Relationship “Coaching” and Consultation

Relationship “Coaching” and Consultation

Learning how to deal with differences without losing connections.


Life is trouble. Only death is not.
To be alive is to undo your belt
and “look” for trouble.

Relationships Matter.

Have you ever had seemingly unresolvable disagreements with

  • Family;
  • Friends;
  • Romantic Partners;
  • Parents;
  • Siblings;
  • Extended Family;
  • Children; and/or,
  • Yourself?

Do you remember the pain, hurt, guilt, fear, anxiety and disappointment among many other negative emotional states?

If you answered no then you are a pathological liar and I have nothing more to say to you. However, if you are true and honest with yourself and said yes, read on, you will not be disappointed.

Would you like a solution that is readily available, can be successful without the participation of anyone else, and cannot be sabotaged by those who choose not to engage?

Do you desire more intimacy and emotional connection with all of the above?

Would you like to develop the ability to …be in emotional contact with a difficult, emotionally charged problem and not feel compelled to preach about what others should do, not rush in to fix the problem and not pretend to be detached by emotionally insulating oneself” (Kerr and Bowen, 1988: 108)?

The simple but by no means easy answer is the practice of Bowen Family Systems Theory.

Bowen Family Systems Theory Relationships “Coaching” and Consultation helps people separate out their thoughts and feelings from other people’s thoughts and feelings, so that they can respond consciously from a place of solid self rather than allowing high anxiety to win.

So if you find yourself,

  • Estranged, cut-off, detached and disengaged
  • Struggling to connect and move past hurts and emotional fall-outs
  • Stuck with a story that no longer works

The good news is no matter what your issues are . . .

Healing and Reconciliation starts with YOU.

Putting an elegant theory into practice takes hard work and attention to detail. Click this Link for a Free introduction to tricks of the trade including the hows, wheres, whats, with whoms, and whens of the process.

So there you have it.

IF you can change your part in the family drama,

AND maintain your change in the face of your family’s predictable initial negative reaction,

AND respond to your family’s reaction with new, unexpected, more differentiated behavior,

WHILE maintaining an emotional connection without taking on anyone else’s “stuff”,

THEN you set the stage for the possibility that others in your family will also begin to change.

AND if they don’t, you still end up in a better place for having engaged in the process.

I aspire to demonstrate the value and effectiveness of BFST in helping individuals, partners, and families resolve relationship difficulties, intergenerational conflict, and other problems endemic to the family life cycle by detailing practical steps one can take to answer questions such as:

  • What can one do to help resolve conflict, reduce stress and anxiety, improve communication, and promote active problem solving and healing?
  • How does one maintain both autonomy and connections with the emotionally important people in one’s life?
  • Which behaviors will help make things better no matter what anyone else does?

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Relationship Consultant and Bowen Theory Coach: Specializing in Personal Growth & Development,

How to deal with differences without losing connections.

 

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Relationships matter. We exist in our inescapable connection to all members of our current and historical extended families of origin. The problems, issues, and predicaments we all struggle with are not so much the problems, issues, and predicaments we all struggle with as the difficulties we have in resolving them in a relationship context. The following vignette presents an abbreviated family biography which includes many of the transitions and relationship difficulties inherent in all of our family life cycles.

Life cycle stages, similar to the people within them, are interconnected. Everyone affects every other one. Nonetheless, for clarity and educational purposes, I will discuss each of the following relationship clusters as if they were a separate entity, though some repetition is inevitable:

  1. Parents/Children
  2. Romantic Partners
  3. Siblings/Extended Family
  4. Societal Institutions
  5. Self

Please feel free to add details from your own experiences.

The summer before Alexis was to leave for college, intense conflict between her mother Michelle and she developed over just about everything. Sex, drugs and rock-n-roll, curfews, boyfriends, and on and on and on. Alexis’ matriculation was preceded by that of her older brother Jeff two years prior to her leaving home. The twins Sarah and Jordan were preparing to enter middle school.

Alexis’ dad Stephen just didn’t understand teenage girls and left most of the parenting to Michelle, even more so after the temporary separation. Stephen was a bit more involved with Jeff and “guy things” but that too became de minimis in short order.

When Michelle drove with Alexis to school, the parting was contentious and far from ideal. Both left with tears in their eyes, a sense of not being heard, and an inability to understand the other. Where did I fail, Michelle wondered, though she mostly blamed Stephen’s bad behavior? What a loser Alexis thought. How clueless can you be to let him back in after all he did?

Alexis had great difficulty adapting to college life. She had conflicts with her roommates, difficulty getting ”up to speed” academically, finding a social network, etc, etc. She became anxious and couldn’t sleep. Multiple phone calls ensued over a short period of time and resulted in Michelle making frequent visits to comfort and console Alexis. Alexis finished the semester under duress, insisting that Mom bring her home, with the idea of attending community college in the Spring.

