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All in the Family

“I actually like being home now. It’s crazy!”

The family sitting in front of me was not happy.
When a couple or family comes into session, I find where and how they choose to sit telling. The Levys arrived on time and shuffled into my office, barely speaking. Mom (Nechama) and 15- year-old daughter, Aliza, chose to sit on the couch. Dad (Dovid) followed, sitting awkwardly on the chair next to Mom.

Aliza’s cheeks were burning furiously and she was looking down, arms tightly crossed against her body. Nechama was looking desperately at Aliza, and Dovid was looking straight ahead, eyebrows raised, jaw clenched. I drew a deep, steadying breath.

“Welcome. You took a brave first step in coming here. In my phone conversation with Nechama, she mentioned that there’s a lot of conflict in your home these days. That sounds really tough. The goal in coming here is to reduce tension and make home a happier place for everyone.”

Nechama’s desperate glance flickered to me and then onto her husband.

“Let’s just talk a little bit today about what’s bothering each of you, and in the coming weeks, I’ll work with you primarily as a family, but also as a couple and as individuals.

How does that sound?”

Nechama was the first to open up, her voice steadying as she talked. “The tense environment in our home is really affecting Aliza’s five younger siblings, especially the two girls directly under her. I feel Dovid doesn’t understand Aliza, or my support of Aliza’s choices and behaviors. I always, always feel torn, because I can’t stand when my husband is upset with me. But I really fear that Dovid’s critical attitude is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy for Aliza.”

“Nechama, come on,” Dovid interrupted curtly. “You allow Aliza to act as she pleases, you’re not consistent with the limits we set for her, and I’m not home enough to manage every decision. I’m at work. And I’d like to stop being bothered at work with phone calls from the principal that Aliza is doing whatever new horrible behavior she’s up to that week!”

“Dovid!” Nechama was irritated. “I do not know why they called you at work when my number is on file. This past time, they were just calling because of a uniform infraction — Aliza forgot to bring her school shoes. So she wore her UGGs all day. It’s not so horrible!”

“There you are rescuing her again! And minimizing! I just can’t let you—”

“Okay,” I interjected assertively. “I see this is a sensitive topic for both of you and demonstrates the different ways you may parent Aliza. Let’s put this specific discussion on hold for a bit, as I have some general, family-related questions for you.”

I had let the interaction play out, as their choice of words and body language during their argument were extremely telling. However, with each sentence uttered, Aliza seemed to sink further into the couch, so I redirected the conversation to more neutral information gathering, making a notation to address Dovid’s sarcasm and contempt later. When the tension had somewhat cleared, I directed my questions to Aliza.

“Aliza, what made you come here today?”

“My parents said they’d take away my phone if I didn’t come here.”

“So, do you have any desire to be here?”

“Nope.”

“Hmm, well, I appreciate you coming anyway, and sitting here so respectfully, although I’m sure you’re feeling uncomfortable.”

“Yeah, this is super awkward.”

“Would you be more comfortable if your parents weren’t here?”

“I guess.”

I asked Nechama and Dovid to step into my waiting room so I could have a few minutes alone with Aliza. I rearranged my positioning in my chair to be more casual, and mirrored some of her body language so that she might subconsciously relax a bit.

“So, I get this is awkward, and I’m sure there are a million other things you’d rather be doing on a Sunday night. Hopefully this process won’t take a long time — especially if everyone is able to be open to it, to ourselves, and how our actions affect others. How does that sound?”

“It sounds okay.”

“Okay, great. Can you tell me how life feels for you at home?”

“Suffocating. Annoying. I like my siblings, and my mom tries her best but doesn’t really get it. But at least she tries. My father doesn’t even try to understand me.”

“That sounds super challenging. Can you tell me a little bit about what that looks like?”

Aliza, who was slowly thawing to me, shared that her parents often fight about her and that that makes her feel bad. After several minutes listening to and validating Aliza, I called Nechama and Dovid back in to wrap up the session.

