Emotional abuse, Family Issues, Relationships, Uncategorized

“Nearly 1 in 3 children have been physically abused, while 1 in 5 have been sexually abused, and 1 in 10 suffer criminal neglect (CDC). Nearly 1 in 10 witness family violence (Safe Horizon). Half of the men who abuse their spouse also abuse their children. In cases when only one parent is abusive, the other parent will often permit the abuse or refuse to believe it. Half of homeless youth are running from abusive situations, many because of sexual abuse. […] Some parents continue to abuse their children into adulthood, while others only abuse them when they are young or for a certain period of time. Other parents leave their children in the care of relatives and re-emerge years later. Or raise their children in loving homes, only to disown them for coming out as gay, trans, or marrying outside of their religion.

That leaves millions of adult children to grapple with the decision of whether or not they should provide support to their abusive or estranged parents when they become ill or elderly.

One study of 1,000 caregivers found that 19% had been abused as children and 9% had been neglected. Caregivers of abusive parents were more likely to experience signs of clinical depression.

Some people make peace with their abusive parents, but that doesn’t mean there will ever be a healthy relationship between them.” — Michelle Daly for The Caregiver Space, Aug 11, 2015

21st century Western culture has some very, VERY conflicted ideas about elder care, especially in palliative stages of mental or physical decline.

“Can she really turn her back on an elderly, ailing parent?

That would violate a deep-seated social and cultural understanding (even, in many states, a legal obligation). Your parents did the best they could for you; when they’re old and need help, you do the best you can for them. But physically or emotionally abusive parents have already violated that convention. Is there still an ethical duty to assist them? Even “filial responsibility laws” requiring adult children to care for parents make an exception for those whose parents abandoned them or otherwise did some injury.” — Paula Span, for The New York Times, October 20, 2011


“We know relatively little about how many adults become caregivers for abusive or neglectful parents, or about why they choose to — or not to. But thanks to a recent study, we can see that those who report having endured childhood maltreatment are more vulnerable than other caregivers to depression when tending to their abusive parents.

The researchers divided their sample into three categories: those with no history of childhood abuse or neglect; those who had been abused and were caring for their non-abusive parent; and those who had been abused and were, to borrow the study’s memorable title, “caring for my abuser.” They also compared caregivers neglected as children with those who were not neglected.

Those who had been abused or neglected were more likely to have symptoms of depression — like lack of appetite, insomnia, trouble concentrating, sadness and lethargy — than those who had not been. No surprise there, perhaps.

But the link was strongest for the third category. “The key was caring for the abusive parent,” said the lead author, Jooyoung Kong, a doctoral candidate in social work. Years later, “they are still affected. They’re more depressed.” — Paula Span, for The New York Times, January 20, 2014

I have previously written about families as “sick systems”; the more work I do within family systems, the more convinced I become that what we are taught to believe MUST be our strongest instinctive bond is often the deliberate OR unwitting author of some of our society’s deepest and most damaging trauma. The sense of unhealthy fusion into the abuser’s care seems to have little concern for gender or birth order of the caretaking adult child(ren).

The sense of obligation and loyalty to dysfunctional family structures is a difficult thing to address when it feels like it’s rooted bone-deep in our values. As a therapist, I always start a line of questioning there: are these actually YOUR values, or are these something you were told SHOULD be your values (and if that’s the case, we have to wonder: WHO told you these had to be your values? My odds are always on the abusive elements themselves, or at least those who implicitly condone or support those systemic elements). Standing by our abusers is similar in reasoning to why women in particular tough it out with domestic violence; it’s why adult children succumb to implicit or explicit pressure to involve themselves with aging or palliative parents in the elders’ decline. We feel we SHOULD. It’s that simple. And it’s that complicated.

In looking at the advice and support available online to caregivers of abusive elders, there are some frustrating limitations placed on those who can’t afford to hire in professionals to provide the service the adult child(ren) don’t feel safe providing themselves. Suggestions of placing the ailing elders in some kind of long-term care, or hiring a care manager or non-familial legal guardian, often require the adult caregiver have the financial means to pay for these services. Even with the privilege of that kind of financial security, there may be more resentment for assuming that financial burden than alleviation of guilt for not doing the work themselves. It’s a Catch-22 that strains a lot of adult-elder relationships even in the best of circumstances.

Beyond the potential for financial burden, when these adults do take on the responsibility for some or all of that abusive eldercare, what’s the invisible price tag? Fear of decline and death may exacerbate the elder’s abusive behaviours that caregivers remember from childhood, triggering a whole new round of the abusive cycles. At best these might be simply awkward and uncomfortable, or at worst escalating (for example) as adult children now in role reversals begin to exercise their new powers in retaliatory fashion. Attempts to repair and reconcile are emotionally perilous if the elder abuser is still in denial about owning their actions or the impacts–both intended or otherwise–of their actions. Especially if the caregiver is an only child and feeling trapped on the hook of providing care or support even from a distance for an unrepentantly abusive elder, there will be precious little safety for them in this situation.

If the members of the sickened family system can step outside those old habitual patterns and fears, there might be a chance to reconcile old issues. That is an exceptionally large “IF”, however. Holding onto the hope of reconciliation can be costly; the risk of reoffence is high, therefore so is the impact of newly-redamaged or repeating disappointment or reopened wounds. Therapy can help keep a balancing, observational eye on the caretaking relationship as the situation develops. We implement a series of self-assessments and situational assessments for the caregiver, and we give explicit permission to consider alternatives. We also use therapy as a safe(r) place to vent frustrations the caregiver will preferably choose not to vent on the ailing parent. The venting space also allows the caregiver to give voice to feelings and experiences an otherwise-supportive spouse may have trouble hearing or managing for themselves, especially if the eldercare situation extends over long periods of time without respite from the care… or the abuse.

There are no clear-cut paths to “right” or “wrong” in caring for abusive elders, especially if the adult child is facing any amount of obligation-driven guilt. The sentiment “blood is thicker than water” fills a family system with a sense that the entitlement of some members to mandatory loyalty is more important than the individual mental and emotional health of other members. Often this sense of entitlement involves considerable upheaval to the caregiver’s life: relocating temporarily or long-term to be closer to ailing elders, or moving parents closer to the caregivers; full or partial financial support; intervention and/or advocacy with the parent’s medical, therapeutic, or palliative care providers; estate planning and management; acute or ongoing family mediation. All of these tasks bring their own levels of turmoil to a relationship already pockmarked or undermined by unresolved abusive behaviours, past or present.

