 1: the couple marries without children

Stage 2: the couple moves into young adult years with children of various ages

Stage 3: the couple moves into middle adult years when any children are now grown and gone

Stage 4: the couple moves into the retirement era of life

 

The natural progression to this life cycle process makes life experiences cumulative. Relationship issues and concerns must be successfully resolved as the couple moves from one stage of the family life cycle to the next.

Failure to resolve the issues in one stage leads to predictable distress in the next.

In the first stage, the couple's task is to define the rules of their relationship. They must explore and then define (1) the nature of the relationship they hope to have; (2) the nature of future parent-child relationships; (3) the nature of their relationships with extended family members and in-laws; (4) their communication strategies; (5) how power in the relationship with be managed; (6) how feelings will be expressed; (7) how togetherness and individuation concerns will be balanced, and (8) how they will negotiate change in the marriage over time.

Some of these issues will already be defined to some degree by the nature of the couple's motivation to marry in the first place. Did they marry because they needed to get away from the parental home? They needed an outlet for sexual expression ? One needed the other for financial or emotional support? They were in love? The marriage was precipitated by a pregnancy? They wanted children to carry on the family name? They went together for so long that they 'fit together' like a pair of old shoes? Did they marry because they were in transition between major life events and one or the other feared going on alone?

Each of these motivations to marry carries with it an unspoken but well-defined set of expectations, some that can defy future attempts to redefine them. This is a risk for couples who do not take the necessary time to negotiate a solid relationship framework from the start. If they already have children at this stage of the relationship, then the risk is that much greater; it means that they must skip or compress this important relationship-building phase.

In the second stage of the family life cycle the couple moves into their young adult years with career and child-rearing responsibilities. During this stage couple roles change dramatically and couple time is reduced as their focus shifts from the marriage to household and child care tasks.

In the third stage the children have grown and gone and the couple finds itself alone again. They must prepare well for this 'empty nest' era or they may suddenly find themselves living with a stranger. The couple begins to experience changes in physical functioning and also in once predictable relationship roles. The term mid-life crisis years is a well-earned term for these years as there is increased participation in extended family functions such as weddings, graduations, bar mitzvahs and funerals. All of these things are enjoyable (or not) depending on the quality of the couple's relationships with children and with other family members.

The couple's elderly parents are also a concern of this era. They are typically forced to deal with the medical and residential needs of their parents in addition to handling questions of wills and inheritances; questions of who is going to handle the aging parent's finances; and questions of who is to be responsible for the aging parent(s) in general. These issues are difficult enough when the generational relationships are amicable; they can be extremely stressful when they are not.

In the fourth and final stage of the family life cycle the couple faces the reality of physical decline. There is an increasing frequency of serious illness and hospitalization. This is also an era of retirement, a reality for some that evokes depression and a feeling of uselessness and loss of stature. There are grandchildren and even great-grandchildren to deal with, and the eventual death of one or other of the spouses.

Suffice it to say, successful management of the events and concerns of this last stage of the family life cycle depends in large measure on how well the couple has survived previous stages.

Each stage of the family life cycle contains and is contained in all the others.

 

Daniel Levinson, in his classic book Seasons of a Man's Life (2), describes what happens when the transitioning from one stage to another is further hindered because of inadequate management of a previous relationship stage:

"Entry into a new period often reactivates the unresolved problems and deficits of previous periods. These problems form a 'baggage from the past' that makes it harder to deal with current tasks. The carryover of past conflicts and hurts may weigh so heavily that present tasks are overshadowed. When a person is having serious difficulties, it is important to examine first the life structure, tasks and concerns of the ongoing period. Continuing problems from earlier periods of childhood and adulthood then may be examined within this context, and we can see how they are hampering the current developmental work."

 

A couple's subsequent relationship maneuvers can take on a desperate and often unspeakable quality under certain circumstances and this is what the remainder HOW FAMILIES WORK is about. It attempts to describe the consequences of cumulative unresolvedness in family relationships.

 

WORLD VIEW

Our world view is something that each of us carves out for ourselves in the course of experiencing the world.

It represents a synthesis of what we have come to know and expect as predictable, and it serves as a kind of life boat for us as we move through life. Some life boats are so small that they can only navigate within the safety of a pond. Others are able to venture a little farther out into rougher waters. And some are so sea-worthy that they can circumnavigate the globe.