Michelle called during winter break with the question, “What’s wrong with my daughter?”

Parents/Children:

Relationships with parents become most problematic during the launching phase of the family life cycle, where the task is for children to launch and parents to launch them. This family’s “failure to launch” Alexis in a functional manner speaks to their unresolved emotional attachments from prior life cycle transitions.

The predicament to be addressed is not “What’s wrong with Alexis?” but rather “Where is the family stuck?” The problem lies more in the relationship system of the family than in any individual. While none are guilty, all contribute.

The solution is not to “fix” Alexis but rather to help improve the functioning of the family relationship system by “coaching” each member to set a thoughtful, consciously considered life course. The greater the amount of unresolved family emotional attachments, the more difficult it is to function at a high level. The negative side of the triangle is merely a symptomatic expression of the family system difficulties.

The generic first task is to help all involved be less emotionally reactive. A Bowen Family Systems Theory Coach would broaden the reference frame and help each family member identify how he/she contributes to, or has contributed to, the family’s predicament, currently focused on Alexis’ difficulties. This involves “coaching” family members to work on differentiation of self in order to improve self-focus and develop a more solid self. Each family member can then become more responsible for self, and less focused on others.

How can Alexis develop autonomy and become responsible for her own emotional well being while maintaining connections with her family of origin? Based on Bowen Family Systems Theory, I would “coach” Alexis to research the rules, roles, relationship requirements and rituals of her family of origin. Together we would create an extended family diagram of at least three generation. Alexis could then use this information to become more self-directed and self-regulating, developing the ability to make choices based on her own internal thoughts, values and beliefs.

Monica McGoldrick in her book “You Can Go Home Again – Reconnecting With Your Family” writes;

If you want to understand your mother as more than the dragon lady whose domineering intrusiveness overwhelms you even at the age of 40, you need to get a picture of her as a daughter, a niece, a sister, a friend, a co-worker, a granddaughter, a lover and a cousin. Then you will also want to learn about your mother’s mother in the same kind of way.

You might want to ask, “Mom, how did our father react when his father stopped talking to him? How did Uncle Al take it? What about Aunt Martha? Who was actually there when the fight occurred and how did they handle holidays and family gatherings after that?

Bowen Family Systems Theory helps people separate their thoughts and feelings from other people’s thoughts and feelings, and their own thoughts from their own feelings, so they can respond consciously from a place of solid self rather than react emotionally from a place of high anxiety. Becoming more ‘responsible’ for one’s self allows one to act more ‘responsibly’ toward others. To engage in this process is to provide a platform for maximum growth and development.

Romantic Partners:

Alexis grew into late adolescence in an environment created by each of her parents’ unresolved emotional attachments with their respective families-of-origin. The chain of events that led to the current situation extends back even further in historical time. “Any set of parents is merely the current embodiment of forces or processes that have been active for many generations before them” (Papero 1990). And if you don’t believe in ghosts, you’ve never been to a family reunion.

Soon after Michelle and Stephen met during their junior year in college, they became inseparable. Decisions on where to spend summer, winter and spring break were easy as neither wanted to ever go home again. Immediately following being graduated, Michelle and Stephen moved in together in a galaxy far, far away from where either had ever been.

The uncertainties of marriage preparation, and the adaptations of the Becoming a Couple family life cycle stage are varied and complex. Unfinished business often gets in the way of working on new relationships. Bowen Family Systems Theory based “relationship coaching” to increase one’s functional level of differentiation provides a secure base from which to develop the strength and responsiveness for commitment to a new family system, and realignment of many, if not all previous relationships.

As “the temporary insanity of romantic love” gives way to the realization that the qualities and attributes that were initially most attractive are now those most loathed and problematic, emotional tension threatens the marital dyadic relationship. The qualities haven’t changed but our interpretations and the meanings we bring to them have changed dramatically.

Michelle was most attracted to Stephen’s single-minded commitment to fame and fortune while Stephen was smitten by Michelle’s joie de vivre. Each supplied what the other lacked. Once they established a home of their own, Stephen’s rigid uptightness grated on Michelle’s irresponsibility.

The more Michelle pursued, the further Stephen distanced himself. Ever increasing levels of emotional reactivity led directly to destructive cycles of approach/avoid, attack/defend, and criticize/condemn, creating a turbulent, unsafe climate of unresolvable anxiety and distress.

The most common initial solution for the emotional instability of the marital dyad is development of primary parental triangles with children, the Nuclear Family Projection Process. Almost inevitably this triangle proves unable to contain the full range of emotional reactivity, and produces interlocking triangles. Alexis, as all children, struggles with her assigned role to help calm the marital anxiety.