“The goal here is to recognize patterns in communication and functioning that we may not have known were operating. Every person is a product of their upbringing, and how we interact with each other is part of a larger system. That means our own childhood experiences will largely affect how we are with our spouses and kids. Examining this can be a concrete process, but will require honest self-analysis and also some homework. How does everyone feel about what I just shared?”

The desperate looks were back, but there was a subtle shift in the energy in the room. I looked forward to seeing them the following week.

The Tricky Triangle

I saw the Levys weekly for approximately five months. I saw a combination of different family structures, including the parents alone, Aliza alone, the three of them, and the whole family (minus the kids under five). Over the course of our work, we explored different elements of Bowen’s Family Systems Theory, particularly focusing on how the family projection process affects the family dynamic.

A triangle, or a three-person relationship system, is the smallest stable relationship system. A two-person system (dyad) is unstable because it tolerates little tension before involving a third person. A triangle can contain much more tension because the tension shifts around three relationships. A visual example of this is that when two people hold a table, the other feels each movement. If one person drops the table, the whole thing crashes to the ground. If there would be three people, each one would feel much less tension, and there would be times when one person could let go.

People’s actions in a triangle reflect their efforts to show their emotional connections and attachments to the others in the triangle. Triangles also reflect people’s reactions toward too much intensity in the relationships, and their taking sides in others’ conflicts. Paradoxically, while a triangle is more stable than a dyad, it creates an odd man out, which is a very difficult position for individuals to tolerate. Anxiety generated by being the odd man out is a frequent and intense experience in triangles.

The triangulation process in the Levy family started shortly after Aliza, their first child, was born. In the months following Aliza’s birth, Nechama felt overwhelmed and anxious in her role as a new mother. When Nechama would share her fears with Dovid, she felt he was critical and dismissive. Dovid felt that Nechama was worrying unnecessarily and was irritated by her neediness — something he’d never experienced in the first two years of their marriage.

Dovid was balancing a kollel schedule and night classes toward his CPA. Consequently, he and Nechama spent little time together, and it was easier for Nechama to direct her emotional energy toward Aliza rather than Dovid. The time that they did have together was often spent talking about Aliza, and then, as her siblings came in quick succession, the other children.

There was growing emotional distance between Nechama and Dovid, which Nechama reacted to by getting more involved with the children, and Dovid getting more involved with his learning, work, and outside obligations (shul/Hatzolah). Dovid was in the outside position of the parental triangle, and Nechama and Aliza (and kids) were in the inside.

Even in the first minutes of intake with the Levys, I could tell there was unhealthy triangulation occurring; the fact that Nechama and Aliza came in together, and sat on the same couch, while Dovid shuffled in after them and sat alone was one initial hint. It was evident that Nechama and Aliza were often aligned, yet this created huge tension, as Dovid was left out. This caused him anger and anxiety as he felt a loss of control in his parenting, as well as a loss of connection with his wife. When Nechama and Dovid would align, Aliza would act out, as she felt misunderstood and rejected by her parents.

Awareness of the triangulation pattern is the first step in minimizing its effects in the family system. Working primarily with the couple, I helped Nechama and Dovid reprioritize their couple-ship and work on their communication.

One essential rule we implemented was that Nechama and Dovid were never to contradict each other on matters relating to parenting in the presence of their kids, especially in front of Aliza. When one parent is criticized or challenged inappropriately, not only does all the relationship energy shift to parent/child, while the other parent is left out, but the children get a message of discord and lack of unity. Children then go back and forth between parents in order to get what they want.

At first, Nechama and Dovid’s private discussions were unproductive. Yet over time, once the fear of being left out was eliminated, and a message of unity was being conveyed to their children, they were more open to hearing, validating, and compromising with each other.

Initially, the shift was uncomfortable for Aliza, but children would rather their parents be stable and aligned than inappropriately attached. Minimizing the triangulation was an essential first step in diffusing a lot of tension.

When problems project

The family projection process is the way parents pass along their emotional problems, anxieties and fears to a child. This process can increase a child’s anxiety, relationship, or behavioral issues. Children receive many problems (and strengths) from their relationship with their parents, but the problems that most affect their lives are “relationship sensitivities.”

