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Chapter 2

FAMILY ISSUES AND THEMES

 

Some people handle relationships in the world with ease and yet fail miserably in their relationship efforts in their own families.

Indeed, the real test of one's relationship ability is how well one does with those who count the most, the members of one's own family. The ultimate test is how well one does under anxious conditions within one's family.

Some people can be 'the life of the party' with others while being deadly serious at home. Some can express intense positive energy with others and yet be stoic and emotionally inaccessible at home.

Affairs blossom between such family fugitives. They feel, think and do things in the world opposite to the way they do things in their families, which leads them to think that it must be the distanced-from spouse or family that is to blame, not themselves.

But the truth is, they are not so invested or vulnerable in relationships outside of the family.

This lessened vulnerability allows them to be more laissez faire and less defensive with non-family relationships. But -- as soon as the person's old feelings of vulnerability begin to appear, and they eventually will, old relationship patterns also appear. When that happens, relationships outside of the family start looking very much like relationships look inside the family.

Merely substituting new players for old without also changing self in the process changes nothing.

 

 

FAMILY ISSUES

Some of the more universal issues that impact family relationships are related to sex, money, power, religion, emotional expression, substance consumption, togetherness and physicalness. Such issues flow out of the ordinary experiences of family living and can vary greatly in intensity. They are also often passed down from one generation of family to another.

Something becomes an emotional issue in a family gradually and under conditions of increasing relationship focus. As family anxiety escalates the issue becomes a concrete way for family members to express the anxiety.

In this way issues can be seen as metaphors of unspeakable emotional processes in a family. There arises a collusion, of sorts, among family members not to speak about those things that are deemed unspeakable. As the issue becomes more and more intense it becomes increasingly toxic, until ultimately it engulfs everyone in the family in intense emotional triangulation.

The most vulnerable person in the family at this point begins to absorb the escalating anxiety for the rest, and they become increasingly dysfunctional under the weight of it. They become the victims of the family projection process.

The symptom that erupts provides important clues about what is going on in the family without violating the family's unspeakable rules about not talking openly about it.

 

Diagnosticians hired to evaluate the symptomatic family member typically focus on the symptoms being exhibited, i.e., on the clinical features of the person's behavior -- their depression, their anorexia, their psychosis, etc. However, this approach is misleading if one's goal is to understand the interpersonal dynamics of that family.

The symptom THEME is much more important than the symptom itself because, when it becomes known, then that which is unspeakable in the family will also become known.

As issues project multi-generationally in a family [that is, from one generation to another] they take on momentum and potency.

We can arrange these metaphorical symptoms along a continuum of mild to severe; the more serious symptoms cluster at the multigenerational end of the continuum. This means that the intensity of a symptom that appears in one generation but is not projected to the next generation is far less than the intensity of those symptoms that get passed on to several or more generations of family.

By the time the fourth or fifth (or more) generation of a family assumes an intense focus on the issues from previous generations the symptom development can be quite severe.

 

These issues form themes that in turn form repeating relationship patterns between family members.

 

SOME UNIVERSAL THEMES THAT ENCAPSULATE ANXIETY

SEXUAL THEMES
A theme related to sex exists whenever one or more of the following behavioral symptoms are expressed by one or more family members: preoccupation with sex talk, pornography, excessive modesty, public nudity, opposite-sex power struggles, emasculation of males, male chauvinism, no touching or too much touching, sexual fears or phobias, sexual harassment, illegitimate pregnancies, masochistic sex, voyeurism, transvestism, child molestation, incest, rape, venereal disease transmission, promiscuity, frigidity, chronic gynecological distress, impotency, sterility -- to name but a few examples.

Such symptoms reflect an underlying relationship theme of sexual anxiety. A family may express several or more of these symptoms depending on (1) the number of generations that have transmitted the issue, and (2) the overall level of the family's anxiety. In a family where there is a singular issue of great intensity, symptomatic member(s) will exhibit behavior that reflects that dominant issue.

 

MONEY THEMES
Families characterized by a money theme express another whole set of behavioral symptoms.

Family members may have chronic money management conflicts, someone may autocratically control the family money, or certain family members may have too little or even too much money. Others may control through the use of money, demonstrating their power by the way they spend money or to whom they loan money or give money. Family members may struggle with the following kinds of symptoms: bad debts, bankruptcies, robbing others of money, inheritance rivalries, fraudulent use of money, income tax evasion, hording of the family money, mistrust of banking institutions, financial irresponsibility, political bribery, gambling, forgery, an intense focus on 'how much everything costs,' etc.

