Family StuckTogetherness: What Makes it so Hard to See the Emotional System?


What would it be like if one morning we woke up and there was no more diagnosing people with mental illness?  Instead there would be a focus on the family as a unit, and what might be done to improve the functioning of individuals within the system.

Considering the family unit as a social system influencing the behavior of its members requires a totally new way of thinking and new method of treatment. Bowen called it coaching for differentiation of self.

Currently when symptoms arise, one person is identified as the problem and the interactive nature of the social system is not seen.  People are often blindsided by the way relationships function under stress. No doubt that this is what happened to the family of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects.

The family members were blindsided as to the motivation of the two brothers who killed 3 and injured 264 people.  Can we see this kind of situation as an example of how understanding the family as a unit can allow people to see what they are up against and to repair relationship ruptures that only add stress to a family unit?

This new method of family theory has been around since the nineteen sixties but the complexity of dealing with families has made no headway with insurance companies who pay for much of the therapy in this country. Mental health kept its individual focus and turned to the ease of using drugs to treat symptoms.  Progress has been stalled in understanding relationships and how they function to escalate or deescalate problems.

The effort to improve mental health has been in a crisis since the days of witch doctors. Tribal shamans have about the same rate of success as our advanced psychotherapy and drug treatments of today.  But why should you overhaul the whole system just because things are not working well?  Perhaps because we clearly see that mental heath needs are not being met.  Often incredible problems are the only stimulus for society to give up the old and search for the new.

Consider this: “Nationally, more than 6.4 million visits to emergency rooms in 2010, or about 5 percent of total visits, involved patients whose primary diagnosis was a mental health condition or substance abuse. That is up 28 percent from just four years earlier, according to the latest figures available from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality in Rockville, Md. By one federal estimate, spending by general hospitals to care for these patients is expected to nearly double to $38.5 billion in 2014, from $20.3 billion in 2003.The problem has been building for decades as mental health systems have been largely decentralized, pushing oversight and responsibility for psychiatric care into overwhelmed communities.”[1]

Often families are relieved when one person in the family finally shows their weakness and gets a tell tale symptom. But often, as in the case of the families of the Boston bombers, the tell tale pressure on individuals escapes detection and bursts forth revealing the long-term nature of the alienation.

Families try to pressure individuals in the family to do “the right thing” and those exerting the pressure have no idea that they may be creating terrorists by such fusion pressure followed by a cut off.

In less intense families people often report feeling relieved when the person who is “crazed” is sent for treatment.  But how many understand that the family as a unit is governing the behavior of its members?   Some families can get so focused on people doing things the right way they are willing to cut off challenging members or in extreme cases kill one another.

A new worldview opens up when one turns away from an individual focus and begins to see the family as unit.  Bowen spelled it out and demonstrated in his own family that if one person can learn to define self and stay in contact with others something magical can happen: the system itself can change.

With this method a family systems coach can enable a motivated family member to see the system as it is, and to slowly take small steps to interfere with his or her automatic functioning in the system.

Over time this “interrupting” of the automatic, controlling aspect of the system reduces the reactivity in the system and there is more freedom and life energy for members of the family.  However, this effort to change self comes with the warning that initially the system or the family will and must try to suppress any attempts at change by one person. This is the way systems are. They love the status quo. They are as conservative as they are biological.  They have a memory and save energy running on automatic. Only a prepared leader can alter the perceptions and reactivity to change in a system based on his or her better ability to perceive the environment more realistically.  A threat is not always a serious threat.

Bowen coached people to first be an observer of the system.  Learn by observing who people are and what they are doing.   Then work on being less sensitive to the controlling aspects of the system.  Yes, they call you names and lie about you, but so what?  If you see the system as automatic you do not get into it as much.

It is best to keep an eye on what your goal is and know that change is difficult.  Simply take small steps to be more separate, commenting here and there on the relationship system as you see it, and don’t try to change or control others.  The system will alter itself as people become less reactive and more defined.

A coach is useful since he or she is not as sensitive to your system.  A coach can be more objective about your three-generational family diagram and look for the facts of functioning.  A coach can help a motivated person learn not to be as upset about the loss of love and approval as he or she takes a stand.

People often do not consider the kinds of family relationships they have. But when one is undertaking an effort to relate in more mindful way with others then it is important to see the system and how relationships are aligned.

The goal is to work on self to be less sensitive to the signals from others and to have more of a well defined self as a way to become more mature and less reactive to the pressure from others (especially those near and dear) to conform.