As with any survivor of abuse, emotional support is key. Permission to consider options outside the struggle to fulfill a sense of obligation is also important. Recognizing the signs and symptoms of caregiver burnout is a big part of supporting adult caregivers under any condition (and this also applies to those supporting the caregiver, who may burnout in their own support processes). Unpacking a sense of helpless entrapment and layers of familial guilt are work best done in therapy, even if it’s not going to be a quick process. Families will always be our most complex systems, and the ties of embedded obligation among the most difficult to unravel.

Emotional Intelligence, Family Issues, Language, self-perception, Uncategorized

One nebulous advantage of being a Marriage & Family Therapist, trained in family systems theory, is that we have ample opportunity to explore our own origin stories, as well as those of our clients. We gain new perspectives or information that reframes our understanding about where we come from, and how that changes our perception of who and how we are in the world.

In psychotherapy, there are generally some firm boundaries around “safe and effective use of Self” for therapists that are all about understanding and/or mitigating how WHO we are impacts HOW we are in our work with our clients. Understanding the formative and often invisible impacts of our families of origin can be a part of that work, as our early models often influence our values and inter-relational patterns in all kinds of relationships. We don’t use it necessarily as an excuse to talk about ourselves in client sessions, though careful and limited use of personally-relatable anecdotes can be a useful tool for illustrating to clients just how much we do (or don’t) *get them*.

Then again, I’m also a writer by trade long before I was a therapist, and a principle tenet of writing is to “write what you know”. Since people are often curious about how therapists wind up becoming therapists, I thought I’d for once break the silence around personal stories, and share my own origin story. In doing so, it also helps me recognize that a lot of this has the ring of well-honed narrative, meaning that every time I tell some of these stories, I’m (subtly, perhaps) reinforcing those storylines and their underlying values in my head. I’m also giving myself an opportunity, however, to reflect on those storylines a little more and see whether there’s anything to be altered in the current moment, applying years’ worth of reflection to temper something I’ve been telling myself, in many cases, literally all my adult life. As an exercise, I’m going to bold the parts of it that are the internalized scripts, the narrative lines that I’ve carried and polished the longest.

WHO AM I, a story by Karen, age 50 and 3/4

To start with, my family structure itself was odd. My parents met in Toronto in 1965 when my recently-divorced mother and her four-year-old daughter were trying to make a new life for themselves. The mid-60s weren’t exactly hospitable years for divorcees and single mothers, and my mom has admitted that what she was looking for was financial support more than romance. My mother’s first daughter was a handful, however, and sometime just before my parents met, my mom made her daughter a ward of the Crown; in short, voluntarily relinquished her into the fostercare system. Mom had also had a second child out of wedlock after the marriage ended; he was given up for adoption at birth.

My father was working as an industrial architect with a side passion for big-band jazz. I’ve got ancient newsclippings of my dad on an upright base playing with a then-unknown black kid by the name of Oscar Peterson on the piano. My dad was 17 years older than my mom. They connected through unknown-to-me circumstance. Two years later, they had me; I was planned. I grew up knowing about my half-sister, as she came and went from my life on whirlwind visits. I don’t remember how old I was when I discovered the birth documents for my half-brother, probably around 8 or so, but thereafter I know I internalized the idea that “I was the one she/they kept”. I also internalized the idea that if they gave away two other babies, obviously they could give ME away any time they wanted, too.

As a young adult, I took to describing my homelife as a “Cold War zone”. My relationship with each of my parents was okay and as “normal” as one might expect for the 70s and 80s–their relationship with each other was a different story. Of note: my parents were never married; they both commented over the years that having each been burned by previous marital heartaches, there seemed no good reason to go through the motions a second time. The scripted line was, “They lived together for 19 years, and hated each other for 17 of them,” which, while lacking in the accuracy of the minutiae, certainly encompasses the overarching tension of my homelife. My parents never slept in the same bed, and round about the time we moved into a small town when I was 7.5, they didn’t even sleep in the same room on the same floor of the house. Mom always maintained it was because of Dad’s snoring (which was prodigious), but I never believed that was all, or even the bulk of her reasoning.

It’s worth noting: I never knew my dad’s family. His parents were long dead before I was born, as was one of his sisters (Scarlet Fever in her case); what family he had through his remaining sister was scattered on the East Coast. I have a vague memory of meeting a couple of his cousins or nephew/niece when I was very young, but I remember their dog better than I remember them. I also met the daughter of his first wife once in my early teens when she came west to visit, but that once was all the exposure I had until I tracked her down through FB last year to inform her of Dad’s passing. My mother’s family is its own tale of dire dysfunction, including her alcoholic mother with undiagnosed suicidal depression (though some of my mother’s tales ring the bells of Borderline Personality Disorder); my mother tells of the day my grandmother tried to kill herself by driving the family car off the road… with my mother and her younger brother loose in the back seat. My grandfather was unwilling to confront or deal with his wife’s obvious mental health issues, so he didn’t intervene even when she beat her daughter or emotionally terrorized either child. MY mother finally fled as a teenager, as soon as she was old enough to work to support herself. She married young; her first husband was an abusive alcoholic. She was 20 when her first daughter was born.

Both of my parents were high-functioning alcoholics. My mother also suffered from undiagnosed depression. Neither of my parents finished high school. Dad enlisted in the army at 18, which got him to Europe for the last rounds of WWII. His work ethic meant both a workaholic, emotionally-unavailable father-figure, and that my university education was paid for long before I graduated high school, about which I was constantly reminded, and an investment I promptly lost by failing out of my first year of university. I was the first generation of the family to attend university; between my mother’s and her brother’s kids (her 2 daughters, his 2 sons), only two of us completed undergrad. I’m the only one with a post-grad degree. None of us has had a stable, successful marriage (including our parents). Only one of the four of us ever had kids. The eldest in both sets of siblings has significant mental health issues including drug or alcohol issues and numerous run-ins during “troubled youth” with law enforcement. That left myself and my younger cousin to be the “good kids” in a widespread system of familial dysfunction. My running joke for a long time was that David (said cousin) and I were the white sheep of the family, notable for our rarity.

