Friday, November 10, 2006

About affection- Part One Engaged vs Disengaged Families

Wednesday, November 8, 2006

We’re on an airplane, flying into Burbank. I hadn’t wanted to shlep the Thinkpad, if you have one you know why, it's so heavy, but FD said Bring it.

I hate it that he’s right about so many things. So much.

And yet, it’s good that he is because two brains really are better than one.
P.S. If you think like this in marital therapy, you'll do okay.

So here we are the two of us. He’s charting out some music. Composing I think is the word for it. Being in a band, one has responsibilities. I take his hand in mine every once in awhile, am kind of happy.

But boy do I have a headache, one of those I forgot to eat today headaches. With all the tumult, the packing, the last minute errands and calls, then there was The Paper.

Which is finished, by the way.

Submitted it electronically in a flurry, and printed it out, just one copy. But I need two hard copies to mail to the editors at the journal. These academic things get long with all those stodgy sources, four pages of references on this one. So instead of wasting ink at home, the precious thing’s with me in a carry on, ready to copy and mail from L.A., not because I needed this extra hassle, believe me, but because there wasn’t time to get over to Kinko’s.

There was a time, not that many years ago, when they knew me by name over there at Kinko’s. If you ever go to graduate school, it could happen to you.

So I’m pretty relaxed right now, looking forward to feasting my eyes on my family. I closed them a couple of times, too, my eyes and one of those times I started writing in my head the story you're about to read.

This is the story about affection in my family, my family of origin. For the record, the family of origin refers to a person’s parents and siblings. I don’t think my family of origin will mind my telling the story.

We’re a relatively small one, just the parents and three kids, me sandwiched between two brothers. As the girl I was afforded plenty of privacy, had my own room. The two boys shared theirs, a boy room in soft greens and blues. I liked oranges, pinks, and hot pinks. Crazy, right?

Basically we kids were raised in one of those traditional families where you listened to your parents. Your mom was nice and you could wriggle out of things with her, but if your father told you to do something, well, you just did it.

My dad had an amazingly effective way of scaring the living . .. out of us (love you, Dad). When we three kids were little we bonded properly, according to him, US AGAINST THEM, kids against the parents. Dad always took credit for this alliance against him. He felt it was the right way to build a strong sib-ship (my word, his idea).

If you've read anything by Sal Minuchin (students, paying attention?), one of the real fathers of family therapy, you know that having the generations in alliance is really a fantastic thing in a family.

After all, goes the rationale, parents will be gone one day, we think, hopefully we will outlive them, and it would be nice if the kids all got along. As you well know, this is not a given in many families.

But I would like to suggest that what we had as children in my family, our US AGAINST THEM alliance was really pseudo-intimacy, feeling you’re being intimate in the process of talking about others, now ourselves.

It doesn’t have to be that way exclusively. We could have talked about our parents AND talked about ourselves, but I don’t remember that happening. There weren’t many discussions about personal feelings or thoughts, I don’t think (correct me if I’m wrong, Mom or Dave, maybe I am). We were studious kids and when we could, we played sports.

Like most families we had good times and bad. Somehow, I don’t know exactly why, but I have my theories, maybe the spacing of the kids, maybe it was just our personalities or genetics, maybe it was a million things, maybe I’m too hung up on sharing lately, in general, but there wasn’t much intimacy.

On the enmeshment versus disengagement continuum that I haven’t yet talked about, we were probably on the disengaged side, although mom pushed pretty hard to engage us. That's why I sometimes wonder (am actually sure there is some correlation) to genetics and social interaction But let's not go there now.

Disengaged ____My family______________________enmeshed

A disengaged family doesn’t communicate at all about feelings, thoughts, what they want to do, particularly, either. If a kid wants to do something, he has permission, he's pretty sure, to just do it. There’s a sense that it’s okay to do your own thing, that no one cares, and that can truly be the case, but usually not.

Disengagement can be about benign neglect, but it can also be about being afraid of intimacy. Parents themselves are afraid to talk about their histories and feelings can also be afraid to express opinions, or G-d forbid, to interfere.

Their fear of intimacy is rooted in fears of rejection, their own antipathy and discomfort with closeness/suffocation, fear of exposure or ridicule, and finally, fear of fusion, losing one’s sense of self in a relationship, melting into the other’s personality.

Easy stuff, I’m sure you’re getting it.

The other reason for disengagement is pure and simple child neglect.

Enmeshed is the exact opposite. A kid gets no psychological space, isn’t allowed his or her own thoughts. Parents have to know not only what kids are thinking, but where they’re going all of the time, and with whom, not really to protect the child, but out of psychotic fear that the child will be swept away, seduced into being different by others who are different, and then will reject his parents.

True enmeshment makes it virtually impossible to develop any kind of confidence or cogent sense of self. True enmeshment means there’s no YOU, rather you’re an extension of THEM. The family is a collective psyche. I write a bit about this in SEPARATION AND SELF: THE ANTI-ENMESHMENT VARIABLE
Big words, but I think you get it.

Oh, and no matter the pathological pole, whether a family is disengaged or enmeshed, LOVE may have nothing to do with it.

Love, a certain kind of love, insecure, needy love, courses through the veins of the families at the ends of the continuum. Those of us in the middle probably turn out okay with a little therapy and luck. As you probably know, I feel everyone needs both.

But it's late and G.D. is looking at me like he wants to tell me something about how the cross-winds won't help us or there's a fault somewhere down there or did I know that the speed of an airplane. . . And he thinks I don't listen.

I had wanted to tell you a story about affection, a personal story. It’s my favorite thing, affection. But my battery power's running low, too. Plus I knew from the start that this story is going to have to be in 2 parts. That would make 3 parts if we include this one.

And face it, I'm on vacation.

It can wait, right? At least you learned about disengagement versus enmeshment. Gotta' go.

Copyright 2006, Therapydoc


Anonymous said...

Minuchin is a freaking genius! At least thats how he looks in his books...I suppose those stories could be made up but who knows?

Have a great time in LA, we can't wait to see you when we get out there in a few weeks!

Scribbit said...

Family of origin is a great term, especially useful when I have my own family and my extended family in the same town. I'm here via Carnival of Family Life and enjoyed your blog.

Anonymous said...

Thank-you for the education on emmeshment and disengagment. Very good information. I love to observe how different families funtion. I am always amazed when the parents are suprised by how their children act or the decisions that they make. I am suprised because often times the children are simply a mirror of their parents behaviors.

This passage caught my attention:

"Their fear of intimacy is rooted in fears of rejection, their own antipathy and discomfort with closeness/suffocation, fear of exposure or ridicule, and finally, fear of fusion, losing one’s sense of self in a relationship, melting into the other’s personality".

This fear based behavior is a product of our ego. When we are able to set our ego aside and operate from an inner love of each other we would find it much easier and productive to interact with each other.

twodogsblogging said...

Thanks for the story about sibling bonding. That's very true; good parents realize it's important for kids to have that "us against them" mentality for them to bond. I'm starting grad school in January so I'm always wondering how much work it's going to entail, being the slacker that I am. Thanks for sharing.

therapydoc said...

You guys (women) make this so easy. If you're going to graduate school there's no WAY you're a slacker. You'll do fine.

in2deep said...

you write very well, cannot wait for your part 2 and hopefully part 3 also.
have a safe and trip vacation,
God Bless.

therapydoc said...

I love the panther, In2Deep. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

good to read this. think i under stand something more about my family of origin now. way disengaged.

looking forward to reading more.

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