There will always be an attempt to control others for the good of the group.  Even a lifetime spent at making an effort to resist the pressure in triangles will not stop this mechanism.  Triangles are too deeply ingrained. They stabilize systems and at times, force cooperation.  However once someone has an idea that there is a way to alter their sensitivity and need for love and approval, they change how they function and in so doing the system can alter its functioning and be less controlling of it’s members.  One at a time, as people make an effort to perceive the reality of the situation and speak for self, the functioning of the whole system can improve.

When anxiety increases, however, we see the opposite in operation. Fear and anxiety cause people to huddle together and to begin to put more and more pressure on others to do it the “right” way.  We will see below that this is the story of the Boston bombers and their family relationships.

There are automatic, unthinking mechanisms, which are activated whenever there is a sense of a threat, to distribute the anxiety to those most vulnerable. This keeps the system afloat.  Some few will be able to function while the vulnerable absorb the anxiety and take the focus onto themselves.  Some people call these mechanism the four evils but these are just ways that we function under stress.  The mechanism are 1) distance, 2) conflict, 3) winning or losing or reciprocal relationships and/or 4) projecting worries and problems onto children.

When it becomes too difficult to communicate, people try to get away from one another or fall into fixed positions, a kind of a stalemate.   Getting away from each other provides relief but gives little ability to solve problems in a cooperative way. This view of human functioning is a long way away from conventional mental health, which identifies symptoms and focuses “fixes” on the symptom bearer

We are often blindsided as to how easily people become alienated from one another and have no idea how cut off between the generations has come to be.  People cut off because they know no better alternative. They have no idea about the importance of being a self in your family of origin.  It is not common sense to take on difficult relationships in order to improve your functioning.  But once we get into a more neutral observer stance we can see how people either over idealize or deprecate one another.  We can also observe that the inability to see how stress and anxiety is passed on to vulnerable individuals who then lose their way is widespread among therapists and other mere mortals.   And this is what we see in the family of the Boston Bombers.

The Boston Bomber family shares with all of us the mechanisms used to distribute anxiety, preventing real person-to-person contact.  In a healthy system people are in better contact with each other and know each other in realistic ways. There is just less pretending and posturing and agreeing in order to make things “comfortable”.

Families Involved in the Boston Bombings

Think for a moment about the shock of the family members when they found out it was their sons, brothers, nephews who were involved in this intense violence against innocent people.  Think of the families who became innocent victims. Do we not owe these people some attempt to deeply understand what led to these events?

In reading the story of the nuclear family published in The Rolling Stone magazine you get the idea of the early turmoil in the lives of these two brothers, Tamerlan and Jahar – the nickname given to Dzhokhar.

Some of the turmoil came about from the societal unrest in their parent’s country and from a religious ideology that taught hatred of others or at the very least saw their religious group victimized by others.  Both of these strains, among others, deeply affected the lives of all the members of this family.  And some of this turmoil came from the family being blindsided by the lack of knowledge as to the emotional process in the family.

We can begin to see how their lives were molded in the family unit.  Overall this was a very intense family situation, with a focus on the two boys and demands for performance. There was intense emotional pressure to survive and then physical distance and cut off from their extended families. There was little opportunity for the boys to make up their own minds or to even develop their minds.

The magazine portrays a patchwork quilt of snapshots of the family and  events that influenced them.  There is an attempt to understand the social pressure but there is more mystery than understanding.  Guesses are made but there is no family diagram.  There is the aunt in Canada, a medical doctor who seems to idealize the boys and yet has not seen them for years. There is the famous uncle who railed against them as “losers” on national TV and yet that uncle had had no contact with the two boys for years.

As with most families there is no idea of the ramifications of cut off on people’s long-term emotional well-being.  Therefore family members can blame the boys and not focus on how they (other family members) may have been fooled by the system to discharge anxiety in a non-thinking way. Overall the impression of the story is that due to multigenerational stress and anxiety, a great deal of pressure to conform was put on the two boys, leaving them vulnerable to do the bidding of others once their parents left the US and returned to Kyrgyzstan.

People come into your life to help you, hurt you, love you and leave you and that shapes your character and the person you were meant to be,” Jahar tweeted on March 18th. Two days later: “Evil triumphs when good men do nothing.

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Why a person with an extreme or “radical” ideology may decide to commit violence is an inexact science, but experts agree that there must be a cognitive opening of some sort. “A person is angry, and he needs an explanation for that angst,” explains the Soufan Group’s Tom Neer. “Projecting blame is a defense mechanism. Rather than say, ‘I’m lost, I’ve got a problem,’ it’s much easier to find a conven­ient enemy or scapegoat. The justification comes later – say, U.S. imperialism, or whatever. It’s the explanation that is key. There is no single precipitating event or stressor,” says Neer. “Instead, what you see with most of these people is a gradual process of feeling alienated or listless or not connected. But what they all have in common is a whole constellation of things that aren’t working right. 


