Healthy Relationships 1.3: Nuclear Family Emotional System

The Family as an Emotional System

If you’ve ever observed a flock of geese or a swarm of bees, you know that they move in conjunction with one another. Although we aren’t in their brains to understand how they communicate how and where they will move next, we can see that they work in unison somehow. Families do the same thing, and we can study the emotions that move them in one direction and another.

Yesterday, we described how the emotional process of triangulation does this. Triangulation refers to the way people try to manage the emotional tension between them by involving a third party. Today we’ll look at a few other ways that people try to manage the uncomfortable emotions that inevitably arise in relationship.

The Nuclear Family Emotional System

The concept of the nuclear family emotional system describes the patterns of emotional functioning within a single generation. Basic patterns between the father, mother and children are replicas of the same relationships in past generations, and will be repeated in generations to follow. When these patterns are identified in one generation, one can then see them in previous generations, and it is then possible to make some reasonably accurate predictions about the patterns of future generations.

Differentiation Makes All the Difference

When partners decide to join their lives, they do so with life-style patterns (See my post, “…Attachment Styles”) and levels of differentiation or solid self (See my posts, “…Solid Self 1.0” and “…Solid Self 1.1”) they developed within their families of origin. The emotional-instinctual forces that governed their choice of one another will be tested and tried during their courtship, and the way they handle these forces prior to establishing a permanent partnership, along with the way they time and plan their marriage, provides one of the best views of their levels of differentiation.

People pick partners who have achieved the same level of differentiation, and the lower that is, the greater the potential for future problems. Often, partners have the closest and most open relationship during courtship, with the fusion of two pseudo-selves (see “Solid Self” posts) occurring when they commit to each other permanently.

Dominance and Adaptation

The lower the differentiation, the more intense the emotional fusion of the partnership, often with issues of dominance being the most significant conflict. One spouse may assume the dominant role, forcing the other to adapt; both may try for the dominant role, which results in conflict; or both may try for the adaptive role, which results in decision paralysis. When the level of differentiation is higher, the dominant and adaptive positions are not directly related to gender but to the birth order and the role of each partner in their families of origin.

How We Manage Relational Anxiety and Stress

Any kind of fusion results in anxiety for one or both partners, which they deal with via 1) emotional distance, 2) interpersonal conflict, 3) sickness or dysfunction in one partner, and/or 4) projecting their problems onto the children. How much of each of these methods of handling stress is determined by patterns in the family of origin and other variables in the mix of the individual partners. Most families use a combination of all four mechanisms, and the more the problem shifts from one mechanism to another, the less the process will be crippling in any single area.

We’ll address each of these four mechanisms separately in later blog posts. Tomorrow, we’ll take up the fourth strategy here: the family projection process.

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