Making room for distress in relationships

 Reflections from a sisters weekend awaysisters weekend

“I could appreciate that our family has made some genuine progress. To be able to tolerate the stirred up emotions of another’s upset and not respond in ways that swiftly shut it down is very different to the way we grew up.”

It was jarring witnessing one of my 3 sisters’ breaking down in tears as we shared breakfast together. I felt my heart rate escalate in readiness to do my automatic smooth things over. On this occasion however, I managed to restrain my impulse and join my others sisters in acknowledging her hurt. I could then observe how this gave her space to be in charge of what she needed to do for herself at that moment.

Let me explain the context. I was away for a rare weekend break with my 3 sisters in a charming rural setting outside of Sydney. We had relished a relaxed time of walking, chatting, reminiscing, laughing, country store shopping, and cooking up some great food to match our wine selections. On the Sunday morning I’d suggested listening to a pod cast and had randomly chosen one from a site I follow that linked to the theme of mother’s day (which coincided with our weekend). I had thought it might be interesting to reflect on our own mother, who we’d lost some 30+ years earlier; and I also hoped that this post would add some helpful Sunday faith reflection. The message went straight to interviews of mother’s talking about their deep intimate experience of their baby’s expressed love and dependence. For my dear sister, who has lived the complex heartache of infertility, this touched on a raw and deep grief; and through tears she asked that we stop the tape saying it was too painful for her to continue listening.

I immediately felt foolish and insensitive at my contribution to her upset. It would have been easy for me to try to compensate for this by lots of apologising and quickly moving the conversation and activity to something cheery. (This would have been the kind of apologising that was driven by wanting to feel better about myself as opposed to genuinely taking responsibility for wrong doing toward another.)  On this occasion I just stayed quite, along with my other sisters, and we listened to an honest insightful description from our sister of her living through extraordinarily challenging times. She was able to describe so many aspects of her life at the time which added an understanding of our whole family system and the different ways we were each impacted by the death of each of our parents while trying to make our way in our adult lives. It revealed her personal journey of coming to faith in the aftermath of suffering, providing a gift of encouragement that no online pod cast could have delivered. After a period of listening and learning I walked over to my sister and gave her a quiet hug. It had been a moment of connecting that would have been missed if any of us had tried to relieve and distract from the expression of pain and loss.

Our family has certainly shifted from our previous ways of dealing with distress. As we were growing up, the jolts of suffering and loss were minimised in an effort to keep going and to survive. As a family we closed up expressing our hurts and fears to each other and took the path of ‘soldiering on’. This happened in the face of grandparents’ deaths, the trauma of our house burning down and of our mother’s excruciating battle with terminal cancer. This closing up conversation in the face of upset was entrenched in the coping patterns of previous generations. It has taken its toll on each of us and our relationships in different ways.

As the years have been on fast forward to this sister’s gathering, I could appreciate that our family has made some genuine progress. To be able to tolerate the stirred up emotions of another’s upset and not respond in ways that swiftly shut it down is very different to the way we grew up. There are many times I see my immaturities when I’m with my original family but on this occasion, each sister contributed to a precious mature space where no one got in another’s way. It was a moment of intimacy and appreciation for the different experiences each has dealt with. The younger sister was trail blazing courageous honesty to her elders (yes elders in sibling position even though in reality our ages are so close we are peers). It was an opportunity for getting to know, at a deeper level, one of our siblings and to show love for each other that would not have been possible with the old pattern of smoothing over another’s distress. Our brother, as the youngest after 4 sisters (tough gig right?!), was in many ways the most vulnerable to the isolation that came from our closed communication about grief. As part of my effort with ALL my siblings, I need to keep working at becoming more open and honest in the way I relate with him.

The growing up lesson for me is to be aware of the old stress reducing family impulses, while at the same time, slowing down the reactions so that conversation can open up. For me it is not making it all about my embarrassment for upsetting another by self-protective apologies; on this occasion it was about learning from another as they had the space to truly express themselves.


Note: I sent this blog to the sister I have written about to as a check that I had represented the situation factually and was not inappropriately crossing privacy boundaries. Her feedback provided a few extra ideas that I included.

Questions for reflection

  • How was distress responded to in the family I grew up in?
  • To what extent did my family system allow open communication from each person about their response to difficult circumstances?
  • What are the signs of closed communication (shutting down, avoiding, distracting, smoothing over, taking over…) in my relationships?
  • How can I practice tolerating the tension in myself when another is expressing strong feelings?
  • Are there ways I am unknowingly preventing others from having the room to speak their experience? Or am I accommodating to others smoothing over my own expression of difficult times?

Relevant Quotes from Bowen:

“An open relationship system is one in which an individual is free to communicate a high percentage of inner thoughts, feelings, and fantasies to another who can reciprocate. No one ever has a completely open relationship with another, but it is a healthy state when a person can have one relationship in which a reasonable of openness is possible.” FTCP p 322

“The closed communication system is an automatic reflex to protect self from the anxiety in the other person., though most people say they avoid the taboo subjects to keep form upsetting the other person. “ p 322

“From family research we have learned that the higher the level of anxiety and symptoms in a family, the more the family members are emotionally isolated from each other. The greater the isolation, the lower the level of responsible communication between family members and the higher the level of irresponsible underground gossip about each other in the family and the confiding of secrets to those outside of the family.” P 291


“Making room for distress in relationships:  Reflections from a sisters weekend away” – Jenny Brown

Leave a Reply