Where have the condiments gone? My emotional reactions at the family Christmas lunch

christmas condimentsHopefully I can continue to loosen up in the build-up to hosting a family gathering so that anyone can move the mustards and it will be just fine with me.

How did your family manage Christmas and holiday menu decisions? What were the issues that incited reactions from you and other family members? Could you notice who was most sensitive to the tension? Who were the peace makers? The distancers? The amplifiers? So often the issues that trigger reactions are insignificant but the extra intensity of the family gathering sets the scene for emotions to run a notch higher than usual. For myself I observed my emotions hitching a ride on the most petty of issues- the placement of the condiments?  Looking back it’s quite humorous to recall my reaction to a difference of opinion about whether the sauces should be with the buffet or on the dining table. Such a moment provided me with a humbling opportunity to practice managing my emotions more maturely.

Our emotions are hugely influential. I’m not referring so much to the secondary conscious emotions of happiness, anger or positive affection but rather to the primary emotions embedded in our lower central brain’s limbic system.  Like an iceberg, the primary emotions that drive levels of stress and fear (as well as being linked to essential biological systems such as digestion) operate beneath the surface of awareness and make up more of human experience and behaviours than we care to think. I have come to see that there is much value in an awareness of these primary emotions and the way they influence relationship patterns. At this Christmas holiday time, with extra demands on time, energy and extended family relationship interactions, I’ve been endeavouring to better observe these below the surface forces within my physiology.  Add a bit of stress to my life – even positive stress- and my primary emotions become more accessible to my intellect.

On the surface I thrive during the events of Christmas and holiday gatherings. I enjoy the planning and preparation, the opportunities for connecting over favourite food and champagne with uplifting music adding to the atmosphere. Plus there are the spontaneous back yard games that unite the generations as both players and spectators. While there’s much pleasure to be had there is also extra responsibility and tasks at this time. I’ve had my in-laws staying for the week and been host, with my husband, to some of the Christmas gatherings. With the extra load comes just that extra degree of intensity from my limbic system. I know that with a heightened level of work load and occasion anticipation, my heart rate can be a bit higher and my general body tension a bit tighter. For me this played out in being a bit too focussed on event management and being in control. The control thing is a learned way to absorb the extra tension but even in it’s more subtle forms it can be unhelpful in relationships. It can exclude others from contributing and inject a bossy tone to exchanges.

So what have I observed over the holiday week? Two key examples stand out for me as good lessons in awareness and making adjustments. The first was a conversation I had with my husband about catering for Christmas day. I asked him what ideas he had and as I listened to his particular views on preferred menu I found myself countering his ideas. What was going on here? I genuinely wanted to get his ideas but at my emotional level I reacted to what was contrary to my own thoughts. Thankfully he gently called me on this. He smiled at me and said isn’t it funny the way we get into this trivial debating at such times. Initially my emotional response was to justify my viewpoint but as I stepped back I could see that I was moving into unhelpfully taking charge. I was also contradicting myself. What I was asking for input about was discredited by the way I was responding. My effort went into calming down and loosening up. Then I was able to utilise my husband’s suggestions as a resource.

My second example I mentioned earlier definitely wins the prize in terms of triviality. As lunch was about to be served buffet style on Christmas day I noticed that my sister in-law took it upon herself to move the condiments from the buffet to the dining table. I smile as I now reflect on how silly this now seems but, in the moment, my agitation spiked in response to another deciding on one small matter about the best way to serve the food.  I gathered myself and took charge of my uncalled for emotional response that would have been clearly evident in my facial expression and the tone of my voice when I asked “where have the condiments gone?” Then I looked at my sister in law as she answered and smiled saying “I really do need to learn to be more flexible at this moment.” The condiments stayed on the dining table and of course worked just fine for everyone.

It was interesting to me to recognise that if the level of task responsibility is high my emotional response is to be less collaborative and more directive. This example shows how primary stress emotions can highjack quite unimportant issues.  Placements of mustard and cranberry sauce for heaven’s sake! I appreciate that small reactions about unimportant issues can lead to accumulations of emotionality.  This can certainly pollute the air of any gathering as others emotional sensitivities also come into play. Every emotionally driven reaction adds to a moment of tension acceleration that spreads through a relationship system.

It’s never easy to tone down emotional responses at times of high demand on our resources.  At any large family gathering resources for tasks and relationships are bound to be a bit more strained. Anxious behavioural reactions ride on the back of chemical charges out of our limbic brains that happen without a conscious choice. While our particular responses happen instinctively they do reveal useful aspects of ourselves such as our patterned ways of functioning in relationships and unhelpful (or indeed wrong) motivations.

I received a Fit Bit watch as a Christmas present and have already found it fascinating to track my heart rate. When sitting in a movie theatre with a family group on Boxing Day I could see that my heart rate was well above my resting rate. With this biofeedback awareness I was able to slow down my breathing and relax my muscles and watch to see lower levels achieved quickly as I tracked it on my watch. Such awareness of the subtle levels of elevated emotions allowed me to steady myself and enjoy the movie and the company so much more. Monitoring such signs of elevated emotions does not require a Fit Bit but just a bit of body awareness. A little more effort can be directed at slowing down our activity, our heart rate and our breathing.  With the emotional intensity toned down we can commit to observing ourselves in reaction to others and working at doing a notch better.

For most people our ‘beneath the surface’ responses go unnoticed or underestimated. It’s easier to perceive the annoying reactions of others than to pay attention to the way we inject our emotional intensity into the mix. Through all of life, learning to better regulate our primary emotions is a path to improved functioning, for both us and our important others. Hopefully I can continue to loosen up in the build-up to hosting a family gathering so that anyone can move the mustards and it will be just fine with me.

Questions for reflection:

  • When intensity is higher in life what can I observe about my emotionality?
  • What are others up against when I’m more stressed?
  • Which patterns are predictable when I’m in the midst of gatherings of important others? Withdrawal; overly taking charge; getting too busy; becoming critical and moody; avoiding people; drinking too much; becoming preachy; becoming overly needy; gossiping about others……..?
  • What can I make an effort to observe of my reactive behaviours? How can I become more responsible in monitoring my primary emotions and their affects?

Relevant Bowen Quotes

The theory postulates that far more human activity is governed by man’s emotional system than he has been willing to admit, and there is far more similarity than dissimilarity between the dance of life in lower forms (species) and the dance of life in human forms.  P305

It is possible for the human to discriminate between emotions and the intellect and to solely gain more conscious control of emotional functioning. The biofeedback phenomenon is an example of conscious control over automatic functioning. P305

In poorly functioning people the two centres {of the brain} are intimately fused, with the emotional centre having almost total dominance over the intellectual centre…..The more the separateness between the centres, the more the intellectual centre is able to block or screen out, a spectrum of stimuli from the emotional centre and to function autonomously. P372

In periods of calm, when the emotional centre is receiving fewer stimuli from its sensing network, the intellectual centre is more free to function autonomously. When the emotional centre is flooded by stimuli, there is little intellectual functioning that is not governed by the emotional centre. P 372

Becoming a better observer and controlling one’s own emotional reactiveness. These two assignments are so interlinked…The effort to become a better observer and to learn more about the family reduces the emotional reactivity, and this in turn helps one to become a better observer…One never becomes completely objective and no one ever gets the process to the point of not reacting emotionally to family situations. P 541

‘Where have the condiments gone? My emotional reactions at the family Christmas lunch’ – Jenny Brown

Christmas Rest

peaceIn this “Christmas Rest” blog I’m going against a pervasive stance that people should privatise their faith views (unless they are part of a current trend of social acceptability). I think this is generated by a tension about upsetting social harmony in the face of differences amongst us. I hope that I can be transparent about my faith in a way that is never pushy or judgemental towards others. Of course genuine transparency is living a faith not just talking it. Additionally I work to stay open to and listen well to others views and beliefs – a good ‘growing up’ opportunity.

A Time for Rest: Christmas reflections

Over all of the relationship challenges and busyness I will draw deep peace from the Christmas message.

