Family Rules and the Social Atom


Recognizing  Patterns in Social Systems

May 3, 2009 

Recently there were several stories highlighting relationship process in the families of well-known people.  Two individuals, Bill Gates and Christopher Buckley benefit from their family experiences and emerged as stronger individuals while the Astor family is described as repeating destructive family patterns. 

In addition to how family emotional process guides individual behavior we can also take a look at other ways of studying human behavior. Mark Buchanan, a theoretical physicist, in his book The Social Atom points to the many studies where behavior is being tested and modeled.  His thesis is that we are something like social atoms, acting on the basis of simple rules, while also being benefiting from our on-the-fly adaptability to changing circumstances.  Like family emotional processes many of these simple rules are operating out of awareness.

We can ask what differences will it make that we are more aware of how these simple rules and emotional forces operate on all of us?

I would answer that in a world of chaos and confusion it is amazing for any of us to discover a few steps towards clarity to see how we are constrained and what we might become. People can learn about the nature of emotional process from observing ones own story or even others’ family stories. Murray Bowen made many observation of the family but he described togetherness and individuality as the primary forces.

In families and in work systems, togetherness can be identified as the way in which family members are identified as being alike in terms of important beliefs, philosophies, life principles and feelings. [1]   

In considering how togetherness forces play out in a larger unrelated social field Buchanan in his chapter called “Together, Apart”, attempts to explain the larger social dynamic that can lead to ethnic cleansing.  “You are either with us or against us,” and unsaid is “we already know which side you are on and have taken steps to see that you pay or are paid.”  

After every individual had interacted with others for a thousand times the world was stopped.  What they saw was counter intuitive.  The third strategy was the one that almost three-quarters of the individuals had turned to. 

A natural segregation of the world by color emerged. By cooperating with only their color, individuals met with cooperation in almost all of their interactions.

“In a world of bigots only bigots survive.” Prejudice at the most basic level of human activity is effective at promoting protecting the in-group and at making the outsiders the enemies.

How different is this from togetherness pressure in the family?   People are pressuring important others to be the same or like me in behavior and/or values in order to enhance cooperation at a very basic level.  

Computer simulations can help us understand the simple rules that lead to counter intuitive outcomes for large groups.  Hopefully these simulations can also us to see that the pressure in families arise from some of these same basic, perhaps instinctual, rules. 

In families there are many ways to configure the system and to reorganize in order to have greater tolerance for both diversity and dealing with increasing anxiety.  Perhaps families have a specific set point for differences.  If people are too different from the family values these “outsiders” might need to drink in order to tolerate the negativity that can get focused on one individual’s differences.

Is it possible to increase a set point around the ability of a family to better deal with differences?

In order to alter a dynamic first one has to see it.  To be able to observe a set point we need to understand the level of “togetherness” in the family system.

One way is that in this ever more complex world you can just count or observe how people use pronouns: the “we,” the “ you should,” the “everyone believes or does it this way,” the “it is wrong” and the more intense versions as in “you must” and the “YOU are wrong.”

I use to say I did pronoun therapy! I explained it cost a lot to use the word “I” in a meaningful way that creates differences that people will eventually find useful.  

The ability to define a difference and remain in relationship with others is the force Bowen called differentiation.  In this state people try to separate out from the group or the family to state their principled differences as respectfully as possible.  People do this at some cost to self.  It is important to state a principle and leave the other free to make a decision for self from within self.  One example is to say, “This is what I stand for, and what I will do or not do based on “x” which is an important principle of mine.” 

By not putting pressure on others to conform one can assumes greater responsibility for one’s own happiness comfort and well-being.

Bowen defined a scale whereby more mature people could integrate thinking and feeling.  Those who were more emotionally maturity were able to avoid thinking that tends to blame others or make demands on others to make one’s self feel or function better.

In any family story highlighting differentiation or the emergence of the individual you can hear the predictable tension arise as individuals try to be more of a self in relationship to important others. 

One example of this process as it worked its way through the family set point for tolerating differences concerns the pre teenager Bill Gates. 

The future software mogul was a headstrong 12-year-old and was having a particularly nasty argument with his mother at the dinner table. Fed up, his father threw a glass of cold water in the boy’s face.

