c. Connecting: The Influence of the Relationship Systems

Picture yourself fulfilling your dreams. Where did this vision originate? Dr. Bertrand Piccard floats around the world in twenty days. He is the first to ever do it in a hot air balloon. Why would a physician, a psychiatrist no less, have such a dream? He happens to be not only a third generation physician, but also a third generation adventurer. Did his quest begin before he was born, inscribed upon the DNA of his father’s father?

The influence of relationships on self-knowing seems obvious, but connecting the past and present relationships into an integrated whole takes more than drawing a family tree or reciting history. Sometimes a vision for self is blindsided by family and other’s judgements or our sensitivities to them. Other life forms’ relationship within the web of natural forces aids us in understanding the emotional nature of behavior. Bowen Theory connects mankind to all of living kind. If people could become more aware of how deep these connections to other life forms are, it might help us all to be less judgmental and more sensitive.

How can one be connected to others without first knowing what “I” am all about? Being aware of at least three generations of family history is a good start. It is a start in becoming an objective observer of your own and others families. Objectivity is necessary in order to stay connected to one’s extended family. Most families have good and bad guys. How does one get beyond polarities to relate to each person and his or her strengths and not get too focused on the weakness? How does one know if they are objective or aware? One method is writing down your current understanding of relationships or a situation and then trying to communicate it to others.

For most people this is more difficult than it sounds. The difficulty of maintaining objectivity is rooted in the very old emotional influence, perhaps at the level of the gene, to love those who are “good” or hate those who are “bad”. We like or dislike certain family members, avoid or join religions and prefer certain types of work and people for acquired or inherited reasons. Our attitudes, beliefs and values have primordial emotional family roots. You can join in with how the emotional system works or try to get out of it in a more self-defined neutral way.

When you try to communicate to others an emotional difference, you will run smack into the emotional process wall in the family relationship system. Becoming a rebel or a distancer or passively saying nothing is not getting out of the emotional system. Over time one gets stuck in some version of the emotional togetherness. Hopefully, one can get one’s self out eventually and attached to something (a goal of one’s own), or someone (a coach, a new friends, or a teacher) who is at a higher level of maturity and can aid you to maintain more objective relationships with others. A few people know what to do and manage the anxiety of being a stranger in a strange land by meditation or prayer. There are many roads to becoming separate from the forces of togetherness that live in all emotional systems.

The roots of the emotional system that guides behavior are seen in many life forms. It is often easier to see the forces that guide humanity by seeing the parallels in the behavior of other life forms. The urge to nest, bond and look out for the young is universal among mammals. In addition, there are twenty-three different forms of behavior that we have in common with reptiles– defense of territory, rituals and bonding to mention just a few.

There are many challenges to ranking the importance of each factor that gives birth to human behavior. How does one tease out the contribution of genes, culture, and nurture and of course luck? Freudian theory and society reinforce the importance of learning about one’s culture and family religious beliefs. Culture is clearly one factor that influences relationship patterns. Cultural preferences and sensitivities illustrate the role of cultures in influencing relationship patterns.

Richard Dawkins coined the term “memes” to note the tendency of new ideas to be passed around a social group through the use of key terms. Like a Gap commercial plays to every demographic audience using music and dance to sell khakis to every generation, Memes replicate like genes do through our culture. The whole culture can quickly adapt to new rules and rituals. Memes do not alter patterns of bonding, but they alert us to changing conditions.

Dr. Bowen looked at broad similarities in order to account for the way behavior evolves. In the early nineteenth century the mind of man was seen as unique and mental disturbance appeared to be accounted for by the clashing conflicts within the individual. The over emphasis on the mind obscured a view of how the relationship field influences behavior. Bowen took the idea of using the family relationships to enable the client to learn to reduce sensitivity in defining a self. This occurs over time with the help of a coach.

Time will tell if he found a new way to define human behavior. Dr. Bowen simply noted that emotional forces are part of the known way that behavior is regulated. He identified two major emotional forces, the force to be an individual and the force to belong to the social group. There is limited opportunity for good mental health for those who cannot understand or automatically believe too much in every feeling state. Being able to integrate thinking with feelings allows some people to be able to step outside of painful experiences and memories.

People who are sensitive to feelings may find it difficult or impossible to take a hard stand or to say no to important others. Being insensitive to feelings or locked into logic and thinking is the flipside of the emotional relationship coin. Being overpowered by emotional forces or allergic to feelings from within or to those from others without are equal in their lack of self autonomy or emotional maturity.

To understand the level of maturity of a person Bowen designed the scale of differentiation. Differentiation has twenty-three characteristics that can be used to measure levels of autonomy. The scale allows us to comprehend the levels of ability for a person to separate out feelings from thinking. People lower on the scale are often painfully stuck to feelings or memories. There are ways that people can learn to see feelings and or memories as just another thought process. To some, memories are facts carved in stone.

Relationships are limited by one’s ability to manage both feelings and thinking processes. Dr. Bowen postulated that we could learn more about our own emotional process by studying other species. One of the people at the National Institutes of Health during the fifties was John B. Calhoun, Ph.D. Dr. Calhoun was the head of the Population Studies Unit.

Dr. Calhoun made an observation that mammals require a complex relationship system of at least twelve social relationships to increase the potential for long term health. These different social relationships allow mammals to have various social roles. When there are enough social roles the animal can easily obtain a balance of frustration and gratifying social relationships. Applying this example to the human level, if you are having trouble at work, you can go home and your spouse, or your mother, or your children or perhaps the dog will be glad to see you. If they reject you then you can spend time with your friends. When you belong to enough systems there will always be at least someone that is glad to see you. Having access to more roles allows one to achieve this balance between frustration and gratification. When life is in balance it is generally less stressful.

Humans in every social network have different rules for belonging and for succeeding. Each individual will find challenges within certain groups. When you can change social groups there is less dependency on one relationship. There can be positive rewards for the ability to grow and develop when one has exposure to relationships in multiple emotional systems. In addition, there are many avenues for the exchange of new ideas.