As in the case with sexual issues, the more serious and intense these symptoms are the greater the likelihood that the underlying issue has been passed down multiple generations of family.

One can track the flow of anxiety in a family by noting who becomes symptomatic and who does not. The weakest links, or the most uncomfortable and anxious family members, will express the symptoms in the family.

 

POWER THEMES
Like sexual issues and money issues, power issues can also dominate in some families. A theme related to power exists in one-upmanship struggles where autocratic control of others is apparent, or where there are hidden agendas and secret keeping or other forms of collusive behavior.

Physical battering and combativeness are also examples of power issues, as are relationship polarities like caretakers/caretakees and rescuers/rescuees.

Power issues also underscore a wide variety of other behaviors such as monitoring or supervising behavior, rebelliousness, and learned helplessness -- as well as duels, family feuds, adversarial court battles and all other scenarios where there are winners and losers.

A power theme is reflected in aggressive displays of civil disobedience, violent rape, gang activity, international spy rings and espionage, and terrorist activity.

Certain kinds of relationship maneuvering predictably surface when power struggles prevail.

In other words, to take power in such families is to take possession of (or control of) others in order to gain authority, ascendency or influence over them. In families where there has been a marked imbalance of power historically, between sexes or between the generations, the balance of power always remains lopsided because as soon as someone gains power someone else looses it. This is because family members are intensely interdependent.

 

RELIGIOUS THEMES
Religious issues can take multiple forms including (but not limited to) proselytizing, cult activity, atheist pronouncements, hell-fire-brimstone preaching, preoccupation with sinning, martyrdom, exorcism, speaking in tongues, religious repression, excommunication, generations of clergy in a family, and religious fanaticism.

The religious issue serves as a symbolic vessel to contain the family anxiety. Somehow or other, over time and perhaps over generations of the family, the unspeakable issues have taken on a religious tone; such that when tensions rise the various forms of symptomatic behavior related to religious issues erupt.

This is not to say that sex or money or religion or any other issues in families are in and of themselves always bad. Issues come in malignant and benign forms, as well as in positive and negative forms. The determining factor in how family members express a symptom is the family's overall level of collective anxiety. The higher this anxiety the more obvious are the generational undercurrents, and therefore the more toxic the expression or display of issues in symptomatic form.

Under conditions of chronic anxiety even the most benign issue can morph into a destructive one.

 

 

EMOTIONAL EXPRESSION
A theme of emotional expression characterizes families where there are wide-ranging communication difficulties. These can range from violent emotional expression to the absence of emotional expression. They may include double-binding communications or displays of narcissism, depression, psychosis, hysteria and the like. Such families may be burdened by a shallow 'pollyannaism' or by generations of distant and emotionally inaccessible spouses, or by generations of nagging, argumentative and highly reactive spouses.

Communication dysfunctions lead to peace-at-any-price tensions with 'lids' that prevent effective emotional expression between family members.

Families with tightly 'lidded' emotions simmer dangerously inside until they finally explode.

 

Whatever form the resulting symptom takes, it is an indicator of the way members of that family have historically communicated with each other.

Peace-at-any-price marriages come from several generations or more of very stormy marriages. Those who exhibit violent expressions come from backgrounds where similar communication methods were modeled. Those with 'lids' on their intense emotions -- meaning they can't allow themselves to express themselves emotionally in any way -- come from backgrounds where it was perilous to talk about real feelings. Family members learned early on that it was better to 'bottle things up' in order to prevent relationship catastrophe.

Unresolved anxieties accumulate and are passed on from one generation to the next unless something is done to [stop] the transmission process. The more collectively anxious a family the more rigid its rules are about communicating with one another. Rigidity reflects anxiety.

 

SUBSTANCE CONSUMPTION
Substance consumption is a theme in a family where drugs and alcohol are either excessively consumed or anxiously avoided. There are other forms of consumption issues, too, like over-eating and obesity, anorexic behavior, and even a focus on specific foods to the exclusion of all others. Extreme dietary habits, infant feeding problems, fad or crash dieting regimes, 'picky' eating patterns, and chronic gastrointestinal difficulties are all consumption kinds of issues.

Given sufficient intensity, some of these issues can literally end in death.

