Coming to grips with Bowen Family Systems Theory in a collaborative learning environment.

A good paint job that lasts is 2/3 laborious preparation: A bit like the long effort towards more differentiation?

Jenny Brown with quotes from Dan Papero PhD.

Over the holiday break our offices at the FSI have been painted inside and out. It was a 3 week project for the painters who spent at least two thirds of their time preparing the surfaces to ensure that the final fresh coats of paint will have longevity. Any of us who have done some DIY painting jobs know of the tiring, unrewarding work of preparation. The cleaning, repairing, sanding and undercoating are inevitably laborious tasks with little to show for it. In fact the old 100 plus year old timber boards at our offices looked worse before they began to look better as the cleaning revealed rotting areas and cracks.

I know it’s a bit of a stretch to use this as a metaphor for the slow work of differentiating a self but I thought it provided a pretty good sedge way into our first blog for the year.  Any worthwhile growth requires a committed, hard and sometimes laborious effort. Any quick cosmetic changes, like a quick slap of paint, just will not stand the test of time.

This year at the FSI we are delighted to have Dr Dan Papero, senior faculty from the Bowen Centre for the Study of the family in Washington DC, spend 6 months with us on sabbatical. The goal of his visit is to mentor those of us in Australia and New Zealand who are interested in Bowen theory – interested to explore ways of doing and helping others to do relationships better; in ways that are not superficial and short lived. Dan has recently been published in our local family therapy journal on the couple relationship from a Bowen theory perspective. I have selected some of the many eloquent quotes from the article that describe the difference between living life on automatic compared to working on a bit more differentiation of self (or maturity of self in relationship).

He describes this as a long term project to “learn to cope with the deep anxiety and not give up the effort.”  The following quotes provide much to consider as each of us contemplate ways to bring a more mature self into our significant domains of life.

Firstly there are some quotes that describe automatic ways of relating that equate to slapping on a coat of paint without the work of preparation.

  • Living in the moment with little awareness of self in relationships:

“The emotionally reactive person operates more or less automatically, thinking little about his or her own behaviour and its effect on others.”

“Anxious partners display a range of reactive behaviours. They become more argumentative, less thoughtful, more critical and judgmental, more distant from one another and less able to maintain the complex behaviours of self-regulation that mark effective functioning in relationships.”

  • Distance as quick relief rather than dealing with tension in relationship

“The use of distance provides immediate relief from difficult relationship intensity. On the other hand, the loss of contact appears to rigidify emotionally reactive processes between people.”

  • Expecting others to make things right for us rather than being willing to put in our own hard work:

“Undifferentiation manifests itself in numerous ways.  An important manifestation surfaces in the web of expectations each has for the other to “be there” for oneself. It is as if the undifferentiated side of the person demands of the other: Be the way I want you to be, not the way you are, so that I can be stable, comfortable and happy.  Often these expectations lie dormant until somehow the other violates the expectation, leading to intense emotional reactivity expressed in conflict or distance or both.”

“Each focuses on the other, expecting the other to meet one’s perceived needs and reacting intensely when that expectation is not met.”

All of us to varying degrees fall into the automatic patters described above. We find it easier to bypass the discomfort of working on self and continue to react impulsively. In particular the easy path is to react to perceived faults in others.  Dan Papero’s quotes below describe some of what is involved in the long term effort of working on differentiation – no short cuts!

  • Learning to see one’s own emotional reactivity rather than finding fault in others:

In Bowen clinical work the goal is: “To help one or more family members to become aware of the part self plays in the automatic emotional responsiveness.”

“When a partner can begin to observe his or her own emotional reactivity and how his or her sensitivity and response triggers the automatic response of the other, it becomes possible to step outside the pattern of the emotional process by regulating and shifting one’s own behaviour.”

  • Learning to increase our capacity for self-regulation is part of the long haul effort:

A differentiation effort “requires a person to learn the difference between emotional and intellectual functioning and slowly increase thoughtful regulation of automatic emotional functioning. “

“In any relationship as each party “becomes a better observer of the process, anxiety and tension decreases.  With the reduction in anxiety, each can observe more of the reactive process in self and in the other.”

  • Doing the hard work in important relationships rather than substitute relationships—such as a detour to a third party —including a relationship with a counsellor.

“The effort the partner makes in the real relationships of his or her life assumes primary importance, not the relationship to the clinician. The clinician must remain aware to this possibility in order redirect the family member if she or he shows signs of investing too heavily in the clinician.”

So for all of us at the beginning of a New Year its useful to think about how much we are prepared to put in the uncomfortable work of facing up to and working on our immaturity. Maybe not too appealing…and in the short term that quick fad like a slap of paint can look OK but the cracks of old patterns will keep reappearing.

To read full article published the Australian & NZ Journal of Family Therapy click here.

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