Emotional Intelligence, Relationships, Uncategorized

“Sometimes our most intimate space is in the distance between us.”

This is a statement that came out of my mouth with clients not too long ago as we were starting to look at some of the inherent complications that arise when couples become too tightly fused to each other in their quest to build security, trust, comfort into their intimate attachment. I still encounter with terrifying frequency–as much inside the counselling office as outside in cultural mores and media messaging–that we require partnerships to somehow “complete” us. That the height of romantic entanglement is a state in which “I don’t know where I end and you begin”.

Personally, I used to love that enmeshment state of New Relationship Energy. If I’m being honest with myself, I still do. However, I now *ALSO* recognize it as the breeding ground for some exceptionally, enormously-unrealistic, and potentially destructive beliefs and entitlements around boundaries… and the inevitable boundary violations that occur when one is unconscious of, or inconsistent in defending, effective boundaries around their emotional and psychological well-being. Coincidentally, this statement came about a scant 24 hours before I started reading Esther Perel’s “Mating in Captivity” for the first time, a book I’ve been intending to read since it came out in 2006 (her second book, “State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity” has also been sitting on my To Be Read pile since *IT* debuted a year ago).

When the universe starts handing me these kinds of seemingly-disparate nuggets, it’s because it wants me to connect the dots on something. So as I am getting into the Esther Perel reading, and watching the ever-amazing Jada Pinkett-Smith discuss her marriage to actor Will Smith in a two-part installment of her web series, “Red Table Talks” (part one is here, part two is here), I’m coming to realize we’re on the brink of a potentially large shift about how we view and pursue intimacy.

Murray Bowen, the father of Family Systems Theory, discusses at length the value of healthy differentiation of Self when any individual within a system finds ways to create space and autonomy within the system by changing how they participate around new, more effective boundaries. In discussing his scale for differentiating Self, he writes,

“This scale is an effort to classify all levels of human functioning, from lowest possible levels to the highest potential level, on a single dimension… It has nothing to do with emotional health or illness or pathology. There are people low on the scale who keep their lives in equilibrium without…symptoms, and there are some higher on the scale who develop symptoms under severe stress… The scale has no correlation with intelligence or socioeconomic levels… The greater the degree of undifferentiation (no-self), the greater the emotional fusion into a common self with others (undifferentiated ego mass). Fusion in the context of a personal or shared relationship with others and it reaches its greatest intensity in the emotional interdependency of marriage.” Murray Bowen, “Family Therapy in Clinical Practice,” New Jersey, 1978, p. 472 [emphasis mine]

This fusion within a relational system takes many forms; looking through an attachment lens, one of the most common dynamics of fusion is the distancer-pursuer dynamic of an anxious-secure or anxious-anxious attachment pair. There is a sense of anxiety when an individual transfers from one system (such as a family of origin) to an intimate relational system. Even if the originating system is busted and dysfunctional, there is a familiarity in certain types of connections that provide comfort and security a la “the Devil we know”. Unsurprisingly, we’ll try to recreate the same sense of closeness and familiarity in our intimate relationships, sometimes employing the same kinds of bonding mechanisms learned in the family of origin. If our bonding attempts are uncomfortable to our partner, the partner withdraws or tries to set up new boundaries around engagement… setting the anxious partner into a spiral that can only be resolved by trying to clutch harder to the separating partner.

The upshot of this “dance of connection” (as per Harriet Lerner’s term for this dynamic) is that modern love seeks to equate intimacy with fusion, the inseparable, potentially insufferable closeness that allows for absolutely no distance between us. There is nothing allowed to be unknown, because in the unknown lies uncertainty, and that is intolerable. We substitute comfort and safety for passion and excitement, then wonder why our relationships over the long term start to feel as provocative and sexy as a pair of worn and comfortable socks. Where has the excitement gone? Where has the playful eroticism that made the early era of the relationship so delicious, gone? How do we get that back??

This is where the Esther Perel reading comes into play. Her contention through “Mating in Captivity” is that in generating these states of fusion, exchanging uncertainty and insecurity for a state of entitlement and absolute entanglement on every level, we destroy the very environment that passion and eroticism require in which to live and flourish:

“The mandate of intimacy, when taken too far, can resemble coercion. In my own work, I see couples who no longer wait for an invitation into their partner’s interiority, but instead demand admittance, as if they are entitled to unrestricted access into the private thoughts of their loved ones. Intimacy becomes intrusion rather than closeness–intimacy with an injunction. […]

