If the Family Is An Emotional Unit, What Is It Up To?

In my coaching work, I am fortunate to be able to listen to people who are willing to challenge the status quo in the family emotional unit. The effort to separate a self from the intensity within the nuclear and multigenerational family unit is not for the faint of heart. Consider how long psychology has taken to understand the family as a system. Then let us look at one person’s report on her effort to change herself.

The discovery that the family is an emotional unit, with automatic patterns that overly influence our lives, came about in the late 1940s. Systems thinking opened up a new way of seeing how anxiety messes up our relationships with our near and dear. Bowen began to describe the sensitivity between family members. However, seeing the family as an emotional unit had to wait till 1959 when Dr. Bowen published “The Role of the Father in Families with a Schizophrenic Patient.” After one year, fathers were included in the family groups and a plan was devised to treat the family as a single unit rather than treating individuals in the unit.[i]

Bowen saw that the family unit operates with automatic patterns. There is variation but in general, individuals are reacting to one another and operating in a stimulus-response predictable way. We are living with ancient guideposts. Over the generations, humans, like many social animals, function in a loose hierarchical order, passing on not just values and beliefs from one generation to another but the automatic way the family scapegoats or criticizes and blames the weaker ones, as does society. 

In times of calm, people are free to be more separate, to be able to define a life direction for self, without threatening the group as to their differences. As anxiety rises differences are seen as threats, and the intense reactive pressure begins to define the development of children. 

People begin to gang up and be more of a “we” than an “I”. A growing confusion exists between people in the family. They no longer know one another as individuals. The hypothesis is that the automatic nature of the family is pressure people to remain in ancient roles. 

What does it take to be that steady with your near and dear react? Consider have you ever tried to talk to your mother/father, siblings, grandparents, or even your spouse about things that are important to you and seemingly upsetting to them?  

This difficulty results over time in the undifferentiated family ego mass, or an “All for one, and one for all” state may be partially genetic and partially psychological. Each inherits some degree of sensitivity. In uptight times family members fear one another. There is criticism, rejection, and money or ownership in the family business is up for grabs. One example would be Fred Koch’s four sons litigating against each other over their interests in the business during the 1980s and 1990s.[ii]

No one is shocked at families fighting over assets. Far more unusual is a description of the effort to untangle the family confusion and build greater respect between family members. This is the effort that goes against the automatic. The goal is to be more physiologically and emotionally separate from the automatic pull of the family system.

This is a life-long job. One can be working on differentiation of self for years and then one day one just might get a break, altering one’s relationship system for the ages. Check out the feedback below from one daughter about becoming just a little more separate emotionally in her relationship with her mother. I leave it to you to guess just how his one effort impacts the rest of the family.

 I think after all these years and all this work, and all the time I have engaged with my mother,

 I’m beginning to see the light.

 I know I can hear and listen and be quiet with her. It’s so good. And at times it’s so hard to stay quiet. But the more I practice the discipline of listening to her —rather than saying what we both expect me to say based on 54 years of shared history/sensitivity/reactivity—the easier it is to change the pattern. It’s a relief, I think, to both of us. And it has a contagious quality; she’s different, too, because we’re making a new pattern. It’s subtle but real.

 It’s like the NeurOptimal machine training. The click, the beat, that is allowed to pass and interrupt the deep, deep, deep automatic response in my brain as to what she’s saying.

 And let new listening and thinking emerge. And patience. And appreciation of the imperfections in her, in me, and in our mother-daughter relationship. And as she ages and gets weak, I can see my chances to talk and hear (and practice) with her are finite. I don’t expect closure, but seeing that even now, there can be a change in the patterns, gives me strength. It gives me more relationship muscle to flex. More courage. 


[i] Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray. Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 3). Jason Aronson, Inc. Kindle Edition.

 [ii] Epic struggle among Koch brothers ends”.Houston Chronicle. May 26, 2001. p. 2.