A trip to hospital & the slow progress of learning to be vulnerable

 “Once an Overfunctioner,………….”

Help wantedI’m not that comfortable asking for help. In fact I struggle to really know when it’s appropriate to ask for help. I realise that I have an overdeveloped sense of independent coping and tend to minimise various life challenges and carry on as if I’m not affected. This is not a new discovery for me. When I first came across Bowen theory some 25 years ago I realised that I was attuned to helping others but not good at being vulnerable in my relationships. I have been consciously practicing sharing my needs and stressors with those close to me over the years. My progress is sometimes slow.

Last week I was booked into hospital for an overnight stay to have some minor surgery. It was not a life threatening issue and I was told that recovery would be quite fast. Hence, in my typical fashion, I minimised the effect of the experience and independently took myself to the hospital. When there were no taxis at the rank, I caught a bus and admitted myself in isolation. I had organised for my work administrator to collect me the next day as I didn’t see the need to disrupt my husband or other family member’s working days. Once in my hospital bed, with preparations for surgery commencing, I reflected on the inklings of stress arising. The nurse commented that my blood pressure was a little high, alerting me that my perceived sense of calm independence was not the true story according to my physiology. As I was wheeled up to the theatre area and greeted by the anaesthetist’s nurse I realised that this was bringing back the emotionally charged experience of my cancer surgery a few years earlier. I had underestimated the power of my memory system to evoke similar feelings of fragility and aloneness. At that moment I realised that my well-honed pattern of pseudo independent strength had once again been ruling the show and I resolved to ask my husband to come and be with me the following morning and take me home when I was all clear for discharge.

This pattern of being sensitive to others needs but under sensitive to my own has been shaped in my family relationships growing up. It is a common pattern that Bowen observed in his research and termed the “over and under functioning reciprocity”. It’s like a see-saw in relationships where one person steadies self through being strong and helpful and another by willingly being helped and advised. The downside in any relationship is the loss of mutuality of shared strength and weakness. One person assumes the stronger posture at the expense of another’s capacity to manage. My mother was a classic “overfunctioner” in her relationships and unwittingly helped train me to operate similarly; she would share her concerns for others but didn’t share any of her own feelings and personal experiences. In my teenage years we both talked about others needs but not our own. Even as she was dying of cancer in her 50s she didn’t know how to be vulnerable for fear of upsetting others; and conversely my father didn’t know how to respond with strong support. All families have variations of these functional postures where each person automatically adjusts what they express of themselves in response to their sensitivity to another. Examples are “the Panicker & the Soother”; “the Distancer & the Pursuer”; “the Problem Generator and Problem Solver”; “the Intense one and the Clown”. For me the posture of being strong and independent means that my stress goes underground and is not dealt with appropriately at the time. It also means that I don’t allow myself to fully experience the wonderful nurture of family and friends reaching out to support me in their own unique ways. For those close to me they are robbed of the space to develop their own empathic strength in our relationship.

I’m grateful that my recovery is going smoothly as predicted. I’m also pleased that I was able to at least let extended family members know about my surgery and I could appreciate the caring phone calls I received. It was soothing to draw from my husband’s strong presence and not leave the hospital as independently as I arrived; and it was just delightful to have a friend from my church community deliver a delicious meal to enjoy. I am resolved to do better at asking for and joyously receiving care; both for myself, for the benefit of the important people in my life and for the growth of our relationships.

Questions for reflection:

• Do I tend to assume a posture of strength or neediness in my important relationships?

• What is the effect of this on the relationship?

• When things were stressful in my family growing up did I tend to collapse/struggle and/or distance or did I step into the over responsible, fixing position? What can I recall was the way other family member’s responded?

• What aspect of myself do I need to consciously practice expressing in my relationships – my capacity to manage or my struggles?

Quotes from M Bowen (family Therapy in Clinical practice):

The “emotional process” is deep …It runs silently beneath the surface between people who have very close relationships.” P 66

“Overadequate refers to a functioning façade of strength that is greater than realistic. Inadequacy refers to a functioning façade of helplessness that is as unrealistic as the façade of strength is unrealistic in the other direction.” P 53

“One of the most important aspects of family dysfuction is an equal degree of overfunction in another part of the family system. It is factual that dysfunctioning and over functioning exist together.” P 155

“When the therapist (helper) allows him/herself to become a “healer” or “repairman,” the family (or individual) goes into dysfunction to wiat for the therapist to accomplish his/her work.” P 157-8


‘A trip to hospital & the slow progress of learning to be vulnerable’Jenny Brown

Stress Tiredness and Irritability in Marriage

marriage jenny brown blogThis past week has been more stressful than most. I’m working to get back into a demanding routine after a lovely break away and at the same time dealing with jetlag and the effects of a travel tummy bug. Having enjoyed a delightful time with my husband as a travelling companion I noticed that I was quite irritable with him as we were back into our ‘normal’ lives. Little things, such as his forgetting to put an event in his diary, were getting to me more than usual. I could see my pattern of negative affect escalation that tends to occur when I’m stressed. It doesn’t come out as full blown conflict but as a low grade bubbling brew of a critical spirit.

This kind of negative feeling process can really distort a picture of a relationship if we let it continue. Marriage researcher John Gottman notes that the wife’s low grade negative affect, that is not responded to by the husband (with either negative challenge or positive neutralising), or repaired by the wife, is one of the patterns that can predict divorce.  I knew I needed to deal with my own tiredness and health and not allow it to be projected onto critical thinking about my intimate partner. This reminded me of a previous blog I wrote about marriage. I wonder if you can identify any familiar experiences in any of your important relationships?