Examples of relationship sensitivities are a heightened need for attention and approval, difficulty dealing with expectations from others, the tendency to blame oneself or others, feeling responsible for the happiness of others, or feeling that others are responsible for their happiness, and acting impulsively to relieve the anxiety of the moment rather than tolerating anxiety and acting thoughtfully.

The parent, motivated by his or her own emotional problems, projects his or her own anxieties onto the child. This can cause the child to develop even stronger relationship sensitivities than his parents. The projection process follows three steps:

  1. the parent focuses on a child out of fear that something is wrong with the child;
  2. the parent interprets the child’s behavior as confirming the fear; and
  3. the parent treats the child as if something is really wrong with the child.

I saw this frequently play out with Aliza and her father. Dovid, perhaps due to his early lack of attachment to Aliza, or due to his own childhood modeling, was particularly sensitive to Aliza disobeying him. They’d fall into a pattern of emotional sensitivities and projection.

Dovid: Aliza, how come you got such a low mark in math? We got you a tutor. I work hard to pay for the tutor. You’re obviously not doing the work required, and have no appreciation for me or your mother. You don’t deserve to go on your school trip tomorrow — I forbid you to go. (Tendency to blame, difficulty dealing with expectations from others, acting impulsively to relieve his anxiety, feeling like a failure for being unable to make his child happy/successful.)

Aliza: You have no idea what I did or didn’t do because you’re always at work! I can’t deal with all your dumb rules, it’s not normal! I don’t care what you say — I’m going tomorrow! (Tendency to blame, difficulty dealing with expectations from others, acting impulsively to relieve her anxiety, feeling like a failure for being unable to make her parent happy.)

Dovid began to focus on Aliza’s chutzpahdig behavior more, as well as her academic challenges. Every small infraction confirmed Dovid’s fears, and he often overreacted to her behavior, as he felt that something was really wrong with Aliza.

Aliza did not feel safe to share what was really going on with her at school, and as Dovid became angrier, Nechama became more permissive. Nechama actually had some of the same concerns as her husband, but she was so used to rescuing her daughter that she’d latch onto any signs that Aliza was doing better. Nechama would buy her clothes at whim and let her have a phone, against school rules. Nechama did this in the name of making Aliza feel special and important in hopes that she could motivate her to change, and open up to her more. (Heightened need for approval, difficulty dealing with expectations from others, feeling responsible for the happiness of others, and acting impulsively to relieve anxiety.)

Making the Change

After the information gathering, rapport building, and assessment sessions, the first step in helping the Levys was to have them identify unhealthy patterns in their day-to-day communication.

Nechama and Dovid agreed in theory with the patterns evident in their relationship, but in order to help them be more mindful of the repeated patterns they were recreating, I asked them to keep a private accountability journal. I use journaling as a tool to externalize emotion as well as to help individuals get into the habit of recognizing their thought patterns and emotional tendencies and sensitivities.

I printed a page with three columns on it: “What made me feel sensitive today?” (hurt, angry, reactive), “How did I respond to these feelings?” and “How would I like to respond to those feelings in the future?” (if the response wasn’t desirable).

Over the course of several weeks, Nechama and Dovid were able to leave out the last column, as they responded more consistently with how they learned to communicate during our sessions. As time went on, and Nechama and Dovid gained more insight into their sensitivities, I added “What do you think caused this sensitivity?” (Answers could range from: “I was overtired and irritable,” to “I was reminded of something my mother used to say to me as a child and it hurt me.”)

Another assignment I gave Nechama and Dovid was designed to shift the focus to Aliza. Dovid committed to making one nice comment to Aliza a day. This could be “I like how you shared your sweater with your sister,” or “Thanks for cleaning the table — you did a really good job.”

It was incredible to see how at first Dovid was only successful in this once or twice a week because he literally could not see anything Aliza did well. But eventually, he was able to see several good things a day in Aliza — and consequently in his other children and Nechama. In addition, Aliza was responsive to the shift of energy, and started wanting to prove her parents — especially Dovid — right in a different way: meeting their fair and positive expectations of her.

