People’s emotions don’t exist in a vacuum; they exist, primarily, in a family.
Family systems theory conceptualizes individuals within family system as existing in emotional fields, rather than in individual psychological vacuums. In other words, relationships between participants in a system are seen as a more valid indicator of individual functioning than individual psychological functioning taken out of its systemic context.
The family emotional field is like gravitational fields of planets orbiting the solar system. Each family member works together, consciously or unconsciously, to maintain emotional equilibrium. The emotional system that exists in families is a largely unconscious force. As a small, natural system, families are fundamental emotional organizations, emotional units, within the larger society. Emotional processes within families are also found at every dimension of increasingly larger and more complex layers of society.
These four emotional forces underlie every family system:
#4 – Power Dynamics
Implicit hierarchies and roles within families govern the status quo. In healthy families, all members have a certain amount of power and know how to wield it, know how to engage in care and conflict without destabilizing tribal balance. Harry Aponte (1976) pointed out, “Family members must have enough power in the family to be able to protect their personal interests in the family at all times, while keeping the well-being of the other members, and of the family as a whole, in mind.”
When the positive end of one magnet is placed against the negative end of another, an invisible force pulls them together. When magnets’ positive ends are placed against each other, they repel one another. Pieces of uncharged metal neither attract nor repel. There is magnetism in the emotional systems of families and, to greater or lesser degrees, between every member. The force between two is skewed by a third, and so on. T
he challenge of therapy is of how to work therapeutically with processes that bind and unbind, generating flexibility and instilling resilience. To grow, people must experience freedom within the pushes and pulls of powerful, self-perpetuating forces in which problems—and families—maintain themselves.
The crux for families is to maintain orderly, relatively equitable distributions of power; flexible yet reliable, reliable yet flexible. When one member has all the power, it’s a dictatorship; when no one assumes responsibility, it’s anarchy. Power needs authority; authority needs checks-and-balances.
#3 – Invisible Rules
In every family, invisible rules influence how family members think, feel, and behave, how problems are solved, and how decisions are made. Rules flow within the power structure, formed in response to demands of personality, tradition, or oppression flowing down through the generations. In fact, most family rules are invisible and shape assumptions and attitudes, beliefs and behavior. Invisible rules are building blocks of family culture. Loyalties to expectations reinforce expectations of loyalties to nuanced, pervasive, and often concealed demands, and every single family is unique.
The dance of emotion in families is shaped by pride and guilt, love and shame. Invisible rules contribute to stability and cohesiveness as families encounter and respond to evolving challenges and changing conditions of life. Power struggles often encircle invisible rules, and even rare experiences of open acknowledgment may act as checks-and-balances necessary to ensure overall flexibility in the family system. Flexibilities in the range of allowances within families decrease unnecessary power struggle and tend to decrease a range of chronic emotional anxieties as well.
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Families pass along myths, ideologies, emotional styles, and chronic anxieties from one generation to the next. Inclinations that flow out of them guide the execution and flow of justice and mercy between its members and between its members and society.
#2 – Homeostatic Feedback
Power and rules are sustained through systemic, regulatory forces that constitute a kind of family psyche. A family is an emotional system of powerful, unseen forces that heavily influence the functioning of its members. When individual behaviors threaten the family balance, corresponding emotion and behavior of other members engage in counterbalancing actions aimed at minimizing deviations in order to preserve balance. Everyone in a family participates in the emotional system.
One member may become relationally distant and another may become depressed, resulting in the distant member’s return to a deeper level of emotional engagement. One member may fail to fulfill a role, and another may become angry. One member may cut-off from the family to regain self-composure or may engage in a negotiation of compromises that provides for a more agreeable shift in family role functioning.
The behavior of family members flows out of the emotional climate of the family system, not unlike the operations of a thermostat, which kicks on regulatory cooling when temperatures run high and regulatory heating when temperatures run low. In a similar but far more complex fashion, families have many different types of thermostatic feelers. Emotional feedback loops in families shape much of their behavior. Family therapists are trained to intervene at the level of the family emotional system.
#1 – Delicate Interdependence
The processes of emotional relationships within families greatly influence the negotiation of power, rules, and balances within the system; this is precisely why this particular quality of families, their delicate interdependence, is the most pervading.
A family’s degree of cohesion is related to its degree of adaptability, and its degree of adaptability is related to its styles of relatedness. When one family member experiences emotional disconnection from their family, their own feelings establish the terms of their reality. The facts of the matter are nearly superfluous. The reality is that families, whether close knit or rigidly boundaried, profoundly affect the emotional experiencing, cognitive biases, and behavioral tendencies of its members. Human functioning is not merely psychological; it is markedly ecological.
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Chronic stressors within families inflict symptoms reflective societally of individual psychological problems, from depression or anxiety disorders to compulsive addictions and dependencies including alcoholism and affairs. Volatile relationship stress within families can even lead to or exacerbate physical illness. Few facets of society are as misunderstood and underappreciated as the intangible, psychological dynamics taking place within the emotional systems of our families.
This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Context Magazine. Reprinted courtesy of the Association for Family Therapy and Systemic Practice in the UK.
Aponte, H. (1976). Underorganization in the poor family. In P. Guerin (Ed.), Family therapy: Theory and practice. New York: Gardner.