Blog by Miriam

Sense and Sensitivity

So, I had a birthday recently. I turned 43. Spring chicken. I know.

My husband is a bit older than me, and on my birthday he was reflecting on what he knew…and didn’t know…about relationships when he was my age. He said he was a little jealous, wishing he knew at 43 what it took him until 54 to learn. I told him I was thinking the same thing. Lord is he ever slow.


Nah. Just fooling around. But his comment did raise the question for us both: Why does it seem to take so long to change so little in marriage? We’ve been at this a long time, he and me. Talking about, thinking about, reading about, writing about, and sometimes screaming about our relationship. We were only homicidal that one time…but it was probably indigestion.

On the whole we’ve done well with each other…AND we still have times when it seems like we’ve developed more sensitivity than sense. You know that thing couples get into when the first spouse doesn’t have to say even one word, and the second one knows what the first one is thinking (and is correct), and the second one shuts the first one down even before they get that first word out. Yeah. We do that. If this kind of sensitivity were an Olympic sport…well…let’s just say we’d rank. But so would lots of people.

Lots of people work and search and read and search the internet for blog posts for years trying to figure this thing out, trying to make marriage work. Why does progress seem to move so slowly, if at all?

As a therapist and student of Bowen Family Systems Theory I am aware that sensitivity in family relationships is one of the biggest factors in why change happens so slowly. Being sensitive to family members leads to both caring actions as well as the not-so-caring. Our sensitivity can be what leads us to offer either a neck massage—if our spouse seems stressed—or to be a pain in the neck—if our spouse seems like they deserve it.

It can be helpful to consider that our sensitivity to each other as a species is something we have in common with all other species: wolves, dogs, birds, and monkeys, etc. Evolution favored the sensitive. Not sensitive enough and one gets eaten or stung or bitten. In addition, sensitivity kept packs, herds, gaggles, tribes and families together for centuries, thus increasing their chances for survival. After all, one must have some idea or sensitivity toward others’ needs and wants in order to form a cooperative group. Fascinating research on wolf pack behavior shows that wolves kiss-and-make-up just like humans. Even wolves have ways of “getting along.” Relatively cooperative groups stayed together longer, and therefore, survived longer. Without sensitivity there could be no cooperation.

But things have changed in the day-to-day needs and activities of any given human. Life is very different now. No more surviving the tundra, fighting for every moment. We can calm down now. But we haven’t been able to figure that one out. Not yet anyway. The momentum of centuries and multiple generations of great sensitivity is still with us. The field of epi-genetics is now demonstrating this scientifically. The environmental stressors (emotional, mental, biological, chemical) that our great, great, great grandmothers experienced is, quite literally, transmitted to us…and our children…through our genetic code.

Much of our sensitivity is now hurting us rather than saving/preserving us. The reason change in marriage takes so long is the same reason evolution takes so long. There is a lot of momentum going in the wrong direction, and the human animal pack simply hasn’t caught up yet. But we will. In time, we will be more and more able to reflect on how our sensitivity and automatic reactivity is really the only problem we face in marriage and family life. We will figure this out. We can’t not figure it out. We are as caught in the force of evolution as are all species, and evolution is bigger than we are. It is the ultimate correction.

A Nervous Condition

Taken from “Friedman’s Fables:”
“…One day, as she was walking home, Little John’s wife chanced upon a mother cat giving suck to her newborn kittens. As they scrambled over one another in their thirst, the mother carefully guided each one to its turn, stretching out a firm but gentle paw as she lay contentedly on her side. Then Little John’s wife noticed that one of the kittens had been born lame; its leg had not been fully formed, and it had more difficulty maneuvering than the others. Strangely, it was also the most aggressive. While the other kittens, when satisfied, went off to sleep, this one kept coming back to wiggle its way in front. Each time, however, the mother cat pushed it away, at first gently, and then with successively harder whacks…”
A Nervous Condition by Edwin Friedman

Is it a cruel mother cat or is there something here we might learn? Would her lame kitten be better served by sensitivity or care or was the kitten being served well by the discipline her mother instinctively delivered? When it comes to raising our children when is it about discipline and when is it about sensitivity?

What do we do when one or more of our children seems to have been born “lame” in some way, when they seem to be struggling more than the other(s)? Has your child been diagnosed with ADD or with some behavioral or emotional problem? Does your child seem to struggle with anxiety? If you’re like me, when you see your child having a problem, you worry…and worry…and THEN you get busy. Busy learning about what to do for the lame little beast. What do I feed him? Do we vaccinate? How do I discipline her properly? What is too much discipline? What is too little? How do I make sure she is growing up in a calm environment so as not to disturb her more delicate state? And when we do the best we can and they respond with increasing cantankerousness, ill-humor, and dyspepsia, those of us on the more neurotic side of the scale…just sayin’… ask the fatal and seemingly unavoidable question: WHAT-DID-I-DO-WRONG?!