Nechama and Dovid were instructed to go out at least twice a month (ideally weekly) on a date. The date was to be fun — and not include any discussion about their children, finances, or mundane obligations. For several weeks, Nechama and Dovid let this fall to the wayside, claiming there were too many evening meetings or community obligations/simchahs, no babysitters available, and tight finances.

Week after week, I challenged them on this (“You can go for a cup of tea and a walk for less than $5”, “If the babysitter cancels last minute, put the kids to sleep and order takeout and play a board game in the basement — cell phones off.”). Ultimately, we addressed what turned out to be the main deterrent: Nechama and Dovid were not that comfortable having fun together; they’d forgotten how. In the beginning it felt forced, but over time, they each took some emotional risks, which paid off pretty quickly. Miraculously, they made their dates weekly.

In the sessions designated for talking about the children, I helped them set fair and reasonable boundaries for Aliza and the others regarding their schooling, social life, and family obligations. Disagreements about the children were to happen in my office, away from sensitive, young ears, and in a space where they could safely share their frustrations.

In each domain, I asked for their bottom lines — one thing that they could absolutely not compromise on. Anything after that was negotiable.

After deciding together on how they expect their children to behave, and how they’d respond to their requests, Nechama and Dovid clearly explained their boundaries to Aliza and their other children. The children responded well, as fair boundaries and expectations allow for feelings of support and emotional safety — even if kids don’t look pleased on the surface.

Nechama and Dovid worked hard to change the dance they had known for so long. Aliza was responsive to their changes. I also worked with Aliza individually to process the hurt she felt and help to teach her to verbalize her feelings and reactions in more productive ways.

During the last session, I reflected on the family picture. Nechama and Dovid sat on the couch, Aliza was comfortably poised on the chair next to her father.

“I can’t believe this is our last session!” Aliza smiled, looking at her parents.

“Yes, you’ve all done such challenging work, and it’s been amazing to watch your family transform. New situations will come up and it’s okay to fall backward. Don’t be too hard on yourself.” I glanced pointedly at Dovid. “It’s hard to rewrite your way of thinking — but you’re all doing it, one day at a time. Having the awareness of these familial patterns is enough to give you food for thought, to rethink a negative interaction, and rewrite the script.”

“I actually like being home now. It’s crazy!” Aliza looked at her parents’ expressions and laughed. “Sorry, Ma and Tatty — you know what I mean…”

“I actually like being home now, too!” Dovid and Nechama shared a smile as they got up to leave.

There’s always more work to do, but the Levys are better equipped to face the challenges that would arise, together as a family.

Tackling the Triangle

The typical roles in relational triangles are the rescuer (hero), the victim (the good guy), and the persecuted (the bad guy). Here are some steps to take to avoid contributing to unhealthy interactions:

  1. Realize that you’re repeating a pattern. Stand back and observe when you feel triggered, and try to identify what’s happening.
  2. Keep a neutral attitude and don’t become defensive. Use a nonreactive, nonemotional, easygoing tone. Make statements that stop the conflict, like “Perhaps you’re right”, or “Interesting point.”
  3. If you find yourself feeling like a victim, learn to take responsibility for yourself instead of blaming others. Take the energy you feel about being victimized and change it into determination to make changes.
  4. If you find yourself taking on too much responsibility, back off. Allow others to take on their own responsibilities, even if you know they’ll fail. People, especially children, need to know that they’re responsible for their actions and that every action has a consequence.
  5. Try to refrain from blaming, criticizing, accusing, threatening, overreacting, and monitoring. Aim to be neutral. If the person is unwilling to participate in a healthy interaction, figure out a way to remove yourself physically from the encounter until a different time.

Abby Delouya maintains a private practice in Montreal and works in schools as a youth and addictions counselor.

Disclaimer: This article is for psycho-educational purposes only, not diagnostic purposes, and does not serve as a replacement for individual therapy. The characters in this column are composites of clients and situations.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 622)

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