Blog by Miriam

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 www.thebowencenter.org 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 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!