Family Systems Theory – Nuclear Family Emotional System

Family Systems Theory (FST) gives us a means to deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. Through it we acknowledge that, like each individual, each group of people is a living organism or system that behaves in very predictable ways. We learn to “think systems – watch process”. Consider for a moment the last tense moment of conflict or misunderstanding you had with a family member, friend, or coworker. How much of that was about the actual content at issue, and how much was misunderstanding and reaction in place of appreciation, wonder, understanding, and response? In this instance we say, “It’s not about content – it’s about process.”

Family Systems theory is constructed with 8 core concepts: Nuclear Family Emotional System; Differentiation of Self; Triangles; Cutoff; Family Projection Process; Multigenerational Transmission Process; Sibling Position; and Emotional Process in Society. Central to our ability to make use of these concepts is our willingness to see, feel, and name the anxiety present in ourselves, others, and the larger system. Once we do, then we begin to gain some power to change, and the 8 concepts become the tools by which we can learn to construct a better self, and a better world.

The starting place for understanding self and others through Family Systems Theory (FST) is our starting point, i.e. our Nuclear Family, and specifically what we call the Emotional System in our Nuclear Family. In other words, how in your formative years, did you experience and learn to manage anxiety? Did people overcompensate for the weak, frail and ambiguous, who then felt free or even forced to under-compensate and become ir-responsible, i.e. not-response-able, unable to cope. You have likely seen this pattern, and seen how it feeds and grows on its own energy.

In humans, as in all of nature, anxiety is important. Anxiety has emotional, mental, spiritual, social and physical components. You can see in most groups of animals, fish and birds anxious energy spread from one to another quickly, whether or not the initial anxiety was warranted. When a heard is threatened, it makes sense to respond with the ‘fight or flight’ impulse. But what if one in the group over-reacts to a perceived threat? The anxiety still spreads rapidly through the group, without consideration for its validity.
The emotional system is defined by where the anxiety spreads. The core of this, for us, is the nuclear family. That is where our first and most life-important relationships are formed (or not). Thus, how anxiety functions within this unit is a key to understanding everything else about how we and others behave.
There are two types of anxiety – Acute and Chronic. Acute anxiety occurs in the human on a daily basis. Examples are the reactions we get to stressors such as fenderbenders, stock market swings, or threats to the workplace. Chronic Anxiety is more of a background level of anxiety that we carry with us. Much of this type of anxiety is programmed into us during our years in our family of origin, a level of anxiety that was/is usual for that family. We carry it around like a bad habit – it is more or less automatic. (Gilbert, 7)
In our family of origin, people had/have the choice of dealing with their own anxiety, or sharing it with others. An example of this is when a wife/mother becomes concerned that her job is threatened. She can choose to share this information in ways that bring people hope and strength, or instill fear and anxiety. She may habitually displace her anxiety onto one of her children, who is immature and unable to resist. This child will then likely act out in particular ways that seem unrelated to the initial stimulus – Mom’s anxiety. The child may act out with violence, engage in addictive behaviors or sexual promiscuity, or begin failing in school and other responsibilities. Alternately, the child may become hyper-responsible, which appears from the outside, early on, as a positive thing that gets rewarded and thus reinforced. Unfortunately this kind of hyper-responsibility creates a pressure internally that will eventually cause a rupture – a nervous breakdown, or a turning toward the clearly destructive behaviors just mentioned.
Individuals in this family may also form a togetherness fusion that prevents them from developing as unique, whole individuals who are able to be in interdependent (not dependent or independent) relationships. This fusion results in us “absorbing part of each self, demanding that we be there for the group.” (Gilbert, 9) In this environment, an individual launching off to pursue something other than the ‘approved’ family plan for career, lifestyle, location of home, or family choices, becomes a threat to the stability of the system that will react with extreme prejudice.
In addition to the overfunctioning/underfunctioning pattern, there are three other typical postures that exist in families and all systems in response to anxiety: Traingling, Conflict, and Distancing. Triangling is seen in the above example of the mother transferring her anxiety about work onto her child, who then develops symptoms of one form or another. Conflict comes when one party simply chooses to lash out or attack as a means to release anxious tension. Distancing is seen in the absence of one party, either physically or emotionally, from the system. Refusal to engage; running away to work, a hobby, another relationship; leaving the home town, state or country and refusal to visit, call or write; these are all examples of distancing. These will often exist within the same system, and even within the same relationship as people cycle back and forth from one to the other. The classic example of overfunctioning/underfunctioning is the addicted/codependent relationship.

Family Fusion:

Four Patterns: