Family as Systems

By October 27, 2022Uncategorized

Families act as a system for a reason.

Our desire to be calm drives more behaviour than we realize. This is a significant factor in families acting as systems.

This month’s previous post pointed out that emotions, like being anxious, are contagious. For example, when a predator comes near a crow’s nest in our backyard, all the crows in the area get very noisy. I’ve seen multiple crows chasing birds away. Individuals get anxious when they are threatened, as this is part of the natural threat response system. If you live in a group, then a threat to one is really a threat to all. My survival rate will increase if I get anxious (energized, alert, vigilant) when I notice someone near me getting anxious. Part of the reason we have dark-on-white eyes is to tell where someone is looking and when they are looking away from us. Me seeing what is threatening you is useful in a dangerous world.

Anxiety and danger are siblings.

Given that we get anxious around threats and danger, eliminating these so one can get calm again would be wise. Returning to “calm” and seeing calmness in others signals things are safe. The unpleasant feeling of anxiety is part of the process of energizing and focusing one’s body to deal with the threat. Since it’s not a good state for the body to be in, it should NOT feel good. Thus, threats create anxiety, which is a feeling we notice as the result of our body chemically changing to respond to the threat.

You make me anxious; I want you to calm down.

When others get anxious, we (naturally) automatically pick that up and can feel uncomfortable because of the physiological change in us. Now, this gets more involved because many individuals feel they are supposed to make the other person feel okay. So then an individual can also become anxious about needing to make the other person less anxious. But the main point is that I want your anxiety to go down so that I will feel less anxious. I want to feel better, so you NEED to feel better. Evolution made us this way because, in a hunter-gather society, your threat and thus your anxiety is my problem as well. But that is not the case anymore, especially when one’s anxious about things that are not life-and-death level issues. 

The function of the family as a system: survival.

Dr. Papero has talked about the primary functions of a family as being a) economic, b) defensive, c) reproductive, and d) maintenance. Individual humans can’t really survive outside of a family or extended family group. As a species, we must live in a group. We evolved from an extended family (group) of hunter-gatherer species. We were hunter-gatherers for thousands of years. In this context, economic functions are those that provide food, clothing, and shelter. In some societies, it also involved having items that could be traded, such as furs or artifacts. The group’s defence would have been very important given the existing predators and potential attacks from other groups. Successfully raising offspring would have required enormous amounts of time, energy, and resources. Caring for each other, maintaining shelter, providing food and clothing, and preparing for group activities at different times of the year would also be required just to survive.

Just surviving was a pretty top bar. The environment we evolved in didn’t care about feelings. One either survived or didn’t. No favours, no favourites. Nature doesn’t over-function for anyone. Individuals had to deal with the world from a “this is what is, so what shall I do” perspective. Work cooperatively, as a system, or die.

Social cues support the family system.

So what would it take to create individuals who survive and succeed under these conditions? I believe it would be a system of automatically sensing how you and your family members are doing and responding to that automatically. What are they looking at? How are they feeling? Do I have their attention? Do they want my attention? What do they expect from me? Are they in distress or anxious? Are we in agreement? Any misreading of these items could be life-threatening.

Dr. Kerr has written about the four primary social cues of attention, approval, expectation, and distress. These are important cues to sense if I and others agree, thus avoiding conflict. Remember, our evolutionary context is that a minor cut, because of infections, could be fatal. There would be no such thing as a small fight. Sensing disagreement would be vital to one’s survival and the group’s success.

Systems: all for one and one for all.

In our evolutionary history, which would have been pre-verbal, behaviours would have needed to be more automatic. Anxiety and tension, signals of threats, would have been automatically passed among the group, and the group would have collectively responded. Collectively, the desired state would be one of lowered anxiety and greater calmness, since that equates to no threats. In this sense, anxiety and calmness are adaptive signals that something is a threat or not. The group would work to remove the threat and reduce anxiety. This process developed because it helped families/groups adapt and survive.

Good for relationships: good for survival.

The implication of the above is that healthy relationships would have been as important as healthy bodies for the group’s survival. If the parts don’t function well as a system, the value of the parts is at risk. An extreme example of this is our body. As elements (atoms), we are worth about $1.00. But get those elements working as a system, and you have a human being. The difference is in the relationships between all the parts of the body. Thus, we needed to evolve to sense if we were personally unwell in our bodies and in our relationships. Symptoms in our body would have required treatment. Symptoms in relationships would have as well.

Defining self involves taking responsibility for my physical self and my relationship self. How do I want to be? What am I willing to do, and not willing to do, for my physical wellbeing and my relationship well-being? These two influence each other through our stress-response system’s influence on our physical health. Maybe we’ll get to a point where we have annual relationship checkups!

Thank you for your interest in learning more about systems.

Dave Galloway

To learn more about Bowen Theory, click here.

For a video series by Dr. Bowen: Bowen Basic Series