The birth of the twins was both a blessing and a curse. It removed Alexis from the hot spot but created additional demands for her to act more like a grown up and surrogate parent. Her adolescent “acting out” was both facilitated and constrained. Conflict with her parents was unavoidable.

Based on Bowen Family Systems Theory, I would “coach” Alexis to help her differentiate and remove herself from the parental triangle. The research and information gathering project would begin by contacting parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and her older brother, about their leaving home stories. This information could then be used to help Alexis understand the family’s unspoken rules, roles, rituals, expectations, and relationship requirements, thereby developing an appreciation that she’s not the problem she’s just exhibiting the symptoms based on the family’s level of chronic anxiety and current stressors.

Siblings/Extended Family:

Alexis is the product of her parents’ middle pregnancy brought to term, the second of four children, and the eldest daughter. As such, Alexis’ position in the Sib Sub-System is neither first-born entitlement nor youngest privilege.

Jeff was born during Stephen’s second year in law school. Two years later, Alexis was conceived during the first vacation Michelle and Stephen had taken since their honeymoon. A grandparent had recently died and the family had relocated several months before Alexis’ birth. There was little consensus about a third pregnancy. When Stephen (who traveled nearly incessantly) first viewed the twins in the nursery, neither one quite looked like him.

Alexis’ “coaching” would continue with investigation into her parents and grandparents sibling positions, as well as those of her half- and step- aunts and uncles. This would help her further define the Multigenerational Transmission Process of unresolved emotional attachments, cutoffs and fusion that could be adding to her difficulty in launching.

Societal Institutions and Regression:

Examination of the facts of Alexis’ poor functioning in her college dorm highlighted her hypervigilant, over-anxious efforts to create a “substitute” family through her social relationships in response to her cutoff from her parental family. The basic relationship patterns developed for adapting to the parental family are recapitulated in, and transferred to, social and work relationships. People who cut off from their own parental families are the most vigorous in their efforts to create “substitute” families from social relationships.

When we get anxious, flooded and overwhelmed, we stop thinking and react inappropriately. We project and we stigmatize and we discriminate and we scapegoat. Vulnerability to emotional alliances in lieu of goal directed interests leads to the creation of social network triangles. Conversely, as Jenny Brown wrote, “Think about the benefits to society at large if more people took on the growing-up challenge and saw their efforts to manage their anxiety and be principle-driven as a way of bringing more maturity to their society!”

Alexis wasn’t quite sure what had happened. One toke over the line she stumbled out of the frat house, wrapped in a blanket, her clothes never to be seen again. As the over-responsible, over-solicitous, chameleon-like, ready-to-change-anything-and-everything-to-fit-in-one, with no sense of self, Alexis was unable to counter the emotional togetherness forces i.e. peer pressure. She was unaware that social relationships were optional and that thoughts and decisions could be self-directed. Alexis had become a girl who just couldn’t say “no”.

I would continue to “coach” Alexis that whether you are fused and enmeshed, or conflicted, distant, cut-off and non-communicative with your family of origin, you remain undifferentiated and out of control. If your behavior is reactive, whether positively or negatively, you are not self-directed. There is no differentiation without connection, no autonomy without healthy interdependence. Eva Louise Rauseo defines differentiation as “ …variability in the extent to which individuals recognize profound connections to the family group, develop their own individual responsibility and autonomy, and remain in viable connection to the broad family”.

The process of self-differentiation consists of partially freeing oneself from the emotional entrapment of one’s family of origin while developing a unique, personal, authentic one-to-one relationship with each member of your family. It is then possible to be emotionally connected without fusing into emotional oneness. One can be both connected, and sufficiently self-aware to make decisions on one’s own regardless of “The Invisible Psychological Contracts We Make with Our Families.

The Path to Resolution – Differentiation of Self

The one ring that rules them all is work on Differentiation of Self. The family you grew up in is probably the most valuable resource you have for understanding your own emotional reactivity. Work on differentiation of self in one’s family of origin is the fundamental underpinning to growing oneself up as an adult in any crisis or transition. Self-differentiation is about setting appropriate limits and boundaries, staying connected to one’s extended family of origin while maintaining emotional independence and self-sufficiency.

For Alexis, this entailed, for the first time in her young life, beginning to distinguish between what she wanted in her life as opposed to the roles, rules, stories, expectations, and taboos she was taught, either directly or surreptitiously, in the family she grew up in. To engage in this process is to provide a platform for maximum growth and development.

Bowen Family Systems Theory “coaching” at this stage in Alexis’ development would be directed towards learning to make her own decisions in a differentiating way, developing new and different kinds of conversations with her parents, taking an “I” position, and working to de-triangle herself. If you change yourself, you fundamentally change the nature of all your relationships. The process of change is built upon ownership of one’s own emotional reactivity. If you want your life to be better you have to do the work.