Yesterday my work team celebrated Christmas and year end in the garden of one of our group. It was a truly pleasant time of sharing good food and refreshments, of connecting to broader family and laughing together as we negotiated the Kris Kringle gift process. I savoured the warmth of hospitality as well as the December air of summer ‘down time’ that marks a southern hemisphere Christmas.

I was full of gratitude for the good people I have the opportunity to work with, both now and in the past. The responsibilities for the lunchtime event were pretty evenly shared with everyone pitching in. As far as I could observe, no one was over -functioning and no one was under -contributing. It was good to experience this principle of non-anxious and balanced offerings in action. This is an example of seeing how the concepts from Bowen theory have assisted in building a constructive workplace culture where each individual has reasonable space to contribute without feeling over loaded or propped up.

At such a work Christmas gathering I particularly experience the intersection of my Christian faith and my professional interest in Bowen family systems theory. Before we all tucked into our main course buffet I shared a few reflections with my team members and their guests. This included recounting a Bible verse from my morning church service that I find deeply comforting. They are recorded words of Jesus: “Come to me, all who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.”

I’ aware of some of the varying burdens my colleagues are carrying, ranging from end of year tiredness to major family health crises. At this time of year especially, I think there is a hunger for deeper rest; to not feel abandoned to our insufficient resources in carrying our own load.

From my study and application of Bowen family systems theory I utilise astute research observations of relationship patterns to be a more responsible contributor to family and community. My Christian faith is in a distinctly different place, providing eternal life purpose and a compass for goodness and justice.  I’m committed to not pushing my faith position onto my work colleagues or any others but I do seek to be transparent about its importance in my life. I hope that I convey to others an openness to hear their particular faith story – which is frequently a tale of abandonment of spiritual faith.

Interestingly Bowen was intrigued by his observations of supernatural phenomena amongst humans and wanted to investigate this further in his life research of the human development. He did not live long enough to take this research interest very far. For me the experience of key times of supernatural interjection in my life undergirds my ongoing beliefs. My faith is experienced both intellectually and emotionally.  It is based on an intellectual commitment to studying scripture, including comparative reading from other traditions and criticisms. Probably more importantly it is based on the lived emotional experience of being loved and directed by a force outside of the limits of my human condition. I clearly recall as a twelve year old struggling with harsh isolation from peers and as I read words of scripture I had a visceral experience of the presence of Jesus with me.  This has been repeated many times at the various stages of my life – particularly (but not exclusively) in times of deep need. Yes I have certainly experienced times of doubt and have sometimes struggled to intellectually reconcile the miraculous claims of the Bible documents about God’s activity amongst humanity. Yet into these times of grappling I have repeatedly experienced the upholding and encouragement of a loving force from outside of myself. For me this is the presence of God offering rest and assurance. It is not religion but rather relationship.

During the Christmas season I will celebrate this precious rest and presence.  I expect I will also be drawing from what I learn from Bowen’s theory to manage myself in predictably intense relationship experiences. I will watch for the sneaky guises that tension can take in me and will work to deal with these in myself rather than to spread it unhelpfully amongst others by such postures as over- sensitivity, over- controlling or distancing. Over all of the relationship challenges and busyness I will draw deep peace from the Christmas message.  I will allow the beauty of ancient carols to again to connect to my lived experience of a personal God [Emmanuel] who offers rest for my soul.


Rather than questions for reflection here is a familiar carol that speaks of the rest offered in the Christmas message:

Silent night, holy night!

All is calm, All is bright

Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child

Holy Infant so Tender and mild,

Sleep in heavenly peace,

Sleep in heavenly peace.


If you would like more to reflect on about the peace of Christmas here is a free mp3: by New York based Rev Dr Tim Keller

1: Does Religion Lead to Peace on Earth? – Tim Keller – 16 mins

At Christmas time, we sing about peace on earth, but does religion actually lead us there? It seems that religion more regularly leads to division and marginalization. What if anything, does the Christian message offer that can turn our skepticism into a living, breathing movement toward peace on earth?

Does religion lead to peace on earth? – Gospel in Life

‘Christmas Rest’ – Jenny Brown



Clarifying and expressing my thinking about a highly emotive topic


Couples in Conflict = Clarifying and expressing my thinking about a highly emotive topic

It’s easy to write about topics that are socially acceptable, to express an opinion that is shared by the current majority trend. I’m aware that any writing that stays in a safe harbour of majority group think is not a growing up exercise.

I’m sitting down to write about couple conflict.  With so much important publicity this past week about the serious end of the spectrum of domestic violence I’ve thought it useful to add another angle on the less extreme situations.

It is a ‘growing up’ challenge to write about any highly emotive topic. The more a topic stirs up strong feelings the more the tendency to black and white thinking.  I admit that my conflict avoidant priming has rendered me a tad nervous about how this blog might be interpreted. That said I’ll now venture forth into my writing – a discussion of reciprocal couple conflict.  Reciprocity means considering how both parties contribute to a pattern of fighting. I know that there are many in the field who say that the woman is always in the one down position due to her reduced physical strength. Hence if fighting is escalating to yelling and angry gestures such as door slamming the wife needs to get quick smart to a place of safety.

Let me be clear that I unequivocally condemn violence against women and children – acts of criminal assault combined with inexcusable intimidation and control. I think that white ribbon day is enormously valuable in opening up much needed public discourse on the seriousness of relationships that escalate to men intimidating, controlling and beating female partners (or ex – partners). The statistic of 2 Australian women killed each week by domestic violence is appalling! But I also see, from years of clinical practice, that not all aggressive conflictual episodes in the home are helped by a ‘black and white’ response that blames and removes the stronger male perpetrator and treats the female as a victim. There are many expressions of relationship conflict that can unhelpfully be confused with the most serious of unsafe situations; and in these cases the label of villain and victim doesn’t assist either party to grow some maturity and to rise up out of their pattern of excessive fighting.

One of my colleagues recently told me about a couple she was working with in counselling where the presenting problem was frequent fighting. She explained that both spouses would quickly and regularly escalate to yelling at each other and both would sometimes slam doors or bang fists.  They could argue about the big and the incredibly small issues. The content seems less a driver of their fights than their sensitivity to losing one’s position. It’s an ugly picture in a marriage but it is very common.  I heard that in this case the female had discussed the fighting with a community health worker and within 24 hours she had been assisted to a refuge with her children and was engaging a solicitor to apply for a restraining order. After beginning a process of counselling where each had separately conveyed their desire to improve their marriage, the sessions had abruptly halted with a legal process taking over. Like many of the couple’s I’ve worked with, my colleague conveyed that these spouses both seemed committed to breaking this conflictual cycle but they each felt trapped in it. They had been able to describe their highly reactive behaviour in response to the other not seeing things their way. Each would turn up the volume to the point of exasperation and then retreat to a period of distance and avoiding each other. As I listened to my colleague describe this situation I recalled a number of women who had commenced couple counselling reporting to me being told by other helping professionals that they should not stay in a marriage where there is shouting – especially when there are young children. I have wondered if the helper had asked enough questions to see the pattern of provocation and arguing that both partners acknowledge they are caught in. I have pondered whether the criminal justice system and family and child protection systems would be better able to respond to the genuine safety threats if more questions were asked about the two- way patterns of arguing.  There is an important distinction between reciprocal arguing and the pattern of over-dominating aggression from the male partner (with a very small number being female partners).  In contrast to a mutual intense cycle of attack, defend and withdraw in a couple relationship, the more serious pattern of violence includes paranoid monitoring and efforts to control the others interactions with the outside world..

