Blog by Miriam

Her Life…Her Problems

My youngest, God bless her, has an interesting approach to school work. Well…OK…it’s not as much “interesting” as it is really annoying. Big picture is that it’s all OK in the end. There are no developmental delays, and she is well liked by her friends and teachers. Academically speaking, she has begun reading independently and keeping up with her many reading related requirements on her own in the last 4 months, and her report cards have reflected A’s and B’s so far.

So, what’s the big deal? Well, let me see…she’s had 5 or 6 tardies this year. She regularly leaves the house without her homework, school forms, books, lunch, etc. She inconsistently keeps up with assignments and due dates, and she often does not know when tests are coming up. She’s had F’s in at least one subject in the middle of each of the 9 weeks so far this year…that she’s brought up to A’s or B’s come report card time…but still…Ugh! She also has some health issues that effect clarity of thought, mood, and focus. At times talking with her is like talking with a disorderly, angry drunk. (Can you feel me, mothers of the world?) Her emotionality and irrationality can reach extraordinary levels at times…(making me WANT to become a disorderly drunk for real!). I can feel the anxiety building as I write this paragraph…and as I lose sight of the first paragraph…and lose sight of the #1 principle that keeps me solid and focused and calm while she figures out school (and life) for herself.

The Number One Principle

This is her life, and these are her problems. Maybe this sounds cold, but I can assure you, this principle is what keeps me warm and supportive of her. I love the way Hal Runkel of says it. “We are not raising children,” says Hal. “We are launching adults.” If I treat my daughter’s problems and challenges, no matter how painful they are for me, as if they were mine, then I’ll be keeping her a child when she is capable of quite a bit more.  And so I resist my urge to save her…or worse, to take over for her.

When anxiety or anger or frustration is in charge, the lessons for our kids are caught, not taught.

We can lecture all we’d like. We can try to force obedience or structure or…healthy lunches. But the only message they’ll hear is that of our anxiety or anger or fear. The good news is the same thing is true of times when calm, principled, leadership is in charge. Calm is caught as readily as anxiety. In other words, it’s not what we say, it’s who we are that shapes our children.

Here are some of the ways I keep my calm, principled leadership in charge instead of anxiety.

1. What happens with school is between her and the school.

This is not a “hands off” or “do nothing/laissez faire” kind of approach. The degree to which parents have to work to stay focused on this principle takes a great deal of effort, personal vigilance, and determination. I have MY relationship with her school, and she has HERS. But the urge to meddle is significant. I’d like to take TV away on weeknights. I’d like to get rigid and strict about homework time. I’d like to nag. I’d like to try to get her teachers to give her heavy consequences for the times she screws up. I’d like to micromanage her backpack…and make sure she has everything every day…I could go on and on.

But then my daughter’s relationship with school would get muddled up in her relationship with me. She’d start fighting me on what she should be working out with her teachers…and herself. If I micromanaged her, as my anxiety would dictate, her academic career as well as her sense of self would become an issue between us…a fight…not what it needs to be…which is essentially and primarily hers. She must own her own failures and foibles, with me next to her…shoulder to shoulder rather than toe to toe…so that she can one day own her own sense of confidence in meeting life head on.

(For those of you studying Bowen Theory, you’ll notice the concept of triangles here…me, her, the school.)

2. Focus on the bigger picture.

Getting to the bigger picture is tricky. Our anxiety insists that something is REALLY WRONG when our children screw up at school (or elsewhere). We start thinking our children’s failures or struggles are EMERGENCIES!

They are not emergencies.

They are important opportunities.

Nothing steers a person’s ship like a mistake. And that, my friend, is the bigger picture we need to hold on to, even when our children (or our spouses) cannot. If we freak out, the situation becomes more our problem than our children’s, and we rob them of the opportunity to learn something valuable.

The really REALLY big picture is that YOU have an opportunity. An opportunity to back up, calm down, and lead your family to a better place. If you’d like a little help, give me a call. Or check out Hal Runkel’s book: ScreamFree Parenting.

Why Communication Techniques Don’t Work

When it comes to marital problems, you cannot simply insert good communication techniques and get good results. In fact, you cannot open–marriage–and–insert–any–good–behavior and expect to resolve longstanding issues. Why? Because when it comes to human relationships, you cannot force change no matter how long or how hard you try. Believe me. I know.

There is something much bigger than good communication techniques. Much bigger than statements of affirmation or acts of service. Much bigger than filling your partner’s so called love tank. That something bigger is called the emotional system—a kind of relational machine with countless moving parts. And when one part moves it impacts all of the other parts, the impact of which ripples back and forth through the system so much so that you can no longer tell which came first, the screaming or the silent treatment.

The emotional system has a kind of momentum that has been rolling hard…downhill…for a long time. For generations, in fact. Whatever problems you’re having in your relationship, you came by them honestly.