So… that’s the bare-bone systemic model in which I grew up. Even glossing over so many details about the intergenerational and inherited trauma normal to family systems, that’s a lot of self-defining scripting I’m carrying forward into my adult life, the echos of which still occasionally rattle the windows and shake the walls of my current life.

When we dig into the narratives I’ve bolded, there’s an incredible amount of tension touching on several aspects of my core family dynamics:

  • The incredible pressure of growing up as “the one they kept”, believing that if they could give the other children away, I had to be EXTRA GOOD to make sure that didn’t happen to me.
  • The weight of expectation tied to my going to university, even if I proved terribly unready for the responsibility of “being launched”.
  • Being the Adult Child of Alcoholics (OMG, I don’t even know where to start with what I’ve learned about this one, but here’s a good suggestion).
  • The dynamic of seemingly overbonded mother and underbonded father (and let me tell you, THAT dynamic has been a major undermining factor of EVERY heterosexual relationship I have ever had, including both my marriages).
  • Undiagnosed mental health issues galore, up to and including my own until-recently-admitted depression and anxiety.
  • The “Cold War” aspect of my parents’ relationship as the foundational model I took away for “how intimate partnerships should look” (and my own deeply-disconnecting behaviours when stressed in relationship).

It’s not uncommon that “relationship issues” such as faltering intimacy or communications challenges in relationship are what drive an individual or partners into a therapist’s office. One of the reasons the family of origin snapshot is such an integral part of my own intake process is that it shapes for me a picture of the significant early and formative influences on the participants in the current conversation.

Having spent so much time navel-gazing my own origin story, and listening over the years to how I tell my origin story, I’ve learned something about how to listen for those polished-sounding phrases, lines and phrases that crop up time and time again in conversation. I can’t always put my finger on what it is about a particular choice of wording in a client’s story that sets my Spidey-senses tingling, but my accuracy is (in my not-so-humble opinion) better than just average in catching the tones. There’s just something about a precise choice of words; or something about how they all run together like a phrase we haven’t actually had to think about constructing for a long time, dropped in the midst of an otherwise thoughtful conversation.

(I’m not ruling out the idea that I’m just projecting onto my own clients, at least some of the time; on a good day, I’m self-aware enough to be aware that’s a potential inadvertent-thing-wot-therapists do, yo.)

We all have these stories, these pieces of personal narrative we just carry with us as shorthand descriptions of things that actually carry an incredible significance to those willing to get past the polish and gleam of scripting. I joke sometimes that my job as a therapist is to be a “professional disruptive influence”, and more often than not, what I’m looking to disrupt is the attachments we invest in those safe scripts. Scripts around our origin stories, like any other experience, in many ways function as cages that contain complex emotional experiences. Language is a tool we use to define and shape experience into something we can wrap our heads around. Dispassionate versus passionate language and delivery, for example, is discernible through listening to word choice as well as tone. Applying language to an experience is, in and of itself, a very cognitive process, and in pushing emotional experience through cognitive filters, we already begin to separate ourselves from the immediacy of the lived and felt experience. Our word choice actually informs our brain how we want to qualify and quantify that experience; we can use language to embrace or distance our selves from the feelings. Our origin stories are the stories we have been practicing and polishing the longest of all our scripts. Sometimes we need to just scrape off the years of accumulated polish to see the actual grain and bones of the experience underneath, to understand what happened in different lights and perspectives, and maybe learn something new about ourselves in the process.

Book Recommendations, Family Issues

When therapists introduce ourselves to potential new clients on intake, we should talk a bit about how we operate, not just in terms of our focus modalities (“I do EMDR,” “I do CBT,” “I do short-term, solution-focused therapy,” etc.), but also the larger-scale perspectives or foundational theories that direct our work. For me, this involves talking about Systems Theory, a frame of reference in which the client(s) in the room are viewed as being the therapeutic focal point of a number of “interrelated and interdependent parts” that all manage, for better or for worse, to have an impact on each other — perhaps in the present or immediate sense, perhaps in a long-fingered reach from the past.

Wikipedia has a very sciency description of Systems Theory:

A system is a cohesive conglomeration of interrelated and interdependent parts that is either natural or man-made. Every system is delineated by its spatial and temporal boundaries, surrounded and influenced by its environment, described by its structure and purpose or nature and expressed in its functioning. In terms of its effects, a system can be more than the sum of its parts if it expresses synergy or emergent behavior. Changing one part of the system usually affects other parts and the whole system, with predictable patterns of behavior. For systems that are self-learning and self-adapting, the positive growth and adaptation depend upon how well the system is adjusted with its environment. Some systems function mainly to support other systems by aiding in the maintenance of the other system to prevent failure. The goal of systems theory is systematically discovering a system’s dynamics, constraints, conditions and elucidating principles (purpose, measure, methods, tools, etc.) that can be discerned and applied to systems at every level[…].

I’ve written in the past in reference to Murray Bowen as the grandfather of Family Systems Theory, the cornerstone of the AAMFT approach to individual and interrelational psychotherapy. He effectively synthesized a number of slow shifts in psychoanalysis away from a purely medical model of “patient-focused” attention that left the family or broader social factors “outside the immediate field of theoretical and therapeutic interest”:

Individual theory was built on a medical model with its concepts of etiology, the diagnosis of pathology in the patient, and the treatment of sickness in the individual. Also inherent in the model are the subtle implications that the patient is the helpless victim of a disease or malevolent forces outside his control.” — Murray Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, Jason Aronson Inc., 1985; pg. 148

In his own practice, Bowen explored with his clients the sense of their own agency within the family system, and while there is certainly a sense of powerlessness for many in the face of ancient and traditional family dynamics and power struggles, Bowen noticed some interesting processes in operation for the individuals within the system. These distill to eight core concepts of Bowen’s Systems Theory, as it applies to psychotherapy within a family or broader social network:

  1. core emotional system
  2. differentiation (or not) of the individual (in most cases, specifically the client)
  3. triangulation
  4. cut-offs
  5. projections
  6. multigenerational transmission of values and expectations
  7. child/sibling positions
  8. general emotional processing beyond the core system

When I get a chance to do the quick family of origin snapshot with new clients, I’m essentially looking for information on some combination of these points. In family systems theory, even though there may only be one client in the room, to some extent we treat the family as the core emotional system — not that we’re trying to treat or fix the family as a unit, but we are trying to understand the client in front of us from the perspective of the system in which they developed. Every one of us carries from our earliest relational models a set of implicit understandings about “how people work,” “how relationships work,” what SHOULD be important or valuable to us — these invisible values, and the expectations or entitlements we attach to them, are often instilled in us by our families, starting well before we have language; we see this kind of multigenerational transmission process starting in parents with new babies who might be highly anxious about their parenting, especially when that anxiety is something learned from or triggered by THEIR OWN PARENTS’ influence on the new family.