Dr Bowen observed that conflict and distance were one of the common patterns utilised to manage anxious intensity in a marriage.  Another pattern is when couples project their insecurities towards an over -focus on a child which may impinge on the child’s development; and the other common couple dance is an over- responsible /under-responsible way of relating that may leave one spouse vulnerable to emotional illness. For those in a confilctual marriage/relationship, the fighting serves a function of bolstering insecure aspects of self through the pretend strength of arguing; and then retrieving some breathing space through distancing. Couples in conflict often experience a strong reinforcing intimacy at their reunions (this is a false intimacy but can be quite compelling). Each of the 3 patterns for managing immaturity in the couple relationship can become destructive if they get fixed into a long term manner of relating. Yet it is usually the fighting couple whose relationship is judged more severely. In some families Bowen observed that the fighting created a kind of ‘conflictual cocoon’ that did not involve the children and left them surprisingly free to develop relatively unscathed. (This is distinct from conflict that draws children into taking sides or violent conflict that corrodes a child development through sustained fear).

It is concerning when people treat an argumentative couple on a par with a situation of severe regressive spouse abuse.  I think this confusion happens more than people may realise. When the fighting couple have had enough of their immature fighting cycle and want help to break free of it, they need to work on changing their contribution rather than labelling one side as the villain. Neither is helped by increasing a blaming focus on the other that can lead to unnecessary relationship breakdown. I think of couples I’ve worked with where each has moved away from blaming and railing against each other to figuring out how they can bring some personal integrity to the situation. I’ve heard men speak to an appreciation of what their wife must be up against when they don’t follow through on a commitment; I’ve heard women consider the effect of their withdrawal of interest in their mate while at the same time lavishing attention on their kids;  I’ve heard men and women own that when they use intellectual debating they know they leave their partner feeling at a loss to communicate; I’ve heard women after separation shift from only communicating through a solicitor to making time to talk in person to their ‘ex’ about contact with the children; I’ve heard husbands acknowledge that when they walk out in the middle of their wife expressing a complaint it is excruciating to her. A whole new path can be built when at least one spouse is willing to see the ways they contribute to the provocation and escalation of conflict. They come to see it as a false way of building a sense of secure self with their mate.

A husband who had been in a conflictual marriage for over 20 years  wrote on a counselling feedback form that he had shifted his focus from getting his wife to change her attitude (or hoping the counsellor would achieve this) to a desire to change himself. He wrote:

We have each contributed to the tension in our relationship. We have each reacted in such a way as to reinforce the worry in the other person. ———One of us needs to take the initiative, put the hurt behind them, and choose to declare their decision to act, as much as it depends on them, to re-establish a good relationship. —–My effort is to be that “one of us”.

An approach that looks at what each partner brings to the equation of their own immaturity is a path to breaking a cycle of futile fighting. Even at the severe end of the spectrum, where couple counselling is ill advised and safety is paramount, I see that there is still a degree of reciprocity to the patterns of fusion from which regressed behaviour can emerge. This does not blame the woman in any way but it does mean that once safety is achieved, she can be assisted to consider ways to prevent a pattern of over deference to a man who initially presents as a kind of over- charming ‘rescuing prince”. Men can also be assisted to look at ways their family of origin relationships have given them inadequate experience of not getting their own way contributing to an excessive sense of entitlement.

This is my effort to put out my thoughts regarding a tendency I’ve experienced to over diagnose domestic violence when hearing about fighting couples. I know this is a sensitive topic but I hope I can contribute to a thoughtful response to the complexity of relationship symptoms.  It’s easy to write about topics that are socially acceptable, to express an opinion that is shared by the current majority trend. I’m aware that any writing that stays in a safe harbour of majority group think is not a growing up exercise. Equally however, if I write provocatively to stir up dissent I am also on an irresponsible path. Bowen in his depth of observational research of the human family could see that the overly compliant person, who always looks for approval, is similarly undifferentiated as the overly rebellious person who creates a pretend identity using the forces of opposition. This blog has been an exercise in writing about an emotive issue where I have experienced past strong disagreement within my field. I hope to contribute to a thoughtful dialogue and information sharing about the diverse presentations of couple and family conflict.

Questions for reflection:

  • How do I deal with talking about issues that I know will evoke negative reactions?
  • Am I avoidant out of fear of disapproval? Or do I draw a degree of kudos from being provocative?
  • How do I respond to hearing divergent views about issues that I only like to see in terms of ‘black and white’ or right and wrong?
  • What is my response to the different ways immaturity is managed in marriages, /couples? Conflict, distance, focus on child, over and under-functioning?
  • Do I judge any pattern more harshly than another? Am I prone to a blaming stance? Can I hold a view of destructive behaviours that both preserves accountability and considers reciprocity – how each person contributes to symptomatic patterns?

Relevant Bowen theory quotes:

On holding a position that is not in line with prevailing emotions:

The ‘I’ position stance is conveyed by: ..’These are my beliefs and convictions…it is not negotiable in the relationship system in that it is not changed by coercion or pressure, or to gain approval, or to enhance one’s stand with others…….the pseudo self is acquired in the relationship system in the prevailing emotion.’ FTCP p 473

An expression of poor differentiation (maturity) is ‘working always for togetherness in relationships with others and avoiding “I” position statements that would establish themselves as separate from another.’ P 423

Bowen’s description of very low differentiation that describes one who is violent with an intimate partner:

‘Their use of “I” is confined to the narcissistic, “I want – I am hurt – I want my rights.” …They are dependent on the feelings of those around them. So much life energy goes into ‘being loved’ or reaction against the failure to get love.’ P 162 FTCP

What increased differentiation involves:

The difference between the narcissistic undifferentiated self and a differentiating self: ‘The responsible “I” assumes responsibility for one’s own …wellbeing. It avoids thinking that tends to blame one’s own unhappiness, discomfort or failure on the other.’ P218 FTCP

Patterns for dealing with fusion (over investment /sensitivity to the other)

Early in marriage two pseudo selves fuse into we-ness. The symptoms from fusion come [later]. To manage fusion the following patterns are utilised in varying degrees:

1= emotional distance

2= Marital conflict permits each to keep reasonable emotional distance most of the time and intense closeness during ‘make-ups’.

3= another pattern continues the fusion. One spouse moves into the dependent position leaving the other as the functional decision maker.

4= transmission of the intensity onto a child.

FTCP p 433

A good book reference: Couples in Conflict, R W Richardson 2010

Helpful suggestions for recognising signs of unsafe coercion & physical abuse p114-117.

‘Clarifying and expressing my thinking about a highly emotive topic’ – Jenny Brown

Saying Goodbyes

the fsi

I am also clear that my children are not a possession and are not in this world to meet my needs. This helps me to make room for feelings of sadness at the moment of goodbye but not to allow such feelings to dominate.

What a special time I’ve just enjoyed with my daughter and family who live across the other side of the world. It is a torrid 24 hours of travel to reach her but worth all of the jetlag and side effects to have that personal face to face time. My priority was to be part of her regular routine and to get to know her life in a more tangible way. Nothing can substitute for face to face time! That daily sharing of life for even a short time enables me to move past feeling like a visitor in her life to reinforcing the settled platform of our lifelong connection. Cooking, shopping, attending the ordinary family member events, domestic duties and time out for the simple treats of a café outing. My position in this relationship needs to adapt to the changing phases of the life cycle but the loving bond of family continues to undergird the changes of circumstances.

After a teary farewell I took the opportunity to catch up with 2 friends before undertaking the long flight back to Australia. My friend asked me at lunch how I manage living so far away from family. She said to me that it must be very hard to deal with the distance in our relationship. I responded saying that while it has its challenges I never dwell on the loss of geographic closeness to my daughter. This is a definite choice for me grounded in some important perspectives. I’m mindful that my own mother never lived to see her children married and the arrival of grandchildren. With that reality as a back drop I couldn’t think of grumbling about the distance in my relationship with any of my children. I am grateful to be alive to enjoy seeing her and her family’s life unfold. I think of many people who are bearing the much greater weight of strained relationships with adult children or not having the opportunity for children and grandchildren.  I am also clear that my children are not a possession and are not in this world to meet my needs. This helps me to make room for feelings of sadness at the moment of goodbye but not to allow such feelings to dominate. Indeed as I write this blog I feel the small tugs of emotion that this much anticipated reconnect has come to an end. This is however tempered with a deep gratitude for such a blessed time and an appreciation of the joy of returning home, reunions with loved ones and resuming my own meaningful routines.