The good news is you can relax…you know who you are…you who constantly thinks about your relationships, reads relationship blogs like this one, you who analyzes, obsesses, and watches every word, every tone…both yours and your partner’s. When you begin to consider the complexity and enormity of emotional systems, the only thing that makes sense is exhaling, chillin’, lettin’ go. ♫ Let it go…Let it go… But I digress. Over thinking, over analyzing, and over communicating will get you nowhere but over it! The relationship and its problems are bigger than you and bigger than your spouse, and no amount of trying to force change is going to get the job done.

This means you’re off the hook…and so is your partner. No. Seriously. The only thing that makes sense when you adopt a systems perspective is that the on-the-hook mentality has to go. People often mistake this for zero accountability, but nothing could be further from the truth. When we can stop, for just a minute, analyzing and diagnosing and mentally, if not verbally, berating our spouses, then and only then, is there space for movement, improvement, change. Why? Because what is lacking in the majority of emotional systems is space. It too quickly gets all mucked up with automatic—as in pre-programmed—emotional reactions which give the emotional system its momentum.

When it comes to creating space in relationships, I’m not talking about avoiding-certain-topics-so-as-to-avoid-upsetting-him-or–her kind of space. That’s called distance. I’m talking about when you’re together, sitting on the couch, talking with each other—do you occupy space? To what degree—and all of us are different in our abilities here—are you able to be a solid person, a know-who-you-are kind of person, next to your spouse? To what degree are you reacting to him or her and to what degree are you having your own independent, emotionally-informed, but logical thoughts?

To really understand how emotional systems work and how you contribute to the status quo, you’ve got to study how systems work. It’s like studying anything in the natural world—you’ve got to have a theory, a guiding body of knowledge! Here is a list of the eight principles of emotional systems theory:

  1. Differentiation
  2. Triangles
  3. Nuclear Family Process
  4. Family Projection Process
  5. Multigenerational Transmission Process
  6. Emotional Cutoff
  7. Sibling Position
  8. Societal Emotional Process

For a quick overview check out and click on the “theory” tab.

Meanwhile, take a chill pill and realize that this thing is bigger than you and any paltry communication techniques you’d like to install.

What’s Your Theory?

Just once in a while let us exalt the importance of ideas and information.

-Edward R Murrow

Did you know that planets and their galaxies are formed out of space dust? Maybe this is old news to you…I’m pretty sure scientists figured this one out a few decades ago. I’m a little slow…OK I’m really slow on all things outer space. But I was watching “How the Universe Works” on the History Chanel over the holiday break and learned all kinds of cool stuff.

After one of the episodes I started wondering: How do scientists figure this stuff out? How do they know where to look in the vast expanse of space, and how do they know how to understand the bright and not so bright bursts of light here and there, or the seemingly random movements of countless celestial bodies, or the mysterious dark spots that galaxies appear to orbit? It helps, of course, to be terribly brilliant and have a Ph.D. in Physics, but still… How do they do it? How do scientists make sense out of such vastness?

It occurred to me that most people have the same questions when it comes to the vastness and complexities of relationships. How do we figure them out? How do we identify the anomalies? Quasars? Black holes? How do we know where to look in the relationship when things don’t feel so great…or when they feel like chaos, or like they just don’t make any sense? It seems that if we are to have any understanding of how the relational universe works, we’ve got to have something to guide the exploration, something that scientists have: Theory.

The scientific quest for knowledge is one part creativity, one part observation of actual events, and one part having a solid foundation in theory. The quest for an improved relationship requires the same: Creativity, Observation, and Theory. All three are important, but most of us haven’t thought in terms of theory.

For a scientist, it’s critical to have a theory or theories that are comprehensive… something like the Theory of Relativity or Quantum Mechanics or the Big Bang, each being a theory that explains, not just one anomaly, but many. It is the same when it comes to relationships. But is there a psychological theory that exists that is comprehensive enough to shed sufficient light on the enormous complexity and variability of relationships? One that can guide your regular old married couple who’s just trying to figure out how to get along better?

I believe there is. Bowen Theory was developed over the course of several decades (1950’s through the 1980’s) by physician and psychiatrist, Murray Bowen. It changed the course of the field of psychiatry and counseling. It is a comprehensive theory and approach, offering logical concepts that go a long way toward explaining many different relational phenomena and patterns—and not just for human relationships. Bowen theory has been applied in many fields of science and across species. Foundational to Bowen Theory is the idea that if you understand better, you can be better.

Bowen Theory consists of eight simple concepts:

  • Differentiation
  • Triangulation
  • Nuclear Family Process
  • Family Projection Process
  • Multigenerational Transmission Process
  • Emotional Cutoff
  • Sibling Position
  • Societal Emotional Process

If you’d like to learn about it there are tremendous resources out there. If you’re just getting started in Bowen Theory, check out and click on “theory.” If you’ve already begun looking into Bowen Theory and you can take some relatively dense reading (only for the truly curious) check out “Bringing Systems Theory to Life” eds. Ona Cohn Bregman and Charles M. White. Their collection of essays describes how Bowen Theory has been applied to education, biology, primatology, international relations, business leadership, literary criticism, and even myrmecology (the study of ants!).

Whatever you do to improve your relationships, it’ll help you tremendously to have a comprehensive theory guiding you along the way. No scientist would be without one, and no husband or wife or parent should be without one either!