What ¨This Is Us¨ Can Teach Us About Family Dynamics
The psychology behind the NBC hit series.
Posted Oct 03, 2017
I might be slightly biased, but there aren't a lot of negative things I can say about the NBC hit-series ¨This Is Us¨. It's heartwarming, compassionate, gut-wrenching and a gem. It taps into our nostalgia and makes us reminisce about our own families, our memories, and our history. This is one of those shows that, as a psychologist, I've recommended to both colleagues and loved ones alike.
With Season Two premiering a week ago, the hype is back and bigger than ever, which has made me think about what makes this show so appealing. Is it the lovable characters? The complex family relationships? How sensitively it navigates through complicated issues such as adoption, body image, and addiction? Whatever the reason it may be, it's safe to say a big appeal of this show is how relatable it is.
¨This Is Us¨ portrays family dynamics and elements that all families can connect with, in a way that hasn't been done before. It teaches us about communication, the intricate dance of marriage and that no family is perfect. The show, besides its entertainment value, shines a light on a variety of characteristics pertinent to all families and their dynamics.
Each family member plays a special role within the family system
Family systems therapy is a special form of family therapy that studies how each individual within the family affects the whole unit. This therapy holds the premise that ¨what happens to one member of the family, happens to the whole family¨.
Authors like Salvador Minuchin and Virginia Satir have done extensive research regarding family dynamics and what makes each family system unique. Their findings suggest that each member of the family serves a role to keep the family in equilibrium. These roles will change as each individual (or the family as a whole) faces transformative challenges.
¨This Is Us¨ showcases a family of five and how each member of its family plays a specific role. Jack, for example, is the go-getter patriarch of the family. He makes the big decisions and he's remembered by his children as frequently making the best out of sticky situations. Even though he battles with addiction, we can all agree that he is best known for being the personification of the phrase ¨taking the sourest lemon life has to offer and turning it into something resembling lemonade¨.
Another great example of how each member serves a role is the fascinating dynamic between the twins, Kate and Kevin. They're each other's go-to person and are blissfully unaware of how deep-rooted their connection is—they even finish each other's sentences. And, while their limit setting abilities might need extra help, they show us how each family member plays a different role to help maintain the family homeostasis (Jackson, 1981).
Each family life cycle stage presents a particular challenge for the family
Just like there are developmental stages for each person (birth, infancy, adolescence, adulthood, etc.), the family has a life cycle as well. And just like each developmental stage has a ¨crisis¨ or a challenge the individual needs to overcome (Erikson, 1998), each family is faced with different challenges as it moves through a different stage (Ríos, 2005).
One of the aspects that make ¨This Is Us¨ special is that we see different stages of this family. We get to see Rebecca and Jack in their early years of dating; as they prepare for the arrival of triplets, and now become young parents; the family with young kids; the family with teenagers; and so on. We are even fortunate to see how these early models shaped the ¨Big Three¨'s ability to forge relationships as adults.
Each stage has its challenges and its crisis to overcome, which makes each stage unique and different. For example, the challenges one might face while starting to plan for a family at the early stages of marriage (organizing their finances and discussing parental expectations) are completely different from the ones a family with teenagers face (re-adjusting limits and allowing children's independence).
A family's mental health and resilience - as a whole - depends on how well they're able to face both normative and unexpected challenges and obstacles. Resilient families are not the ones that don't face any problems, but the ones who transform those problems into growth opportunities.
There is no such thing as a perfect relationship nor a perfect family
Perfection is an illusion and, unfortunately, social media is partly to blame for perpetuating this myth. While social media has given us a handy tool communication-wise, especially in this global world, it's also a double-edged sword when it comes to human relationships.
According to Simon Sinek, ethnographer and author, social media gives us the opportunity to ¨show life is amazing, even though (we can be) depressed¨. According to Sinek, we have become good at putting filters on our daily situations. Today, more than ever, we are at risk of believing that perfection is attainable and we're falling behind because we haven't reached it yet.
While This Is Us is a work of fiction, it shows us that this simply isn't true. The series explores the good, the bad and everything in the middle. We relate to Randall because he's a flawed character who has thrived from less-than-ideal circumstances. We empathize with Kate because we know she's an amazing human who is also a work in progress. And we swoon over Kevin because he shows us that you can have fame and money and also feel incomplete.
No family is perfect, and no relationship is perfect, either. But, we need to remember that perfection does not exist. It's about loving each other for who we are—with both our qualities and our demons—and making that choice every single day.
Erikson, E. H., & Erikson, J. M. (1998). The life cycle completed. W.W. Norton.
Jackson, D. D. (1981). The question of family homeostasis. International Journal of Family Therapy, 3(1), 5-15. doi:10.1007/bf00936266
Ríos, J. (2005) Los ciclos vitales de la familia y pareja ¿crisis y oportunidades? Spain: Editorial CCS.