World views come in all sizes, too. The more expansive our world view the more representative it is of the real world. The more constricted our world view, the less well it reflects the real world around us.

 

Anxious individuals seek to make the world a more comfortable and predictable place, often at any price. They do this by collapsing the boundaries of their world view, i.e., by narrowing their focus. Anxiety and criticality purges the perceptual field of all that does not fit some rigidly defined set of cognitive rules.

Indeed, the more anxious we are the more we see only what we want to see.

This perceptual process is akin to first looking through a wide angle lens and then through a zoom lens; the constriction of the panoramic view to a detailed view increases the clarity of the detailed view but it also causes us to lose sight of the larger context within which the focus of attention exists.

 

The optimal goal, however, is to try to see whatever there is to see without trying to change what we see in any way; without comparing or judging or evaluating what we see. Only through a process of dispassionate and neutral observation of the world around us can we begin to make sense of the world.

My long-time mentor J. Krishnamurti (3) says this about the way our mind works:

"Don't correct it, don't say 'This is right, that is wrong,' but just watch it as you would a film. When you go to the cinema you are not taking part in the film; the actors and actresses are taking part, but you are only watching. In the same way, watch how your mind works. It is really very interesting, far more interesting than any film, because your mind is the residue of the whole world and it contains all that human beings have experienced. Do you understand? Your mind is humanity, and when you perceive this, you will have immense compassion. Out of this understanding comes great love; and then you will know, when you see lovely things, what beauty is."

 

Our view of the world dictates whether we see the cup as half-empty or half-full, and whether we see change as thrilling or threatening.

 

THE HERE AND NOW

Think of the here and now as a sliver of sunlight with the darkness of the past and future falling off abruptly on either side. The past is dark because it is distant and irreversible and the future is dark because it is unknowable.

 

It takes effort to stay in the here and now in that its negotiable space involves so small a sliver of time.

This effort is further impeded by relationship anxieties. Things like anxious worry, expectations and neurotic fears rob the present by replacing it with futuristic concerns. Bitter resentments, anger, rage and depression rob the present by replacing it with unresolved issues from the past.

True individuation requires that we decontaminate the present so that our todays can merge without clutter into joyous tomorrows.

 

EXPECTATIONS

Expectations propel us into the future. They imply that "even though this is not the way things are today, they will be different tomorrow."

The trouble with expectations is that far more energy goes into expecting change than into 'changing.' Another problem is that the more energy one puts into expecting others to change the less energy there is available for focusing on how the self can change.

The concept, Differentiation of Self, is a hallmark of the Bowen Theory and is one of the more important things we can do for ourselves and our children. I speak to this in more detail later.

 

"A wise man, the wonder of his age, taught his disciples from a seemingly inexhaustible store of wisdom. He attributed all of his knowledge to a thick tome that was kept in a place of honor in his room. The sage would allow nobody to open the volume. When he died, those who had surrounded him, regarding themselves as his heirs, ran to open the book, anxious to possess what it contained. They were surprised, confused and disappointed when they found that there was writing on only one page. They became even more bewildered, and then annoyed, when they tried to penetrate the meaning of the phrase that met their eyes. It was: 'When you realize the difference between the container and the content, you will have knowledge.' " ~Robert Ornstein, The Mind Field (4)

 

 

COMMUNICATING FEELINGS

There are levels of communications about feelings. At one level people talk, but not about feelings at all. They talk about things, about other people, about issues or ideas -- but they never directly talk about feelings or even about the experience of having feelings.

At another level people talk about feeling kinds of things in very general and non-personal terms. For example, they might use the words 'I feel' when they really mean 'I think' because to say 'I feel' sounds more like one is talking about feelings even though they aren't. The intent is illusory. The sentence, "I feel they should have attended to it immediately," says nothing about the speaker's actual feelings.

At still another level people talk about [having feelings] -- but from a safe distance. They might say: "Remember last week when I left here in such a hurry? I was feeling very angry at the time." Or, "I'll never be able to forgive you for what you said to me at my father's funeral. I felt rejected (past tense)." The emotionality of the issue is too toxic for them to deal with in the present.

