When I work with clients, one of the first things I often show them is a diagram called “The Social Ecology of the Family.” Basically, it consists of a series of concentric circles that have various labels. About halfway towards the middle, I’ll label a circle “you”, then the next out is family, then friends, then city, county, culture.
Then I will return to the “you” circle, then go inward with psychology, organs, cells, and finally molecules in the middle. I’ll then draw a line through all of these circles representing an event. This diagram is meant to show that we exist in a much broader context than just our individual selves.
I am a Marriage and Family Therapist. When people hear this, they often think that means that I work only with couples and families, however, this is not the case, as the majority of my clients are individuals. Marriage and Family Therapy may better be called “Systems Therapy,” as that I what I believe I really work with.
Each of the circles I mentioned above really represents a system that contains all the circles below it and is part of a larger system above it. It follows, then, that to work with any individual, couple, or family is to work with them in the context of their system.
Family systems often become much more complex very quickly. One of my professors in grad school like to talk about family math, where 1+1=3. When you have two individuals, you also have a relationship between them, giving you three areas to work.
When you have more people, that number jumps quickly as each individual has relationships with individuals, but also how each person relates to each sub group in the family (i.e. child to mom, child to mom and dad, mom to child and dad, etc.). Family systems are incredibly complex!
When working with family systems, I often try to think of relationships as the building blocks rather than the individuals. This serves multiple functions. First, it takes the blame off of any one person.
One of the primary tenants of systems theory, which marriage and family therapy is rooted in, is that things are multi causal and multi directional. A mom and son fighting is not the mom’s problem or the son’s entirely, but rather both contribute to the fractured relationship and both are affected by it.
Note, I titled this article “How Relationship Therapy Can Improve Your Life and Those Around You,” not couples counseling, family counseling, or marriage counseling. I was intentional in this to highlight the fact that we all exist in a series of relationships.
All these building blocks of larger systems come into play and affect our lives. If we are fighting with our spouses, then our internal mood is probably down. If we are constantly at odds with our parents, likely we are struggling to find peace at home. Improving our individual lives must include working on relationships.
However, I commonly find that there is resistance to working on relationships. Perhaps you feel like you have always put in all the work and why should it continue to fall on your shoulders to carry the burden of the work?
Perhaps there is so much pain and damage caused by a parent or a sibling or someone else close to you that you feel there is no point in trying to fix what is already lost. I want to respect that and honor that there can be a lot of pain there and this might not be a can of worms you want to open in your life. However, as a therapist, I’m trained to particularly find points of interest when a client effectively asks “no therapy there please!”
In these instances of fractured relationships, in particular, what is often at play is emotional cut-off. This is a common way that we deal with individuals who have hurt us. We decide to rid them from our lives and refuse to think about them or give them the time of day in our minds. It feels easier to simply hold them at bay and even if we can’t see them and tell them off face to face, we feel we can punish them further by simply refusing to acknowledge them.
However, these relationships still continue to impact us. If talking about this relationship causes your pulse to rise, anger to increase, or fight or flight responses to kick in, then this relationship still holds a lot of power over you.
With these sorts of relationships, my goal is not necessarily reconciliation. I recognize that there may be areas that are not safe to return to. Instead, my hope for these relationships is to work through the sort of trauma that they have caused you.
My definition for trauma is something in the past that when you think about it makes it feel like it is occurring in the present. You have probably experienced losing a pet at some time in your life, and unless the passing of the pet happened in a traumatic matter, you probably feel like it is a bad memory, but you do no relive the death of your pet when you think about it.
Bad relationships can be like a trauma, though, in that when you think about it you suddenly feel all the emotions associated with it and it takes you right back. So in these instances when reconciliation is not possible, then, I would want to work with you to get the memory of this relationship to a place similar to the passed pet. It will always be a bad memory, but you don’t have to continually relive the memory every time you think about it.
However, with the relationships you have in your life that can be worked on, my goal would be for you to improve those and that you can have more harmony with those around you. Relationship therapy, particularly as I see it, consists of healing injuries to the attachment you have with important people in your life.
As infants, we attach to our parents and are completely dependent on them. A normally attached baby will be distressed when its caregiver leaves and then can be reassured when the caregiver returns. A famous experiment in the science of attachment theory found that there exist some unhealthy attachment styles as well, such as the baby not being distressed when the caregiver leaves, or being unable to be calmed upon their return.
