Last month I shared some information on what emotional triangles look like in relationships with the important people in your life. This covered family, friends, and co-workers. This month’s topic is going to focus specifically on the family and how each generation impacts the next. Before I get into that it is important to understand that even when it seems like there is one person that creates or maintains anxiety or tension in your family it is not solely one person’s fault. It is common to point fingers at a member of the family and believe that if they change their behavior everything will be alright. In reality, it’s not that easy.
Multigenerational Transmission Process (MTP) is one of eight principles created by Murray Bowen, a family systems pioneer. To best explain what MTP looks like I will explain the concept from singular (me) to plural (us) so that you can see how events that affect us as individuals can inevitably affect the entire system as it grows to become multi-membered.
I am one person, I meet someone who, after a period of getting to know one another, becomes my spouse. I go from being one person with a certain set of morals, values, and rules for living and join another with a different set of morals, values, and rules for living. Together we form a couple with different ways of understanding life. Generally speaking, initially, this goes smoothly. The excitement of falling in love overshadows the reality that life together is different than anything we experienced before…or is it?
As I get comfortable in my new role, I begin to realize that my spouse has some habits or beliefs that are different than my own. Things looked different in my family and I lack a reference point on how to respond. A good example would be the way money is handled, a topic that creates tension for many couples. I want to manage things the way I am used to, my spouse wants to keep on doing what he has done, we both believe our way is better. We enter into our first disagreement.
If I come from a family that was able to manage differences in opinion and allowed to share my perspective I would respond initially with some push back, but eventually manage to find a middle road where we can see eye to eye, each one compromising a bit to meet in the middle.
If I come from a family that had a rigid view of things, where my opinion did not influence the outcome and decisions were made by one for all, then my reaction would be to give in. I would later feel anger and resentment towards my spouse as I recognize that I am feeling the same way that I did growing up-unheard and insignificant. Left unchecked this can create a rift in the relationship as we each try to navigate with the tools that we have.
Carrying this a generation further, let’s just say that my spouse and I decide to ignore the obvious elephant in the room. We move forward with the tools that we have and start a family. This is when our limited emotional resources will become increasingly problematic as our family of two becomes larger. If we have not worked through the tension created by pushing things under the rug, it will only be a matter of time before we create emotional tension in our family unit.
In a nutshell, it goes something like this. As we grow as a family the tension we ignored leads to conflict, emotional distance, or a reciprocal over/under-functioning pattern. Then one of us, in response to feeling left out or over-looked, maintains an emotional distance. As I live on the outside I long for connection, so I shift the focus from my spouse to my kids. Feeling overlooked by my spouse I become anxiously attached to my children, and over time my primary focus is on one child. This seems like a good solution because I do not have to seek relief from my spouse, who in my mind is the source of my frustration and anxiety. When this happens, I create a situation that is unhealthy for my child, it restricts her ability to regulate her own emotions and can lead to anxiety.
If what I am sharing with you resonates in any way, do not despair. All is not lost; you can find a way to break old patterns and replace them with new ways to connect to your family. Here are a few tips for getting started:
- Take time to sit down with your spouse. Talk openly about what is working and what is not working in your relationship. Alternate between sharing and listening (and while you are listening tune in to what your spouse is saying, this is not a time for finding fault in one another or solving any problems). Talk openly and honestly. If this goes well you can move on to the next tip, if it does not consider investing in your relationship with couples counseling.
- Assuming that tip 1 went well, it is now time to take a look at the relationships within your family system. If you have children, how are those relationships going right now? There is no perfect family. Disagreements, feelings of annoyance, frustration, and being at wits end are a reality in any family. As you consider your family structure, do you find it easier to talk to your kids rather than your spouse about day to day living? Do you find yourself venting to one or more of your kids about the things your spouse says or does? If you answered yes to any of this then consider investing in your family with family therapy.
- If neither of these scenarios is relatable for you but you are interested in learning more about how family therapy can help you, your spouse, and your kids to connect at a deeper level contact me for a free consultation to discuss what you are experiencing in your family. Together we will figure out the best way to get you where you want to be in your relationships.
Working with a marriage and family therapist can help you identify what is working and what is not working for you individually and for your family. Using tools such as family mapping or a genogram paired with professional insight as you process what is learned, you can begin to make changes that best suit the needs of your family.
Next up I will share with you one more of the eight Bowenian concepts, The Differentiation of Self Scale which looks at the emotional maturity of the individual. If you would like to learn more about Bowen Theory you will find a link in my May 2020 blog article entitled Individuality & Togetherness.