At the highest and most complex communication level people talk in the [here and now] about feeling states as they are being experienced in a relationship. Such a person says, "I am feeling hurt and confused right now and I want to flee from you but I can't." Or, "I'm taking a pot-shot at you now because I am feeling defensive and angry and I feel a need to somehow pay you back." Or, "I am feeling critical because I feel hurt and probably even a little jealous right now." The feelings above are being described as they emerge, with the focus not on the other person but soley on what the SELF is experiencing.

Only those who can communicate with ease at that highest level can maintain intimate relationships over time and keep them free from destructive stress. One's ability to do so, however, comes only with great effort and usually as a result of having learned to communicate in such a way very early in life. Those who come from families where an intense 'LID' is kept on emotional expression suffer as adults because of their need to keep that same lid operational in intimate relationships.

Risk-taking is unpredictable, anxiety-provoking and change-inducing. It makes one feel vulnerable if not extremely threatened at times.

Some go ahead with it anyway.

Language is at the core of our social existence according to the physician-scientist Lewis Thomas (5). It holds us together and houses us in meaning. Indeed, he says:

"It begins to look, more and more disturbingly, as if the gift of language is the single human trait that makes us genetically different, setting us apart from all the rest of life. Language is, like nest-building or hive-making, the universal and biologically specific activity of human beings. We engage in it communally, compulsively, and automatically. We cannot be human without it; if we were to be separated from it our minds would die, as surely as bees lost from the hive." ~ Lewis Thomas, The Lives of a Cell (5)

 

And in the naked light I saw/ ten thousand people, maybe more/ people talking without speaking/ people hearing without listening/ people writing songs that voices never shared/ no one dared/ disturb the sounds of silence. ~ Paul Simon, Sounds of Silence

 

 

EMOTIONAL TRIANGLES

Triangles exist in family relationship systems as well as in mathematical systems. According to Dr. Murray Bowen (5), an emotional triangle exists when one person talks with or deals with another person about a third person or issue. Here are some common examples of triangulated communications:

*Mother is feeling frustrated by Father's chronic absenteeism from home and confides in her teenage Daughter about her spousal concerns.

*Grown Daughter tells Mother about Sister's marital troubles.

*Father gives advice to Son about the Son's conflictual relationship with his Mother.

*Daughter takes Mother's side against Father in the divorce struggles.

*Son angrily defends Father's drinking by telling Mother that she is the cause of it all.

*Grandmother colludes with Granddaughter against the Granddaughter's Mother, telling her more than she should know.

*Mother and sixteen year-old Daughter keep Daughter's pregnancy a secret from Father.

*Cousin Jean gossips with Cousin Jane about Cousin Ira's floundering marriage.

*Husband and Wife argue bitterly over intrusive in-laws.

*Mother plays peace-keeper between Husband and Son.

*Grown Daughter blames Father for abandoning poor, helpless Mother.

*Sister calls Oldest Brother to tell him to call their Youngest Brother to tell him to get off her back.

 

Such triangulations permeate family relationship systems with advice-giving a primary mechanism along with projection, gossiping, blaming and side-taking.

Although three-person emotional triangles are the norm, triangles in families can also revolve around intense issues. Husband and wife, for example, can triangulate over sex or money or TV or political ideology; or even about such things as disciplinary approaches, friends, alcohol consumption, how much time Husband spends away from home, or over Wife's irresponsible money management strategies.

The possibilities are endless.

An emotional triangle is like a mathematical triangle in that any shift in the position of one point in the triangle will necessarily influence the position of the other points. The assumption of the existence of a constant sum of differences allows for this predictability. This means that knowledge of the length of any two sides of a given triangle automatically allows for accurate calculation of the length of the third side of the triangle.

For a refresher course: CoolMath.com

 

 

A RELATIONSHIP EXAMPLE

Let's assume that a chronic triangulation exists between Father, Mother, and Son. In a calm state the triangle looks very much like an equilateral triangle: e.g., there is equal relationship space between each of the three twosomes making up the triangle. Remember, however, that each person in such a triangle is emotionally attached to the other two people in the triangle, such that a shift in the position of one twosome automatically sets into motion a position shift in the other twosomes.

A high level of basic life anxiety underlies triangulating behavior of all kinds. This is the above family posture in a calm state:

 

Were Father and Son to suddenly experience an intense conflict, the overall triangulation automatically adjusts itself. It moves from the shape of an equilateral triangle to one where Father and Son now form a negative and conflictual over-closeness that then moves Mother into a more distant and predictable position in relation to them both.