A Snapshot of the Parents:

The father, Anzor, was living in exile in Kyrgyzstan. Born in Chechnya, he lived in a country that was in a constant state of war with the Soviet Union.   The mother, Zubeidat, belongs to an ethnic Muslim group in Dagestan, a neighboring country to Chechnya. Anzor had a job with the Krygyz government until 1999. He was fired from his job as Russia purged Chechens from the ranks of the Kyrgyz government. They fled to Dagestan, Zubeidat’s native country. In the spring of 2002, Anzor, Zubeidat and Jahar then eight, arrived in America and applied for political asylum. Ailina, Bella and Tamerlan, stayed in Dagestan with family and came to the U.S. a year later in 2003.  Anzor’s brother, Ruslan, was a lawyer doing well in New Jersey. They moved to Brooklyn and stayed with a friend of the father’s sister.  As time went on Ruslan had many complaints about the way the boys were being raised.  Anzor was said to have a temper and was not able to stabilize the family.

The following gives you an idea of the two boys’ relationship with their parents.

Zubeidat adored her children, particularly Tamerlan, a tall, muscular boy she compared to Hercules. Jahar, on the other hand, was the baby, his mother’s “dwog,” or “heart.” “He looked like an angel,” says Anna, and was called “Jo-Jo” or “Ho.”

“He was always like, ‘Mommy, Mommy, yes, Mommy’ – even if his mom was yelling at him,” says Anna’s son Baudy Mazaev, who is a year and a half younger than Jahar. “He was just, like, this nice, calm, compliant, pillow-soft kid. My mom would always say, ‘Why can’t you talk to me the way Dzhokhar talks to his mother?’ Jahar idolized his older brother, Tamerlan – all the children appeared to – and as a child, he followed his brother’s example and learned to box. But it was wrestling that became his primary sport.”

As the parent’s relationships disintegrated the two boys gave up sports for religion. Eventually the father left the family and returned to Russia.

Did the father get blindsided, pushing the boys into sports at whatever cost?

Was the mother blindsided in forcing the boys into religion as an answer?

Did the parent loose contact with each other and with the larger family unit?

Were Tamerlan and Jahar’s sisters pushed into arranged marriages?

Few people are aware of the boundaries between self and an other that can come tumbling down when people force or try to fuse with an other to make them do either what they believe is needed to be done or just must be done to please the powerful other.  The father is reported to have given in to the mother and then he got physically sick.

This process occurs not just in the Boston bomber family but in all families to some degree.  And when families are under stress, fusion tends to intensify automatically.  Fusion compels us to seek agreement and “encourages” us to throw caution to the wind to follow along with these ancient programs and powerful forces commanding us to do the bidding of others. In stressful time we seek comfort in our small groups and have less tolerance for differences and diversity.

By 2009, Anzor’s health was deteriorating, and that August, the Tsarnaevs, who hadn’t been on public assistance for the past five years, began receiving benefits again, in the form of food stamps and cash payouts. This inability to fully support his family may have contributed to what some who knew them refer to as Anzor’s essential “weakness” as a father, deferring to Zubeidat, who could be highly controlling.

A doting mother, “she’d never take any advice about her kids,” says Anna. “She thought they were the smartest, the most beautiful children in the world” – Tamerlan most of all. “He was the biggest deal in the family. In a way, he was like the father. Whatever he said, they had to do.
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Tamerlan, known to his American friends as “Tim,” was a talented boxer who’d once aspired to represent the United States in the Olympics.

A talented pianist and composer, he harbored a desire to become a musician, but his ultimate dream was to become an Olympic boxer, after which he’d turn pro. This was also his father’s dream – a champion boxer himself back in Russia, Anzor reportedly pushed Tamerlan extremely hard, riding behind him on his bicycle while his son jogged to the local boxing gym. And Tamerlan did very well under his father’s tutelage, rising in the ranks of New England fighters. One of the best in his weight class, Tamerlan once told a fighter to “practice punching a tree at home” if he wanted to be truly great. But his arrogance undermined his ambitions. In 2010, a rival trainer, claiming Tamerlan had broken boxing etiquette by taunting his fighter before a match, lodged a complaint with the national boxing authority that Tamerlan should be disqualified from nationwide competition as he was not an American citizen. The authorities, coincidentally, were just in the process of changing their policy to ban all non-U.S. citizens from competing for a national title.