The term coaching has an important history and specific technical meaning as first elaborated by Murray Bowen, and further operationalized by Betty Carter and Monica McGoldrick in their seminal paper “Advances in Coaching: Family Therapy with One Person.” The Bowen Family Systems Theory approach to coaching focuses on real world behavior with significant others and the active problem-solving skills necessary to change them. The goal is to solve problems in current relationships so as not to leave a damaging legacy for future generations.

Change happens on three levels. The simplest and least anxiety provoking move involves altering rote patterns of interaction with family members that have no vitality, i.e., doing things differently in ways that signal interest rather than obligation. A second, more challenging move is the purposeful deepening of authentic, personal, one-to-one relationships with family members in circumstances outside larger family gatherings. The third and boldest move involves withdrawing from back channel family processes and asking at all times for direct, transparent family interaction. The pathway is paved with difficulty and challenge but the result of second-order systemic change is almost magical.

Alexis began to consider her life history in a curious and investigative way, learning to observe non-reactively the relationship patterns in her extended family of origin and to deal with differences without losing connections.

Taking responsibility for herself and giving up responsibility for other family member’s beliefs and behaviors helped Alexis bring her behavior more in line with her deepest held values and beliefs, even if this meant upsetting family members by disobeying family “rules.”

For those of us who consider it important enough to invest the time and energy, and who choose to engage with the goal of becoming an authentic adult, the process is a never-completed task. It is a life-long journey to a destination we will never reach, one that requires constant vigilance to the pull of fusion, cut-offs and triangles. Going home is the best place to do that, because if you address the issues of your family of origin everything else becomes a whole lot easier to deal with.

The process of change is built upon ownership of your emotional reactivity. If you want your life to be better you have to do the work. We all belong to families whose emotional connections greatly impact on our lives. Being critical, pointing fingers, seeking to apportion blame, or demanding apologies and recompense for all of the perceived slights you experienced are not going to be helpful. Remember, you are not doing this to change anybody other than yourself.

Alexis continued to make progress in defining a more “solid” self. She dated a number of people, learning to recognize and avoid many of the non-productive previously unexamined relationship templates from her family of origin. Alexis returned to school the following fall, got straight A’s, was captain of varsity volleyball, saved starving kids in Sudan, met her soul mate and lived happily ever after as the first female CEO of Google while raising eleven immaculate children and winning the over 45 Ms. Universe competition. You Go Girrl!! (with apologies to Dr. Seuss).

So what can we learn from Alexis’ unfolding adventure of a lifetime to-date? The more responsible you can be to your own values and beliefs, the greater the likelihood of strong, resilient friendships and secure intimate partner relationships. If you are tied up with all of the stuff and rules and roles of your family of origin, it is really hard to figure out who you are and what you want to do with your life.

In conclusion, a few tricks of the trade include:

  1.    Be proactive
  2.    Manage your time
  3.    Limit the duration of stressful interactions
  4.    Maintain focus
  5.    Avoid triangles
  6.    Avoid distance & cut-offs

So there you have it.

IF you can change your part in the family drama,

AND maintain your change in the face of your family’s predictable initial negative reaction,

AND respond to your family’s reaction with new, unexpected, more differentiated behavior,

WHILE maintaining an emotional connection without taking on anyone else’s “stuff”,

THEN you set the stage for the possibility that others in your family will also begin to change.

AND if they don’t, you still end up in a better place for having engaged in the process.

Putting an elegant theory into practice takes hard work and attention to detail. If it were easy everybody would do it. When all else fails, consultation with a well-trained Bowen Family Systems Theory relationship coach can help keep the process moving forward in a positive direction.

Best of luck on your unfolding journey of a lifetime.

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Yes the work is slow, often painful, and charged with intense anxiety and emotionality. For those of us who consider it important enough to invest the time and energy, and choose to engage with the goal of becoming an authentic adult, the process is a never completed task. It requires constant vigilance to the pull of fusion, cut-offs and triangles. The goal is to change your relationships with other members of your family of origin to improve your life and your family’s life regardless of what anybody else does. Taking responsibility for what you can take responsibility for and attending to your needs in the context of intimate relationships opens the door to facilitating healing of the entire family.

Self-differentiation is about setting appropriate limits and boundaries, staying connected to one’s extended family of origin while maintaining emotional independence and self-sufficiency. Tasks include redeveloping personal relationships with key family members, repairing cutoffs, detriangling from conflicts, and changing the part one plays in emotionally charged vicious cycles. It is a life-long journey to a destination we will never reach. Now if it were easy all of us would do it.