 

As the tension in the Father-Son relationship subsides the triangulation reverts back to the equilateral posturing of a more calm state.

 

If Father and Mother then experience a conflict, all positions shift again. Son now moves to occupy the outside or distant position in the triangulation and Father and Mother form the negative and conflictual over-closeness. Were the tensions to shift in time to the Mother-Son relationship the same process occurs; but this time Father moves into the predictable outside position while Mother-Son form a conflictual over-closeness. The most comfortable position in an emotional triangle is always the outside and distant position.

 

SOME EXAMPLES TO PONDER

The gossip comfortably points their finger at two others while the maligned ones become agitated with each other. A husband projects his own deep-seated feelings of guilt onto his wife as he begins to think that she is the one with thoughts of infidelity, not him. Grown Son doesn't like his Middle Sister but it makes him anxious to have such feelings so he projects to her the idea that SHE does not like HIM. This allows him to avoid the sister for good reason, he thinks, and it makes him feel superior. A person harbors a strong dislike for someone but may, instead, believe that he or she does not like them.

Highly critical individuals are merely [projecting] unacceptable and negative aspects of themselves and ascribing them to other people. Projection reduces anxiety by allowing the anxious person to express an undesirable or unacceptable thought or feeling without owning it themselves.

Think of a hand with a pointing finger: four fingers are always pointing back at the person. THIS IS PROJECTION.

 

RIGIDITY

Sometimes triangles become fixed in one particular posture more than others, and when this happens relationship patterns tend to become rigid and predictable over time. This rigidity is the major mechanism whereby relationship patterns repeat in familles.

Over-closeness characterizes any twosome that finds itself engulfed in one or another of the following relationship dynamics:

 

A twosome is in close, positive collusion against a third person
A twosome has a possessive, smothering over-closeness
A twosome organizes itself around a tense and fragile truce to keep the peace

 

The valence of the over-closeness tells a lot about the emotional climate of the relationship system but whether the relationship valence is positive or negative, it does nothing to alter the fact of the over-closeness.

The expenditure of energy in the direction of a third person (or issue) helps preserve the twosome's relationship by allowing them to pretend that the tension lies elsewhere, not between them. The triangulated third person gives the twosome a renewed opportunity to communicate together and/or ventilate towards each other but in a disguised way around the issue or person that occupies their attention. Regardless, the primary function of triangulation is to generate needed distance in an important twosome.

The following are examples of emotional triangles in dynamic operation within a family relationship system:

SCENE: Husband and Wife are having an intimate dinner. One says something that irritates and then angers the other. But rather than saying out loud what he or she is feeling, the other masks any tension and sets up a struggle over some related but less personal issue. As the struggle builds they polarize into adversarial positions. As this occurs the previously felt relationship tension shifts to a more acceptable, less personally vulnerable level and the relationship (at least for the moment) is preserved.

SCENE: Husband and Wife haven't experienced nurturing emotional connectedness for some time. They seldom talk together any more about feeling kinds of things. They have little left in common with each other. Then one evening the police arrive to tell them that their fifteen year-old is in detention pending drug charges. The couple experiences a resurgence of emotional connectedness through their joint concern and confusion over what to do about their son. Suddenly they have a great deal to discuss with one another...

 

SCENE: Oldest Brother and Middle Sister are experiencing a growing tension in their relationship that, until now, has been an especially important relationship for them both. But their discussions seem to be be turning into arguments more and more regularly and they always seem to end up polarized on the most important family issues. This state of affairs is especially worrisome for Sister who doesn't particularly like her Younger Brother. Over the holidays the Younger Brother comes home from the army and has a nice, long and very nurturing conversation with Sister one evening after everyone had gone to bed. Younger Brother let down his hair a little and told Middle Sister about some old frustrations he had with Oldest Brother; not with a critical air particularly but in a climate of personal revelation with his seemingly nurturing Sister. Later, Sister goes to Oldest Brother and tells him what Younger Brother said and immediately overt tension erupts between the brothers. Sister judiciously distances herself from both of them for the remainder of Younger Brother's visit, then moves in close to Oldest Brother after the other has gone, telling him that he was perfectly right about how he felt and telling him that she was glad she could be there now to support him. The previous relationship tension between Brother and Sister has now dissolved.

