Blog by Miriam

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 www.thebowencenter.org 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!

You Don’t Know Jack…

…Or Hannah or Bobby or Kaitlyn…

All great deeds and all great thoughts have a ridiculous beginning.

-Albert Camus

It has taken me some time now to work up the courage to blog about parenting. There are a whole host of reasons…not the least of which is my awareness of just how complicated the subject can be. Not to mention my own struggles over the years…constantly wondering if I’m doing it “right.” I don’t know…I honestly felt that I was terrible at it…and to be REALLY honest, I still feel that way sometimes. When my kids were younger, I was severely lacking in a sense of confidence that I knew what the hell I was doing. Now, I guess, I’m certain that I don’t know jack, and that has given me all the confidence I need to be what I need to be with my girls.

The reality I’ve discovered about parenting is, none of us know Jack…or Hannah or Bobby or Kaitlyn. And within that notion is peace—for us and for them! Here’s what I mean.

We don’t know our children, and the more we think we do, the more we project our worries onto our kids who have barely even begun to form an identity. Who will they be in 25 years? How in the heck do we think we can even remotely answer that question with any accuracy based on the crazy, mixed up, stupid stuff they do today? I mean, have you forgotten what a goof you were when you were 12? 15? 17? Have you forgotten how little you knew about pretty much everything when you were that age? And was there someone older and wiser who still believed in you…in what you could be…in what you might become? Someone who gave you the gift of not worrying about you and the gift of not projecting all that worry onto your feeble, yet-to-be-formed little brain? Someone who gave you the gift of a not-so-sticky relationship?

If you’re particularly stuck as a parent you might respond with something like, “Well, I may have done some wacky stuff as a kid, but I was never as bad as my kid is today! I would never have done the stuff he’s doing!” “Pashaaah!” I say to you. Times have changed, old man! What was edgy when you were a kid is not what is edgy or normal for kids these days. But also, I’m guessing you’re forgetting what a goof you were back then!

The bottom line: we will find there is an endless list of why our worries are justified. I promise…if you want to worry about your child you will never run out of reasons. But ask yourself as you reflect on the year that has past and as you turn your attention to the year to come: Is it helping?

I’m convinced it’s our job as parents to find ways to see past our worrying so that we can become open to the possibility of what our children can become. I’m not advocating a live and let live policy. I’m talking about finding ways to calm down as a parent. No easy task to be sure, but worth the effort. I can assure you of that.

How do people truly calm down about their kids? Here are a few things that have worked for others:

  1. Read ScreamFree Parenting by Hal Runkel. And visit screamfree.com for tons of resources like blog posts, webcasts, daily email subscriptions, etc. Calming down doesn’t happen in a week or even in a few months. It takes sustained effort over the long haul.
  2. Keep your eye on the prize…meaning ground yourself during tense moments by keeping yourself focused on the prize, the goal…the thing most every parent dreams of…that of being able to have a relationship with your kids when they leave home. Ask yourself each and every time when you feel the tension rising, is me blowing my cool right now or projecting my worries with my kid going to make it more or less likely that they’ll call me from college…or when they’re deciding to get married…or when the grandkids come along?
  3. Learn about the family you came from. Study it like a research project. Get curious. Develop a relationship with your long lost cousins. The more you know about where you came from, the more you will know about you and how you tick…and how your kid might tick some day. Think you know all there is to know about your family? Think again. If you can get curious about your family, you can make a difference in your child’s life. The ripple effect will amaze you. And you won’t even have to argue with your kids to achieve stable results!
  4. Talk to a parenting coach or therapist.
  5. Get your kid to talk to a therapist, and then listen to what that therapist has to say about your kid…and you. You’ll know he or she is a good therapist if she gently and firmly pushes you to think in new ways.

Happy New Year’s! May 2015 be a calmer year for you and your kids!

4

Acceptance

After recovering from the flu (barely), I spent a couple of weekends ago in Florida with my family. My niece attends a performing arts high school and plays bass in the orchestra. We attended the Christmas concert. It is nothing short of amazing to me what teenagers are capable of artistically. The music was stunningly beautiful, and the evening was peaceful.

But listening to the traditional lyrics to all the traditional Christmas music made me think about the traditional, generally recognized side of the Christmas story—ya know…Jesus…born of a virgin…savior…light of the world…complete with the requisite down playing or outright ignoring of a more realistic, historic, or factual version of the story…one that more and more people seem to need these days in order to relate…one that considers Jesus as a man born of a real live woman…a woman in trouble…because she actually HAD sex out of wedlock (whether raped or otherwise) and got pregnant…a story that considers Jesus as a Jew, not a Christian, but a Jew… a trouble maker, a husband and father (most likely), a friend, not a man acting as a missionary, but a real friend to the truly outcast, and perhaps a dude who could laugh as hard and loud and passionately as he could preach.

And I wondered as I sat there soaking in the sonorous tradition, how might Christmas be different and how might our world—and your family life—be different if we celebrated, really celebrated (or at a minimum accepted peacefully) the not-so-traditional version of the Jesus story, and thereby the version of all of our stories that’s not so traditional…so cleaned up…so packaged. There is a whole lot to the historical Jesus that isn’t accepted in mainstream religion. There is a whole lot to our own personal stories that isn’t accepted either.

Have you picked a girl's name, just in case?

What if, this Christmas, you worked on acceptance? Acceptance of all that you wish weren’t so or you wish you could hide or you wish others would stop being? How might Christmas dinner be different? How might your conversations around the breakfast table with your teenaged children be different? How might that holiday phone call home to Mom and Dad be different…if you could accept them for who and what they are? Not the cleaned up version or the version you WISH for, but the real one…the full story…the whole shooting match.

The dictionary definition of acceptance…one of them anyway…is “willingly taking a gift.” What is the gift in accepting the not so cleaned up versions of our families or of individual family members? What is the gift in accepting those we love as they are—“weird,” “neurotic,” “immature,” “irresponsible,” “crazy,” “ornery,” or “selfish” as they may be? If you can’t see the gift right away, rest assured. They will. They’ll sense your acceptance immediately.

Maybe you’re the “weird” one in your family. Or perhaps you feel like you are. I wonder what it might take for a little self-acceptance for you this Christmas…or whatever holiday you are celebrating. I can tell you from experience, you are not going to achieve a whole lot of it by staying away from your family. That’s what most of us do, right? Remove ourselves? Shrink? Stay away and hide the not-so-cleaned-up versions?

But consider, that it is the “weird” ones throughout history that have brought change and hope—Jesus, Gandhi, Tutu, Mandela, King…my cousin Greg. Maybe you could be that “Crazy Aunt Mildred”…just the person your niece needs…just what she needs to have a sense there is life out there…that there are perspectives and ways of living that don’t fit a nice, neat package…there is a place for her.

This holiday, may you be the acceptance you hope to find in the world.

Blessings!