The feeding of others takes on symbolic importance as the dominant way to express love in some families. The underlying process is an unspeakable one where saying the actual words 'I love you' is suppressed or avoided altogether. "Eat my food" means "I love you."

Or consider this: rather than saying "No, Mother, I don't love you," the anorexic daughter simply refuses the mother's food, or she eats it and then covertly throws it up later in bulimic fashion.

 

TOGETHERNESS
Togetherness issues reflect tensions related to the level of closeness that is allowed or tolerated between family members.

The various behavioral symptoms of togetherness tensions include (but are certainly not limited to) possessiveness, over closeness, emotional distance and pursuit, emotional cutoffness, running away, neurotic dependency, exaggerated displays of independence, a 'united parental front,' too little twosome time, too little 'self' time, too little 'child' time, territorial problems, child neglect, relationship role reversals, multiple divorces and marriages and more.

A common expression of togetherness tension is reflected in family members who routinely polarize around anxious issues. Things in such families tend to boil down to CAMP A versus CAMP B and who resides in which camp. It the rule in these families to polarize into camps on any anxious issue and, the more anxious the issue, the more confrontational these family sub-groupings become. Membership in a particular camp reflects one's allegiance to the family members in that camp.

Another very common expression of togetherness tension is the demarcation of 'insiders' versus 'outsiders' in family conversations. The more the family thinks in terms of one or the other position, the more one knows that the anxiety in that family is high. This can be witnessed between particular subgroupings of family, and even between neighbors and entire neighborhoods.

EXAMPLE: Some 'insider' oriented families encourage all living members of the family to live together in the 'family compound' where it is safe from the intrusion of outsiders.

As with the other kinds of issues that define families, togetherness issues tend to be expressed between the most vulnerable (most anxious) family members.

 

PHYSICALNESS
Physicalness issues characterize many families.

In this multigenerational scenario family members express self (or the lack of self) under anxious conditions by exhibiting one or some of the following symptoms: hypochondria, hysterical paralysis, amnesia, chronic physical illness, accident proneness, frequent hospitalizations or surgeries, death-defying challenges, extreme workouts, preoccupation with the body's appearance, complete disregard for the appearance of the body, disfigurement of the body, obesity, pregnancy and birth difficulties, doctor phobias, bed-wetting, incontinence...

The family anxiety is expressed primarily through the actions of the body including the treatment of the body.

 

IN SUMMARY
No matter what major issues dominate, the issues and their symptoms are a barometer of family anxiety. They serve as a concrete entity upon which to focus this anxiety. And the symptoms that emerge generally organize themselves around a theme that speaks to the family's ongoing relationship struggles.

Families without organized symptoms are generally families whose communication channels remain more open, leaving less that is truly unspeakable in the family relationship system.

 

 

OPPOSITENESS

Let me begin by saying that opposites are more alike than they are different. They are extremes of the same basic anxiety, not unlike the two sides of a coin.

An exaggerated version of anything has its opposite lurking somewhere within.

EXAMPLES: Exaggerated positiveness masks a negative persona; exaggerated displays of guilt mask other-blaming; exaggerated masculinity masks fears of impotency; exaggerated femininity masks frigidity; exaggerated self-righteousness masks guilt; exaggerated independence masks dependency; exaggerated hate masks love; exaggerated religiousity masks immoral ideation; exaggerated over functioning masks a potential for some form of dysfunctioning.

To say it another way, the distancer has a pursuer inside and the rescuer has a rescuee inside. The non-toucher has an intense need for closeness but cannot bear it. The teetotaler and the alcoholic are bound by the same alcohol issues.

Oppositeness is expressed when important family members have significantly cutoff from one another. The cutoffness sets into motion intense relationship reversals that are intended to undo the thing that is of greatest issue or concern.

It can be expressed in families in numerous ways. One very common way concerns second (or third or fourth) marriages when people tend to hook up with spousal opposites:

A woman marries an alcoholic the first time around, a teetotaler the next
The first spouse is possessive and demanding, the second is emotionally flat and malleable
In the first marriage a person acts out the role of 'distancer' and then flip flops to act out the role of 'pursuer' in the next
The physically abusive spouse is replaced by a verbally abusive one
A domineering and controlling spouse is exchanged for a weakling
The financially unsuccessful spouse is exchanged for an extremely successful one
The non-toucher is replaced by a toucher
The high school dropout is replaced by the professor; the jock by the egghead
The lazy so-and-so is replaced by a workaholic
The rigid, inflexible one is replaced by the easy-going, structureless one
The spouse who is totally cutoff from his/her family of origin is replaced by one that visits or calls their mother daily
The spouse who requires caretaking is exchanged for one who becomes the caretaker
The drifter is replaced by a 'fixture'

 

These same spousal opposites can also characterize father-daughter relationships that later carry-over into husband-wife relationships: i.e., the 'comptroller' father is exchanged for an indecisive, laissez faire husband; the inaccessible father is exchanged for a possessive husband; the alcoholic father is exchanged for a teetotaler.