We can rack our brains for years wondering what we did wrong and what we could do better, and when this automatic emotional process goes on long enough, and things get worse, we reason that we have done everything possible for the ungrateful little beasts-who-are-now-bigger-beasts, so it must be THEM!


But it’s a fallacy to think in such black and white terms when it comes to such complex issues and challenges as raising a child. It’s either them or me…it’s either the husband or the wife…it was either too much discipline or too little sensitivity. These black and white terms block us from thinking about things more objectively, from being able reflect upon the part we play, the part our ancestors play, the part our culture and physical environment play, and the part our children play—without the blame.

But what the heck does that mean…the part we play? The part we play in what?!

Dr. Murray Bowen, father of family therapy, identified and described 4 patterns of interaction that all families find themselves living out in one relationship or another. Knowing what these patterns are helps us identify not only which pattern(s) we may be enacting but also the part we play in keeping them going. Dr. Bowen’s idea was that emotional problems in families are merely the symptoms or direct results of these interactional patterns. Change your part and you change the pattern. If you want to read about them, I’ll copy a link later in this post.

The steps to change in any family relationship are simple enough but certainly not easy.

Step 1 is Education. What are the interactional patterns we get into when anxiety is high in any relationship? You can read about the 4 typical patterns here.

Step 2 is to Observe. Which of the 4 pattern(s) do you fall into with your lame little beasts? What part do you play in keeping it going? What part does your spouse play? Your children? The environment?

Step 3 is to Change YOUR part and to resist trying to change or “help” your child (or your spouse…or your mother-in-law) with HIS or HER part. Learning to tell the difference between what is yours and what belongs to someone else is key. If you find yourself having difficulty, find a family therapist. A neutral 3rd party can make all the difference.

Steps 2 and 3 in particular are more effective when you can approach things with an attitude of curiosity and an unwavering willingness to experiment and to learn from what you experience. Without thoughtful reflection, we are at the mercy of our automatic fears and worries, and so are our children.

The cool thing about Mama Cat wasn’t that she swatted her kitten. I’m not advocating going back to the good ol’ days of spanking children into submission. The cool thing about Mama Cat was that she wasn’t worried or angry. She was clear. Our children have real problems, ill-formed legs and all, but when we forget that our own anxiety and anger is more important to deal with than anything else, it is we the parents who grow lame.


Got Milk?

So, my 13 year old came to us several weeks ago. She wanted us to write a note to excuse her from a club meeting so she could go to IHOP with some friends for free pancake day. It happened to be St. Patrick’s day, so not only would the pancakes have been free, they would have been green. A once in a lifetime kind of morning! For REAL dude! When she realized we weren’t going to write the note, in her tirade and tears, she passionately let us know that if we didn’t let her go THAT day, she’d have to wait an entire year before she could have this experience again. She’d have to wait until NEXT St. Patrick’s Day. How could we?! How COULD we?!

Let’s face it. Our children aren’t always the best at making decisions. Kids are completely emotional and erratic, and teenagers…ahem…as I’m now discovering… are a more formidable version of the littler ones! My 13 year old wanted to not only miss her service club meeting that morning, she was ready to quit the club over it.

To our credit, my husband and I started out well that night. We came out of the gate with a principled response: Keeping one’s commitments is important. We will not write you a note. You will not be going to IHOP for free pancakes, green as they may be. To my daughter’s credit, she listened to our response, got a little upset, but then went upstairs to pull herself together. The trouble started when she came back down to make her case…as teenagers should…as to why we should let her go.

The arguments went on and on…and on. Aspiring to be “good parents” we listened to every single one…and tried to respond and explain and be logical…which was exactly where the evening went down hill. It wasn’t up for discussion, but in our…okay…MY… fear of “wounding” my child, I felt I had to listen and empathize and give her room to express herself.

What I missed is that she wasn’t expressing herself as much as she was trying to get ME to EXPRESS a little breast milk. A little oh-my-poor-baby-I-just-have-to-give-in-so-as-not-to-scar-you-for-life milk. Ugh! Well…I’m sorry to say…it worked. I leaked… But just a little.

We still didn’t write the note.

We just got wrapped up in a convoluted process of trying to reason with someone who wasn’t about to see reason. Instead of just reiterating the principle—keeping commitments is important—and walking away, we got sucked into her emotion. As it turns out, her friend later canceled the IHOP trip, and another friend begged her not to quit the club. But this didn’t happen until an hour or so into it. Great.

Lesson learned.

But what lesson?


Need I say more?