It was Tolstoy who wrote that ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’. Much as I hate to argue with one of my literary heroes, I would say that no two families are alike, whether happy or not, even if they appear to be on the surface. The dynamics within a family are as unique as the individuals who make up that family. If it is true that no two snowflakes ever have been or ever will be exactly the same, that seems a better metaphor for families!
Members of a family are inextricably linked emotionally and energetically. The health and happiness of all the members is interdependent. In Chinese medicine theory, we understand that every individual contains each of the 5 Elements and that each of the Elements is connected. When we treat somebody with acupuncture, treating one Element has an impact on the other four too. It is the same in a family. If one member is ill, stressed or unhappy, it will affect all the other members, even in ways that are often too subtle to immediately notice.
Robyn Skinner and John Cleese, in their book Families and How To Survive Them describe the concept of the family scapegoat. This is the idea that difficult feelings within the family (e.g anger, frustration, anxiety or sadness) may be subconsciously taken on and carried by one member of the family. If these feelings are very strong, this person, who may be a parent or child, may manifest this burden by becoming ill, either physically, mentally or emotionally.
Have you ever heard someone describe a member of the family as being ‘the one with the problems’? Or to say something like ‘The rest of us are fine but little Johnnie is just always so angry all the time – it’s hard to be around and I just don’t know why he is that way’? when it’s obvious that a family think of one member as being ‘the difficult/different/sensitive/withdrawn one’, this is a clue that this person may be carrying the burden of feelings on behalf of everybody else.
Of course, no parent ever sets out for things to be this way. Families create scapegoats, however, because of subtle dynamics that arise as a result of other family members struggling to resolve their own emotional difficulties. People are not islands, and when they are all thrown together, they ‘land’ in a certain way and each one takes on a role within the group that comes most naturally to them. The longer each person is stuck in their role, the harder it is to break out of it. People often resist change and each family member will (unconsciously again) have something invested in each of the other family members playing their particular role.
So, during lockdown, when the pace of most of our lives has slowed down (apart from the heroic key workers to whom we owe so much), we have the perfect opportunity to bring some of these subtle dynamics into awareness and see if we can transcend them. Here are a few suggestions of how you might do this:
- Identify which one of your family is struggling the most, either psychologically or physically
- Do you have any insights about what emotional load they might be carrying? Think about when their suffering began, what was going on in their life and in the family at that time? (For example, did your child’s headaches begin around the time you and your partner were going through a difficult patch?)
- Even if everyone in your family is essentially ‘ok’, reflect on where the tensions are. Do you have higher expectations of one child than another? Do you find yourself always blaming one sibling rather than another when they argue? Does your partner focus all their worry on one child?
- Becoming aware of these dynamics is the most important step. Next time you find yourself cross with one of your children at the end of the day for ‘ruining the atmosphere’, take a few deep breaths and try to see if perhaps the dynamic was not that straightforward. For example, did one child start acting up because they sensed your easier bond with a sibling?
Watch, notice and take the time to put on a new pair of glasses and understand your family dynamic from a different perspective. It doesn’t matter that you can’t instantly change everything, and there is no place for becoming overly self-critical either. But there is great value in taking the time to understand things in a different way.
There is a renowned living practitioner of Chinese medicine called Liu Yousheng. He summed it up beautifully when he said:
Don’t talk of mysteries, don’t talk of subtlety! Focus your teaching on the Dao of being human. And where does this Dao of being human start? It starts with the Five Relationships, it starts with the family. Family relationships are the crucial step in the Dao!”