When we begin to draw life meaning and steadiness from any relationship it can move into what Bowen described as fusion. The other person loses their separateness from us and becomes merged into our own functioning. Each of us brings varying degrees of propensity to relationship fusion from our intergenerational families. It’s easy to use a relationship to provide us with a sense of being needed or to reduce a sense of inadequacy or futility. This rarely happens consciously but it can slowly develop in the presence of life’s anxieties and is reinforced as other people reciprocate in the fusion pattern. For some, who carry dissolution with their family relationships, it’s likely that they will over invest in substitute relationships. When there is cut off from important family members it may be that intense new relationships are not too far away.

From my faith position I find it useful to view the tendency to relationship over-investment as a kind of heart idolatry- where the other person is elevated to a position of exaggerated importance. Canadian Bowen theory scholar and Presbyterian minister Randal Frost described this in a presentation on ‘faith and functioning’ where the tendency to anxiously invest in others (or in work, education, causes, and substances) can parallel a lack of effort towards God:

 “…people who come to know and trust God no longer have the same need to secure themselves by means of over-investing in others.”

“..modification of the idolatrous component of an intense emotional attachment (to people or things) should gradually enhance the possibility of defining a self to the other.” Frost R 1998, paper presented at WPFC

As I reflect with warmth and gratitude on my recent time with my daughter I remind myself that my relationships are a gift not an entitlement. Even with the challenges of distance they are to be appreciated and worked on – but not elevated to a place where they are necessary for my sense of purpose or happiness. In my everyday growing up efforts I endeavour to keep relationships in their appropriate place. To feel the emotions of reunions and separations but not to let such feelings elevate the person to an unrealistic importance. To love them, appreciate and enjoy them but not draw on my interactions with them to prop up my wellbeing.

Questions for reflection

  • Which relationships risk becoming overly important to me?
  • What are the ways I look to a relationship to provide a sense of wellbeing?
  • How do I manage separations from important other’s?
  • If the emotions of loss and grief are excessive when separating from another, how might this indicate fusion (or elevating a person to a place of heart idolatry)? How can I slowly begin reducing this intensity?
  • What is the place of feelings in separating from important others? What is the place of principle and perspective when dealing with geographic distance from family?
  • Have I reflected on how it is that programs that encourage a relationship with a ‘higher power’ assist many people to reduce their investment in addictive behaviours? (12 steps in AA)

Relevant quotes from Bowen theory (this summary is taken from Family Therapy in Clinical Practice- showing what high, moderate and lower levels of fusion look like. p 366- 370.)

High Fusion People

  • Live in a feeling dominated world.
  • So much energy goes into seeking love and approval and keeping the relationship in some kind of harmony, there is little energy for life-directed goals.
  • When approval is not forthcoming energy is directed into withdrawing or fighting their relationship system
  • When failing to achieve closeness, they may go to withdrawal and depression, or to pursuit of closeness in another relationship.

Moderate Fusion People

  • Are more able to distinguish between feelings and facts especially when tension isn’t high.
  • Their feelings still tend to tell the intellectual system what to do
  • Their well-being can be dependent on other’s approval. Criticism can be crushing.
  • Are sensitised to reading the moods, expressions and postures of the other.

Low Fusion People (high differentiation/maturity)

  • When relationship tension is high, the person’s intellect can hold its own without being dominated by the emotional system. (emotions are both feelings and physiological reactivity)
  • They have employed logical reasoning to develop principles and convictions that they use to over-rule the emotional system in situations of anxiety and panic.
  • Are less relationship directed. While aware of relationships and connected to important others their life courses are not directed by what others think and how they react.

A caveat from Bowen

“A common mistake is to equate the better differentiated person with a ‘rugged individualist.’ I consider rugged individualism to be the exaggerated pretend posture of a person struggling against emotional fusion. The differentiated person is always aware of others and the relationship system around him/her.” P 370

‘Saying Goodbyes’Jenny Brown

In-laws and Over Correcting

garden (1)

Learning not to ‘over correct’ in my in- law relationships

 I reflect on the growth of my relationship with each of my husband’s parents. It hasn’t always been easy to be clear about my position in these relationships.  I’ve endeavoured to find the right balance of staying connected but not filling in the space that belongs to my husband in managing his relationships with his own family. I didn’t always work at finding this balance. At one point in my married life I shifted rather dramatically from over involvement to minimal involvement.

What have you observed about your reaction after you’ve become cognizant of unhelpful activity in a relationship?  My trap has been to go too far in the other direction when I resolve to stop doing for others what really belongs with them.  When I saw that I was getting in the way of another’s growing up space , my response was to back off so much that I risked not staying helpfully connected. It’s a bit like over -adjusting the direction of a sailing boat by tacking in the opposite direction when all that’s required is a trim of the sails.

Let me describe the family systems lesson that I ‘over corrected” as it related to my husband’s parents.  As a typical over -functioner in family relationships I had instinctively taken on the tasks of staying connected to my in-laws in the early years of our marriage. For example, I remembered birthdays and ensured that gifts or cards were purchased and phone calls made at the correct times. My husband, who had been somewhat distant from his family as a young adult, seemed more than willing to allow me this position. It’s not that we ever openly negotiated the role it’s just the way our postures developed in our early marriage.  When I was training in Bowen’s family systems theory in the early 1990s I could identify that it was not helping my husband to forge his own relationships with his family if I was always managing this for him. I began to pull back from this. In fact I think I pretty much went ‘cold turkey’ in resigning from being responsible for connection with his parents. I did let my husband know that I wasn’t going to continue to be the primary contact with his family or keep the diary on their birthdays. I didn’t resign with anger but with a conviction that this would be better for our family in the long run. Many benefits have ensued from this decision. It was a great growing up experience for me in learning to stop monitoring my husband regarding his family. I needed to tolerate him forgetting birthdays and not contacting as often as I might have. Over the years I have seen him gradually take on more responsibility for his family connections and the relationships have certainly strengthened as a result. I have been more relaxed with my parents in law because of a reduction in my fusion with them where I had come to relish being important to them. It’s been good for me to reduce my importance in family relationships – to learn to not take up too much of the stage in relationship groups.

While this has all been a positive over the past 2 decades, I can look back and see that I took an unnecessary back seat with my in-law family. I concentrated on my side of the family and did not put in a responsible degree of effort in connecting to the very important other side of our extended family system. I have gradually worked to get a better balance in these important relationships. My husband stays at the forefront of these connections. Any important decisions will be left to him and his family members without me interfering. However I can be a resource and support to him in this – a sounding board for him. I can also be a secondary connector with his family making sure I chat directly to my in-laws when there is opportunity.

Yesterday, out of the blue, I called and chatted to my mother in law to catch up on news. My father in law was recently home from a stint in hospital and it was important to connect and hear about how they were managing and what their news was (even though my husband was keeping me in the loop). This contact is now quite independent from my husband who takes the primary responsibility for being present and accounted for in his family. My effort is to speak to each of my in-laws separately so that I forge a real relationship with them both.

I deeply value my relationship with my in-laws. There is mutual respect and care and I can see how this has been replicated in both of our daughter’s independent relationship with their grandparents. It was helpful to realise, all those years back that I was getting in the way of my husband’s developing relationship with his family. It has also been valuable and important to redress my back seat position and become a more active member of this side of my family system.  Thoughtful balance over the years is a worthwhile goal.

* This photo is of my mother –in- law’s flourishing garden.

Questions for reflection:

  • Am I aware of any unhelpful activity in my relationships, such as taking on relationship responsibilities for another?
  • When I see unhelpful patterns how do I go about correcting them?
  • Do I swing too far in the other direction?
  • Do I pull out of my old pattern with a blaming stance towards another?
  • Or can I adjust my position in a proportionate way?
  • How am I relating to my spouses side of the family? Am I allowing them to be primary in these relationships? Am I having an active role as a member of this important part of my relationship system?
  • To what extent do I relate to my in-laws as individuals rather than as a ‘clump’?