Here is how this scenario unfolds:

 

 

Certain things more than others have a tendency to pull us into the emotional forces around us, causing us to assign blame or take sides. Such emotional 'triggers' include anger, rage, sympathy, pity, hurt, jealousy, defensiveness, rescue fantasies, hidden agendas, optimism, hope, shame...to name but a few.

 

 

ADVICE-GIVING

Advice giving is a tricky thing in families.

Generally the one who is asked to give advice, or who volunteers advice without being asked for it, must take a stand on an issue or problem between two or more other people. This means that if he or she gives advice in favor of those in (CAMP A), then he or she, by default, simultaneously takes on an adversarial role with regard to those in (CAMP B).

This can be dangerous enough when giving advice to friends or even to those with whom one works; but when giving advice to one family member concerning their relationship with another family member the consequences can be catastrophic.

IMAGINE THIS SCENARIO:

Father is drinking too much and it is becoming a concern for everyone in the family. Mother, in particular, is distressed by Father's drinking and Grown 1st Born Son is asked to step in and take a stand. Taking a stand in this case means helping Mother deal with Father (think triangle.)

Now, let's say that this Grown 1st Born Son has long been on the periphery of the family relationship system. He and Father have never been close and his Younger Sister and his Mother have always been over-close, so he hasn't been able to get close to Mother, either, let alone his Sister. We'll call him the family's outside insider.

 

Father's drinking problem offers Grown 1st Born Son an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone: by helping Mother deal with Father there is an outside (but very real) chance that he'll end up closer to Mother and to Father. Mother, after all, will love him more for coming to her rescue and for taking her side, and Father will be forever grateful if he, the Grown 1st Born Son, rescues him from destroying his (Father's) last remaining years. Mother's simple request for help sets up this fantastic scenario.

However, closer analysis of the scenario reveals the following problems:

PROBLEM 1: Nothing in that scenario will get Grown Son closer to Father. In fact, Father will likely resent Grown Son's intrusion and he will distance ever further from him. And he may even drink more to spite him.

PROBLEM 2: If he is not successful in 'helping' Father, then Mother will feel let down and that will confirm her long-standing notion that Grown Son is not so competent after all.

PROBLEM 3: Grown Son, if the above happens, will find himself even further outside of the family emotional system as feelings of increased emptiness and isolation overwhelm him.

PROBLEM 4: This will in turn affect his relationship with his own wife and young son, and his reactive distance from them will leave him in the same disconnected role his own alcoholic father has long been in.

PROBLEM 5: By trying to get closer to Mother, Grown Son will inevitably anger and infuriate his Younger Sister who has long held the over-close and prized position in relation to Mother; any attempts on his part to move in closer will seriously threaten her position.

 

Any or all of the above problems can potentially be brought about by Grown Son's well-intentioned intrusion into his parents' marital affairs, of which Father's alcoholic problem is very much a part.

Advice giving in families, no matter what its form, predictably puts the advice-giver in a double-binding, adversarial role within the family. He or she cannot advise any member of the family without also stirring up a serious conflict of interest with or between other members of the family.

This goes for (a) telling Brother how to handle Mother; (b) telling Baby Sister how to best deal with Middle Sister; (c) telling Brother how to cope with his new bride; and (d) even telling ailing and dependent Grandmother how to survive stubborn Grandfather's obnoxious behavior.

NOTE: if one's goal is to stay in viable emotional contact with all family members, a laudable goal, then one must refrain from taking sides on any issue between all other important family members.

 

THE ANTIDOTE TO TRIANGLES
Simultaneous Twosomes

Emotional triangulation is like an elastic band that s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-s and snaps back as the players move toward and away from each other under anxious conditions.

The [opposite] of emotional triangulation is the posturing of simultaneous twosomes.

Simultaneous twosomes handle any stress in the twosome without involving a third person or outside issue in any way. Rather than being 'attached' to each other at the corner of a triangle, they are composed of differentiated selves with space between them.