“Thanks for the shower,” the young Mr. Gates snapped. Bill Gates Sr., Bill Gates and their family shared many details of the family’s story for the first time, including Bill Gates Jr.’s experience in counseling and how his early interest in computers came about partly as a result of a family crisis. The sometimes colliding forces of discipline and freedom within the clan shaped the entrepreneur’s character. 

Ms. Gates encouraged her kids to study hard, play sports and take music lessons. (Bill Gates tried the trombone with little success.) And she imparted a discipline that reflected her upbringing in a well-to-do family. She expected her kids to dress neatly, be punctual and socialize with the many adults who visited their home. For the most part, young Bill dutifully abided.

“She was the most engaged parent and she had high expectations of all of us,” says Libby Armintrout, Bill’s younger sister. “Not just grades and that sort of thing, but how we behaved in public, how we would be socially.” Then, at age 11, Bill Sr. says, the son blossomed intellectually, peppering his parents with questions about international affairs, business and the nature of life.

“It was interesting and I thought it was great,” Mr. Gates Sr. says. “Now, I will say to you, his mother did not appreciate it. It bothered her.”

The son pushed against his mother’s instinct to control him, sparking a battle of wills. All those things that she had expected of him — a clean room, being at the dinner table on time, not biting his pencils — suddenly turned into a big source of friction. The two fell into explosive arguments.

Eventually the parents brought their son to a therapist. “I’m at war with my parents over who is in control,” Bill Gates recalls telling the counselor. Reporting back, the counselor told his parents that their son would ultimately win the battle for independence, and their best course of action was to ease up on him.[2]


The way in which family members are aligned with one another is generated by a system of automatic responses to verbal and non-verbal contact.  These mechanisms regulate relationships and are largely out of awareness.

Every family has minor emotional stimuli that can trigger an overly intense response from the other. People wonder, “how come that person got so mad at me, all I did was …”

There are both negative and positive stimuli. So we can innocently drive the other into an angry or distant state, while others are so positive that one family member may spend an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to elicit a special smile or a kind or interested word. 

In either of the following two stores you will read beautiful descriptions of how people react to one another and how the problems then escalates leaving the people far removed from real contact with one another.

One written by Christopher Buckley is about how his relationships with his parents played out as though it were a symphony just slightly off key. In the new book, Mum and Pup and Me he revisits childhood memories of his parents as he sought a balance of togetherness and individuality to maintain a relationship with his father.

Pup and I had engaged in our own Hundred Years’ War over the matter of faith. Our Sturmiest und Drangiest times were over religion. Pup had the most delicious, reliable, wicked, vibrant sense of humor of anyone I knew, yet his inner Savonarola was released at the merest hint of (to use his term) impiety. Finally exhausted, I adopted — whether hypocritically or cowardly or wisely — a Potemkin stance of being back in the fold. My agnosticism, once defiant, had gone underground. I no longer had the desire to nail my theses to his church door. By now I knew we didn’t have much time left, and I didn’t want to spend it locking theological horns, making him heartsick with my intransigence.

My only consolation now was that I had finally stopped lobbing feckless, well-worded catapult-balls over Mum’s parapets. I didn’t even say anything to her about the Incident of July 2006.

However when he did call to let his father know [know what?] you can watch how the triangle unfolded and see how loyalty (similar colors) influenced the cooperation between the two parents over the reality issues of the moment. 

I breathed into a paper bag for a few days and then called Pup. “Well,” I said, “that sounded like a fun dinner. Sorry to miss it.” He feigned ignorance of the Skakel episode; perhaps he had excused himself early and gone upstairs to short-sheet her ladyship’s bed. He was, anyway, past caring at this, my 500th howl about Mum’s behavior. He tried to wave it away with a spuriously subjunctive, “But why would she say something like that if she weren’t a juror at the trial?” (Pup would have made a superb defense attorney) and changed the subject back to what kind of explosives work best for dislodging aristocratic British houseguests.


For another look at how the nuclear family emotional process continues to be played out over the generations just read: Fight for Astor Estate Mirrors Battle 50 Years Ago By John Eligon Published April 25, 2009 in The New York Times.

I will not spoil the fun by over interpreting this story. Please do let me know what you think about the emotional process and how togetherness and the “in” and “out” groups might function in this family. These kinds of examples may make it easier for you to identify relationship patters that live below people’s awareness.   

Many thanks to Judy Ball for her editing efforts.






[1] Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, by Murray Bowen, page 218

[2] Raising Bill Gates, by Robert A. Guth

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