Relevant Bowen quotes (from Family Therapy in Clinical Practice)
“The various nuclear families in the extended family system tend to group themselves into emotional clumps and the communication is in often from ‘clump to clump’ rather than from individual to individual…..The new plan was to define myself as a person and to communicate individually to a wide spectrum of extended family members.” P 499

“My over-all goal was to be able to have an entire visit with the family without becoming fused into the emotional system.” P503

Over functioning- under functioning in a marriage

“The pseudo-self of the adaptive one (who allows the other to do for them) merges into the pseudo self of the dominant one who assumes more and more responsibility for the twosome….Each does some adapting to the other…The one who functions for long periods in the adaptive position (giving way to the other) gradually loses the ability to function and make decisions for self.” P 378

‘In-laws and over correcting’ – Jenny Brown

Our Dogs and Our Family Systems

Pets and our family systems

(This was written a couple of years ago for the Family Systems Institute Blog)

It’s thought-provoking to consider what else is IMG_1468going on in our family at the time a dog enters? Hendrix came along at a time when I was adjusting to adult children leaving home?  There is no doubt that he filled something of a void for me in terms of my being needed and him relishing my attentions.  We have certainly developed a reciprocal sensitivity to each other.

This blog began as a casual conversation in the kitchen at my office with one of my colleagues Lily Mailler.  It was prompted by the site of Lily’s golden Labrador Bella sitting in the back of her car for over an hour while she was working. This gentle and cumbersome canine was sitting quietly and calmly on a blanket with a breeze cooling her through a partly open window. Lily had organised for her to be picked up by a family member some time that afternoon.

Jenny:  Lily, seeing your Labrador sitting so patiently in the back seat of your car has got my attention.  I can’t imagine my cocker spaniel, Hendrix, sitting so calmly outside knowing that I was in the building. I also can’t see myself being comfortable leaving him confined for an hour or so.  I would be working in the office with an ear out for his howling. There’s no doubt that I have a different intensity in my relationship with my dog to you and Bella!  What do you make of this?

Lily:  Yes, I have observed that my dog Bella has less separation anxiety than other dogs I know, for example she comes with me to the beach every morning and I tie her to a post at the surf club whilst I swim and do my thing. She doesn’t whinge or bark like other dogs that are also tied up and waiting for their owners to come back. She does however have a level of sensitivity to me. For example I have observed that she watches me intently whilst I swim and refuses to walk with someone she does not know when I am around.  I agree with Dr Bowen that we all have degrees of sensitivity and attachment which extends to family pets. I kid myself when I think that I am not disproportionately attached to my dog. Recently I have found myself feeling a sense of panic when she did not bark upon my arrival at home and found myself rushing outside to see if she is ok. I realise her hearing is not as sharp as it used to be.

Bella came into my life at a time when I was too preoccupied with making a living and surviving.  I did not particularly want a dog as I felt that it would be another demand upon me. My eldest son and his girlfriend got the dog and they assured me that they would be responsible for it. Of course things did not work out that way: they broke up, my son left to work in the Whitsundays and I was left with the dog. I learnt to love Bella but I made sure she was not to be another imposition on me, by making a conscious effort to be clear about what I would and would not put up with from her. I believe that as a consequence she is not demanding and she knows I am top dog. The kids do not understand how come she is so loving and obedient to me when I do not show her the level of attention they show her.

Jenny It’s thought-provoking to consider what else is going on in our family at the time a dog enters?  Hendrix came along at a time when I was adjusting to adult children leaving home?  There is no doubt that he filled something of a void for me in terms of my being needed and him relishing my attentions.  We have certainly developed a reciprocal sensitivity to each other. He is so alert to me giving attention to other dogs.  Our much older dog was quite self sufficient and non- demanding.  I agree with you that our pets are a part of our family emotional process. The position they occupy has a lot to do with what is happening with shifts in other relationships.

Lately I have been working on being a bit more boundaried (less fused) and more thoughtful about my responsibilities as owner/pack leader with Hendrix.  Perhaps my observing your calm with Bella, and reciprocally Bella’s calm with you, is an additional bit of a wakeup call for me. As a corrective I’ve started focussing more on being a leader to him—not letting him jump on our bed, or walk in front of me, or come through the door first.  He’s becoming a much calmer dog as a result.  Ironically I can enjoy him more when I’m not so wrapped up in him.  This sounds similar to what you observe with your relationship with Bella in contrast to your children.

I’ve been wondering if those of us who are vulnerable to a disproportionate child focus are also prone to a more fused involvement with our pets …especially when children are less present in our lives. 

Lily- My capacity to stay in my own skin with Bella does not mean that I have the same type of reciprocity with my children, I actually was so focused on my kids that there was less of the focus left for Bella and I believe that, as a result, she has functioned much better than all others in my immediate family system. It is interesting to note that Bella has not had any physical symptoms during the 9 years of her life but for the odd tick she has picked up from the bushes. It makes me wonder about how the relationship variables expressed in levels of sensitivity may be important predictors of her good health, besides her biological predispositions.  Her brother from the same litter, who belongs to another member of my extended family, has had a number of physical ailments. There is plenty in the writings of Bowen and Kerr around this issue although the evidence is not conclusive.

Jenny – Well Lily I’m glad I got to observe the differences in our relationships to our dogs. It’s prompted some interesting reflections. While my dogs are not comparable in importance to the people in my family they are certainly a part of our family system and its emotional patterns.

Questions for reflection:

  • What has been the timing of pets entering my family? What other changes in family dynamics were occurring? How did this impact the way family member’s related to the pet?
  • In what ways was a pet focussed on? Who were they most important to? How did this play out in family relationships? How did the focus influence the pet’s behaviour?
  • What work on self-regulation is required to be an effective pack leader with a pet?

Additional resources:

Professor Barbara Smutts, from the University of Michigan has presented at the Bowen Centre in Washington DC on triangles and domestic dogs,.  She studies the dynamics of social relationships in dogs (and other social mammals) by observing video-taped interactions in fine detail, using frame-by-frame and slow motion analysis.  Imagine being able to study our family process in this way! Click here to view more.

There’s a fascinating chapter written by Linda Flemming on triangles in a human & canine pack.  She describes the formation of an emotional triangle with 2 dogs with the dynamics of insiders and outsiders.  When she starts dating her future husband, new interlocking triangles are evident.  When one of her dogs becomes quite symptomatic, she draws from Bowen theory to deal with the system instability.  Her first step was providing more leadership, which helpfully shifts focus from the reactive pack member to managing self in a steadier manner.  She resisted focussing on the symptoms in her dog.  She writes, “As long as I was focussed on Shayne (dog) as the problem, we made no progress in changing behaviours. When I began to see the problem as residing in the system rather than on Shayne, we began to make progress.”  P 237-8

Flemming L. “Observation of Triangles in a Human-Canine Pack”. Ch 9  in Titelman, P. (Ed.) (2008). Triangles: Bowen Family Systems Theory Perspectives. New York, Haworth Clinical Practice Press.

‘Our Dogs and Our Family Systems’ – Jenny Brown

Relating to the whole person – not just their vulnerability

It’s all tsept blog jboo easy when we view someone as vulnerable to relate to their struggling side rather than relate to them as a whole person.

Lately I’ve been reflecting on how I relate to important people in my life who are going through a difficult time. I found myself in a series of perplexing conversations with one such person that has given me great opportunity to learn more about myself in relationships. When we interacted I would frequently ask how they were managing which was responded to with bleak descriptions of what they were enduring. Over time I found myself feeling frustrated with the monologue of negative responses. I was beginning to find it hard to listen graciously. As our conversations became increasingly negative I was starting to silently disengage. This was a challenge to grapple with as this person had some legitimate burdens in their life that deserved compassion. I knew that I wanted to be genuinely present in our conversations and be a caring presence in their life. At the same time I wanted to be able to share things that were happening in both our lives and not just stay with one sided hope depleting content.

