Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Hidden Family System



by Seattle Jon (bio)


I read with interest Michael Farnworth's short article The Hidden Family System in the latest Sunstone (Issue 169). He starts out with some lines from Alanis Morissette's Perfect:
Don't forget to win first place
Don't forget to keep that smile on your face
Be a good boy
Try a little harder
You've got to measure up
And make me prouder
We'll love you just the way you are
If you're perfect
He continues with the following: "In Mormon discourse, we talk about the family being an institution more important than any other and beyond reproach. But the sad truth is, more people are hurt emotionally, physically, and spiritually in the family than in any other institution."

Michael argues not that the institution of the family is bad, but rather that its members are unaware of why they act the way they do. For the first ten years of our marriage, my wife and I remained essentially unaware of the unconscious processes we'd acquired in our childhoods and brought into our marriage. Only over the past few years, as we've matured as parents and companions, we have become more aware of these processes and worked to rid ourselves of those we don't want to see continued into the next generation.

After reading Michael's article, I now have words for what we're attempting - to move from a dysfunctional family system to an open family system. In his words:
Dysfunctional family systems can be characterized as being closed to new information, feelings, roles or ways of being. The more closed a family is, the more static and unchanging the family roles and rules are. For example, a boy in a closed family that is given the rebel role in youth will likely have that role projected onto him for the rest of his life, as if his soul had somehow become frozen during childhood.

Open family systems, on the other hand, tend to allow more alternatives and freedoms for its members. They will tend to allow different information and perspectives to be expressed. Children in such families don't have to remain stuck in their childhood roles; they can change and exchange roles as they mature. In healthy families, the members are more valued than the system; in unhealthy families, the system is more valued than its members.
This language - members are more valued than the system vs. the system is more valued than its members - makes me think about how I've viewed my own extended family's reactions to my faith transition over the past five years. Some members have been very open, asking questions and encouraging me to share some of the how's and why's of my transition. Others have been somewhat closed, choosing to view family roles and rules as established through generations of faithfulness, and therefore not open to doubt or questioning. With these family members I sometimes feel, rightly or wrongly, like the boy in Alanis Morissette's song - I'll be loved and accepted as an equal as long as I measure up ... as long as I fit the mormon mold.

I hope my own children never feel this way spiritually, at least not because of their parents or brothers and sisters. I find comfort in family therapist Virginia Satir's list of family freedoms, which she applies specifically to children and which Michael mentions in his article, and which I think of more as spiritual family freedoms.

Give them the freedom to see and hear, to think what one thinks, to feel what one feels, to want what one wants, to imagine and to make mistakes.

Then love them just the way they are, even if they're not perfect.

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