What Makes A Family Tick? Part II

Happy Family with LifelineThis is the second of a multi-part series that examines the workings of a healthy family. It’s meant to be a sort of how-to guide that can help you create the family you always dreamed of!

Connecting the Dots

We used to think that a family was made up of individuals who were separate and independent of each other—free agents. We didn’t get the idea that a family is way more than the sum of its parts, and that individual members work in sync with each other like the separate but linked systems within our bodies.

During the early stages of a family’s development, members begin to take up the slack for each other depending on the talents and abilities they have to offer. If the man of the house loves to cook and the woman can’t open a can, for example, he might take that job on while she picks up something else, like the shopping or cleanup. Family members tend to complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses in the psychological realm, too, so the gregarious one might be more out in the world and the shy one more behind the scenes. Building on their personal strengths, abilities and ideas about  how it should be and what each one wants, a couple starts to create their family system.

As the family grows, each member becomes connected to the others like the pieces of a mobile, and when one of them changes or starts to do things differently, the others are affected, too. As long as the system can remain flexible and accommodating as situations within the family change, they will be in pretty good shape.

Let’s go back to the house analogy for a minute. At first glance, it seems that each part of the house, like the plumbing or the heating, is independent. If it breaks, you just get it fixed and that’s that, right? Off the top of your head you might say, “Yes.” But any seasoned homeowner would be quick to point out that these separate pieces are interdependent and if one thing goes haywire, it can quickly set off the chain reaction from hell. Imagine, for instance, that you are away for the weekend and a cold snap hits your neighborhood. You come home, open the door, innocently flip on the light switch and nothing happens. So you think, “Is the switch bad? Is the light bulb burned out? Did we blow a fuse?”

Then you notice that you’re standing on a squishy carpet and realize that there’s more going on than just a burned-out light bulb. Eventually you trace the problem back to the thermostat, which happened to break down while you were gone. The busted thermostat meant no heat, which left the house vulnerable to that unexpected cold snap. So the water froze in the pipes, which burst and flooded the floors, leaked through the ceiling, hit the frayed wire, and shorted out the electricity. A classic domino effect.

This is exactly what happens in families. Sometimes a child may be exhibiting a “symptom” like the light switch that didn’t turn on. Say, for example, he’s a 16-year-old who is spending his days smoking pot on the roof at home after being expelled from school. Seems to be his problem, right? Possibly. But then again, that symptom may be the result of something wrong somewhere else in the system that’s just showing up in him first. If the underlying issue is not identified and the teenager becomes the sole focus of intervention, most likely things will not improve much. It would be like just changing the light bulb or replacing the frayed wire in the flooded house and leaving it at that.

The solution for Andrew, the pot-smoking dropout described above, went beyond getting him off the roof and confiscating his stash of weed. The underlying issue in his personal drama involved his parents, who were legally divorced but still embroiled in a lot of emotional conflict. Bill and Jackie hadn’t made the transition from “intact family” to “divorced family” and their son was paying the price.

Couples sometimes forget that their roles as spouses are distinct and separate from their roles as parents and may end up chucking them both if they split. Andrew’s father had pretty much kissed off his original family after the divorce and had replaced it with a new one. Not surprisingly, Andrew and his mom were hurt and angry. Jackie was left with all the parenting responsibilities and Andrew was left without a father.  Jackie was spending long hours at work, followed by long hours alone in her bedroom. She hadn’t made a new life for herself and was lonely and depressed. Andrew, unfortunately, was left pretty much alone to raise himself.

But whenever he got in trouble, his dad was called back in to help deal with the mess. This resulted in Jackie getting a little support in caring for her son and gave Andrew some semblance of family life even though it was warped and dependent upon him failing. And they were stuck. The dysfunctional pattern of—mom and dad retreat, son gets in trouble, mom and dad get together to parent child, child gets a little better, mom and dad retreat, son gets in trouble—had developed and threatened to ruin all of their lives.

Once Bill and Jackie began to see that their son’s future was truly at risk, they were able to put their differences aside and get serious about modifying the old family structure that no longer functioned. They worked together as parents to get Andrew re-enrolled in school. The two of them set clear expectations for his behavior and figured out how to jointly deal with consequences if he didn’t obey. They also set up a regular schedule for Andrew to spend time with his dad when he wasn’t in trouble. When Jackie saw that Bill would be around on a consistent, non-emergency basis for their son, she started to create a fuller life for herself. Her anger and resentment began to melt away and her sunnier outlook began to rub off on Andrew.

Most importantly, the couple faced the unacknowledged pain surrounding their broken marriage. Even though Bill had remarried, he and Jackie still jointly owned the house they had lived in together. It was the source of much friction and forced them to revisit their anger and resentment every time the mortgage or taxes were due. Jackie bought Bill out of his share of the house and the last piece of spousal business left between them was completed. They acknowledged that as parents they would always be connected and needed to maintain a strong working relationship for the sake of their son. And Andrew was finally off the hook. To everyone’s delight he got off drugs, back into high school and graduated a couple years later, on time, with his class.

When major events like divorce, death, or even the introduction of a new family member occur, the family structure must change. Although Andrew’s family had struggled for years, they were finally able to reestablish a new structure that allowed for the reality of divorce. They honed in on Andrew’s immediate problems and explored what was out of balance in the larger family system, too. Jackie and Bill let go of the role of spouse without abandoning the role of parent. Together, they figured out how Andrew could have a good relationship with each of them without someone feeling betrayed or left out.

Part I can be found in the Mama To Mama blog

Next week, Part III: Family Blueprints


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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.

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