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Understanding Family Systems

Organizations yield the results they were designed to yield. Families are no different. Most of us learn how to ‘do’ family by experiencing our family of origin. Sometimes we resolve to do a few things differently— and we succeed— only to find out that we needed a different change. The trick is knowing what to do this time.

I can count on a small flurry of calls from distraught parents in October, as school staff report to parents about the behaviors of their kids. This is not usually because kids have a problem with schools. Often it is because no one notices the problem from within the family, and discerning adults outside of the situation take notice. Families tend to create a small system that works for them, or at least some of them…until it doesn’t.


The family is the most basic, most durable organization in society. Healthy, entangled, or cut-off…it unavoidably permeates one’s very essence. All we learn about living is taught here. Who we become is formed here. As we grow up, it seems we always strive to recover from our original family or are struggling to craft a healthy new one, or both.


How we treat our kids is closely related to how our parents treated us. How we treat our spouses is closely tied to how we saw our parents treat each other. We may think otherwise, and we most often are wrong. I think the thing is that unconsciously we bring 20 or so years of lessons with us into our next relationships. We join ‘until death’ with a partner we know for only a brief period of time and not too deeply. We know ourselves even less, because it is very hard to see the system we operate in. And gradually we find out things about the other – and they find out things about us – that do not jibe with our vision. We become sad, disappointed, and anxious.


Men typically do not talk about it. If they do it is in generalizing statements, and often with sarcastic humor. Joking makes them feel better. The kids become “his” or “hers”. The wife becomes comic relief. And men might become the butt (or some closely related word) of jokes. Respect is lost. Kids feel lost.


So what can we do? We can change the system by looking at its history and understanding damaging patterns. We can determine what needs aren’t met, and how to meet them. We can develop more flexible and connective thoughts and behaviors.




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