In such situations the instinctual response for me is to feel somewhat critical of the other for becoming consumed by their difficulties. This can lead to my avoiding regular interaction. From such an emotional response I would be prone to either distance from this person or to try to change them- neither a mature option. Both options would certainly shut out being a supportive resource to another who is struggling with genuine hurtful life circumstances. It is also likely that I might triangle with another about my worry or frustration with the person. It’s uncanny how critical judgments can emerge without seeing our co- creation of the interaction.

My alternate response was to turn my attention to figuring out my contribution. If I was becoming disengaged from our conversations what was my part in this? I realised that if I kept directing my questions to another’s struggles, of course this is what would take centre stage in our conversations. My questions were inviting them to focus solely on what was painful.  With this awareness, I started opening up more of what I’d been doing with my life. I shared things that were dilemmas for me and asked her opinion about these. I made sure I knew what was happening in their daily life and asked specific questions about these events. I discovered that there were lots of interesting aspects to their work that I knew nothing about and this enabled a more compelling engagement in our conversations. We still discussed the challenges of their situation but it was a more mutual and broad conversation. The chatting about worries became more about their problem solving efforts. I was able to contribute a few ideas in response to the other’s expressed efforts to navigate a way through the complexities of their situation.

It’s all too easy when we view someone as vulnerable to relate to their struggling side rather than relate to them as a whole person. This is what Bowen called over functioning, where the helping posture of one person reciprocates in the expression of helplessness in the other. The caretaker feels in the more ‘one up’ position and can either make a project out of helping and advising the other or become frustrated with the ‘stuckness’ or lack of responsibility in the other. The vulnerable one can feel steadied by a helper taking up their cause but in the process they can increase their need to be supported with less confidence in their abilities to navigate a way through their difficulty. This is common in all types of relationships. It is particularly common between parents and a child they perceive as weak.

Recently I heard a Mother describe how she makes sure she is available after school for her teenage daughter so she could check up on her depressed mood. She would ask how she felt at school today and how she got on with her peers. Her daughter would respond with a list of complaints to which her Mum would offer suggestions for how she could deal with these. I asked how much of her conversation energy was directed towards her daughters struggles. This loving Mum was surprised to realise that a huge percentage of her interactions were directed to her perception and worry about her daughter’s mental wellbeing. It was difficult for her to think about broadening the basis of their interactions but she came up with a few ideas: to ask about the current art project, about what is different in science with a new teacher, about who she thinks might get eliminated from the reality TV series they were watching and why? This would make it easier for this Mum to add her thoughts and updates from the goings on in her day. It can begin to move conversation away from a pattern of ‘helper to the helpless’, towards an interesting, open and more equal exchange.

It isn’t simple to address the part we play in keeping another focussed on their neediness. It’s very easy to respond anxiously to another person’s struggles in ways that glue them into a place of dependence (or victimhood); and of course it always goes both ways. It’s hard not to be shaped by another’s invitation to feel sorry for them or to try to solve their problems for them.

It’s been useful over the past few months to watch how I interact in conversations. To notice the ways I contribute to the very responses that I am challenged by. On one level it all sound so simple – when a relationship is difficult, direct the focus to identifying our own part in the exchanges. To work on self, not on changing or blaming another. In the cut and thrust of often stressful lives it’s incredibly difficult to pull up out of instinctive responses and to work on seeing the reciprocal co-creation of an unequal relationship. I’ll keep watching myself in my conversations and practice recognising the sometimes subtle ways that compassion turns into disconnecting over- functioning.

Questions for Reflection:

  • What are the relationships where conversations have become one sided? Am I in the position of inviting another to focus on me? Am I in the position of focussing on the weakness in the other?
  • In my family of origin, which of these positions (Quick to help or prone to express helplessness) was I most often in?
  • What difference does it make when I focus on figuring out my part in the unequal interactions?
  • What interactions would be good for me to observe in the coming weeks to appreciate more of the ways we all affect each other?

Quotes from Bowen theory

“A common example of the transfer of anxiety was from mother to patient (child). Mother would become anxious and her thinking would focus on the sickness in the patient….Mother’s verbalisations would include repeated emphasis on the patient’s sickness. Very soon the mother’s anxiety would be less and the patient’s symptoms would be increased.” P 6 FTCP

“When the therapist(helper) allows him/herself to become a ‘healer’ or ‘repairman’ the family goes into dysfunction to wait for the therapist to accomplish his work” P 157-8

“..both [spouses] are equally immature. One denies the immaturity and functions with a face of over adequacy. The other accentuates the immaturity and functions with a face of inadequacy. The over adequacy of one functions in reciprocal relationship to the inadequacy of the other.” P53

“When one or more members have sufficient knowledge about the emotional process and its mechanisms (reactive, repeating patterns) to observe it in the family, and especially to observe and modify their own parts in it, the family gains a better chance to calm down and make thoughtful choices.” S Ferrera in= P Titelman Ed: Differentiation of Self p 123

“At our best we find the graceful balance between responding to one another’s needs and respecting one another’s strength and autonomy.” S Ferrera.= P Titelman Ed: Differentiation of Self p 129

‘Relating to the whole person – not just their vulnerability’ – Jenny Brown

Families Facing Death


Avoidance in the face of a family death

Without clear principles for relating to others in the face of a painful loss I would be prone to operate out of my deep family programming – that is to emotionally avoid the gravity of pain.

‘Chief among all taboo subjects is death. A high percentage of people die alone, locked into their own thoughts which they cannot communicate to others.’

—Murray Bowen MD

On a recent work assignment I visited the grounds of the hospital where my dear mother died of breast cancer, aged 54, November 1980. The hospital has changed drastically, with large modern buildings dwarfing the original 1930 dark brick edifices. I paused in front of one of those old buildings, now used for pathology. It seems unsettlingly familiar. I recall entering such a building to visit Mum in her last week of life. While heavily dosed with morphine she managed to gesture an acknowledgement of my presence. I recall buying her a chocolate paddle pop to give her some kind of sensate comfort. She was only just able to muster strength to respond and take a few licks. Some 10 years earlier my parents had done the same for me when I was in hospital after the removal of my tonsils and adenoids – Oh how the caretaking tables had turned at this moment! The Sunday night before Mum died I felt compelled to visit her quite late in the evening after visiting hours. I discovered she had been moved from her hospital bed onto a trolley and into some kind of windowless storage room. It was as if her personhood had already been set aside and the nursing staff were filing her way for the next day’s tasks of dealing with a dead body.

It’s now more than 3 decades on and these confusing and troubling memories have become somewhat hazy. The whole episode of her dying is certainly blurred by our family’s coping style at the time. The modes operandi was to carry on with life and thereby avoid the realities of our loved one’s rapid decline. In a way each of us in the family did what the hospital staff had done in the face of her death – we shifted the painful reality into a closed off windowless room. How mournful I am to think that she died alone in that cupboard of a room some 5 hours after my final visit. My father and siblings struggled to know any better way to manage; especially given our mother had been the family rock who conveyed stability to us all when things were tough.

The following excerpt from my book, “Growing Yourself Up” tells some more of the story of my own family of origin’s reaction to death. It illustrates an example of a family system closing up in the face of loss.

“The most painful time in my life to date was the death of my mother to breast cancer when she was just 54 years old. Her untimely loss was heart wrenching, but alongside her painful death there is another level of sadness for me. This is the layer of how her death was handled in our family. I remember being in denial about her imminent death right up to her last ambulance ride to hospital. None of our family talked about her dying and how we were going to support each other.

My mother kept up a courageous presence and spoke of future plans. My father went on a planned trip to a sporting event with his male friends a fortnight before she died. All of us were using distance to cope with what was too painful to confront. We just shut out the facts and the aching emotions in order to keep moving forward. Well-meaning friends made efforts to talk with me about my mother’s deteriorating condition and the prospect of her death being near but I didn’t want any part in such pessimistic conversation.

