Cultivating Peace in the Family Emotional System
Do you find yourselves going round and round?
Posted Jan 18, 2020
In a famous 13th-century prayer, the monk Francis of Assisi wrote, “Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love.” I aspire to such grace. His prayer to be “an instrument of peace” has echoed through the generations, inspiring birdbaths in quaint courtyards and the like where we might find momentary solace before plunging through doors where partners and children wait, with intermingled needs for affection and independence.
Learning How to React
Early in marriage, my wife and I were more volatile in our arguing. Even little things could trigger discontent. Temperamental differences—she is an extravert, and I am an introvert—were ripe for friction.
She would ask, “Are you OK?” and I’d become irritated. More arbitrary issues of difference would also arise. One night when I chose to lie down on “her” side of the bed, she said, “No, I’m not going to sleep on this side.”
I wanted to make a point about being flexible with the way we did things. But she liked how we each had our own side of the bed. She got really frustrated, but I refused to budge, thinking she’d give in. Instead, she slept on the floor.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Who you are speaks so loudly, I can’t hear a word you’re saying.” Who we are together in moments of difference and duress is often more a caricature of reflex and mood than of strengths and common interests. In any corner of our lives, when we react to underlying insecurity, panic, anger, or despair by attacking or retreating, a primal “fight-or-flight” instinct trumps our capacity for empathy and negotiation. Our impulses have the power to paralyze our character and our relationship.
How do we act in spite of such anxiety rather than at its whim? To the extent that we fail to go toe-to-toe with our own reflex and mood, our reflex and mood may go toe-to-toe with the ones we love. We find ourselves acting in ways that sabotage our own efforts to get more of what we want, whether it be understanding, connection, or behavioral change.
My wife and I argued a lot in our first years of marriage. One night, she sensed an odd vibe from me. I didn’t like her asking about it. The situation grew from there until we were both angry.
She went up to our bedroom and shut the door. After a little while, I went up, wrote a note about how much I loved her, and slid it under the door. Before too long, the tension lifted.
We don’t argue all that often now. When we do, that volatility is not there anymore. We’ve learned to read and respond to each other better. We have also learned to be not only more vulnerable but also more constructive in how we navigate the complex and the difficult.
The Family as an Emotional System
Surges from anxiety to embattlement lead us nowhere good. As parents, partners, or even co-workers, we can easily become stuck in dynamics revolving around momentary self-interest. Zig Ziglar said it best: “Be careful not to compromise what you want most for what you want now.”
Especially in our families, we must address that pink elephant in our homes, the differences in perception, and the distance that acts as a wedge between us. Whether that distance stems from pride or fear, in the space between, we find ourselves stumbling in a dance. This dance is not so much with the one we love as with a personification of our own anxieties and desires.
Families are emotional systems made up of powerful cybernetic forces that can heavily influence the behavior of its members. When the behavior of a family member threatens the balance, counterbalancing emotions and behaviors of other members help preserve the familiar flow. Everyone in a family participates in the emotional system.
One family member may become relationally distant, but if another becomes depressed, this might result in the distant member’s return to a deeper level of emotional engagement. There are countless examples of such regulatory dynamics. The behavior of each family member is part of the emotional climatological ecosystem of the family.
This is not unlike the operation 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 shape families.
After over a decade and a half, my wife and I have come to understand more deeply the personal qualities and beliefs we hold about ourselves—some helpful, others harmful. When we adapt to and with one another, and in community with those we love, we not only have increased opportunities for peace and understanding but also to nurture one another’s strengths and interests. I can increasingly see how my daughters now participate together with us in the life of our own unique family emotional system.
What works for one may not work for another. We must play to strengths and be responsive to particularities. Ultimately, what is true for all of us is this: To grow, we must begin to experience freedom within the pushes and pulls of powerful, self-perpetuating forces in which problems—and families—maintain themselves.
Research has shown that when we demand, criticize, belittle, or detach, we find ourselves going round and round in a kind of tailspin which rarely ends well and that when these toxic behaviors are reduced, relationships in many cases improve, experiencing in the best of cases a kind of liftoff. Where there is injury, doubt, despair, or sadness, may we become instruments of peace in our families.