The systems of family

by Carolyn on July 25, 2009

relating to each other

relating to each other

Every family has a system.  A set of rules and expectations with regards to communicating and interacting with each other.  And every family is different.  There are general types of family systems but families are like snowflakes.  Each one varying slightly or even greatly from another.  And if that weren’t specific enough, each pair of members within the family has their own sub-system or set of rules for dealing with each other.  So intricate.  And yet for the people involved it is as natural as breathing. The system being like a warm and comfortable blanket you can wrap yourself right up into.

About 5 years ago, I took coursework to become an addictions counselor.  At the time, I was dealing with a lot of patients dealing with addiction issues and since I was finding myself discussing the topic often, I felt I needed to further my education.  Being that I was conversing as a health care professional, I wanted to be sure I was giving the appropriate counsel.  When I learned about family systems I was fascinated.  It was like the pieces of a puzzle coming together.  For anyone who wants to read more about family systems, I found a good website explaining the basics:  An Introduction to Human Systems and its Application to Effective Clinical Work

The system in essence is the set of boundaries, rules, roles, communication beliefs, patterns and relationships that everyone in the family is expected to follow.  It sets the tone for the interactions between all members.  Family systems can be open or closed.  Open systems accept change freely and allow outside ideas to influence them.  Closed systems do not accept change and close ranks to outsiders.  Systems can also be static or dynamic.  Static family systems do not accept change and growth of the individuals within them.  Dynamic systems accept and welcome the evolution of their members.

All family systems form from the union of two systems.  Two people who come together, their own family systems in tow.  Melding those two systems into one and creating a new system that now governs their relationship.  Once they have children, those children will see and learn what is expected very early in life.  The system becomes the social structure that will come to precede all of their subsequent connections.

Now think about the blended family.  Children who have grown up in one system.  Or at least started to grow up in one.  The system would have changed when their parents divorced, but the rules governing how they relate to each of their parents in essence stay the same.  But then their parents get remarried.  Creating that new system.  Requiring the child to learn new ways of relating.  Needing to let go of the old rules and find a way to embrace the new.  Something that might sound easier than it really is.  And it doesn’t sound easy.

Of course it is easier to adapt to the new system if it doesn’t change so much.  And it’s probably easier to adjust to the new system with the primary custodian; being that they are submersed in it most of the time.  But what happens when the system changes drastically?  How can a child learn a whole new set of rules when they are only living them part of the time?  How does one peel off that warm comfortable blanket and take comfort in something strange and foreign?  Not to mention the difficulty of needing to adjust between two entirely different systems once both parents remarry.  Hopping from rule set to rule set at the beginning and end of each visitation.   I certainly don’t have the answers.  For I had difficulty with all of these things myself.

I wonder if parents in blended families consider this.  When a couple is formed, the resulting system grows naturally.  If it doesn’t, the union won’t survive.  The couple will simply find themselves to be incompatible.  But what can be done if their resulting system is incompatible with the child?  Should the system change or should the child?  As a grown up child of divorce, I’m always in favor of making things easy for the children involved.  And in that case, the system would need to shift.  But that won’t always take into account all of the children in the family.  For in some blended families, both spouses bring children to their marriage.  So much to consider.  So many variables.

Perhaps the answer is for blended parents to maintain an open and dynamic system.  One that can change and grow based on the needs of everyone under it and the counsel of others.  Maybe just having parents be mindful of the concept of family systems would help them to understand their children’s challenges instead of being irritated by them.  I’m not sure.  All I know is that the concept of family systems can give a voice to many of the difficulties blended families face.   As well as complete the picture for the children who never felt fully blended themselves.  And for me, realizing and acknowledging the foundations of such struggles can be a giant first step in finding peace within them.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Frank July 26, 2009 at 5:26 am

This is all a very clinical approach to a situation which is anything but clinic in its implementation. You can’t have an open and dynamic system without people who are themselves open and dynamic. And honestly, how many people does that describe?

Also, I think the opening assumption that the original system is like a “warm and comfortable blanket” may be an idealized version of the truth. You were lucky that your parents didn’t get into knock-down, drag-out fights in front of you, but I would imagine that many children aren’t so lucky. Hell, my parents are still married and I had to watch years of that. Anything but warm and fuzzy.

Just last night I was reading the blog of a woman who was going through some of this stuff with her own kid. The father was now a drunken lout, with an ex-con living in the spare bedroom, and his live-in girlfriend wasn’t much of a prize, either. She’s struggling with what’s best for the child.

I think she’s spot-on with her approach to a bad situation, but I’ve seen a lot of parents revert back to a reclaimed singlehood after a divorce and a child isn’t always the most ideal part of that. Which is tragic.

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2 Carolyn July 26, 2009 at 8:06 am

But here’s the really interesting part about family systems theory: even when the system is completely toxic or abusive, it still becomes that warm blanket. It’s the familiarity, not the caliber of system that draws us in. That is why you see so many go into cycles of abuse. Children who watched alcoholic fathers tear their family apart end up married to men to who the same thing. Children who live in abusive households end up in one of their own making in adulthood.

It’s because that is how we have been taught to relate to others; it’s the foundation for all our relationships; even if we don’t perpetuate it. It is what is comfortable to *us* even if we don’t like it. Familiarity. The system is ingrained in us from birth and is very difficult to change. Of course the cycle can be broken, but what counsellors find is that even when we tell ourselves that we’ll never end up like that, often during times of stress, we resort back to the same patterns of behavior or create the same environment simply because it’s what we know.

The other interesting aspect is that the grown child’s carrying out of the system can really depend on what their own role or set of rules was within their own family unit. If as the child your role was to be quiet and hide while your father berated your mother, as an adult you may keep your role and be the submissive in your own relationships. Even seek out a dominant mate to keep our role. Or you may become the abuser yourself because that was the male head’s role which was modeled and that you might feel the need to step in to. Or with a lot of personal work and a recognition of the behavior you want to change, you may become something completely different.

You don’t have to agree with the theory but it is fascinating, isn’t it?

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3 Robyn September 29, 2009 at 11:47 pm

Yes, I agree with the blended family…you’re expected to take on a new role. I was eight when my mom remarried. My stepfather and mother tried to create a new family, I was introduced to live with 3 more siblings. My mom had another child. I was introduced to more outside extended family members. A whole new family actually while still trying to be loyal to all the old extended family. That was how it was for all of us.

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