The relationship field for simultaneous twosomes looks something like this:

 

Mother and Son, for example, can experience a conflict and resolve it between them without having to draw in Father or even another sibling. Husband and Wife can resolve a conflict between them without having to implicate in-laws or children. Father and Daughter can have a conflict but Father can still maintain a conflict-free relationship with his Wife without it being affected by the conflict with Daughter. And Daughter and Mother can still relate despite the conflict between Daughter and Father.

The members of such a family with simultaneous twosomes are guided by two important and related rules:

(a) The TWO PERSON RULE rules holds that any stress in a twosome is contained within that twosome while it is being worked out. The rule preserves the integrity of all one's other relationships in the family while one particular relationship is in a transient state of turmoil.

(b) The PRESENT PERSON RULE says you cannot talk about anyone not present and active in the conversation that is taking place. This includes people talking together in the same room, even those conversing by telephone or email.

Conflict escalates results when family members fail to follow these important rules.

 

RELATIONSHIP SPACE

Although we have a tendency to think of space as emptiness without structure, space actually has a remarkable structure that influences the shape of every living thing.

Indeed, the common denominator of all natural phenomena is that they involve space.

It is not possible to draw a line that is not a boundary line without also invoking the notion of 'inside' and 'outside' along with the suggestion of 'near' or 'far.' Every form and pattern in nature conforms to the structural dictates of space. EXAMPLE: growth is always faster at the perimeter than at the center of a structure, and it is this differential growth pattern that determines its shape.

Such notions are also generalizable to the study of family relationship dynamics. Just as differential growth patterns determine the shape of natural phenomena, relationships take on differential 'shapes' depending upon the level of relationship anxiety present.

The more normalized the shape of a relationship system, the lower the level of relationship anxiety in that system. The more protracted and distended ( or stretched) the shape, or constricted the shape, the more anxious the relationship system.

 

What is a normalized shape in a relationship?

In relationship systems involving a low-anxiety twosome, a shape evolves that allows the twosome to be close without being too close, with a relationship space between them that fosters emotional connectedness but without a sense of emotional claustrophobia.

This kind of twosome is further defined by a selectively permeable relationship boundary that serves to protect their exclusivity without also cutting them off from the rest of the world. A relationship evolves over time that includes two separate and distinct selves that mutually interact in a way to always preserve each person's sense of self.

 

Variously unhealthy twosomes, on the other hand, have relationship boundaries that reveal relationship tension.

FOR EXAMPLE: Intensely fused relationships form a claustrophobic 'we-ness' resulting in collapsed relationship space that has a rigid and impermeable boundary, the likes of which gradually cuts them off from the external world.

Rather than a permeable cocoon as in the healthy example given above, this twosome has an impenetrable cocoon that engulfs and imprisons them. It prevents spontaneous, free-flowing movement between them and it prohibits (or severely restricts) easy emotional access to the outside world. Their intense 'we-ness' is characterized by an effort to get closer and closer, which eventually results in the formation of a common self.

 

NOTE: A common self is the part of each person that merges with another person in over-closeness. In the above example the shaded area represents the area of lost self in a twosome.

This kind of impermeable 'we-ness' is intended at first to protect the twosome from preceived awfulness in the world but it eventually engulfs and overwhelms them. Instead of comforting them it imprisons them.

NOTE: A variation of this 'we-ness' state is one of protracted relationship [distance] where the common areas contract and pull apart. The shaded areas in each represent the self that is lost (or given over) to the twosome.

 

In this spatial arrangement the twosome grows farther and farther apart emotionally until one person becomes especially sensitive to 'we-ness' moves by the other. A tense emotional distance ensues that matches the level of anxiety between them. The function of the distance is to get relief from that anxiety, similar in a way to the relief that is gained from living thousands of miles from one's more aggravating relatives.

Intense 'we-ness' inevitably leads to protracted relationship distance over time. They are like flip sides of a single coin.

 

COMMON METHODS FOR GETTING DISTANCE

In order to maintain their needed distance, one or the other partner [usually the most uncomfortable on] fuses to some external entity.

Typically they fuse to work and become over-involved there, or they fuse to another person in the form of an affair. The function of this fusion is to tether the person at a safe distance from their spouse so that the needed relationship distance can be maintained with minimal effort. Without such a tether the potential is always there for the twosome to revert back to the original, stifling over-closeness.