Shutting down feelings in order to move on

When I look at the generations of my mother’s and father’s families, I can see that this stoic way of dealing with death goes back a long way. Children were not included in funerals, adults did not show their distress in front of others and normal routines were resumed as soon as the funeral was over. This pattern of moving on without dwelling on loss has helped the family to survive in many ways. When my dad’s father died suddenly at the age of 50 of a heart attack, it was vital for my father to quickly take the reins of the family business to prevent financial ruin for himself and his mother. Having just come through the Great Depression, financial survival took precedence over dealing with personal pain. Similarly, when my mother’s eldest brother died as a young child, the whole society was rebuilding from the loss of a generation of young men in World War I. People had to find a way to move on without falling into despair or having their livelihoods collapse.

Moving so far in the direction of shutting off feelings to survive has had its cost. I regret that I could never talk to my mother about what she was going through. It would have helped to have been able to cry together. The family could have been a supportive resource if individuals were able to balance their efforts to keep going with time to talk with each other about our struggles in the midst of grief. Thirty years later I can still awaken the deep hurt and helplessness that I felt after Mum’s death, hearing my father crying in his bed at night and calling out my mother’s name. I knew how to support him through busily helping with tasks but I had no idea how to talk to him about our shared loss. The shockwave of my mother’s death and the limits to being able to grieve openly were evident in my family for a long while. Some family members went through some significant emotional symptoms and there are still traces of anger and blame from this time.”

I sometimes think about my principles for confronting a family death. Without clear principles for relating to others in the face of a painful loss I would be prone to operate out of my deep family programming – that is to emotionally avoid the gravity of pain. When facing my own diagnosis of breast cancer 5 years ago I immediately pondered how I would handle my own death if I were to receive news of a grave prognosis. I considered how much I would want to speak openly to all family members about what I was going through – what I was feeling, thinking, praying, fearing, hoping in; and how I would want to hear the same from my loved ones. I remember praying with the psalmist: “teach me to number my days”, to not take life for granted, to appreciate that death is an inevitable part of every family’s experience. I reflect on my older sister’s vital profession as a palliative care nurse and on ways the health care system has redressed lack of sensitivity for dying people and their families. Compassionate health care and sustained person hood to all dying people is such a gift in assisting family members to be in genuine contact with their dying loved one. As with all areas of strengthening relationship, the effort is to improve toleration of pronounced discomfort in order to sustain open connection with those who mean the most to us.

Questions for reflection:

  • What do I remember about important deaths in my family?
  • How open were family members about the facts of the illness; and about their experience of the sadness and impending loss?
  • What were the indicators of ways family member shut off from the reality of death? What has been the effect over time of this way of coping?
  • What guiding principles have I developed for relating to a dying family member and for how I would want to relate if I were facing my own death?

Bowen Family System theory and Death and Loss

Reading Bowen’s reflections on how families can best open up their system in the face of death gives food for thought on alternate ways that this generation of my family can strive to manage grief; remembering of course that this is not a simple formula but requires an effort in all of life to manage strong emotions while staying in contact with important others.

*The following Bowen Theory ideas are from an excerpt of a book chapter: Bowen Family Systems and Grief: Thinking about variation in the grief response and recovery:

“Bowen wrote about the role of rituals of grieving, such as funerals, in assisting a grieving family. He stressed the importance of making as much contact with as many people as possible as opposed to the anxious drive to shut down and avoid people as a coping mechanism:

The goal is to bring the entire family system into the closest possible contact with death in the presence of the total friendship system and to lend a helping hand to the anxious people who would rather run than face a funeral.

Bowen thought that funerals could provide an opportunity to resolve emotional attachments and for people to define themselves more openly to other family members by being present and accounted for; To get alongside other family members, even those who may have become estranged, is an opportunity for growth. It enables people to be clear that they choose to be present with others even when emotions are charged, that they have a part to play in the family and that they are not willing to allow themselves to avoid difficult times. In contrast to taking up the opportunity to be in contact with family members after a death, any patterns of relating that serve to deny death can prolong unresolved attachment issues for family members well into the future.

The following is a summary of Bowen’s suggestion using a family systems lens for managing a death of a family member:

  • Visit dying family members as often as possible
  • Include children (children aren’t hurt by exposure to death as much as they are hurt by the anxiety of survivors.)
  • Involve as many extended family members as possible
  • Open caskets in order to provide as much contact between the dead and living as possible.
  • Prompt obituary notices and communication with relatives and friends.


Bowen M., “Family Reaction to Death” in, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (New York: Aronson, 1978)

Brown, J. “Old Age & Facing Death: denial or honest preparation” in Growing Yourself Up: How to bring your best to all of life’s relationships (Wollombi: Exisle, 2012)

Brown, J. “Bowen Family Systems and Grief. Thinking about variation in the grief response and recovery.” published in “Loss and recovery responding to grief with the compassion of Christ and the skills of all Gods people.” Ed. Wesley M, Mosaic press, 2012.

* Part of this blog appeared in another blog by this author in 2014:

* Bowen Family Systems and Grief

Thinking about variation in the grief response and recovery

Jenny Brown: This article (in this excerpt form) is published as a chapter in “Loss and recovery: responding to grief with the compassion of Christ and the skills of all Gods people.” Ed. Wesley M, Mosaic press, 2012.

‘Families Facing Death’ – Jenny Brown


Triangles at Work


‘I’m grateful for a theory that gives me a road map for tackling the inevitable triangling process at work. I’m reminded that when a negative report comes via a third party it’s likely to be exaggerated by the listener. Hearing things directly from another creates a clearer space in the relationship. It’s less likely that anxious negativity gets cultivated.’

In a recent meeting to review our training program, a remark was casually made that a team member (not in the meeting) was unhappy about a decision I had made.  Immediately I recognised a triangling process – when a problem between two people is detoured to, or through, a third person.  A genuine, concerned third party was conveying a message on behalf of another. It happens so naturally when there is some level of unease in relationships. The issue doesn’t get expressed between the two people with whom it belongs but gets conveyed via another who is instinctively acting as a mediator. It’s easier to express concerns indirectly and in turn to calm down if we sense that the third party shares our view. Hence Bowen proposed that the triangle is the most comfortable relationship (not to be confused as healthy), with the inevitable differences between two people making it inherently uncomfortable.

I responded to the detoured message with a tweak of frustration. Why hadn’t this person come to me directly? I expressed my concern about needing to work out how to deal with this triangle information to the 2 people in the meeting. They each suggested that I ignore the comment as if it had not been spoken— a withdrawal of the remark.  The problem with this is that once the concern is expressed, it is in the system of relationships and will consequently affect the way I relate to this absent person.  When we next connect, it’s likely to be a little edgy, with me perceiving a tension attached to the complaint that wasn’t expressed directly to me. Even if nothing is said, the impact of the detoured message will create some instability in the relationship – silence does not fool a relationship. The other person will sense that something has shifted and will not know why. They in turn will add their own reactive interpretation to this.

I determined that the best way to de-triangle was to let this colleague know how I’d heard about the upset regarding allocation of some training work. This is a way of putting whatever the issue might be, back into the relationship in which it belongs. I reflected that I had not been making sufficient effort to be in contact with this colleague. Our busy schedules meant that we were rarely in the office on the same days. I needed to address my part in increasing the likelihood of triangled communication by making better contact. As soon as possible I arranged a time to catch up over lunch. Over our casual catch up I made every effort to share updates about each of our lives; to hear about her recent travels to visit family and to share some of the non-work related things I had been up to. I know how important it is NOT to attempt to bridge distance by raising a potentially stressful issue.  A relationship needs to be sufficiently relaxed to be able to tackle points of difference. After our conversation moved to chatting about various professional endeavours, I mentioned how I had heard about her concern about the training related matter. She conveyed that while she had initially been taken aback by the information, she was comfortable with the situation when she heard more details.  Any tension between us that could have festered was simply cleared up in this exchange. Whether or not my colleague was reporting the situation factually is not the issue. The whole point of the effort is to ensure a more open, person to person relationship.