We use system theory to look at system harmonics and cacophony, those places where the individual elements in the system are synchronized and resonate well together, or the places where something has disrupted one or more members of the system and there is discord or disruption, often felt throughout the system in a ripple effect (if we mix Systems Theory with a little Chaos Theory, we can have a really interesting conversation about “the butterfly effect“, in which small triggering events can have huge, often not-entirely-predictable impacts elsewhere in the system… something that can definitely occur when we talk about making changes to a complex relational system).

Differentiation is often a significant disruptor to the family system. An individual decides to step away from the invisible “value mass” of family behaviours and expectations, to “become their own person”, and in doing so, relinquishes their responsibility to fulfill whatever role the system has implicitly imposed on them, sometimes to the disappointment or outrage of other members of the system. From a counselling perspective, we often find our clients struggling against a system-wide reaction to their change process, hearing little more than a “change back!” hue and cry that is all about the other members of the system confronting their own personal and herd-level anxieties. Differentiation is often the most disruptive systemic process for the simple reason that it illustrates to other members of the system that it can be done. In basic terms, differentiation is the process by which an individual reprioritizes the individual as at least equal to, if not above, the larger systemic unit. Psychoanalysis, and later other modalities like Gestalt therapy, elevated the focus on the individual above all else, encouraging distinction or separation from the broader family unit if the system was felt to be infringing on the individual to be themselves in a healthy way.

Family systems being the complex herd mentalities they are, however, many individuals who felt fused into their systems could only achieve the break by effecting a complete cut-off from the family system. Bowen and his fellow clinicians noted, however, that cut-off often created as much anxiety in the individual (and in the family system) as it seemingly addressed for being IN the system. He discussed this in therms of fusion: being emotionally bound up in the system’s values didn’t necessarily change with cut-off, because the emotional fusion is still present, even if interactions with other family members is not. Differentiation as a distinct process allows the individual to remain present within the system but with an ability to hold themselves at a safe distance from engaging in the normal family politics and dynamics; they hold more of an observational capacity, not necessarily strictly neutral but certainly with a very different form of engaging in ways that don;’t leave them feeling compelled or emotionally hooked into the system in the usual ways. Often when I’m working with clients who have emotional boundary issues with family or intimate partners, this winds up being an area of considerable focus: how do we find ways of remaining SAFELY engaged but not so severely fused into the machinations of that invisible family value mass?

One of the most important tools we introduce up front to clients struggling with systemic issues is observation. We invite and assist the clients in learning to take a step back and simply watch what goes on in the family in both crisis moments and in the smooth-sailing ones. We help them discern when triangulation occurs, often taking the form of two sides in a dispute or power struggle trying to get a third party “on side” with their perspective, or having one member of an unstable partnership introducing focus on or input from, a third person/factor (child, external adult, work, therapist…) as a way of distracting from tension in the troubled dyadic connection. It’s a truism that a two-legged stool is inherently unstable; it needs at least three legs to bear weight effectively. Tension between a partnership will run high as long as the participants have only the relationship to focus on, but as soon as there is a third target for focus by at least one partner, tension will decrease at least in the short-term (even if that third-party focus takes the form of new babies or pets, workaholism, addiction, or infidelity, until those triangulated factors start to introduce their own disruptive problems into the system).

By encouraging clients to observe and witness the systemic dynamics in action, we allow for a differentiated analysis of those observed behaviours. Rather than simply engaging by unthinking default in them as a form of self-protective “herd camouflage”, we challenge the client to consider the guiding compass question, “What kind of person do I CHOOSE to be here?”, and consider what other behavioural options might be open to them in the moment. They may continue to choose the traditional engagement, but to do so now by CHOICE rather than habit returns a sense of agency to the individual, a small kind of power that allows them to stay within the system but with a subtle shift in their engagement with that system. This is the key to Bowen’s family system: the power and agency of choice is within the CLIENT’s purview, unlike within the older psychoanalytic model that pitched the client as a helpless victim of the family’s effect on them. IN the systemic view, we acknowledge and clarify the family’s impact on the client in the room, AND we also work to shift the client’s own sense of differentiated SELF within the system.

There are many different ways we can also approach helping the client discern what is valuable within the family system to retain and honour, while also allowing them to retain some emotional distance from the weight of the projections of those values. Many clients struggle with the family’s projected expectations based on traditional gender roles, or the position of birth order in families with multiple children (the eldest son, the mother’s helper, the baby of the family, the archetypal “rebellious middle child”, to name a few of the still-common sibling position factors we encounter). Immigrant families often bring cultural factors into the system that can be difficult to process when growing up in a new context. Ongoing shifts in gendered role modelling mean “traditional” relationship roles of “bread-winner” or “home-maker” are being disrupted in some generations but not in others, creating tensions in a multigenerational family model. Different education or employment opportunities have shifted considerably between generations as well. Trying to walk a fine line between “becoming one’s own person” and “remaining a part of the family” is a struggle faced by many people (perhaps nowhere so poignantly, even brutally, by our transgender clients) as they come of age, or face challenges and transitions their own families may not have faced before.

From a systemic view, our job as therapists is to hold space in our process for all these known and impactful factors in our clients’ complex lives. A systems therapist will often tell you, there may only be one person in the room with us, but there is an invisible presence of many more, evidenced in the clients’ own behaviour models and value systems. Our work becomes rooting out the effects of those systemic dynamics, helping the client observe them when they are in operation, and creating space within the client to choose who and how they wish to be within those systems. We also implicitly create permission for the client to honour what they value in the system, and find ways to shift, unhook, or outright jettison those aspects or values that no longer work for them effectively.

For more information on the core concepts of Bowen’s Family Systems Theory (in much easier language than Wikipedia’s version manages), I recommend Roberta Gilbert’s The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory: A New Way of Thinking About the Individual and the Group.