“Some couples take this one step further, confusing intimacy with control. What passes for care is actually covert surveillance… This kind of interrogation feigns closeness and confuses insignificant details with a deeper sense of knowledge. I am often amazed at how couples can be up on the minute details of each other’s lives, but haven’t had a meaningful conversation in years. In fact, such transparency can often spell the end of curiosity. It’s as if this stream of questions replaces more thoughtful ans authentically interesting inquiry.
“When the impulse to share become obligatory, when personal boundaries are no longer respected, when only the shared space of togetherness is acknowledged and the private space is denied, fusion replaces intimacy and possession co-opts love. Deprived of enigma, intimacy becomes cruel when it excludes any possibility of discovery. Where there is nothing left to hide, there is nothing left to seek.” (Esther Perel, “Mating in Captivity”, New York 2006, p. 43-4)

“Yet in our efforts to establish intimacy we often seek to eliminate otherness, thereby precluding the space necessary for desire to flourish. We seek intimacy to protect ourselves from feeling alone; and yet, creating the distance essential to eroticism means stepping back from the comfort of our partner and feeling more alone.
“I suggest that our inability to tolerate our separateness–and the fundamental insecurity it engenders–is a precondition for maintaining interest and desire in a relationship. Instead of always striving for closeness, I argue that couples may be better off cultivating their separate selves…There is beauty in an image that highlights a connection to oneself , rather than a distance from one’s partner. In our mutual intimacy we make love, we have children, and we share physical space and interests. Indeed, we blend the essential parts of our lives. But “essential” does not mean “all.” Personal intimacy demarcates a private zone, one that requires tolerance and respect. It is a space–physical, emotional, intellectual–that belongs only to me. […]
“Love enjoys knowing everything about you; desire needs mystery. Love likes to shrink the distance that exists between me and you, while desire is energized by it. If intimacy grows through repetition and familiarity, eroticism is numbed by repetition. It thrives on the mysterious, the novel, and the unexpected. Love is about having; desire is about wanting… But too often, as couples settle into the comforts of love, they cease to fan the flame of desire. They forget that fire needs air.” (p. 36-7)

It’s interesting to watch couples react to the concept of INCREASING the distance between them at a time when their instincts (for at least ONE of them) are screaming, “NOOOOOOOOOOO, WE MUST BE EVEN CLOSER THEN EVER BEFORE TO FIX ALL OUR INTIMACY PROBLEMS! I MUST BE ALL UP IN YOUR BUSINESS AND HAVE YOU SHOW ME YOU WANT TO BE ALL UP IN MINE!!!”

And, of course, this never works.

Whether it’s the unrealistic expectation of a reciprocal desire to live inside each other’s heads 24/7, or the unrealistic expectation of a reciprocal definition of privacy boundaries (which, BTW, are PERFECTLY NORMAL and HEALTHY things to have in *healthy* relationships), or whether we have different expectations for how this eternal fusion actually looks on a day-to-day basis, or one partner breaks down and flees in the night with a desperate cry of, “JUST GIVE ME SOME FUCKING SPACE, WILL YOU??!?”— I really cannot begin to count all the ways in which the insatiable need for fusion as a substitute for legitimate intimacy fails us at each and every turn.

When we smother ourselves, our relationships, our partners out of a fear of the distance, we lose the distinct entities we were when we ignited the energy initially bringing us together. Perel’s stance is that in pursuing security and comfort, we sacrifice passion and eroticism by deny the space required to maintain a degree of mystery and uncertainty. Anxious attachments cannot settle and become secure without eradicating all uncertainties, without seizing the seams and trying to seal all perceived rifts by force of will… until “secure and comfortable” becomes “stabilized… and boring”.

(And before anyone asks, yes, this happens in poly relationships, too; it’s not a question of how MANY partners you have, but what your own attachment style in any of those relationships typically looks like, or how security/anxiety responses get activated.)

So, consider this: smothering a fire with a blanket puts the flames out. On the one hand, that keeps you safe, but on the other hand, you’ve lost a source of heat and light that might have been serving a valuable purpose to those enjoying it. The question is, did you put out the fire because you were afraid it would consume you and everything you love if you didn’t? Could you learn to tolerate the fear if it meant being able to sustainably (non-destructively) enjoy the heat and light that the fire brings? We can have distance, and space, and air, and fire, and heat, and passion… without burning the house down.

But it takes rethinking how we define and pursue intimacy to do it.

Uncategorized

I like it when the universe provides me a thematically-associated set of triggers to point me at a blog topic. This time around we’re looking at the concept of the “locus of control”, the aspect of ourselves that enables us to either internalize and trust our personal agency, or leads us to believe we have little to no control over ourselves and we’re simply reactive agents to external forces operating upon us.

In psychology, the locus of control is often tied to the individual experience of success or failure. In relationships, however, the locus of control issue manifests a variety of ways, from the learned helplessness of a victim stance, to a common but insidious relinquishing of response agency in favour of reactivity.

This latter issue is one that has been cropping up recently in multiple conversations in and out of the therapy office. My observations of its simplest form look like this:

“I’m waiting for X to decide what to do, and the not-knowing is driving me crazy.”
“I can’t be happy/calm/less anxious until my partner is happy/calm/less anxious, but whenever I try to fix things, it seems to make everything worse.”
“I walk on eggshells whenever I don’t know what’s happening.”
“I don’t know where I end and you begin.”

