Do you find yourself wondering what makes you avoid family relationships? Do you wonder, what is going on, why is so and so upset or picking fight or will not return phone calls, etc.? What are people trying to tell you? What must you do to figure out relationship issues? How can I see who is influencing me and how am I influencing them? Where do “I” begin and end? How much can I do for others before “I” am over functioning for them, and being less responsible for self? What happens if I become overly helpful, too distant or too conflictual? How do any of us become more self-defined?
Relationships under pressure have common automatic responses to heightened anxiety and over time people are less and less able to be with one another without feeling threatened. The questionnaire below is one way to consider how you participate in your family system. By making a disciplined effort to be a better observer of relationships one can step back and observe the push and pull in relationships as part of how family systems just naturally operate.
Based in evolutionary theory and the behavior of other social species, Murray Bowen, MD, described the family as an emotional unit, distributing anxiety unfairly. Living in a family unit often results in greater pressure being put on the weakest members of the unit. This automatic response to stress can be decreased by one person being a more separate yet connected individual in the family organism. Leaders can direct and deal with anxiety far better than the weaker members who become symptomatic.
Not to be forgotten is just how the emotional system promotes both the survival of the unit and of the individual. There is a cost and a benefit to belonging to social groups. If over time you are better defended from predators or get the needed help raising children by being a member of a family group, then joining the groups enhances your survival. Yes, we each pay the cost of belonging and of doing for others. It may be that we have to lend some energy to others or they to us. Do for me and I will do for you, but let’s hope it does not cost that much to belong.
“In evolutionary biology, reciprocal altruism is a behavior whereby an organism acts in a manner that temporarily reduces its fitness while increasing another organism’s fitness, with the expectation that the other organism will act in a similar manner at a later time.” Robert Trivers
Social systems are organized to encourage or force individuals to assume functional roles. If an organism fits into the “needed” roles the anxiety in the group is diminished. When anxiety is high the system applies more pressure to individuals to perform more for the system than for self-directed needs. Observing the system increases the ability to clarify values and positions and to relate with greater openness. If one person in a system begins to think for self and decides to challenge the status quo it is expected that others will react negatively to the change. If the person thinking for self does not react to the negative responses, and continues to relate differently, then the system slowly settles down to a new level with more knowledge.
Below are some of the assumptions of the challenges of understanding the family as an emotional unit that governs individuals’ behavior and development over evolutionary time.
- While there is variation, we all have a resistance to self-scrutinize.
- Less awareness promotes automatic responses to challenges.
- Observing self requires a considerable amount of energy and time.
- Our behavior is influenced by emotional and logical needs to be in any social group.
There are many methods that can enable people to become better observers and manage self in relationships. The questions below are one effort to keep track of your effort to understand your family system by observing the extent to which you are influenced by the emotional system. It also provides a way to keep track of changes in the family when one believes they are taking steps to be more separate and more mature in relationship to others.
OVERVIEW OF THE EIGHT CONCEPTS OF FAMILY SYSTEMS THEORY
AS THEY INFLUENCE THE INDIVIDUAL
By becoming an observer of the family system one can become aware of the impersonal forces operating in one’s family thereby becoming more sure of self and better defined.The formula below enables people to understand the various influences on behavior.
Self – The ability to manage anxiety (A) and to stand on principles (P).
Self is then influenced by
- the amount of emotional intensity in triangles(T)
- how one manage his or her functional role as a sibling, (S)
- in the family emotional process (FSP),
- in the multigenerational family emotional process (MGFEP),
- in the nuclear family process (NFEP),
- which includes the four mechanisms in the family projection process (FPP 4)*,
- the level of emotional cut off (ECO)
- and finally, the current state of society or societal emotional process (SEP).
One has to manage (A) and defined principles (P)
Self is also influenced by often unseen social pressures.
S (A) (P)
T+ FSP + MGFEP + NFEP + FPP (4) + ECO + SEP
(FPP 4 = 1) Automatic mechanisms that mange anxiety: distance, 2) conflict, 3) reciprocal relationships, 4) projection onto children
Tracking the nature of the contact with family members:
First name each person in your three-generational family. Then describe the nature of the relationships: close, distant, conflictual
- How many people in your three-generational family have you had contact with during your life time?
- Have you made an effort to contact people who have drifted away from you?
- Are there people you are mad at and do not want to see?
- Who have you contacted in the last six months?
- Who contacted you?
- Please name them and note the kind of contact: positive, negative or neutral.
- Did the contact with this individual alter the way others in the family related to you? Yes or No. Please describe:
- Was the contact made just to stay connected, to be polite?
Yes or No If no please describe the reason.
- Was the contact made to allow you to be separate from the emotional system? Yes or No. Please describe:
- Was the contact an effort to de-triangle? If yes please describe.
- Were there other efforts to be more separate? Please describe:
- Did you anticipate a negative reaction in trying to be more self-defined? Please describe:
- Were you thrown off by any reactions? Please describe:
- If people are critical can you stay in low keyed contact? Please describe:
- Are there people you cut off from as they are just to difficult to relate to?
Understanding the family system and making an effort to be more defined.
Overview of Relationships and the Level of Reactivity
- Can you name those in your family that you are currently most aligned with and those you are distant from?
- Can you name those you react to the most?
- Can you name those who currently have symptoms and the extent to which those symptoms manifest from mild to severe?
- Can you identify the level of functioning, from high to low, for each individual you’ve identified above?
- Can you note the individuals’ level of ability to be open from high to low?
- Can you observe the basic relationships patterns in those you are close to?
- If so identify the dominant pattern: conflict, distance, reciprocity or projection onto others?
- What do you do with yourself to alter these relationships patterns?
- Which relationships are the most challenging for you and which are more open?
- Are you currently working on being more open with any one in your family?
- And if so, why did you select this person?
- How do you go about being more open?
- (For example, some people will think ahead of time and others will practice being spontaneous, just keeping the goal in mind. There is not one right way as people are different.)
- How many people do you have contact with in your three-generation family?
- How much do you know about your extended family?
- Can you go back a hundred years in any of your family lines?
- If yes can you describe in one paragraph how you learned about these ancestors?
- What kind of visits do you have with family members?
- Do you visit people or do they visit you? What is the difference?
- Are you able to notice the formation of triangles, (the two against one formation) often found in innocent social gossip about others?
- Name the people you are on the inside with and those where you are on the outside.
- Have you ever set out to purposefully get on the outside of a triangle by putting two people together and pulling self out?
- If yes, please describe in one paragraph.
- Do you have a time line for changes in your family?
- Can you create a time line as to disruptions following a nodal event?
- Can you track efforts to change self in the system, and how the system responds? Please describe one effort:
- Have you ever taken a stand to alter your part in the relationship system? Please describe:
- If you changed yourself in how you relate to others in the relationship system,what kind of resistance have you encountered? Please describe:
- What kinds of techniques do you use to manage self when anxiety rises?
- How do you manage your own upset in relationships?
- Do you prefer to write out issues to clarify where you stand?
- Do you tell people where you stand based on a principle?
- Do most people in the family know your principles?
- Do you know where your principles came from?
- What do you do when people challenge your viewpoint?
- Would you consider yourself open to others’ feedback?
- What does it mean to be emotionally independent?
- Can you write out how you think you have been more for self and less caught reacting to the system?