When oppositeness exists the intention on the part of the daughter (in the above examples) is to replace the most disturbing facets of her father's personality with what she believes will be their antidote; and what is better than their polar opposite (she thinks).

Yin Yang

 

The problem is that in seeking out a spouse with the antidotal traits, the daughter-wife inadvertently sets herself up to struggle with identical relationship issues. She all too soon finds that the new spouse's possessiveness can be as toxic as the father's original emotional inaccessibility, if not worse.

A glove is a glove whether it is worn inside out or right side out; the only difference is that it must be worn on opposite hands depending on which side is outside.

 

NOTE: Although the above examples deal with daughters and their relationships with fathers/husbands, men maneuver similarly in first and second marriages as well as with mothers and wives under identical relationship scenarios.

When the original parent-child relationship is defined by intense over-involvement instead of overt cutoffness, the reverse holds: the daughter marries a carbon copy of her father or the son marries a carbon copy of his mother. The same can be said about each new marriage: the second and third marriages turn out to be carbon copies of the discarded original. In these instances the relationship issues of over-involvement are re-enacted generationally with minimum modification.

A test, then, of [emotional cutoffness] in the parent-child relationship is whether or not oppositeness is apparent in the grown child's spousal relationships. And visa versa.

 

Examples of intense over-involvement in parent-child relationships include but are not limited to:

Intense and open warfare between father and daughter; or even a silent, hostile truce
The grown daughter may be as enraged about her father's alcoholism today as she was when she was fifteen
The grown daughter may still be grieving about her father's emotional inaccessibility
A grown son may still be struggling against his mother's seductive intrusiveness
A grown child may still be living at home well into mid-life

 

The re-enactment in the here and now of historical parent-child relationship struggles defines the over-involvement.

Cutoffness, on the other hand, is defined by protracted and defensive emotional distancing; and by an apparent lack of emotional intensity between cutoff family members. I say apparent because it is always intense despite protestations to the contrary.

The paradox is that over-involvement and cutoffness are themselves opposites of the same basic relationship issue. That they are different is but an illusion.

The chief difference between them, if any, is that cutoffness patterns generally reflect higher levels of basic life anxiety in the family relationship system.

 

RELATIONSHIP RECIPROCITY

'Relationship reciprocity' underscores oppositeness patterns in families.

Relationship reciprocity operates in all closed, two-person emotional systems (like marriage) and is characterized by:

Emotional cutoffness from the past
The engulfment of a twosome in an intense emotional cocoon (the result of cutoffness from the past)
A relationship allergy to closeness, where closeness is desired but it too anxiety-provoking to allow
A climate of deadly seriousness and joylessness in the relationship (which is the result of intense anxiety)
The eruption of oppositeness patterns in a twosome, setting up reciprocal and reactive behavior in each other

 

Relationship reciprocity evolves predictably as follows:

A twosome hooks up at similar levels of emotional functioning: that is to say, they are equally competent and mature emotionally, having been attracted to each other in the first place by the commonalities of their emotional experiences. I don't mean to imply that they are extremely competent at the start, it only means that they are equally competent whatever that level of competency may be.

All twosomes are equally competent when they begin their relationship. Some are very competent by virtue of their coming to the relationship with already expansive levels of self that come from their experiences in their families of origin. Others come to a relationship with a degree of lost self from their experiences in their families of origin.

They are attracted to partners with similar levels of self.

An 'equally competent' twosome looks like this:

 

Partners that engage in relationship reciprocity will each have effected an emotional cutoff from important family members, and each will have runaway in some form or other from their families. They may have physically and literally run away from the family or they may simply have turned their backs on the family, vowing never again to communicate meaningfully with the family.

These family fugitives gravitate to each other like peas in a pod and almost immediately engulf themselves in a protective and secure, and wonderful, emotional cocoon. They tell each other that it's OK now, that as a twosome they can take on the world; and in a show of grand revelation and commitment they lick their respective wounds.