Emotional Intelligence, Family Issues, Relationships, self-perception, Uncategorized

I’m not saying Freud was right to blame everything on our mothers (his misogynistic views on women are well documented), but he did have the root of an idea that Murray Bowen leveraged decades later into Family Systems Theory. Sometimes it’s easy to trace our personal challenges as adults to specific events or traumas tied to our personal histories, but other times it’s a far more subtle, potentially insidious thing to trace the nuanced impact of internalized behavioural models and “invisible values” inherited from our family systems.

Even clients who have no notable red-flag-raising events in their loving, textbook-perfect families can be surprised at just how much of their behaviour *can* be tied directly back to how they were raised, or what they experienced in the home where they grew up. One of the most common examples of this that we see in relationship counselling with individuals, couples, or poly groups, comes from people who present as happy, seemingly-well-adjusted people from families where the parents never fought, who come into counselling because they have issues connecting with their partners, or because they are anxious in their attachments, and they can’t figure out why. “My parents never argued” is probably the single most common indicator that this was likely to be a family with unhealthy coping strategies for tension and conflict, up to and including outright avoidance of contention. Given that kids inherently use their family of origin as models for behavioural development in most things inter-relational and (once they are adults) and intimacy-building, it’s unsurprising that otherwise “happy home” kids grow into adults who don’t do well with emotional intensity or all-out conflict.

I use the family of origin “snapshot” fairly extensively with many of my clients. It helps me create a picture of the client in terms of where they come from, what kinds of models they grew up with, what kinds of default responses might have been programmed in for emotional self- or co-regulation within the family system from a potentially early age. Within the first session or two, we don a verbal sketch of the principle members of the system: mom and dad, siblings, step-parents and blended family members. If there are interesting things in parental histories that seem impactful on the client’s development, we often look at the relationship between parents and grandparents as well. This tells us what family values might have been passed (or shoved) down from that generation onto the parents that potentially informed how the parents raised their own kids, at least one of whom is now sitting in my office in crisis. It’s this part of the process that’s more about the art of reconstruction, interpreting what we can discern about the family behaviours through the lens of Bowen’s System Theory into a narrative that sheds a little light on why my otherwise-happy client can’t now seem to tolerate any kind of disagreement in the relationship, and falls into an anxious fugue at anything even remotely suggesting that conflict is present.

The family of origin snapshot also sheds some light on intersibling dynamics that may impact personal development into adulthood. Looking at where the client falls in a multi-child birth order, for example, might tell us something about issues like “middle child syndrome” (perhaps the client IS the middle child, or was heavily impacted by a middle child’s behaviours), or parentification of an eldest child. Unconscious parental favouritism can have a huge impact on how kids in such a family develop into adults, as can being the “normal” child in a family that also includes a differently-abled, ill, or developmentally-handicapped child.

Sometimes the family of origin snapshot can pinpoint exact historical incidents that manifest as seemingly-disconnected physical trauma much later in life. Sometimes the group portrait makes it very clear up front that there is a systemic behavioural pattern that has produced challenging or toxic patterns in the client’s own adult life and relationships; toxic parenting or corrosive sibling rivalries will also have a profound effect on how the adult client has come to view relationships.

Once we have created the word picture of the family and the set players on the stage, we use that construct to look at how the client perceives both their role in relational drama, and how they are likely to interpret the behaviours of others around them based on what their families taught them. This runs the gamut from uncovering anxious narrative of imperfection to ego-invested narratives of “Of course I’m always right”, to “Love mean we never fight, doesn’t it? So if we’re fighting all the time, why does my partner hate me??” Because this is an interpretation, I make it clear to the clients when we do this work that just because we construct a narrative explanation that resonates with the information as we perceive it, that doesn’t mean it’s the truth, or that it’s the only truth. We put all the pieces on the board: what the client can relay about their own lived experience, what the therapist can bring in terms of clinical education and observational perspective, and we move the pieces of information around on the board until we have a storyline that explains what is known in a way that fits with both shared and unshared information (clients *ALWAYS* have more information in their heads than they share verbally in therapy; that’s just a truism of the work). Theories that don’t fit get tossed and we start again; the therapist’s own flexibility and refusal to get stuck on their own perspectives becomes a key component here, just as the client’s own willingness to see their long-held historical snapshot explained in a new perspective is important.

This part of shifting perspective is part of the narrative reframing process in which we challenge the client’s understanding of “how things work” on which they have quite likely based their adult values and decision-making models. And if they are coming into therapy because their internal models don’t seem to be influencing or sustaining the kinds of connections they say they want to have in their lives and relationships, the family of origin snapshots will go a long way towards potential roots of the problem. When we change the historical perspective, we also open the opportunity to change how the client relates to both their own history and, perhaps more importantly, the future of their own relationships. For example, a client coming from what they described on intake as, “really close and super-happy home” was struggling with the surprise dissolution of the parental marriage at the same time as the client was facing a power struggle in their own marriage. Because they feel they “turned out just fine” from this “super-happy home”, to the client it was apparent that the parenting strategies that raised them “are obviously the right ones, so if I’m using them to raise *MY* child, I’m obviously right, aren’t I?” But when we circled back around to the dissolution of the parental marriage and all the conflict that was engendering in the family, we had cause to wonder about how it was that the parents were so unhappy for so long that dissolution finally seemed the only option. That led to a conversation about emotional suppression and what that taught my client about emotional suppression and emotional validation, and we began to see how the parental choices had informed my client’s development… and how if we began to see the parental model as potentially deeply flawed in new or still-unseen ways, what did that mean for how my client had internalized that “perfect parenting model” that was at the heart of their own relationship power struggle? Suddenly, simply by looking at the family of origin snapshot from a new angle, we had a whole new perspective on what was happening for the *CLIENT* in terms of attempting to implement a flawed model, or a flawed understanding of an imperfect model.

It’s common for clients to wonder why their families become important to me as a therapist when we’re talking about what they perceive as disconnected issues. I explain about my Systems Theory background, and how it’s part of my job to hold in mid the potential impact these other factors might have on our work. It’s a lot like radio astronomy, I tell them; there are a lot of important objects out in deep space, like black holes, that we can’t see directly, but we can see and measure the effect they have on the things we *CAN* see. Family impacts on client issues work the same way; we can only determine the impact those factors have when we observe the client’s behaviours as an adult. And I freely admit, the times when my clients are most likely to perceive what therapists do as Pure Magictm is when we can put the pieces of their intake story through the Family System Theory filter and feed back to them an enhanced reflection that suddenly “explains so much”. Being able to see light bulbs or couch bombs go off in client’s heads is, I also admit, a big secret part of why we therapists Do What We Do. We love those moments when the revised narrative gains a toehold, and the new vista opens up for the client; it’s one of the things that makes it easier for clients to go forward into the work they’ve come to do. It’s like we’re the mountain sherpas who, by showing them a new understanding of the past, have opened up an unexpected path to go forward from there… and simply catching a glimpse of the path, that new understanding, gives the client tremendous hope that they’re in the right place to do the right work.