Marriage and Committed Relationships: a maturity workout par excellence

“If marriage blog picyou want a better marriage, you will need to give up making a project out of changing the relationship or your partner and instead make a project out of expressing your own maturity within it.” ( P 95 Growing Yourself Up).

I reflected on the context in my own marriage when it’s easy for me to me my shiny mature best.  It’s when I’m well slept, on top of my tasks, having a few wins with my personal projects and getting plenty of positive validation from my spouse and others. Surprise, surprise – If these conditions are in place I find it easy to feel content, have few expectations of my mate, be attentive, open, generous, approving and undemanding.  And isn’t it uncanny how these conditions seem to bring out the same kind of demeanour in my husband.

You can easily see the problem of course, that many of my days are tinged with tiredness, feeling swamped, facing some disappointing results and not getting much acknowledgment from others.  This is when my lack of resilience in solid maturity shows through: I become increasingly agitated, more intolerant and increasingly critical. My expectations of everyone go up as does my sensitivity to disapproval.  Before you know it I’ve stopped being responsible for myself and I’m reacting to my husband with either withdrawal or lecturing.  Not a pretty picture! And that’s just my side of the circular dance in the marriage.

The alert sign that my maturity is slipping in any relationship is when I put more energy into thinking about how the other can shape up than into sorting myself out. “When we’re finding fault with others we stop working on ourselves. Our growing gets stuck in the blame rut.” J Brown GYU P49.   Author Tim Keller speaks directly to my spiral down the maturity scale:

“Only you have complete access to your own selfishness, and only you have complete responsibility for it.” T Keller,(The meaning of Marriage p 64)

The most useful question I know for pulling myself up in this backwards cycle is: “What is my spouse up against having to relate to me at the moment?”  The good news is that when the focus is taken away from the other and the relationship and placed on being a responsible, distinctive self, the greater the options for deep togetherness.

Building maturity in marriage (in any relationship) can’t be dependent on creating calm contexts where tensions is low…that’s just not reality!  A maturity workout requires regular practice at managing myself in the face of tensions and not needing a positive relationship experience to set me straight.  It requires me to move towards and not away from stressful situations and to deliberately choose to work on flexing my maturity muscles.  Here are some examples of a good maturity work out:

  • When I’m stressed, I can practice staying in touch with myself and not finding fault with the other.
  • When my spouse is tense I can practice not personalising it or being derailed from my self- management.
  • I can try using my principles for being in contact as a spouse, even when my husband appears to be in a negative space.
  • And I mustn’t forget the maturity work out I get when I’m in contact with members of my family of origin – This is where I can best practice containing old reactions and sensitivities. Dan Papero has written: ‘A person’s level of differentiation [maturity] can best be observed in an anxious family setting.’

These efforts to practice tolerating stress in relationships without losing our clarity about how we want to express ourselves is something that grows gradually.  Just as one trip to the gym won’t do much for muscle tone.  I often think about these efforts to work on maturity while in the anxious atmosphere of important relationships as a kind of exposure therapy for our areas of immaturity.  Just as people learn to overcome phobias through gradually increasing exposure to the feared object or situation so it is with learning not to run away from bringing more steadiness to our marriages and all our relationships.

Dr Murray Bowen describes so eloquently what goes into one person bringing the best to relationships: having “the courage to define self, who is as invested in the welfare of the family as in self, who is neither angry nor dogmatic, whose energy goes to changing self rather than telling others what they should do.”  P 305—M Bowen

This involves a good dose of courage, energy investment, self-regulation and self-responsibility.  Sometimes this can all sound a bit too hard and we can be forgiven for searching around for a quicker less personally taxing formula for improving relationships.  Yet I do think there is something deeply compelling in asking ourselves:

“Are you willing to take a fresh look at your own maturity gaps, instead of declaring that another needs to ‘grow up’? This might all sound too much like hard work in your already hectic life; yet if there’s the chance that this effort can unveil a very different picture of yourself in your relationships, it might just be worth giving this journey a go.”

J Brown GYU p8

Here’s cheers to the long haul of relational maturity workouts!

blog marriage pic2

Questions for refection:

  • What do I notice changes in my relationships when I’m stressed or tired?
  • In what ways do negative emotions that are stirred up by stress distort the picture I have of my spouse or a significant other?
  • What happens when I divert the focus of fault finding to managing my own stress levels?

Some Relevant Quotes:

The effort aims “To help one or more family members to become aware of the part self plays in the automatic emotional responsiveness, to control the part that self plays, and to avoid participation in the triangle moves.” (Bowen, 1978, p. 307)

“Undifferentiation manifests itself in numerous ways.  An important manifestation surfaces in the web of expectations each has for the other to “be there” for oneself. It is as if the undifferentiated side of the person demands of the other “Be the way I want you to be, not the way your are, so that I can be stable, comfortable and happy.”  Often these expectations lie dormant until somehow the other violates the expectation, leading to intense emotional reactivity expressed in conflict or distance or both.” Dan Papero, Understanding the Two Person System, 2014.

“A person with a well-differentiated “self” recognizes his realistic dependence on others, but he can stay calm and clear headed enough in the face of conflict, criticism, and rejection to distinguish thinking rooted in a careful assessment of the facts from thinking clouded by emotionality.” Michael Kerr, One Family’s Story. 2004

Stress Tiredness and Irritability in Marriage‘ – Jenny Brown