Family Ties – Part 3

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 family ties 3

Sean looked at me helplessly as his wife ranted. After 17 years of marriage, Catherine was sick and tired of her mother-in-law’s constant interference with their life. She was drawing a line in the sand. “It’s either me or her,” she choked out angrily. “You can’t keep answering to her every demand! What about OUR family?” Even as her anger continued unabated, I could see her deep pain after years of feeling emotionally neglected by her husband – relegated to second place each time his parents came a-calling.

The truth is, this wasn’t their first time in the counselling office. Before they got married, their pre-marital coach had warned them of this big red flag. Two years into their marriage, they had sought out marriage counselling to sort out Sean’s family ties that continue to hold him trapped to the demands of his family of origin. Today, the couple sat before me, exhausted and overwhelmed. Catherine knew she didn’t want to continue forward in the same dance. Sean didn’t know what he wanted, but he knew he couldn’t continue on in this way. He didn’t want to lose his marriage but he didn’t see any way out of the trap he was in. For how could he confront his parents? He didn’t think he could bear with their disappointment and anger.

Because of Sean’s family of origin issues, he struggled to have a voice. He vacillated from feeling controlled by his mother to feeling controlled by his wife. No one seemed to ask him what HE wanted; he just continued to dance to the tune of the loudest, most demanding one. Based on the insistence of his wife, they had moved their family 4 hours away from his home town so they would have “space” to grow as a family. But deep inside of him, he had a growing sense he had simply married his mother and her voice continued to ring inside his head. He dreaded the phone calls and visits and the petulant tones from his mother if he didn’t call her at least once a week. And if he called her, he would then have to bear with the long harangues from his wife about being a “mama’s boy”.

The challenge for Sean was until he dealt with his own internal insecurities and fears, he would continue to feel victimized by others around him. He needed to understand his underlying triggers that continued to keep him trapped in a dance that he had long hated. He had never fully individuated from his family of origin or separated emotionally from them. It was time for him to establish himself as a separate person, with his own thoughts, feelings and opinions. It was time for him to set boundaries with BOTH his mother and his wife.

Does Sean’s story ring a chord with you?

Sean was coping the way most of us do – by suppressing how he really felt, refusing to face the problems (in the hopes they would just go away), and minimizing and denying how serious they were. But while this coping strategy works in the short-term, it has cost him big time in the long-term – in his marriage, his health and emotional well-being.

His family of origin was what we call an “enmeshed” family – a family that defines “closeness” by unspoken rules of what a “loving” family is supposed to be like (and woe to anyone who dares to break these rules), too much involvement in each other’s business, stepping in to rescue each other from pickles, emotional entanglements, and poor boundaries. No wonder he was having difficulty breaking free.

A healthy family, in contrast:

    • Can adapt to change
    • Has clear boundaries that are maintained between individuals
    • People deal with each other directly (rather than complaining about one another to other members)
    • Differences are accepted and encouraged
    • The thoughts and feelings of others are accepted
    • Has open lines of communication that are respectful of all members
    • Handles conflict with respect and in a calm manner, seeking positive resolution
    • Individuals know what they can give and receive from each other
    • Each learns from the others and encourages feedback
    • Maintaining a positive emotional climate is a high priority
    • Individuals are allowed to experience their own negative emotions (e.g., sadness or anger) without being shut down or rescued from those feelings
    • Abusive words and outbursts are not tolerated but dealt with firmly and lovingly

If you are starting to see that your family ties may be affecting your life today, take some time now to evaluate your unresolved family of origin issues. To help you, consider some of the questions below:

Are you experiencing any of the following without relief?

    • Depression or anxiety
    • Anger or bitterness
    • Guilt/shame
    • Relationship difficulties
    • Repeated victimization and powerlessness
    • Shut down emotions
    • Poor self-esteem
    • Persistent physical problems without a clear physiological cause
    • Addictions (including eating disorders and self-harming behaviours)

Are you or your family members playing certain roles in your family?

    • The rescuer – the “go-to” person that everyone relies on whenever there’s a problem
    • The counsellor – the one everyone calls when they need a shoulder to cry on
    • The scapegoat – the one who gets blamed whenever anything goes wrong
    • The martyr – the one who is long-suffering and seems to generate guilt in everyone else
    • The queen (or king) of the hill – the one who’s in charge and rules the roost, even with adult children
    • The quiet dictator – the one who controls without saying a word, whose moods dictate the tone of the home, causing others to walk around on eggshells
    • The peacekeeper – the one who always seems to step in to smooth things over when there’s conflict in the family
    • The victim – the one everyone keeps having to rescue because they can’t seem to get their life together
    • The basket case – the one who always seems to be in an emotional mess that creates chaos for the other members of the family
    • The stranger – the one who has distanced themselves from the family
    • The comedian – the one who is ready with a joke to relieve tension
    • The confronter – the one who always calls it like it is

Do any of these unwritten family rules sound familiar?

    • Don’t reveal your true feelings.
    • Don’t talk about anything personal.
    • Always be in control.
    • Never hide your emotions – let it all hang out.
    • Never raise your voice.
    • Do everything you can to win an argument.
    • Put on a happy face.
    • Deny what’s going on.
    • Never call attention to yourself.
    • Don’t trust others outside of the family.
    • Never share any family secrets.

If you’re resonating with any of the questions above, keep reading this series! If you’ve missed Parts One and Two, be sure to go back and read those as well. Next week, I will talk about different family dynamics and help you identify the patterns in your own family and life. In the meanwhile, feel free to comment or ask any questions.

 

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