How Do Well-Intentioned Families Go Awry?

Author: Michael E. Kerr, M.D.

Human beings’ most emotionally significant relationships, relationships that have the most emotional impact on their health and well-being, are with their families.

This assertion does not discount the positive and negative impacts that relations with friends, workplace successes and failures, and with other social groups can have. However, it is more common for people to say they are more satisfied with their non-family relationships than with their family relationships. A first step in understanding the phenomenon I am describing is spelled-out in Bowen theory: “Human beings have a powerful need for emotional closeness and are allergic to too much of it.”

Many years ago, I asked a man in my clinical practice why he was content living with a woman, but did not want to marry her? He expressed his love for her and said she wanted to marry him. He responded to my question by explaining that if he married her, it would feel like a door was shutting behind him. That threat, he said, would generate enough chronic anxiety in him and his partner that it could easily disrupt their relationship. Indeed, he had a powerful need for emotional closeness, but was allergic to too much of it.

Bowen theory uses the term differentiation of self to describe a person’s degree of emotional maturity. Human beings exist on a continuum from reasonably mature to very immature. Much evidence supports this to be a transcultural phenomenon, anchored in biological processes. The brief case example above is about two people with fairly low levels of maturity. Like water seeking its own level, people with equal levels of maturity attract one another. People commonly reject such an idea.

So, this is the first step in understanding why two well-intentioned parents can experience things going awry. Important to understand is that parents are not the cause of whatever goes awry. A person’s emotional maturity has been shaped unwittingly by their multigenerational families.

Understanding Chronic Anxiety

The next thing to understand is that chronic anxiety in families can play out in different ways, which help strongly influence what in particular goes awry, such as delinquent behaviors in a teenager or physical or mental health problems with a parent. The processes are fueled by “emotional reflexes,” shaped in a person’s developmental years. More mature parents have less intense emotional reflexes and are better at self-regulatory processes generated by a well-developed intellectual system. Another important component of the chronic anxiety generated is the magnitude of the stressors in whatever context a family is living.

The more mature families, not surprisingly, adapt more successfully to the extant stressors. In other words, family anxiety levels can be generated inside the family and outside it. I will close by emphasizing that what has been described here does not leave out the other impact of other factors, such as genetics, toxin exposure, and the like. However, chronic anxiety does chronically sustain a body’s stress response, which, in turn, supports processes like chronic inflammation that can adversely affect the clinical course of many maladies.