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It is difficult to imagine a braver act from a family than its entering into therapy as a group. I think it is fair to say that it would not be my family that takes such a courageous plunge. The prospect is fraught with fear for me, and I am probably the most likely member of my family to risk it. Risk it, indeed. It is not likely that my family would be willing to sit as a group in the presence of a professional that may have the ability to see through all the pretense and falseness, even lead us deeper onto the discomfort of it all. I am very impressed with the family in the book and the depths that they reached in examining and ultimately healing many of their issues. There is great discovery in guided exploration of families. The course can be painfully and hurtfully revealing. It can be shockingly revelatory in terms of history. Family therapy challenges individual and family relationships. Recovery is the hopeful outcome, but it is not always realized. Who in their right mind would want to sit for such an adventure?

The family is our first group experience. Anxiety is an immediate part of merging into our families. There are many relationship possibilities: mother-child, father-child, sibling-sibling, mother-sibling, etc. There is ample opportunity for misunderstanding and disfunction to grow by conscious and unconscious means. We grow into dyads and triads, allegiances and conflicts. Frequently, our sense of self is lost in these relationships, and the resulting dynamics just make matters worse. It is in this imperfect “crucible” that our skills of relating and communicating to things outside of the family are formed. It is a sound approach to return to the hearth of the family in search of change and remedy when life spins out of control. Sound and reasonable is one thing, finding the willingness is another.

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When I consider the fear such an adventure engenders in me, the first thing that I am confronted with is the fear of getting honest. It is easy to talk about my mother, brother or sister in conversation with a friend or in individual therapy. Am I willing to say the same things, will my interpretation of family history be the same. if we are all together. My experience with my family as a group is one of cordial tolerance. We all seem to keep a safe and respectful distance from anything too emotional. It is not that there are great problems amongst us, but what there are could certainly use some attention. Is it a family rule to tread softly, not ruffle feathers? Family therapy can help us break down the old rules,  see them for what they did and what they currently are, and make adventurous changes. It is no easy task to lose the inhibitions we have to seeing clearly. The family in Napior’s text is all the more admirable for not only starting, but following through.

My parents were both born around 1920 and grew up amidst great difficulties. My father’s father left home when my dad was 14. My mother was one of about 14 children in an impoverished family. Their subsequent military careers and marriage led to a relatively upscale lifestyle for them, and us. By the time I came on the scene my father was a Marine Corps officer with good pay and good benefits. My mother stayed home like most mothers of the time. My father’s mother lived with us most of the time, another not uncommon circumstance. My father died when I was 14, and it is very interesting for me to wonder about how he viewed the world. I know little about him, but enough to know he was a good man. My mom was thrust into single parenthood, mother of 3, in the middle 1960’s. For the most part our family went their separate ways following the death of my father. My sister almost immediately got married, I was rarely home, and my brother was very young and well traumatized by our father’s death. I was four years older than my brother, so we never went to school together, and really had little in common.

My sister tells me that she thinks my mother was frequently the odd woman out in most of my father’s relationships. Certainly in his professional relationship as a Marine and with his mother and my sister in the house, my mother must have had to almost take a number for his attention. Right here we have several potential triangles: mother-father-his mother, mother-father-daughter, father-his mother-daughter, among others (not even mentioning my brother and I). I get conflicting reports on these relationships, with input only from my mother and sister. I regret to say that I have never asked them about these things while we were all in the same place. It certainly feels like I am not supposed to! I hope I get the opportunity someday.
The opportunity may be hard to come by. There has been a deep rift between my sister and my mother for some time now. I am curious about the roots of their dissonance. It My sister tells me that she and my grandmother were very close, they were roommates, and she credits my grandmother with teaching her a great deal in preparation for marriage. The questions that come to my mind are many. Here is a woman, my grandmother, whose husband left her (never to be heard from again) when she was in her late thirties. As she advanced in age, she found herself living with her son and family. My grandmother’s world and family views are unknown to me. How hurt was she by her own husband’s departure? how painful was her single parenthood? What was her impact on my parent’s relationship?

Did she in some way corrupt my sister’s relationship with my mother? Who had the greater influence?
My sister has endured a host of problems in the last twenty years – 2 divorces, estrangement from her son for more than 10 years, her own questioning of her sexual identity (not to mention my family’s questioning of her questioning!), behavioral and mental problems are just a sample. She is in therapy and taking medication. She is also living in near poverty and places much of the blame on us. The “us” would be mostly her perception of my mother and I ganging up on her.

My brother stays curiously distant from the whole affair, but I see that it pains him. To me he seems his loyalty to each of them is greatly challenged. He is clearly more than willing to keep me in the role of mediator of all affairs concerning them. We are classic family with the huge elephant in the living room – that no one is willing to acknowledge.

We also provide a classic framework for family therapy. Although the logistics are difficult and many key players are dead or otherwise missing, the experience like that of the family in the book would be wonderful. There is so much more that a systems approach can help uncover. It does not appear that it is easy to hide in family therapy. Even though it is frightening, with kind and careful facilitation there can be a sense of safety along with the trepidation. Of course, we need to develop individually. Even in the family system approach there is a premium on knowing who one is, and establishing clear and honest boundaries. I noticed as the book progressed that the family found strength in each other. As the barriers of one person broke down. it often lead to another member rising up to meet a challenge. At its best therapy and growth can be contagious.

One of the more poignant moments in the book took place with the therapist suggesting that the mother “give up trying to change him (the father) or to get approval from him. It might be the beginning of a whole new world. Your world would then have you in the center of it, not him.” This is a direct call for the process of differentiation and boundary  setting. The chapter that dealt with the potential divorce and its treatment reemphasized the call for self building, pointing out that people frequently get married before a healthy sense of selfhood is attained. Each family may need a “pioneer in the new territory of personhood” (p. 205). As I look at my family and my experience with therapy, I can see that Involving “them” in the systems setting and not just talking about “them” in individual therapy has the potential to put old conflicts and misunderstanding to rest. More importantly, once the old rules, conditions, and expectations are dealt with, we can learn to stay more present focused.The family therapy setting can be the forum for giving each other permission to let go of old rules, and recognize each other’s fatigue with the way things are. I am struck by the huge overall interdependence that exists between family members. When I look at the vast array of potential interaction, healthy or unhealthy, in my family it is easy to see how things can get so complex. We cannot undo what came before. It is reasonable to agree with the author that family therapy can help us repair the family system in today’s light to make it more effective in the future.

I come away from the reading of this book a bit jealous. Whatever got them to therapy in the first place seems unimportant with respect to all that came out of the year and a half or so that they stuck with it. I admire their courage and willingness and trust of each other, even from the outset of therapy these things must have existed to some degree. This unconscious trust proved more powerful than the conscious and unconscious causes and conditions that got their family to therapy in the first pace.

What about the other side of the fence? It takes a special therapist to juggle the complexities of a family in trouble. There is an art to such an endeavor. One needs all the traits of a good therapist combined with those of a referee, a quarterback that sees the entire field, and a judge to make sure that fairness is always present. Such a therapist may just be the model of differentiation and boundaries that the individual and family needs. I was not only impressed with the skills of the two therapists, but their stamina as well. This therapy went on for quite a while. I was happy to see they were very human, too. The family itself is complex and diverse. So, too are the skills required of the therapist. That may be why the process is so dynamic.

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