Some days, what we do really does seem like a kind of magic 🙂

Book Recommendations, Emotional Intelligence, Family Issues, Relationships

Somewhere along the lines, our culture took to heart a lesson we seem to indoctrinate into small children as a way of keeping the peace in home and playground: when someone does us a hurt, our job on the receiving end is to “forgive and forget”. Let it go and move on. Don’t harbour the grudge. This admonishment seems to come regardless of whether the hurt has been redressed (at all, never mind adequately), whether any repair has been attempted, whether any degree of ownership and justice have been served.

In Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths sometimes baffle people who have a hard time “letting go” or forgiving the injustices, big or small, that have been done to them, even when clinging to their anger and hurt is making them miserable. I have a lot of clients who struggle with this indoctrinated precept of “forgive and forget”, whether it means forgiving parents, friends, employers/colleagues, or especially intimate partners. It has become a kind of cultural shorthand now when talking about “foregiveness” that people simply imply “…and forget” when we talk about forgiving those who we believe have harmed us. When people hurt, they don’t *want* to forget, because many people are reasonably afraid that, having been hurt once, they can be hurt again. Even if they move on to other relationships, the remembered pain and sense of hurt goes with them, and they bring that fear and mistrust into new connections. They don’t want to forget because remembering helps guard against future hurts.

But being constantly on guard is exhausting. Ask anyone who has ever suffered to the degree of being diagnosed with PTSD what it costs to remain hypervigilant, and most of them will tell you: it drains everything. When we spend all our time remembering, we have a hard time being in the present moment, because we are so consumed by the past. But letting go opens us up to being vulnerable, to *potential* future harms. For some people, that’s just not an option.

For people struggling in the sticky tar-pit of that “forgive and forget” mindset, I find the language Terry Hargrave introduced in his work on Families & Forgiveness to be ground-breaking. Hargrave suggests that “forgiveness” is one of FOUR “stations” we can move to from our place of hurt when a relationship is damaged:

THE WORK OF FORGIVENESS

Salvation (Exonarating)

Restoration (Forgiving)

Insight Understanding Giving the Opportunity for Compensation Overt Forgiving

Figure 1. The Four Stations of Forgiveness (Terry Hargrave, “Forgiving the Devil”)

Hargrave’s use of “stations” here does not carry the same implication as, say, “stations of the Cross” might, to suggest a progression from one state to the next. Rather, each of these options exists as a resting place unto itself, and may represent the total progression an individual might make in the relationship to the one they feel has harmed them. And only the final stations actually involve forgiveness as we understand it, though Hargrave does not suggest that “forgetting” is at all a necessary part of any of these stations:

[…] [F]orgiving and forgetting are two separate issues that are not connected by necessity. […] [W]e seldom forget the action that has damaged us in an unfair way, but we do tend to forget the pain that is associated with that action after we have forgiven. I believe this is true. Pain tends to fade with time after the work of forgiveness is achieved. When a person engages in the second two stations of forgiving and restores the relationship with the former relational culprit, then the pain of the past has the opportunity to fade when compared with the trustworthy and loving relationship of the present. The popular belief that if a person truly forgives another, he or she will wipe the slate clean of all memories of the incident, is simply not true. Even if it were neurologically possible on request to erase specific memory pathways in the brain that contain information about the damaged past, it would not necessarily be preferable.

Again, at the heart of […]injustice and pain is the violation of trust. If I am damage by [someone], there is a sequential deterioration of trust. If I forgive and forget, then possibly nothing will change in a relationship with an untrustworthy [person], and I will open myself up to the same type of relational damage to occur again. If I try to forget the damage, then I will not remember the necessary steps to take to prevent such damage in the future and there is a possibility that I will be “twice burned”. Trust is best restored to a relationship not when the victim and victimizer act as if no violation ever occurred; it works best when they do not forget the past and choose to live life differently [in the present and future].

The first two stations do not demand that trust in a relationship be re-established, but they can provide reflection and a frame of reference for understanding something about what happened that may shed some light on WHY it happened. This is often as far as many people safely feel they can get; they have something that feels like an explanation that makes sense, but they cannot feel safe in the act of re-establishing trust with the person who damaged them. This is often true for those coming out of toxic or abusive relationships with parents or partners (or both). Forgiveness, on the other hand, demands an active process of re-engagement and reconstruction, and active repair attempts from all parties involved. It is a riskier position to be in, because it also requires vulnerability on both sides; the one who has been hurt risks being hurt again, and the one who has effected the hurt is often bringing some degree of guilt and shame to the table that they have to confront and manage within themselves as part of the process. (Note from the therapist’s chair: it is NOT the job of the person who has been hurt to manage that guilt and shame for the other; just be aware it’s a part of the equation for whomever is sitting on the other side of the table.)

This stationed approach allows greater flexibility in presenting options to people who seem caught between the rock of “forgiveness” and the hard place of “forgetting”. As a therapist, we can give them permission to take forgetting off the table completely, and then offer not one but FOUR unique perspectives under two classes of approach (exoneration and restoration) from which to begin their work. This opens up new discussion directions and new language to explore, and often helps clients determine what they want to do that point, and how to engage with the damaging partner. It may allow them to move on from stuckness and let go of their exhausting attachment to the pain of the incident, with new options for living more fully in the present than in the past.

Family Issues, Technology, Uncategorized

Do you use your smartphone or other devices in front of your children? This may be having a very different impact on those relationships than you think… or want.

““What stood out was that in a subset of caregivers using the device almost through the entire meal, how negative their interactions could become with the kids,” she says. While the study did not code or quantify the reactions, Radesky says that there were “a lot of instances where there was very little interaction, harsh interaction or negative interaction” between the adults and the children. “That’s simply unfair to the children,” says Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson of Seattle Children’s Hospital and author of the Seattle Mama Doc blog.”