 

The boundary at this point becomes like an elasticized band that stretches to accommodate the distancing moves, making the shape of the relationship severely elongated as shown above. Without the external tether (i.e., the affair), the elastic band inevitably snaps back, collapsing relationship space as it simultaneously stirs up increased anxiety.

Beyond a certain point, and because of high anxiety, the twosome can no longer 'stretch' the relationship boundary any further. Anxiety makes the boundary increasingly rigid.

They either break loose from the cocoon entirely, and divorce; or the relationship becomes consumed by unbridled anxiety. And a typical next step is for one or the other person to dysfunction as yet another way to achieve some distance.

NOTE: The term [dysfunction] means to slip into abnormal or impaired behavior of some kind. Typically the weakest one becomes the dysfunctional one while the partner over-functions in response.

 

The following diagram illustrates what such a twosome looks like at this point. Notice the rigid and impermeable boundary:

 

Classic examples of emotional dysfunctioning include chronic depression or a psychosis, or any one of a wide range of psychiatric symptoms that anxious humans exhibit. Alcoholism and/or drug addiction are common forms of social dysfunctioning. Physical symptoms of dysfunction include the range of chronic illnesses such as migrain headaches, obesity, hypertension, colitis, ulcers, disturbed sleep patterns, asthma, as well as cardiac arrhythmias to name but a few of the most universally troublesome ones.

The common denominator of all forms of dysfunction is that the dysfunction [creates] relationship space. After all, who can communicate with a drunk? Who can emotionally connect with someone who is hallucinating? Even society conveniently excuses a 'sick' person from carrying out all relationship (and work) responsibilities until such time as they are well again.

The dysfunctional posturing provides some relief for twosomes engulfed by a rigidly impermeable relationship cocoon that will no longer 'stretch' to accommodate their distancing needs.

NOTE: Any relaxation of the twosome tension will bring a relaxation of the depression or the alcoholic behavior or other symptom, just as an increase in relationship tension will trigger deepened depression, increased alcoholic behavior, etc.

 

In other words, in a family there is no such thing as a problem in one person. A symptom in one person says something about all other family members.

The symptom can best be viewed as a metaphor of unspeakable family experiences.

 

MORE ABOUT THE COMMON SELF

A closer look at the anxiously fused twosome reveals the extent of self that has been lost to the intense 'we-ness.' Each person is left with an emptiness where the common self once existed. The act of fusion robs each person of whole parts of the self.

 

This lost self leaves an [emotional vacuum] that begs to be filled by something, anything; such as another person, alcohol, drugs, depression, psychosis, physical illness. The larger the VOID and feelings of emptiness left by lost self, the more intense the person's need to fill it so as to feel comfortable again.

Feelings of emptiness are extremely anxiety-provoking.

 

If, however, a person with this void can refrain from filling the void they can eventually regain some of that lost self. But this requires steering clear of all new intimate relationships for a time while they become re-acquainted with self, and eventually come to understand better why they gave self up so easily to another person.

This process entails (a) learning ways to effectively reduce anxiety, (b) reconnecting with family, and (c) learning to value and prioritze self in a way that prevents them for giving it away again in the future.

It is, of course, easier to simply import something into that empty space, which is what most folks do. They quickly reach out and draw some new person or some new substance into that empty space and suddenly, voila! -- they feel good again, or at least they don't feel empty any more.

 

That said, filling that void from WITHIN is the far better strategy, for only then will a person have control over the direction that self takes in the future.

Instead of filling the emptiness with a new lover, fill it instead from [within] by s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g self: by taking classes and learning new things, by enrolling in college, by traveling to learn more about the world, by reading 100 of the world's greatest classics, by becoming a master gardener -- the sky is the limit -- search your soul for interests that stir you and go for it.

filling from within

 

Creativity is a uniquely wonderful way to fill that internal void. Learning how to draw or paint or make pottery, or learning photography, learning to write, learning to quilt -- such things take time and considerable self-focus, and in the process a person begins to explore parts of themselves they have never explored before.

 

 

References for Chapter 1:

(01) Carter and McGoldrick, The Family LIfe Cycle

(02) Daniel Levinson, The Seasons of a Man's Life

(03) J. Krishnamurti, Think on These Things

(04) Robert Ornstein, The Mind Field

(05) Lewis Thomas, The Lives of a Cell

(06) Murray Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice

 

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