Understanding Family Dynamics: Part 2

“How can I better understand family dynamics?”
First understand family systems.
Begin by reading, Family Ties that Bind by Roland W. Richardson (Self Counsel Press – 3rd Ed. 2010 122pp.) It’s available from

Here’s an outline of Chapter 2:

“Families are Strange Creatures”

11. A family is not just a collection of individuals who simply do their own thing. “The hip bone’s connected to the thigh bone…etc”

12.  A family is more than the sum of the persons in it – like a hand is more than five fingers and a palm. Each finger develops its own “personality” in relation to the rest of the hand. Lose a finger and each remaining finger must adjust to the loss and learn new functions.

13. Your personality developed in relation and in response to the other personalities in your family. All their personalities developed and changed in response to yours, like a “family mobile”.

14.  Families are forever trying to rebalance and counterbalance their relationships. If one gets sick, the others adjust; in turn, the sick person adjusts, and that brings about further change. The same adjustment occurs whether the change is good or bad, e.g. when a family member breaks the law, does well in school, gets a promotion, has a baby, or is hospitalized.

15.  Every family, every relationship has rules – a set of expectations about how people should conduct themselves. There are spoken and unspoken rules. The spoken are the easy ones, e.g. “say please”.

16. The unspoken rules are not openly acknowledged or discussed; they may be denied. Here are some examples of unspoken rules:

a. It’s not OK to be angry but OK to be depressed.
b. Fear is not allowed, except perhaps for women. Men who feel fear are supposed to deny it, or act angry.
c. Sadness is not allowed. Always act happy and keep a stiff upper lip. Don’t be a baby.
d. Be agreeable at all times; arguing is not allowed. If you’re angry, go away, cool down and return with a smile.
e. Conflict is the only acceptable way to relate. Arguing is better than being too cool or indifferent. Show you care by fighting it out.

17.  The purpose of rules is to control how we relate. Following the rules keeps the family in balance.

18.  When a rule is broken, a child feels his own anxiety and his parents’ anxiety. Anxiety is fear of the unknown, worse than fear of a specific thing. Anxiety leaves you feeling fearful and powerless. So we learn to behave in ways that avoid feelings of anxiety. The person who can make you feel anxious is in control.

19. When a child breaks a rule, parents may physically punish or worse, withdraw love which plays on a child’s fear of abandonment. The threat of abandonment usually generates enough anxiety to bring the child’s behavior into line.

20. Even if the parent doesn’t punish, the child detects the parent’s anxiety when a rule is broken. Young children especially know when a parent is upset. The child may feel responsible for the parent’s anxiety and stop the anxiety-causing behavior. In following the rules, the child protects both himself and the parent.

We’ll post outlines of subsequent chapters but strongly recommend you read the book.
Gerald Le Van
Chair, Family Wealth Mediation
Upchurch Watson White & Max
August 2011

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