When you think of sitting down to the family holiday dinner table, surrounded by parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, do you feel something in your stomach right now? Is it that tense, tight feeling, almost like a stomachache that goes so deep, it’s hard to pinpoint the source? Murray Bowen (a pioneer of family therapy) would say you’re suffering from fusion. No, not nuclear fusion, although some readers may have witnessed explosions of that level over holidays past. According to Bowen, this type of fusion stems from the collision of two powerful forces: togetherness and individuality.
How can we make life choices or have opinions that clash with our family members but still feel emotionally connected to them?
Bowen believed that all human beings achieve some level of “differentiation” (on a scale of 1-100) from their family of origin by the time adulthood is reached. Differentiation refers to the boundaries that mark where one’s unique self begins and the family that one came from ends. Another way of thinking of it is the “bubble” that surrounds us containing our thoughts, feelings, values, etc. Outside the bubble lays the thoughts, feelings, and values of others, including our family, friends and society at large. The wall of that bubble could be extremely rigid, flexibly soft or completely absent, depending on the level of fusion. I think of low differentiation when I see clients who depend on others’ approval and acceptance and get extremely irritated or hurt when they’re not able to get it. They either conform themselves to others in order to please, or they attempt to force others to conform. Individuals with low differentiation are more likely to become reactive to the perceived demands of another family member, without being able to think through the choices or talk over relationship matters directly with the other person.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is what Bowen called “emotional cutoff”. This self-protective measure kicks in when it’s too painful to be around certain family members due to the high emotions, critical attacks and intense disapproval. We decide that our only option is to disengage. While this does relieve the immediate pressure, those patterns of reactivity in intense relationships remain unchanged – we have merely found the “pause button”. In relationship counseling, I most often see this dynamic between mothers and daughters. It is the source of immense sadness and anger.
If we don’t agree with our parents view of the world or make the same lifestyle choices, does that really make us a bad person? Or does that mean that they are the ones who are screwed up because they can’t accept us as we are? Of course, we know that neither answer rings true, but that doesn’t stop the tension and conflict when we go back home. That brings us to the holiday dinner table and what is really happening beneath the surface – hence the fish bait analogy. (I know you’re saying, it’s about time!)
Let’s picture a deep ocean filled with lots of fish, and this represents your family holiday celebration. You may be imagining the peaceful, calming turquoise waters of the Caribbean, or the frigid, icy Artic ocean – whatever fits. You are a powerful fish with great instincts for survival, knowing how to find the tastiest meals and avoid the pitfalls of ocean existence. You delight in navigating your way through the waters independently, going where you want to go and when you want to go there. But wait, what is that up ahead? It is the tastiest looking morsel you have ever seen, and you start swimming toward it. Outside of your awareness is a deadly silver hook buried in that mouth-watering delight because it is a cleverly designed piece of fish bait. As you approach, your survival instinct kicks in – wait a minute, could there be danger lurking nearby? This is the moment of truth – do you follow your instincts and bite or do you slow down and assess the situation further? We all know the outcome, and the price of taking the bait. Instead of swimming freely, you are now “on the hook” and under someone else’s control.
Each of us falls prey to the same patterns that have defined our family relationships for years. The same alliances still exist, so you know who’s going to stick up for you (or not). And that one person who loves to slip in comments about your perceived deficiencies (whether it be marriage or economic status, personal flaws or past dirty deeds) is going to nail you. You can lay money on it! How do they do it? By making a statement, or asking a question or doing something annoying and just waiting for you to react as you always do. And when you take the bait, what happens? You are no longer in control of your emotions, thoughts, or actions, it’s as if this person now has you “on the hook” and we all know how that turns out. You’ve lost the power to make choices, your only option is to “react”. Regardless of who wins the argument, you’ve lost the battle.
Sometimes, just understanding this analogy and how it applies to your own family dynamic can be a great anger management tool. Instead of hearing your sister’s snarky comment about your obnoxiously embarrassing ex-boyfriend, you can picture her holding a fishing pole with a worm dangling on the end. Up until the moment you take the bait, you are in control of the situation. You get to choose, asking yourself, “ am I going to let her control my feelings and give her the power, or am I going to keep it all for myself?” The good news is that when snarky sis realizes her fat juicy worm is being ignored, there’s no pleasure there and she’ll move on to deeper waters. It’s interesting how we can almost condition other’s bad behavior by simply not responding. I guarantee this was not the reaction they were hoping for. It really takes all the fun out of it for them, which is a good thing for us!
Finding the right level of differentiation actually goes deeper than just controlling our reactions in stressful situations. It means being able to have different opinions and values than our family members, but at the same time, staying emotionally connected to them. It means being able to calmly reflect on an uncomfortable interaction after the fact, realizing your own role in it, and then choosing a different response for the future.
So this holiday season, take a few minutes before you get to Grandma’s house and visualize the baited hooks that lie ahead. Make the decision right now to swim right by – you get to choose the outcome this time. Happy Holidays!