This dashed any Olympic hopes, as Tamerlan was not yet eligible to become a U.S. citizen. His uncle Ruslan had urged him to join the Army. It would give him structure, he said, and help him perfect his English. “I told him the best way to start your way in a new country – give something,” Ruslan says. But Tamerlan laughed, his uncle recalls, for suggesting he kill “our brother Muslims.”

Tamerlan had discovered religion, a passion that had begun in 2009. In interviews, Zubeidat has suggested it was her idea, a way to encourage Tamerlan, who spent his off-hours partying with his friends at local clubs, to become more serious. “I told Tamerlan that we are Muslim, and we are not practicing our religion, and how can we call ourselves Muslims?” she said. But Anna suspects there was something else factoring into the situation. Once, Anna recalls, Zubeidat hinted that something might be wrong. “Tamerlan told me he feels like there’s two people living in him,” she confided in her friend. “It’s weird, right?”

Anna, who wondered if Tamerlan might be developing a mental illness, suggested Zubeidat take him to a “doctor” (“If I said ‘psychiatrist,’ she’d just flip,” she says), but Zubeidat seems to have believed that Islam would help calm Tamerlan’s demons. Mother and son began reading the Koran – encouraged, Zubeidat said, by a friend of Tamerlan’s named Mikhail Allakhverdov, or “Misha,” a thirtysomething Armenian convert to Islam whom family members believe Tamerlan met at a Boston-area mosque

Anzor, who’d been at first baffled, and later “depressed,” by his wife’s and son’s religiosity, moved back to Russia in 2011, and that summer was granted a divorce.

Zubeidat was later arrested for attempting to shoplift $1,600 worth of clothes from a Lord & Taylor. Rather than face prosecution, she skipped bail and also returned to Russia, where she ultimately reconciled with her ex-husband.

Jahar’s sisters, both of whom seemed to have escaped their early marriages, were living in New Jersey and hadn’t seen their family in some time.

Jahar, had earned a scholarship to the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and was thinking about becoming an engineer, or a nurse, or maybe a dentist – his focus changed all the time. Tamerlan, whom we now know was on multiple U.S. and Russian watch lists prior to 2013, though neither the FBI nor the CIA could find a reason to investigate him further. Jahar, however, was on no one’s watch list. To the contrary, after several months of interviews with friends, teachers and coaches still reeling from the shock, what emerges is a portrait of a boy who glided through life, showing virtually no signs of anger, let alone radical political ideology or any kind of deeply felt religious beliefs.

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There seems little space in this story for people to grow and develop on their own.  The intensity of the fusion, or the need to control others is clearly present as are the cut off that they have endured.  We see the ruptured relationships and no real ability to stay connected to the extended family. The increased anxiety is seen in the deteriorating relationships and how people began to flee from one another.

Family Systems theory offers new ways of thinking both about the system

Family systems therapists or coaches work with individuals to help them understand 1) how to observe the system, 2) how to understand the implications of history, and of course 3) how one person can begin to alter their part in a social system.

By increasing our ability to see the big picture we can understand more of the basic dynamics in the system as to the origins of emotional illness arising out of the very nature of our ways of relating to one another.  Our current cause and effect thinking puts blinders on us and limits our ability to see the broader picture leading society to finance so many ineffective roads to “treatment”.

There is some hope that eventually we will find a way to effectively influence mental health professionals to see the family as a unit and to encourage the efforts of a family leader to differentiate a self.

If mental heath professionals were asked to take a three generational family history they could see how the pressure has mounted on the vulnerable.  They could explain this to families and give them a more nuanced view of the predicament they are living in today and the options that might make a real difference in relating to people with more thoughtfulness.

Imagine if instead of diagnosing one person we would find a family leader and chart the intensity and flow of anxiety through the family’s history.  Then we would enable as many in the family as were interested to work on reducing the anxiety. Currently one way I do this is to ask all the members of the family to do neurofeedback training. (see

This allows all the people in the system to calm down since increasing stress and anxiety decreases people’s ability to see, recalibrate or to be observant and in good contact with one another.

Relating to strength in the family and not seeking to identify and focus on the weakness in people will cause a revolution in mental health care. Right now people in mental heath do the same things that families do – focus on the weakness and try to make it better. This is very different from finding a family leader who can take responsibility and encourage others, while staying outside the guiding control of the emotional system.

When differentiation of self becomes a well known way of one person impacting a total system, it will not be seen as something cold and unfeeling but rather as a way to promote greater awareness of the automatic nature of human behavior, providing more real choices and flexibility for individuals living in social systems.

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