Family Issues, Relationships

There are times when being a prolific LJ poster, even one who tries with some diligence to use the tagging system, can’t find what I’m looking for in the morass of data piled on over the course of a dozen years (tomorrow is my official 12th LJversary, actually; how cool is that??).

Recently family foibles a friend is experience triggered a bunch of thoughts about transactional affection, which is, by and large, another term in my head for what I have previously explored as “relationship ledgers“:

“In times of relational tension and crisis, many of us (me included) find ourselves tallying the internally-maintained “list of grievances”, or clinging to the hurts to justify retaliatory behaviours. This is how people most commonly respond to the balance tipping towards the negative side of the relational ledger. It’s a kind of psychological narcissism (making the hurt and pain all about ourselves as a means of justifying further responses to and on the negative ledger), and leads to something called “destructive entitlement”, in which we inefficiently attempt to rebalance the ledger by forcing another party to “pay for our hurts”. (The principle of “destructive entitlement” is, by the way, a whole other post or series of posts; it sometimes ties in with legacy values we inherit from others, particularly previous generations in our family of origin, or legacy values that we inherit from chosen family or social spheres, any or all of which we respond to in ways that come only at cost to someone else.) Equally often, by the time a relationship reaches the point of drastic rebalancing on account of pervasive negative focus, one or more participants are past the point of being willing or capable of considering, or even viewing, the positive aspects of the relational ledger.”

It’s not just the list of grievances for which we sometimes keep score; sometimes it’s all of the Good Deeds we’ve done. In my friend’s situation, a family member tallied a lengthy list of “things I did for you”, within a very clear context of the implicit expectation of, “…and therefore you owe me [X]”, where [X] resolves to affection, respect, attention, prioritization… any one of a number of values.

Within a family system, contextually most of us are taught that unconditional love and respect is something we as children owe our parents, and that love and support are owed to us by our parents. Within a cultural system, we see this pattern writ large recently as issues of “Nice Guy Syndrome”, for example. In both systemic contexts, the script being followed is that, “I did something nice for you, therefore I *EXPECT* you to do something nice for me”, with all kinds of variable expectations around what that “something nice” is supposed to look like, even if never explicitly stated, negotiated, or consented to. This is what I have come to label as “transactional affection”. In any transaction, something is given with the expectation of something in return. Commerce is a series of financial transactions for goods or services in return. Relational transactions are less clearly defined, but no less-laden with expectations. And therein lies the big problem.

It’s always nice to receive positive interactions, be it compliments, gifts, affection, deeper intimacy, etc.; some people are adept at giving such things without attaching an expectation to it, but in my experience (personal and clinical), such true altruism is incredibly rare. Parents *expect* that their children will love and revere them, no matter what. When their children start to differentiate from the family system, that creates a backlash because in part (I suspect) the parental expectation of being loved and revered is no longer guaranteed, and that creates a kind of doubt or distress that all the effort was for what, exactly?

Transactional affection also exists outside of family systems, in all kinds of social and relational systems. Friends do things for friends, immediately or eventually expecting “favours” to be returned. Ever helped a friend move then asked them to help you move in return? To some extent, the very framework of real-time social networks are founded on this kind of interwoven support, which is no bad thing. Where it becomes problematic in ANY system is when someone in the system starts keeping score and using perceived transactional disparities in the ledger as a stick to “get what they feel they are owed” from someone else in the system. Families in particular get really tetchy when it comes to transactional ledgers, because value systems are often based in inherited values for what constitutes “fair”, what looks like “love”, meanings for “duty and obligation”, and sometimes those inherited values blind some members of the system to the fact that the differentiating individuals might have developed different values for any and all of those concepts… meaning the nature of the transactions also change. One of you is still trading in old British coin, the other in new Canadian dollars. Unsurprisingly, those coins and dollars no longer carry equal weight, and expectations tied to those words have to be renegotiated as the system around them evolves.

Likewise in intimate relationships, much woe I see in and out of the counselling office seems tied to the process of “keeping score”, especially when one partner uses the score card to justify a hard or distant stance out of hurt, fear, or spite. Commonly, I hear the despairing cry of, “All the things I do for you, why don’t you ever/you never do anything nice for me?” or “I’ve met all your needs, it’s not fair that you’re not meeting mine.”

Something that has to happen is a conversation about the difference between “equal” and “fair”. Transactional affection always presumes that effort put out will be rewarded by equal or greater effort in return. Fair, on the other hand, is a discussion about options; what is the need to be met, and if I cannot do the thing you explicitly expect, what else might I be able to offer that can, or comes close? How can we manage it if what I have to offer does NOT meet the need as expected?” In short, the process of defining the value of the transaction becomes a collaborative effort, not a prescriptive (and often invisible) set of assumptions.

It’s my growing suspicion as I write these thoughts out that relational ledgers (transactional affection) is ALL ABOUT outcome attachment, specifically, seeing as a return on one’s own efforts and investments a very specific desired outcome, and being anywhere from disappointed to downright pyroclastic f thwarted in “getting what I deserve”, “getting what’s mine by right”, or even “getting what I deserve”. This attachment to outcome, and failure to manage the intensity of disappointment when expected outcomes don’t manifest as assumed, is nowhere more clear than in the internet-wide phenomenon that was The Nice Guy Issue, in which self-reporting “nice guys” on dating sites and elsewhere lamented at great length about putting time and energy into being great friends with a woman IN THE HOPE AND EXPECTATIONS that she would then fall in love with them instead of Some Other guy, and how put out they felt that their obvious efforts were not being rewarded.

This is transactional affection in its core state.

“I do all this for you, of *COURSE* you owe me in return. Wait, what do you mean you have your own thoughts and feelings on the subject…???”

“I am your parent, I did all of these things for you my child, of *COURSE* you owe me unquestioning respect and affection in return. Wait, what do you mean you have your own thoughts and feelings on the subject…???”

Unraveling the implicit, sometimes hereditary expectations and assumptions built into a transactional system is hard work, I’m not going to lie. (I’m also not going to tell you I’m an expert at it myself; if I were, I might still be married, personally. But I digress…) First of all, you have to go through the process of letting go of an expectation of equal, in favour of a floating and flexible understanding of fair, and sometimes that means letting go of the scorecard while trying to start from where you are right now. A lot of people won’t let go of that stance-justification; many have no clue who they are without it. Score cards give them purpose, even if toxic ones.

