At wedding rehearsal dinners, my wife toasts the bride and groom:
“May your marriage be like two porcupines snuggling down on a cold night: close enough for warmth, but not so close that you prick each other.”

Some titter, then an ex-roommate tells a long embarrassing story about the bride’s or groom’s ex-squeeze, and the porcupines are forgotten.

Asked why his teams mostly ran the football, legendary Texas coach Darrell Royal replied, “Three things can happen to a forward pass, and two of them are bad.”

Imagine a whole family of porcupines — six, eleven, fourteen — all snuggling down on a cold night. Three things can happen to a porcupine in a nest of other porcupines, and two of them are bad. Too close and you get pricked; too distant and it’s too chilly. The trick is to stay close enough for warmth without getting pricked.

Porcupines can’t just lie there in one position. Suppose another porcupine rolls over or stretches. One leaves for another nest. Another brings back a mate. Little porcupines are born. Two big ones fight. An old porcupine gets sick, or dies. To maximize warmth and minimize pricking, you must constantly change your position relative to other porcupines.

Your family, my family, we are like those porcupines in the nest, forever shifting and changing to maximize warmth and minimize pricking. We’re a system, a family system. That’s the way psychologists view families and I think they’re on to something.

If there is a problem, it’s not just the one or two of us directly involved. Those problems reverberate throughout the family system. Everyone is affected. All of us change positions. Those of us who work with families professionally look first at the family system. How did things get that way, and how would a change reverberate throughout the system?

Suppose a family hero is tarnished, or the family black sheep reforms. The system needed a hero to galvanize family pride. It also needed a black sheep as a lightning rod for family anxieties.

Families systems can be very static, very slow to change. Contrary to the facts sometimes, the family may continue to revere the tarnished hero or continue to dump on the reformed black sheep. Why? Because the system “worked” that way.

A heads up: families aren’t just random clusters of individuals who happen to be genetically related. Families are intricate systems that struggle to provide us stability, constancy, tradition, heritage, acceptance -- a sense of belonging.

Our families remind us continually of where we came from and who we are. Family systems grow fast but change slowly. A few are crazy or cold or uncaring. Most manage to make a place for us -- with maximum warmth and minimum pricking.

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