Do you talk, connect and communicate with each one emotionally
—and not just functionally?
Abby, a young mom of a toddler and an infant, finds the Christmas season, birthdays and family occasions stressful events for her. Amidst her desire to celebrate with her family, she has to deal with the demands of her husband’s family.
Her in-laws (including the mother, father and sister) expect her husband, along with her and the kids, to follow suit with their plans. While they long to bond with their extended family, they end up tailing her husband’s older sister — where to have a vacation, how they will celebrate the holidays and even the preparations for her kids’ birthday parties.
Abby feels that she needs to follow, even if she prefers things otherwise. Of course, family time is important, she and her husband reason. It’s their time to bond, anyway.
Family therapist David Olson (2011) considers cohesion, or the “emotional bonding that family members have towards one another,” as an important dimension of family functioning. In a family system, the key is to balance the individual members’ separateness and the family’s togetherness.
Separated or Connected?
A family may be in one house during the holidays or sharing a family Christmas dinner but possibly be disengaged. They let the family members “do their own thing.” The disengaged family allows high independence and have extreme “emotional separateness.” There is a weak cohesiveness or draw in the relationship. Little communication is present — limited to small talk like “How are you?” or “Have you eaten?” There is more “I” and almost no “we” and is therefore considered unbalanced.
If there is more “I” and often have “we,” a family may be separated yet have a considerably balanced relationship. While there is more independence among members, they value their togetherness. This family does spend time apart, but they make time to get together, do decisions together and support the welfare of each one.
A connected family puts more weight on the “we” than the “I.” They are just not functional, but they feel what one feels and are loyal to their relationship. They like being together but allow room for independence and separate activities.
If the “we” is the priority and the “I” is not recognized, then there is imbalance in the system and family relationships are enmeshed. This is what Abby has. While she strives to establish her family, she and her husband find it difficult to create their identity in the family system. There is too much consensus in the family and little room for independence. They have extreme plans for bonding but limited individual independence. Where one is, the rest follows. There’s a lack of personal separation and private space.
While it seems good to regard closeness and to do this for the love of our family, a family like this doesn’t allow enough space for individual members to grow and be their own person.
Questions to Consider
Look at your own family’s degree of cohesion, the balance of separateness and togetherness. Do you give more value to the “we” or to the “I,” or is it equal?
Do you talk, connect and communicate with each one emotionally, and not just functionally?
Do you spend quality time together and not mind having time apart?
Do you give space for each person to grow — your kids, your partner, even your extended family? Or do you want to have what they are having as well?
In decision making, is it only one or a few who are followed by all? Or does each one have the chance to voice out their side in a family decision?
Does everybody share the interests and recreation of only one or two persons? Or you allow each one to pursue their interests with the support of the other members?
Your answers and the insights these questions may give you are guides you can use to gauge the bonds that tie your family. We may not be perfect in our ways and patterns, but we can strive for our relationships to be healthy and balanced.
While “we” are one family, we don’t just envelop the whole family to our whims and wishes. We are one family because each individual contributes their “I,” with their own uniqueness and idiosyncrasies, to make a beautiful whole.
The heart of family bonding is more than the place where the family is or the occasions we celebrate. It’s more than the food on the table or the activity we share. The heart is that portion of ourselves we willingly share with our family, without losing the essence of individuality. That “I” in the family builds the healthy beautiful “we.”
*This excerpt is taken from Family Goals: Embracing the Imperfections of Family Life by Michele S. Alignay.
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