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