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Family Holiday...Fun?

The day Halloween is over, stores stock their shelves with Christmas décor, stockings, wrapping paper. Black Friday sales begin the first weekend of November. You double check your lists while diamond and car commercials belt out holiday music with scenes of families and couples and kids gathering together--everyone is so happy (I mean, if I had a Cadillac SUV sitting in my driveway, I think I would be pretty happy, too!) However, deep down, all of us struggle with the holidays, right?

We have to cram 3-5 family gatherings in one weekend or we are thousands of miles from family; we never have enough money to make the holidays what we really wish they could be; that "someone" always ends up drunk and saying inappropriate things after the festive meal; mom makes comments that we are not measuring up with our siblings; the list can go on and on. But underneath all of these very real-life family dysfunctions, the theory of Bowen Family Systems is at play. Let's take a look at some common family dysfunctions--er, dynamics--see how we can identify what part we play and how to change the cycle.

Unspoken Roles and Rules

Rules: This is universal.  Every family has a set of unspoken rules.  With my family, one rule is to keep things light and fun and to laugh a lot. If someone gets serious and begins to cry, my family automatically feels uncomfortable. Eyes dart, people shift in their seats awkwardly, someone gets up to refill their coffee mug.   Or, please don't debate or argue--at least wait until Mom and Dad are ready to go to bed.  Can anyone relate?  
Your family's rules might be similar or might be: no one speaks about grandma (because of the family rift); no one disagrees with the matriarch or the patriarch about anything; someone always needs to affirm a certain family member.  Again, we can all relate.

Roles: Everyone in the family has an unspoken role. Consider: the black sheep, the scapegoat, the person-pleaser, the peacemaker. These roles have been perhaps given to the individual due to personalities and proclivities or due to what the family system "needed" at a given time. For example, perhaps the parents have a highly conflictual marriage with one daughter who is special needs and this creates more stress and more points of conflict between the parents. Then comes a son, and at a young age, he recognizes the stress within the system.  In order to not create more stress, he leans towards person-pleasing.
Perhaps that role (person-pleasing) fit the family system at that time, but as an adult, the role no longer fits. He realizes he has opinions, his voice matters, and he decides it is time to change his role within the family. But when someone's role starts to change, that can lead to the family system "freaking out" because he is not fitting the role he has played for 25 years. Which leads into the next point...


Every system has a homeostasis--like the body at 98.6. When the body has a temperature of 101, the system works to bring that temperature down--chills, sweating, shivering. So does the family system. When that son/brother comes home and is not as agreeable and gives unpopular opinions or thoughts, the system fights to bring him back to being the person-pleaser. Because his person pleasing keeps his mother happy and without the power, she is confused and fights to regain that power. Perhaps she tries to shame him or give him the silent treatment until he apologizes.
The system likes what has "worked"--as dysfunctional as it has been--for years, and does not know how to operate otherwise (the relationships, the power struggles, the martial dynamics).

Self-differentiation involves a level of self-awareness--a separating of oneself as distinct from others. You have a clear sense of self--your principles, convictions, beliefs--with no persuasion to change them due to emotional pressure or coercion. You do not bend and yield to whoever is around you; you do not depend on the approval of others to thrive; you are calm and do not react out of emotionality. Back to the person pleasing man--he has started the journey of separating his identity and needs and desires from his family. He decides his life does not ebb and flow with their approval and stands fast when his parents try to emotionally manipulate a different outcome.

This is simply the tip of the iceberg when it comes to all the dynamics in our family systems. It is complicated. We are broken. No family is perfect. People grow up, tragedy strikes--the needs of the system must evolve. Regardless, desiring more adaptive, cohesive and accepting systems is important for the sake of not just our sanity but for our kids, for their kids. No matter your family, your story, you can begin a new pattern, you can break off that role, change that rule, speak your (unpopular) opinion. But it starts with YOU.


Website: www.thebowencenter.org

Podcast: Emotionally Healthy Leader, Pete Scazzero

Family Ties That Bind by Ronald Richardson
Extraordinary Relationships by Roberta M. Gilbert

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