Dancing in the Shadows by Laura Bryannan

Chapter 16


Exploring your family diagram is the first step in the family systems approach to therapy. Family Systems Theory was introduced to the world by Dr. Murry Bowen in the 1950's. Seen by family therapists as radical at the time, it is now considered to be one of the best ways to help and heal family and personal troubles. If you're a fan of John Bradshaw, you've been exposed to Family Systems Theory, for much of his teaching comes from this approach.

Dr. Bowen was the first to recognize that a family, or any group for that matter, was greater than the sum of its parts. He saw that families generate an entire field of energy that impacts on every member in it. Patterns of abuse in families are often many generations old, and it is this family energy field that contributes to the problem. If you were abused in your family, you can be sure that you are not the only one; you probably have uncles, cousins, grandparents, even great-great-great grandparents who were also abused.

The energy surrounding any family has stability and reduction of tension as its primary goal. Each member of the family has his or her role to play, and there are very powerful pressures on each individual to maintain that role in order to preserve the stability of the family unit. Often when we feel unexplainable anxiety in regards to making a step forward it is because our proposed growth will take us out of the roles assigned to us within our families. The freaky thing is, these roles remain fairly well carved in stone even if we have little or no contact with our families. For example, it's been noted that, in general, the first child will acquire the values and goals of the parents, the second child will acquire the griefs of the parents, the third child will acquire the unresolved conflicts between the parents, and the fourth child will acquire the unresolved conflicts of the entire family system; the fifth child will behave as a first child, sixth as a second, and so on.

The other way families reduce tension and remain stable is to pass uncomfortable energy down the line. So, for example, if your dad was incested by his father when he was three, he probably blocked the experience out of his conscious mind. However, the unresolved feelings remain in his psyche, stewing and festering. These feelings may emerge as depression, rage, drug or alcohol abuse, etc. Unless he makes an attempt to heal these issues within himself, his children stand a good chance of "inheriting" them from him. Here's a glaring example: a woman in one of my groups was sexually abused by her uncle when she was nine years old. When she finally talked to her mother about it thirty years later, her mother told her that she, too, was sexually abused by her uncle when she was nine!

So, one of the best ways to understand these family dynamics is to begin to explore your own family tree. The first step is to make a chart of the system. Begin with yourself and your brothers and sisters; then your folks and their brothers and sisters; then their parents, etc. Find out when they were born, when they got married, how many children they had, what diseases they suffered from, when they died and what they died from.

You'll find that as you reach further back into history you'll have to start talking to aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents to get the information you need to fill in the blanks. It may be hard to believe, but as you make contact (face to face, by phone or letter) with the people in your family you rarely talk to, things will begin to change in your own life and in your relationship with your parents.

The first goal here is to look for patterns of behavior. Chances are, if you explore thoroughly enough, you'll find a relative who suffered from the same problem(s) that are troubling you. As you continue to explore your family tree you'll see that, perhaps, every woman on your mother's side of the family married before eighteen; or, on your father's side, every other generation produced a suicide of the youngest child. These kinds of patterns can be very enlightening when you find them, and often they are comforting. For example, if you've been trying to quit drinking and can't seem to do so, and then you see that every first child in your family has had a drinking problem (and you're a first child) it can help in understanding why you can't seem to get this problem to budge out of your life.

The second thing to look for is cut-offs. Did your father come over from Europe in the 1920s and have no contact with anyone in the old country ever again? Did your mother feud with her sister thirty years ago and refuse to speak to her again? These kinds of situations are gold mines for the brave adventuress seeking to blow up the unspoken rules (and roles) in her family. Making contact with cut-off parts of the family produces energy-level earthquakes in the family system (and within the adventuress also). The assigned roles in every family can exist only if the family structure remains in stasis. Calling up your long-lost auntie (even if no one in your immediate family knows you're doing it) disrupts the stasis of the system. The rigid role structures loosen or dissolve and you're free to create something new for yourself both within your own life and in relation to your family.

Two of the best books using the family systems approach are written for women. They are The Dance of Anger (Harper & Row, 1985) and The Dance of Intimacy by Harriet Goldhor Lerner, Ph.D (Harper & Row, 1989). Dr. Lerner presents the material so clearly and completely that I recommend them highly for all survivors. She provides many case examples and writes in a style that is very easy to understand. She also includes a section demonstrating how to diagram your family tree.

Exploring your family from a systems perspective involves extending your connections to them beyond what is usual for you. It often means communicating with family members that have been cut-off from your parents for various reasons. As you extend your connections to your family beyond what was considered proper or acceptable to your folks, it extends your own view of yourself. Your personal role in a rigid family structure can become more fluid and dynamic as you get to know other members of the family tree. Perhaps in your immediate family you are seemingly stuck in the role of the "dumb one." In connecting to your greater family, you may find that you can be seen (and become) something closer to your true self.

CAVEAT: Doing the work to create an accurate family diagram is not everyone's cup of tea. It seems scary to contemplate contacting people in the family you don't know, and sometimes even scarier to interview the ones you do! Many survivors will go to great lengths to keep their families out of their healing process. Even if they were abused by a family member--and, thus, it stands to reason that the dynamics of the family must be explored in order to heal--there is wishful thinking on the part of such survivors that they can somehow get away with ignoring this important part of their history.

In any event, don't force anyone to do this if they're clearly resistant. With a little adaptation, the following exercises can be utilized even without a complete diagram of your participant's family systems.

Prayer for the Family

If you want to make this exercise truly an event, you may want to read Dr. Kenneth McCall's book Healing the Family Tree (Sheldon Press, 1982) beforehand. Dr. McCall has written about the extraordinary healings he has witnessed when praying over a family diagram. He discusses several Christian rituals, complete with passages from the Catholic Bible, that can be used instead of this more generic metaphysical approach.

Family in the Cauldron

Not all survivors are interested in sending healing energy to their family. For many, the anger and resentment they feel about their abuse prevents them from considering the above approach. Also, since survivors were often the designated caretakers and healers in their family, doing one more thing to heal the family's problems just seems like too much to ask. The following exercise works very well to help cleanse the survivor of negative family energy, and may seem more desirable than praying for the family.

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Last Updated: 1 feb 99
Laura Bryannan