If the transactional ledger is writ full of negative things, in which one party keeps track of all the negatives about another person(s), then you have to make every effort to create a positive ledger as well. Only living in the negatives while never acknowledging the positives is a kind of darkness in which no-one thrives in. John Gottman has come up with a mind-bogglingly accurate statistical model for relationship success and failure, with in the neighbourhood of a 94% accuracy. As part of his model, he stipulates,

“In the world of relationships, the most important numbers to learn are: five to one. That is the ratio of positive interactions to negative ones that predicts whether a marriage will last or become one of the sad statistics of divorce.”

While this kind of transaction system isn’t entirely within the same context as transactional affection, it does provide a framework for reflecting on positives within the context of moving out of a negative-based transactional ledger. It also begins to provide a framework for talking about individual interpretations of value (specifically, degree of emotional investment) for those transactions. “I am offering you positive interactions” often comes with the unvoiced expectation that, in a relationship or family system, we’re all in this together, so, “I’m expecting you to do the same in return.” Is that mutually understood and agreed upon? Is what’s being offered coming from a sense of love, is it a gift, or is it a transaction with the implied obligation of something in return? Have we each a clear understanding of that implied obligation, and do we each consent to the transaction on the basis of that expectation? What are our options if that’s not the case?

We begin to change how these conversations happen, not out of a need to nit-pick so much as a need to understand and be open to shifting from a transactional score card to something based more in flexible, collaborative, and above all, explicitly-shared understandings. Differentiation is never easy, and challenging the ledger is definitely hard work given the likelihood that *someone* in the system is using it as a justification for interactive behaviours. But it is necessary for systemic health that things be balanced fairly, and not with a rigid sense of what’s equal. That kind of implicit scoring system only guarantees almost everyone stays miserable for the duration.

Article links, Family Issues, Relationships

I’ve found myself saying this a lot recently, and I’ll keep saying it if it makes a difference for someone who needs to hear it:

Biology and genetics are no longer sufficient excuse for feeling compelled to remain part of a sick system.

Sometimes a “family” (biological *OR* chosen) is the single most toxic and dangerous environment there can be. As a human being, you’re entitled to safety and respect for your personhood. If that’s threatened by your own family — GET OUT, get safe, and heal.

In this case, a “sick system” is one that manipulates one or more participants into remaining fused in the relationship, constrained to support the manipulative relationship partner even to the other participant’s own detriment (unhappiness, ill health, depression, risk of violence, etc.), but all in the guise of love and care. It’s a form of gaslighting, or rather, gaslighting is a common tactic in creating and sustaining sick systems: make someone doubt themselves so much that it only seems safe if they rely on you for perspective. Abusive or emotionally-manipulative parents and care-givers will do this to children, other family members, and to their partners; romantic partners can do this to each other.

One of the best descriptions of sick systems I’ve ever encountered is found on LiveJournal:

A sick system has four basic rules […] All of [which] work together to make a bad workplace or a bad relationship addictive. You’re run off your feet putting out fires and keeping things going, your own world will collapse if you stop, and every so often you succeed for a moment and create something bigger than yourself. Things will get better soon. You can’t stop believing that. If you stop believing, you won’t be able to go on, and you can’t not go on because everything you have and everything you are is tied into making this thing work. You can’t see any way out because there are always all these things stopping you, and you could try this thing but that would take time and money, and you don’t have either, and you’ve been told that you’ll get both eventually when that other thing happens, and pushing won’t make that thing happen so it’s better to keep your head down and wait. After a while the stress and panic feel normal, so when you’re not riding the edge, you feel twitchy because you know that the lull doesn’t mean things are better, it means you’re not aware yet of what’s going wrong. And the system or the partner always, always obliges with a new crisis.

The same author later wrote a companion piece to examine the qualities of the people most likely to become trapped in such a relational sick system, available here. These qualities do not guarantee you *will* become trapped in these kinds of dangerously-destructive relationships, but they seem to be the common characteristics of those who find themselves stuck.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks when its a *family* system is the pervasive cultural belief that because it’s *FAMILY*, we *HAVE* to remain loyal. This is absolutely not true. In truth, it never has been, but it’s one of the great cultural myths we propagate from one generation to the next: from one level of sick system to another. “Family above all others”. So how does a person finally waking up to the reality of the system’s destructive nature get free of it? Escaping the gravitic pull and emotional enmeshment of a sick system is hard, but necessary. Gaining perspective from friends outside the system is often how change starts, followed by seeking professional help if you can. Sometimes a complete cut-off is the only way to enforce new self-protective and self-respecting boundaries from toxicity and violence, and that’s a hard thing to hold up in the face of pressure to remain loyal, to remain compliant to the herd, to avoid ostracization from other members of the system with whom you have healthier relationships (but who conform to the systemic expectations).

One has to begin a process that Murray Bowen (father of modern family systems theory) termed, “differentiation”, the gaining of self within the system or, if not possible to achieve selfhood within the family system, then outside of it. It starts with creating new boundaries and defending them, of valuing yourself as a whole person inside those boundaries who is individually deserving of love, compassion, and respect. If those things are not to be found within the system through the larger change process of differentiation, they can only be found outside. A sick system almost never changes for the sake of the differentiating individual; a sick system exists solely to sustain its own sickness. That’s the trap, ultimately: you can almost never change the perpetrator, no matter how much love and care you bring to them.

In addition to Issendai’s articles above and the wikipedia definition of “gaslighting”, I also highly recommend the following readings:

Emotional manipulation: how to recognize and free ourselves from it

When parents are too toxic to tolerate (NYTimes article)

The Guide to Strong Boundaries

Love is NOT Enough

Family Issues

I keep meaning to develop articles here, but two disparate careers and a theatre hobby  addiction somehow keep me away from doing more writing. But this article happened across my inbox today, and is worth sharing. I and other therapists often have clients who were (are) dealing with aging parents, which can often reactivate a lot of unfinished business left over from childhood. Especially in the case of neglectful or abusive caregivers, having to revisit these familial connections — often not at our own instigation — can even border on traumatic.

This is a really good article from a therapeutic perspective on what happens when abusive or neglectful parents come back later in life to their adult children, seeking reconnection and/or support; what do the now-adult children *really* owe those dysfunctional caregivers?

http://www.slate.com/articles/life/family/2013/02/abusive_parents_what_do_grown_children_owe_the_mothers_and_fathers_who_made.2.html?goback=.gde_2079675_member_215655442