I left the lunch grateful for a theory that gives me a road map for tackling the inevitable triangling process at work. I was also reminded that when a negative report comes via a third party it is likely to be exaggerated in the listener’s psychology (in this case my own). Hearing things directly from another creates a clearer space in the relationship. It’s less likely that anxious negativity gets cultivated. As a leader I’m reminded once again of the importance of remaining in good enough contact with the people I work with. – Contact that is calm, not intensely self-disclosing and that best facilitates others being able to focus on their job duties. While distance is an issue, so too is intense monitoring that will just as surely trigger anxious relationship patterns such as triangle detours that can spread quickly through other triangles. I don’t always get this right but I do have a way of recognising the effect of triangles and in turn having the option to address my part. My goal is to relate in an open way to those I work with and to put detoured issues back where they belong.  A quote from a talk by Dr Michael Kerr has stuck with me: that differentiation of self/ maturity is having the capacity to keep a problem in the relationship from which it is trying to escape.

Questions for Reflection:

  • Can I recognise when information is being conveyed through a third party?
  • Do I notice when I feel compelled to share something about another to a third party?
  • When I hear a third party’s complaint about another how can I do my bit to get it back into the relevant relationship?
  • Is my distance from a person I work with increasing the likelihood of triangle communication?
  • What was my predictable triangle position in my family growing up? Was I quick to jump in and listen to the detoured concerns of a parent/family member? Was I a ‘distancer’ who made it hard for a parent to talk directly with me? Was I a mediator who was often overly sensitive to disharmony between parents or siblings? Was I a reactor who deflected receiving direct feedback from a parent?
  • What ways can I work at connecting with others without needing to discuss absent third parties?

Key quotes from Bowen

‘A “differentiated self” is one who can maintain emotional objectivity while in the midst of an [anxious] emotional system, yet at the same time actively relate to key people in the system. …Gossip is one of the principle mechanisms for “triangling” another into an emotional field between two people…..’ FTCP p 485

‘A two person relationship is unstable in that it forms itself into a three-person relationship under stress. A system larger than three persons becomes a series of interlocking triangles….As tension mounts in a two person system, it is usual for one to be more uncomfortable than the other and for the uncomfortable one to “triangle in” a third person by telling the second person a story about the triangle one. This relives the tension between the first two and shifts the tension between the second and third. ‘FTCP p 478

‘When there is finally one who can control his/her emotional responsiveness and not take sides with either of the other two, and stay constantly in contact with the other two, the emotional intensity within the twosome will decrease and both will move to a higher level of differentiation (maturity)’ FTCP p 480

‘Triangles at Work’Jenny Brown


Getting to Know You

Continuing to grow in knowledge of the familiar otherIMG_1281

…when a person never has a posture of curiosity towards another about certain issues there is a shutting down of dynamic conversation and growth in the relationship.

It’s hard for me to fathom but I’ve been married for almost 35 years. Having shared my adult life with my husband David it’s easy to assume that there’s little we don’t know about each other. We have traversed so much common life ground I can easily become a bit blasé about getting to know him better. Indeed I’m confident I know him better than any other human being.

This week I’m spending a precious week away with David and it’s interesting to reflect on what takes up our conversation with all this extra time together. With so much familiarity, will there be anything new to share?

One thing David has always seemed to love is listening to music – especially jazz and folk.  He’d prefer it any day to watching TV, which has been a point of difference between us at times. He relishes the opportunity Spotify gives him to try new albums and has determined already this week that he’ll be purchasing the new James Taylor and Tommy Emmanuel CDs. Over lunch today I asked him when he first remembers having this appetite for listening to music. After all these years I had never thought to ask this question. What I learned is that in his first year of high school (junior high for the Americans), he joined a record club recommended by fellow students. I wonder if any of you remember those mail out record clubs offering amazing bargains. In response to more of my questions I learned that he commenced listening to the likes of Uriah Heap, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath in the boarder’s common room. I wondered how he managed to afford this and learned that his pocket money didn’t go far enough for him to continue after the first year (an early lesson in economics); however this predilection for relaxing to music had been firmly established. I must say I’m pleased his tastes have evolved since those early days!

This is one example amongst many of ongoing ways to keep getting to know another and to not fall into a type of detached over- familiarity. I’ve appreciated the shared conversations about viewpoints on current affairs. What is David’s unique vantage point on matters of business, politics, theology, sport…..? In earlier times my immaturity meant I could be over- attached to my viewpoints on some of these areas. This would mean that I was closed off from being interested to learn from others – including my husband. I’ve come to see how this closes down a relationship system – when a person never has a posture of curiosity towards another about certain issues there is a shutting down of dynamic conversation and growth in the relationship. This can happen so easily in a marriage – including a shutting down of interest in the other’s perspective about important shared issues such as finances and parenting. I reflect that David and I have often had differences of opinion on politics; and as I make some progress towards more maturity I have shifted from debating such differences (which can result in shutting him down) to seeking to learn from his distinct perspective. This helps move us from fusion to a notch more differentiation – distinct individuals who are simultaneously connected.

Every stage of life presents a new opportunity to get to know a spouse (or any family member). What are their thoughts about this stage of life? About future retirement?  About what’s important to them in our marriage at this time?  About later life issues?  About responding to aging parents? About relating to adult children? About dreams for the future – including outrageous ones? And of course an equal reciprocal exchange of sharing and learning opens up. This builds layer upon layer of intimacy as new knowledge of the other in their evolving life circumstances deepens.

Dr Murray Bowen observed that the less mature relationships tend to close up the exploration of new information – particularly if it was perceived as a threat to harmony. As people become more anxiously fixed in their perspectives they tend to shut down an interest in other’s vantage points. A focus ON the other – often in the form of blaming – rather than an interest IN the other can emerge. As criticism, or more subtle dismissiveness, emerges spouses can live increasingly parallel lives with a focus on others (children or work) and little openness to what their mate has to contribute to their growth and learning. A path to maturity in a relationship is the effort to open up an exchange of information.

For myself on my week’s holday I don’t plan to have a constant exchange of questions and conversation. Of course there’s time for precious quiet and time to do our own thing. For me to plan a how to cook up the local market produce; and David to aim for increased kilometres on his morning runs.  It is however a brilliant opportunity to cultivate curiosity about each other. And as I write I’m hearing some ‘interesting’ new background music playing. What is this music I ask? I’m informed it’s an artist called Morrissey and the song is a pretty obscure title: ‘Suedehead’?….never heard of it! There is always something to discover that I would never stumble upon if left to my solo efforts.


Questions for reflection

  • How open am I in important relationships to hearing the other’s vantage point and perspective?
  • If I’ve shut down this communication what have I replaced it with? Distance? Triangling by talking about others rather than person to person conversation?
  • Are there issues that I hold too much reactive certainty? How does this prevent me being open to learning about what goes into different standpoints?
  • Has a focus on third parties- children, friends, work assignments- replaced the effort to get to know my spouse?
  • If distance has crept in, what are some non- intense ways I can open up curiosity again in this relationship?

Bowen Theory relevant quotes

“ In broad terms, a person to person relationship is one in which two people can relate personally to each other about each other, without talking about others (triangling), and without talking about impersonal things.” Bowen, FTCP, p 340.

“If you can get a person to person relationship with each living person in your extended family, it will help you ‘grow up’ more than anything else you can do in life.”  Bowen, FTCP, p.540.

“Relationships that can be open and productive when calm become tense and non-productive when anxiety rises. Anxious partners display a range of reactive behaviours. They become more argumentative, less thoughtful, more critical and judgmental, more distant from one another and less able to maintain the complex behaviours of self-regulation that mark effective functioning in relationships.” From Dan Papero- Assisting the Two Person System, ANZJFT, 2014.

Getting to Know You – Continuing to grow in knowledge of the familiar other – Jenny Brown