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How Can I Navigate the Tensions in My Relationship Systems, Part 1?

In my last entry, I noted the lingering tension people are experiencing in their families and other relationships, tension exposed after the presidential election of 2016 that continues to the present. If it is true that Jesus called me to be in some kind of relationship with people who are different than me, perhaps even hostile towards me, and if this relationship is to be redemptive and reveal the love of Jesus Christ, then how can I accomplish this when they don't like me much and the feelings are largely mutual?

Bowen Family Systems Theory describes tension relationship systems (such as families, churches, friendships, and even workplaces) as the result of anxiety: an emotional response to a sense of threat. That threat can be real or imaginary. Anxiety can be chronic: the system may feel threatened all the time - a constant crisis. Anxiety can also be acute: temporary elevation in anxiety that will subside in time.

Some people's relational systems are always tense. It may not take much to get people on edge. Then throw in something like the national debate over Confederate monuments or immigration policies, for instance, and things can get heated very quickly. This is the result of anxiety, or that sense of threat, in our relationships. When a relationship system becomes anxious, it will work in healthy and unhealthy ways to lower the anxiety to achieve a comfortable homeostasis, or stable balance.

According to rabbi, family therapist, and leadership theorist Edwin Friedman, relationship systems, like a family or a church, will exhibit several unhealthy, unhelpful responses to anxiety. When the topics of Confederate monuments, the alt-right vs. the alt-left, or President Trump come up, I can expect my family or friendships to manifest the following reactions.

1. Reactivity: the vicious cycle of intense reactions of each member of the system to events and to one another.
  • Communication is marked more by diagnostic labeling “you” positions rather than by self-defining “I” statements. Things may be exaggerated or overstated.
  • Family members become argumentative and are easily brought to loggerheads.
  • The family will focus on symptoms and not the underlying processes.
  • The intensity of the reactivity can make it difficult to achieve self-regulation, objectivity, and a proactive stance rather than a reactive one.
For example, Uncle Hal is a staunch supporter of President Trump. He is an angry white man who is tired of being forced to accommodate the sensitives of minorities, liberals, and immigrants. He is a self-described expert on what liberals think, and is always attacking liberals and their beliefs. Aunt Myrtle is a liberal who believes Hal is a sexist bigot. At family gatherings and holiday meals they are constantly going at one another, describing what the other thinks without ever really listening to one another.
2. Herding: a process through which the forces for togetherness triumph over the forces for individuality and move everyone to adapt to the least mature members (those who are least likely to adapt, grow, mature).
  • Healthy systems exhibit the critical principle that life grows in the direction of its strengths by preserving a balance between togetherness and individuality.
  • The herding instinct upsets that balance by encouraging the force for togetherness to eclipse the force for individuality.
  • The system adapts to and organizes itself around its least mature, most dependent, and most dysfunctional members in order to achieve a peaceful, stable state.
  • Can be in the form of threats, ultimatums, personal attacks all with the goal of forcing conformity or cut-off. Either go along or get lost!
  • The result is not “togetherness” but stuck-togetherness, as the emphasis is on good feelings and peaceful relations rather than on ideas or progress. Can’t we just get along?
  • The system becomes stuck in the status quo because in order to be inclusive and peaceful it must adapt to the preferences of even its most immature member.
Neither Uncle Hal or Aunt Myrtle are interested in learning, growing, adapting, or changing. Their interest seems to be winning arguments. Hal says things to Myrtle like, "I can't believe anyone who believes as you do can be a member of my family!" Myrtle makes it clear that she will not be at the family's Thanksgiving meal if the family insists on talking politics. Everyone feels the burden to keep their opinions to themselves so as not to upset Hal or Myrtle.
3. Cut-off: a process of separation, isolation, withdrawal, running away, or denying the importance of the people being separated from.
  • An extreme form of emotional distance: when a relationship becomes sufficiently emotionally intense, at some point, people will often cut off internally or physically.
  • Can happen all at once or be the result of emotional distance over time.
  • Can be unilateral or mutual.
Members of Hal and Myrtle's families have either been hurt personally by reactivity, or are tired of the constant tension and threats. Over time they become a little distant emotionally, and then physically. Myrtle's children have already stopped speaking to Hal and his family. People begin to consider not inviting Hal and Myrtle to various family functions. 
4. Blame displacement/scapegoating: an emotional state in which family members focus on forces that have victimized them rather than taking responsibility for their own being and destiny. Members of the system place blame rather than accept responsibility.
  • The focus often moves to a person or situation that lies outside the family.
  • Everything would be fine if not for this person or this issue…
  • Placing blame can create too much emotional dependency on an outside resource, a professional counselor or a pastor. If this person does not make the symptoms go away, he or she may become the focus of the system’s blame. 
Uncle Hal loves to describe how illegal immigrants have ruined this country. Secretly, Hal is becoming more convinced that President Trump is not going to keep any of his campaign promises, and that, as a result, the country is just going to get worse. Aunt Myrtle is quick to point out that things got worse when Trump was elected. She believes the President's hateful, bigoted, misogynist language has moved our country in the wrong direction.
5. Quick fix: a low threshold for pain that constantly seeks symptom relief rather than fundamental change.
  • Growth and development toward maturity is a process that takes time, as seen in nature and in people.
  • But, some seek to modify the process with techniques or information. The more we learn or the more skilled we are, the faster things will get better.
  • Or the quick-fix mentality will compel people to avoid all challenges and conflict.
Uncle Hal's plan to make America great again involves rounding up and deporting all the illegals, building a wall on our southern border, and putting prayer back in schools. Aunt Myrtle's plan is even more simple: impeach President Trump and remove him from office.

In emotionally charged relationship environments, whether families, friends, or churches, is there any hope for the relationships to change? Does Jesus really expect me to engage with people like Uncle Hal or Aunt Myrtle? If so, what can I possibly do that will contribute to healthier relationships and allow me to reveal the love of Jesus Christ?

I am convinced that as long as I have the capacity and willingness to adapt, change, and grow, and as long as I am willing to stay as connected as possible to people like Uncle Hal and Aunt Myrtle, that there is the possibility that the relationships can also change over time. Things may not ever be the way I want them to be. I may never be persuaded to Uncle Hal's point of view or hear Aunt Myrtle say, "You know, you may be right." But my own personal growth and transformation combined with my commitment to remain a part of their lives means my relationships with Hal and Myrtle will also transform.

In my next post I will give suggestions on how to relate to people like Hal and Myrtle so that God's purposes might be accomplished in our relationships.


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