Assuming we’re not dealing with any known trauma-based reactivity in the situation (hyper-vigilance as a trauma/abuse response, for example, is a whole different kettle of fish), these kinds of statements can indicate the presence of what we consider to be an externalized locus of control.

Externalizing the locus is another way of describing what Murray Bowen’s Family Systems theory describes as enmeshment or “emotional fusion”:

“Emotional fusion is emotional togetherness without the freedom of individuality. It is an unseen, unhealthy, emotional attachment where people lose their sense of self and […] unique identity […]. Emotionally fused people are needy. They look to others to mirror to them their sense of identity. Because their identity is defined by others, they require constant validation, becoming what they think others want them to be. When that occurs, relationships are not as fulfilling as they could be and there can be a sense of emptiness and feelings of “I’m not enough,” or “what’s wrong with me.” Emotional fusion can also lead to feelings of detachment and even rebellion in families as those who are hurting try to gain a sense of self.” — Kathryn Manley, MS, LPC, CST, “Be Yourself: Don’t Become Emotionally Fused,” April 16, 2015 for www.agapechristiancounselingservices.org

When we create healthy bonds in intimate relationships, we achieve in effect a kind of emotional co-regulation that includes all kinds of good things, like validation, secure attachment, supportive and reciprocal emotional labour. When we don’t have a healthy bond, when we have unhealthy or ineffective (or completely absent) boundaries within our intimate relationships, then all kinds of issues arise. We feel we can’t act independently, but must tie our emotional options reactively to other people’s choices–prioritizing their behaviours, choices, needs above our own without balance. We absorb a need to control partners, or at least their emotional states, so that we can mitigate our own, rather than maintaining clearer boundaries around “what’s your reactivity” and “what’s my reactivity” to focus on more effectively regulating our own experiences internally.

There’s a fine line between effective collaboration–choosing or creating plans with a partner that effectively reflect multiple sets of needs, values, and perspectives–and an externally projected or fused locus of control, in which we feel like we CANNOT function except as a reaction to someone else’s behaviours. If a client expresses frustration and helplessness, we almost always come back to explore where the control in the situation seems (to the client’s perspective) to reside.

Image courtesy Sally Butler
www.fish4development.co.uk

In my observations, there are some common indicators signalling potential externalized locus issues:

  • constantly waiting for someone else to say or do something so we know how to react, rather than creating initial responses that address our own needs
  • waiting or allowing other people to define what is right for us
  • requiring or responding ONLY to (or even primarily to) external validation, and feeling anxious or out of sorts when that external validation is absent (see also, broken mirrors)
  • increasing sense of responsibility and self-blame about things that go wrong in other people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors (in some cases, internalizing responsibility for other people’s actions is actually more about hanging our sense of self-worth on other people; it’s both a complicated self-esteem issue, AND a case of putting our self-identity in the hands of other people–a definite externalization of our locus of control)
  • feeling like we have to accept whatever comes our way from our partners, that we have no control and/or no right to ask for anything different
  • attributing even the good things that happen in our relationships to outside factors, rather than to anything we have done or factors intrinsic to ourselves

(There are some other indicators for emotional fusion in relationship listed in this article here.)

“Locus of control is often viewed as an inborn personality component. However, there is also evidence that it is shaped by childhood experiences—including children’s interactions with their parents. Children who were raised by parents who encouraged their independence and helped them to learn the connection between actions and their consequences tended to have a more well developed internal locus of control.” Richard B. Joelson DSW, LCSW, “Locus of Control: How do we determine our successes and failures?” Aug 02, 2017 for www.psychologytoday.com

There isn’t a lot of significant study yet into the family of origin impact on internal versus external locus development, though some research suggests that “Warmth, supportiveness and parental encouragement seem to be essential for development of an internal locus”. How we form and view our connections to the world around us is often informed by family models, however, often in tandem with experiences that reinforce those inherited perspectives. Ergo, it makes a certain amount of sense that we carry into our intimate adult relationships a degree of conditioning about where our personal source of agency lies. We learn through a variety of mechanisms that our success or safety or happiness is intrinsically tied to making other people successful or safe or happy, be it parents, partners, employers, children, or any other external force. This is a common underlying theme for caretakers and self-sacrificing nurturers in particular. Nurturance isn’t in and of itself a negative thing, but when we feel we cannot function unless it be in reaction to Other People’s Needs, to the point of forgetting or denying or downgrading our own repetitively, THEN there’s an externalized locus of control issue.