Some confused babies might pursue some comfort but then pull away once contact has begun. Usually, these unhealthy attachments occur because some sort of damage had existed in the early relationship with the child and its caregivers, such as neglect or abuse. The relationship suffered an attachment injury.
I bring up this study with babies because there also exists research that shows that we attach as adults in romantic relationships in similar matters to how we attached to our caregivers as children. Further, the same concept of attachment injuries applies to our adult relationships.
When working with families or couples in relationship therapy, I am working to help uncover what sort of injuries occurred in the relationship and then working towards healing that injury. However, like physical injuries, the healing process of attachment injuries can be a painful process.
I liken it to surgery – we have to cut open the relationship, look at the gunk, cut it out, then sew it all back together and give it time to heal. In the course of relationship therapy, it is quite normal for things to feel worse before they get better. Likely you have found ways of avoiding really hot button topics, but the only way to resolve them is to address them, so pulling them up will likely cause some tension, but this is all part of the healing process.
When starting out with relationship therapy, I like to use techniques made popular by Susan Johnson and Les Greenberg, called Emotionally Focused Therapy. In the first steps of EFT, I would help you and your partner or family member to identify what the problem is and help you define it in terms of a cycle.
Usually, there are about 3 or 4 levels to these cycles – what happens on the outside, thoughts on the inside, secondary emotions felt, and primary emotions felt. Often if you have found yourself in relationship therapy there exists a level of anger and this is a secondary emotion in most instances. Perhaps you may identify more with frustration than anger, to which I love to say “frustration is basically anger-lite.”
With both anger and frustration, there is probably a more primary emotion that the anger is a response to, such as pain, hurt, sadness, or disappointment. When mapping out cycles, we can identify how we tend to react and what we are reacting to, both internally (emotions) and externally (the other person’s actions).
Once we have identified what cycles are at play, we can really begin to identify with the emotions we are experiencing. This is something that we all struggle with, and working through it in the context of relationship therapy is a crucial step in repairing relationships.
When processing our own emotions in front of those we have been in conflict with, we soften ourselves and our family members. Usually, we begin to start deescalating the conflict that does occur by this process alone.
Once everyone seems to have a good sense of their own emotional situation and how they have been hurt, then I begin working toward identifying in each other what problems exist. Not necessarily defending yourself, but listening and trying to really hear what the other person is saying. This process becomes inherently relational and is akin to sewing back up the wound.
As the healing process in relationship therapy occurs, you will begin to notice more peace and harmony in your own life. Working on the relationships you have will benefit both yourself and those around you, and you will have more capacity to handle the stresses that do continue to occur. Once sewn up, usually, a wound creates some scar tissue that exists to protect this vulnerable space.
Colloquially when we talk about emotional scarring, that is not a good thing. However, think of this as more of a mark of the progress you have made and increased resiliency you will have in the future when issues arise. Once the healing has occurred, you can begin to create new patterns of existing that will serve to help you to prevent new major issues from arising and work through the small ones on your own.
Remember, we all exist in an environment that shapes us and we have a hand in shaping. As we go through life we have a multitude of relationships, but a select few hold a special place in our lives. We are best served, then, to try and heal these relationships and interact peacefully with our partners, family, and even friends. This serves to increase our own happiness, and then we can go out and put more happiness into the world.
I would encourage you to seek this healing sooner rather than later. As I mentioned before, we often have relationships that have caused us pain and we continue to relive that pain whenever something reminds us of that relationship. Take the time to come in and work on this so that you can experience all the more peace and joy that life has to offer.
I heard it said, you aren’t responsible for what life has handed you, but you are responsible for how you respond to it. So come into a therapy session and see what it is all about. Maybe you have apprehensions about what this may hold, and that is ok and normal! It is a vulnerable thing to come talk with a stranger about some of your hardest moments, but healing can and will come when you come in ready to do the work.
“Family Gathering”, Courtesy of Daria Shevtsova, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “1+1=3”, Courtesy of George Becker, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Lover’s Point”, Courtesy of Andre Furtado, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Sisters”, Courtesy of Bui Thanh Tam, Unsplash.com, CC0 License