What does family systems mean and how does it impact my relationships?

As an individual we are a part of so many systems. A family system, social system, cultural system, religious system and so on. Sometimes, it is easy to forget how much that system impacts us and vice versa. This week I want to focus on the family system and really break down what is means to be a part of a whole. Murray Bowen, one of the leading founders in family systems theories defines a family system as this:

“Family systems theory is a theory of human behavior that defines the family unit as a complex social system in which members interact to influence each other’s behavior. Family members interconnect, making it appropriate to view the system as a whole rather than as individual elements.” – Murray Bowen

So, let’s break this down. 

This definition means that every single action, reaction, response, breath, non-verbal cue has an impact on someone else within the family system. Where the fun really begins is how are others perceiving your actions and then responding based on that. Now, we have an interaction! Here is an example:

Your child shows up 30 minuets past curfew. When they walk in the door you start sharing that them being late is disrespectful because they don’t listen or value what you have to say. Your child then responds that you “just don’t get it, everyone was staying late, and it would have been awkward to leave early”.  If we break this down to the individual level: Parent may have felt fear because Child showed up late and what if something happened?? Child stayed late in hopes to fit in and be accepted by peers. Neither one was intending to hurt the other and yet it still happened! 

This happens repeatedly between parent and child, siblings, or partners. There is even another layer on top of this… there are generational patterns that exist. These generational patterns tell us how to perceive actions, our core beliefs about self and others and how to react to others. Most of the time the patterns we carry on no longer fit the circumstance or system. Better yet, they don’t fit YOUR system. There may be beliefs that you want to shed or let go of, or patterns of responding that no longer feel authentic. And, when you can come to terms with that there may be a better way for you, the whole entire family system benefits. 

Let’s take the same example from above and shift it with a new set of core beliefs.

Your child shows up 30 minuets past curfew. When they walk in the door you give them grace and lead with curiosity to understand why they are late. Your child then responds that “everyone else was staying late, and it has been difficult making friends and this felt like they only way I knew how to get them to like me”. You can then respond with compassion and empathy because we have all been in a position where we wanted to belong. At the core you know that their actions were not a personal attack on you, but that it was them trying to be an individual and learning different ways to make connections and build relationships. Remember you can practice respect, empathy, and compassion AND still set expectations and boundaries around next time. Being the change maker in your family is HARD WORK. It is also the work that has the potential to set you all free from struggle and exhaustion. You’ve got this!

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