Understanding Family Dynamics and Systems
No matter how close we may or may not be to our family members, the fact remains that we are all part of a family or families. And families have a strong influence on us in many ways, including our understanding of relationships, our perceived roles, how we identify, and so on. But while many people are likely aware that families can be complicated, most do not realize some of the complexity behind how family members relate to one another. Families are more than just a collection of individuals; they're a system. But what exactly does that mean? Here, I'll describe what it means for a family to be a system, and what some implications are that come with that.
Family as a system
To start out, it helps to clarify exactly what I mean when saying a family is a "system." It's similar to any other "system" we see in nature or ourselves. Our bodies have various systems that all work together and need to coordinate for everything to work properly. A lot of ecosystems in nature have systems involving the different animals and plants within them that eventually leads to a balance.
Families are a "system" in a similar way. It means that families work by having things balanced between family members. There are clear rules and expectations for who does what and how, and how everyone will interact with one another. That doesn't mean that everyone will relate or behave in the way that a certain family member may want, but there is a clear pattern present.
In a natural ecosystem we may see that the population of an animal goes up if there is an increase in the number of plants that they eat. In a family we may see that there is increased tension if a family member needs to dedicate more time to their job due to tight deadlines. It's not a perfect comparison, but are you starting to see the similarity?
To help illustrate the idea, consider any changes that have occurred to your family in the past. In particular, think about someone joining the system (maybe through marriage or the birth of a child) or leaving the system (perhaps through a breakup or someone passing away). After these changes, were things exactly the same as before? Almost certainly not! Your family likely needed to adjust, to figure out how to rebalance everything, to determine who was responsible for what.
For many, this balancing act ends up working well and does not result in any major challenges within the family. But at times, when the family system is looking for balance, problematic patterns and relationships can arise. In those cases, work with a family therapist can be very beneficial, because adjusting family dynamics can be difficult. Let's walk through some of the problems that can come up, and why they're difficult to address.
Problematic family dynamics
Probably the easiest example to start with is the idea of triangling. This is something that tends to come up in a lot of families, even if they're not really struggling with any challenges as a whole.
"Triangling" refers to the situation when there is tension or stress between two people, and they try to bring a third person into the situation. For example, if a parent and child are arguing and they try to bring one of the other children in the family into the argument, potentially along the lines of "back me up on this." It's a very common thing to do, but one that puts the third person into a difficult position.
The reason triangling is so common is because of the fact that families work as a system. If there is a lot of stress in one part of the system, it naturally wants to spread to the other parts of the system. Family members are often very close to one another, so it's natural to turn to them when you're overwhelmed and feeling stressed. And that's a healthy thing to do! The problem is when that stress gets out of hand and spreads too much to everyone else.
Instead of triangling, the goal should be for the stress to remain between the two main people experiencing that tension, and for them to find a way to resolve that tension themselves.
Now, many of you can probably think of a time when you were involved in a triangle within your family. And hearing that the two main people should try to resolve it themselves may very well make you think "yah, good luck with that." That's because it's not easy to do! Altering a family system is very difficult. Let's take a second to explore why.
Earlier I mentioned "balance" a lot in terms of the family as a system. That's because the family tries to find some way of keeping things consistent and predictable. If you took biology classes at some point, you might remember the idea of homeostasis. That's the body trying to keep everything balanced so everything can work properly. The idea of balance in families is similar.
And that's because the family, as a system, resists things becoming unbalanced. If a change is starting to occur, the rest of the system works to prevent that change (in many or most cases).
To better understand what I mean, it helps to walk through an example. Let's say a family member has certain chores they are expected to do, and one day they decided they're not going to do them anymore. The other family members will likely think something along the lines of "we all need to do our part to help, you can't just say you're not going to help," or maybe "you're the only person who can do those things, the rest of us are too busy with other things." As a result, the other family members will try to make that person continue to do their chores, and they'll generally resist letting them get away with not doing them (at least for a time).