Part of the struggle to correct externalized loci once we’ve identified them, however, is that there is often a comorbid self-esteem issue. After a lifetime of externalizing one’s sense of validation and self-worth, it becomes difficult to trust that we even have our own needs, or have the right to ask them be met in relationships defined up to this point by our caretaking others. We have to confront anxiety issues around separating our choices from other people’s reactions; emotional initiative seems risky, if not selfish, and hard to find a balance between “you do you and I’ll do me” and feeling like we’re somehow abandoning our emotionally enmeshed posts.

What Harriet Lerner calls the “distancer-pursuer” dynamic becomes another key indicator of externalized loci in intimate relationships:

“A partner with pursuing behavior tends to respond to relationship stress by moving toward the other. They seek communication, discussion, togetherness, and expression. They are urgent in their efforts to fix what they think is wrong. They are anxious about the distance their partner has created and take it personally.

They criticize their partner for being emotionally unavailable. They believe they have superior values. If they fail to connect, they will collapse into a cold, detached state. They are labeled needy, demanding, and nagging.

A partner with distancing behavior tends to respond to relationship stress by moving away from the other. They want physical and emotional distance. They have difficulty with vulnerability.

They respond to their anxiety by retreating into other activities to distract themselves. They see themselves as private and self-reliant. They are most approachable when they don’t feel pressured, pushed, or pursued. They are labeled unavailable, withholding, and shut down.” — Steve Horsmon, “How to Avoid the Pursuer-Distancer Pattern in Your Relationship”, March 6, 2017 for www.gottman.com

When we project our locus of control onto another, and that other person moves emotionally away from us somehow, OF COURSE we’re going to feel destabilized: anxious, upset, fearful, even threatened. It’s like an important part of us is being taken away, though in truth it’s more like we’re giving it away. The lack of autonomy that we feel binds or traps us, the zero tolerance for a partner’s differing perspective or opinion that threatens us–these are indicators that we have tied ourselves to someone else, that we have given our agency and control of our own emotional selves over to them… whether they have asked for and consented to that control or not. Re-developing in INTERNAL locus of control, therefore, involves a multipronged approach:

  • rebuilding self-esteem
  • developing self-trust in our choices and actions
  • internally validating our own thoughts and feelings
  • creating boundaries around our emotional experiences and those of others
  • recognizing the potential impact of our behaviours without over-assuming ownership of other people’s reactions to them (which can tie back to learning how and when to apologize effectively when we’ve transgressed)

Seems like a lot of work when we break it down like that, right? None of these steps, in and of itself, will be a small piece of work. We know that. Bringing home an individual’s locus of control is pretty much “core definition” work, for people who have never had, or never been allowed to have, a strong sense of differentiated self in their lives. As a therapist, I can’t sugar-coat what kind of challenge this sort of work will be for many. But consider the alternative…

Two weeks ago, in response to my post about differentiating between “selfish” and “self-centric”, a friend commented about “the aspect of trusting our feelings in determining our own needs and wants […] in a world that constantly tells [us] we’re “over-reacting” or “imagining it,” etc.”. Internalizing our individual locus of control is ALL about differentiating the “I” from the “we” or the “you”, in a world that tries to teach us that “There is no ‘I’ in ‘team’.” Yes, it’s potentially some significant amounts of personal development to establish healthy differentiation in a relational system, especially for those raised in cultures, communities, families, or relationships where good boundaries are a foreign concept, or systemically destroyed from the outset. At the end of the day, however, the more we know and strengthen in ourselves, the more we have to build on when we get into relationships with others.

It’s not about jettisoning the “we”, but it IS about establishing boundaries that break the fusion, that provide us with tools to self-regulate when we don’t actually know what’s going on with or inside our partners, to break off the clinging pursuit, to work on settling our selves BEFORE we wade in to do something to or for someone else. There is a huge difference between “I want to be happy with you and be happy with myself”, and “I can’t be happy UNLESS you’re happy” (or “I need to fix your unhappiness before I can be happy myself”). The problems lie when we make our own state conditional upon, and therefore subordinate to, the state of another.

We have to do this work in a way that doesn’t keep reinforcing the enmeshment ideal of, “I contribute or affect to the success of this relationship by FIXING THE OTHER PERSON”, a tangent that comes up periodically in relational work; that still supports an externalized locus of control by hanging the idea of success on said Other Person accepting our efforts to fix them/us/the relationship. That’s not how this process is meant to be interpreted. It’s more along the lines of, “How do I become the best Me that I can? What do I bring to benefit the relationship by being confident and secure in myself?”

Breaking enmeshment or fusion and (re-)establishing an internal locus of control puts us back in control of our own lives, in charge of our own emotional well-being. It decreases our dependency on someone else’s emotional condition, and decreases the amount of emotional labour we need to do just to maintain status quo, because we’re primarily addressing our own needs and state and building faith in *that*, which can overall decrease our reactive tension in relationship and also leave us open for healthier ways of approaching intimacy.

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.