You have heard the expression many times that all families are dysfunctional, and I believe that is true in many respects. Just when we think we have found the perfect family, we learn later that they have their problems as well. I have noticed that those families who get along the best with each other are often those who are grounded in some religious faith, using their knowledge of that faith to form guidelines for successful living and thus successful aging. So why do family members cross the line when getting along is so important to maintaining a healthy family? Despite any religious beliefs, upbringing, excellent socialization, study of psychology, etc. there will always be family difficulties of some nature. It is how you resolve, rather than ignore, these issues that is important.
The Me-First Attitude
Yes, there are family members who take actions that affect the rest of the family without thinking of any repercussions to others or themselves. Suddenly, it seems more important for them to win and for others to lose.
For some reason, these people–they exist in groups outside of families also–have to be right and have to have the last word even when it means that the wronged family member may not only suffer emotionally but will resort to cutting off the member who offended him. It does not matter how far children move away from their parents, the parents don’t get it. Now, I’m not saying that every move is caused by a problem in the nuclear family, but I am saying that many are.
We have all met them, worked with them, and lived with them. They are everywhere we are. And aren’t we part of the problem also?
To understand this better, we need to take a look at an explanation of family behaviors that was proposed by Dr. Murray Bowen. While he proposed eight concepts about family systems we will only discuss three of those, beginning with emotional cutoffs. He described this as members of a family unit, parents, siblings, etc., simply cutting other family members off when it appeared that a resolution to a troubling problem was not possible, even after repeated attempts. Obviously, this has its drawbacks in that when it happens, there is that loss of family unity that most of us desire, and secondly, attempts to recreate a lost relationship in new relationships often result in failure due to the individual’s inability to develop a sustained relationship, thus leaving this family member even worse off. Cutting off a family member can mean more than one thing in that the individual may
- move far away and see the family member only on rare occasions.
- see the family member more often but avoid reference to the problem.
- have to stay with his parents but cuts them off with behavioral issues that no one wants to address. This situation is tantamount to abuse.
Neither of the situations is going to actually solve the problem. So, when family members do get together, there is tension, reducing the likelihood of enjoying the occasion.
Not really understanding what is happening, a family member who has wronged so many suddenly finds himself or herself cut off from those members because they can’t tolerate the way the individual treats them. There is the customary amount of defending oneself against the person or persons who cut him off, and rather than trying to work it out, the individual, will seek out other family members and complain against or trash the one who distanced himself. This is what Bowen called triangles, which creates a very uncomfortable third party who immediately wants to comfort the person. According to Wikipedia,
Triangulation (psychology) is a manipulation tactic where one person will not communicate directly with another person, instead using a third person to relay communication to the second, thus forming a triangle.
When triangulation occurs, there is some reduction of the anxiety caused by the conflict; however, the actual source of the anxiety is not determined. According to The Bowen Center “People’s actions in a triangle reflect their efforts to assure their emotional attachments to important others, their reactions to too much intensity in the attachments, and their taking sides in others’ conflicts.” While a third party might be helpful in restoring relationships with the “important others,” it is more likely that there will be no resolution, and that additional triangles will be created, still with no resolution.
So why not get it right to begin with? Part of this has a lot to do with another of Bowen’s concepts—differentiation–an individual’s ability to think and behave independently of others, relying less on what his intimate group or everyone else thinks. The higher the differentiation, the better off a person is, and It is the highly differentiated person that is most likely to attempt talking with the family member to arrive at some resolution. A higher differentiation results in improved ability to resist the efforts of others to force someone to believe what everyone else believes. The lower your differentiation, the more you require the agreement of others and the more you feel like you have to agree with others. If you don’t get it, you feel rejected, worthless, and that what you think just does not matter. This puts you in a vulnerable position, always being afraid to speak up in meetings outside the family or in resolving family conflicts. You just give up.
Lisa Firestone wrote that our perceptions of ourselves most often came from projections of feelings generated by childhood incidents. Let me give you an example about me to illustrate this. I bet you will find something of yourself in this also: I used to be one of those people who experienced rejection often, and because I wanted everyone to like me, I would avoid taking sides, agree with both sides, or refrain from offering an opinion that I believed was not shared by others. I rarely spoke up for myself, even when falsely criticized for doing something I did not do. So, why would I act like this:
- I was overweight.
- I once heard my mother refer to my brother’s having a higher IQ than mine.
- My parents were divorced at a time when you did not hear much about divorce.
- That divorce left me feeling abandoned because (1) I loved and missed my father, and (2) Everyone (both sides of my family) made it clear to me—a 10-year-old at the time—that they were on my father’s side. They did not seem to care how what they were saying was affecting me.
- My mother was mentally ill and frequently underwent shock treatments for depression.
Moving up the ladder of differentiation, we need to resolve these old feelings and recognize that they have led us to conflicts with other people because by projecting our old feelings onto them and reacting in much the same manner as we did when we were children, we have shown ourselves to be superior to them by judging them. Have you ever wondered where you got some of those words that just bubble out of your mouth sometimes? Now you know. They were automatic, coming from somewhere way back when.
For me, change was slow, but good, and to my embarrassment, there are times when I revert to my old behaviors. There were also times when I became the peacemaker, trying to explain certain things to family members. I think my primary goal at the time was to say, “Hey, I hurt when you say things like that.” I would like to think I am much closer to being fully differentiated. I still refrain from giving my opinions about political and religious matters to certain people. Yes, I know that is cowardly, but sometimes it avoids arguments that have no solution. You are probably able to handle this on your own by thinking back to those events in your childhood that caused distress. Rethink them and make peace with them. This can be painful, and if you think you will not be able to do that, please see a professional.
The Mental Illness Component
This is a consideration we all have to investigate when we are having problems with family members that don’t get resolved and don’t go away. They just keep on happening. And it does not seem to matter how many conversations you have with the offending family member. Some offending members demonstrate characteristics of personality disorders such as
- Disregard for others’ needs or feelings
- Having a need to one-up or put down someone–feel powerful and arrogant
- Lying, stealing, and manipulating others
- Not recognizing that others have rights
- Thinking that they are more important than others
- Envying other people
- Inability to feel remorse, shame, embarrassment
- No admission of guilt, culpability, or responsibility–all meaning the same thing
- Always looking for a scapegoat to blame
- Taking advantage of others
This is just a few, but you get the picture. These are also symptoms of other serious mental illnesses, so don’t attempt to diagnose your family member. The final solution for dealing with one like this is to point out that you recognize the problems that affect your relationship and that you recommend professional help. That, too, comes with repercussions, but what are you going to do if you have tried everything else? Whatever their reason, you have to recognize that the person lacks the ability to compromise.
We live in a country characterized by freedom, any number of which you will find in the Constitution of the United States. We also have freedoms beyond those. Why do we allow ourselves to be mistreated by others or imprisoned by our thoughts and our feelings, both past and current, when we could be doing something about it and living a healthier life as a result? When you consider the costs of those freedoms–mainly the loss of hundreds of thousands of good men and women who fought for them–you pale by comparison by being one who cannot fight for your own freedom. No one is going to take action for you when it comes to personal matters. YOU are the one who has to do that. Please refer to an earlier blog for help with this.