That's admittedly a very simple example, but that's because the more common sources of unbalance in a family can often be difficult to pinpoint, and it's not always obvious how the rest of the family helps to counteract that source of unbalance. In fact, sometimes family pressures can make it difficult for a person to make positive changes as well.
But the primary takeaway is this: in order to make lasting change in a family system, there needs to be some initial unbalance, followed by rebalancing that is (ideally) less problematic.
Let's go back to the triangling example. It's ideal for the two family members to resolve the tension themselves, but the expectation has been for a third person to become involved. In order for them to realistically resolve their tension, it will mean adjusting roles and expectations. The third person shouldn't automatically intervene, the two experiencing the tension shouldn't find a different person to bring in, and the two people need to adjust how they handle one another. That means changing roles and expectations, and it isn't always easy to change those in a way that results in everything being balanced.
Less common, but highly problematic, is a relationship resulting in codependence. This is a term that seemed to be viral for a while, so you may have heard it before. Codependency represents a relationship primarily based on one person taking care of another person excessively. Not in terms of a parent-child relationship, but generally in regards to adults, usually in an intimate relationship. If one person is overly-reliant on the other, and the "caretaker" consistently puts themselves in the position of agreeing to take care of the other person, then codependency can result. It's a difficult relationship dynamic that results in difficulties for both people involved, and it can have an impact on the rest of the family system. Codependency can often arise from the overly-reliant person having a medical condition, addiction, or some other similar challenge.
The reason something like codependency is difficult to address is that each person involved is getting something out of that relationship. Even if it's dysfunctional overall and causes many problems, it can also satisfy various needs that each person has. The same can be true in other scenarios, which is partly why family members sometimes resist change so strongly.
Enmeshment represents a lack of boundaries between family members. Rather than operating as two individuals, they have a strong knowledge of one another's lives. In addition, family members who are enmeshed tend to share the same emotions. That is, if one of them starts to feel a strong emotion then the other feels it as well. This can make it difficult for the enmeshed family members to differentiate from one another, which is important for overall wellbeing.
To be clear, this is different from family members being close to one another. As is the case with everything else on this list, and everything else in psychology, it's all a matter of degree. Closeness is fine (and a good thing!), but it's a problem if it becomes too extreme.
Enmeshment can be difficult to change because it basically requires changing how a person identifies. Rather than their identity being tied to another person, they need an identity that is unique to them. And that can be scary at first! Change is often anxiety-provoking, hence more reason for people to resist change.
Some families have clear "teams" within them. Think of a parent who always backs up a child against the other parent. Or a parent and child who tease another child in the family. These teams can be problematic for other family members, and it can disrupt the overall balance of a family if there isn't equal treatment between family members as a result.
What can help in these cases is for a family therapist to help challenge these teams. For example, if someone constantly defends one family member against another, a family therapist may ask them to try defending the other person (during the session, in a safe and agreed-upon way, of course). Forming "teams" can become a habit, so we need to learn how to resist our "autopilot" so we can break those habits. Easier said than done, of course, and it's easier when we have someone there to prompt us.
Regardless of how your family is structured, try to recognize how it works as a system. Even things like traditions and family cultures are part of that system, and help to maintain the expectations within the family. People are always changing and adapting, so no family is ever perfectly balanced (at least not for long), but the system will always work to maintain the balance as best it can. Sometimes it leads to good and supportive dynamics, and sometimes it doesn't. Nobody ends up in codependency or enmeshment on purpose; they come about from people trying to adapt to unbalance within the system and then getting stuck in unhealthy patterns. When this happens, we need to recognize the problems so we can rebalance things in a better way.
Hopefully this post helped to highlight the fact that families function as a system. My goal here was not to go through every type of potentially problematic family dynamic; there are too many to go through, and it's best to seek the guidance of a family therapist rather than to turn here for handling a specific problematic dynamic in a family. Instead, I just wanted to highlight how family dynamics work within a system, in both good and bad ways.
Have questions about family systems/dynamics? Can you think of something I didn't mention that's worth discussing? Let me know in the comments!