Family members for sure, but often even friends are barred from entry into this inviolate cocoon.

 

But as the protective cocoon intensifies, which it inevitably does over time as more and more people are excluded from the twosome's life together, anxieties begin to spiral. This happens because the boundary of the cocoon, so as to be as protective as possible, is made impermeable to outside intrusions by their decisions to exclude others. Nothing comes into the cocoon and whatever is in the cocoon stays in the cocoon, although this has the unexpected ramification of making it difficult to also escape the cocoon.

This dawning recognition causes anxiety to escalate until, ultimately, the original sense of commitment to one another comes to be experienced as entrapment of a rather frightening sort.

The feelings of entrapment set into motion a relationship scenario of emotional distance and pursuit. The most uncomfortable one acts out the role of the distancer while the other acts out the role of the pursuer. The pursuer becomes the relationship 'comptroller' and the whole process gives the twosome the illusion of movement, as if they could leave the cocoon at any time if ever they wanted to do so.

In reality, the impermeability of the cocoon makes escape highly unlikely because of the escalating anxiety. Their anxiety escalates because the RULES of this of interactional game strictly prohibit the pursuer from ever 'catching' the distancer: (1) don't get too close; (2) keep your distance; (3) if I distance then you must pursue; (4) if you distance then I must pursue; and (5) the roles can be reversed at any time so long as a fixed relationship distance is always maintained.

 

Once started, the twosome cannot stop the distance/pursuit process because they'd have to admit that they were feeling 'stuck' and wanting out.

But -- this relationship game is exhausting.

The relationship eventually experiences anxiety overload and the most vulnerable (uncomfortable) one of the twosome predictably moves to a lower level of emotional functioning while the less vulnerable, more determined one moves to a complimentary position of higher functioning. The more vulnerable one absorbs the greater share of the relationship anxiety via the projection process.

 

At this juncture a one-up/one-down polarity defines the once equally 'balanced' twosome.

The person in the one-up position over-functions in relation to the person in the one-down position who begins, in time, to exhibit dysfunctional behavior.

The process is both mutually exclusive and mutually reinforcing because one can only be one-up as long as the other cooperates in being one-down, and visa versa.

NOTE: This kind of relationship dyad can be observed in most, if not all, AA and Al-anon couples.

NOTE: The one-up person typically becomes anxiously over-responsible for the other person, all the while blaming him or her for their predicament. Life would be wonderful, they say, if it weren't for the behavior of the dysfunctional one.

 

The person in the one-down position, in contrast, experiences intense (albeit secret) relief at finally being able to achieve some distance from the other. He or she experiences dysfunctional symptoms in direct proportion to the push to get needed distance.

The greater the distance that is achieved, the more serious and intense the set of symptoms that eventually erupt.

Symptoms erupt in a wide variety of forms although, as stated earlier, the more common forms include alcoholism, chronic depression, psychosis or some form of chronic physical illness. The particular symptom constellation that occurs tends to have been 'programmed' into the person early in life and reflects how that person's family learned to express anxiety in the face of inescapable anxiety.

 

A CAVEAT: Built into this one-up/one-down relationship reciprocity is a kind of seesaw effect or reversal potential.

Since this twosome (like all twosomes) started out at similar levels of emotional functioning, there is always the potential for them to return to that original level [or] for them to even flip-flop positions. When a flip-flop occurs the over functioning one suddenly slips into the role of the dysfunctional one.

 

Actually, such flip-flops occur with regularity in relationships of this nature since the rules of reciprocity require the inversion potential for stability. If or when the dysfunctional one stops dysfunctioning, then the twosome must reorganize itself around the original level of equal functioning. That said, the over-functioning one usually finds it difficult if not impossible to give up the over-functioning position, so they will often go to great lengths to force the other person back into the one-down position in order to retain the one-up position.

It is not uncommon to see an alcoholic spouse stop drinking as the once over-functioning spouse suddenly slips into alcoholic behavior of his or her own. THIS IS RELATIONSHIP RECIPROCITY IN ACTION.

NOTE: The participants of this emotional see-saw cannot be up or down simultaneously under conditions of high anxiety. The anxiety prevents that from happening. The partners could negotiate a return to their original [equal] level of functioning and start over again but divorce is what usually happens instead.

 

Other things being equal, a person emerges from their family of origin with approximately the same basic level of emotional maturity (and life anxiety) as his or her parents' possessed.

 

 

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