As a psychotherapist, I often meet individuals, couples and families who at first describe the relationships that matter the most in their lives as ‘very close’, ‘tight’, and supportive. But later, after understanding the issues that brought them to my office, I view them more as insular systems that nurture – or even demand – ‘group think’ and inhibit individualism altogether.
In fact, in many of these situations, any deviation from the collective is often considered betrayal to the larger system, whether it be the couple, the nuclear, or extended family.
And, at the beginning of our work together, the notion that I might encourage them to begin to create some individual distance within these systems is, at first, seen as an attempt to dislodge or corrupt what they believe is the best, and strongest, part of themselves.
In short, my encouragement in this regard is simply viewed as both threatening and tyrannical.
A prime example of this occurred one day in a session I had with a father and his two adult daughters, both of whom still lived at home. I was originally led to believe that this was a close family of four (the mother wasn’t in attendance at this particular session), although they had experienced some degree of difficulties among themselves throughout the years.
During the course of my usual investigation of what brings clients to my office, and after listening to the father describe the current (and past) issues that existed within the family, I turned to the young women and asked each of them about their own individual experiences, and how they interpreted the situation the family was currently experiencing.
Immediately, the fear that exuded from these women was palpable in the room.
And yet, despite their initial reticence, they both found their voices and responded in direct contradiction to their father’s earlier interpretation, and instantly all hell broke loose.
Their father set upon them with a kind of verbal abuse that I’d never previously witnessed in my office, and when I asked him to cease his behavior immediately, he instantly turned to me red-faced and screamed that I must have ‘daddy issues’.
The daughters were dumbstruck at his disrespectful outburst, as was I. But the main question that piqued in my mind in that moment was that if he was willing to show this degree of anger ‘publicly’ at his daughters contrary opinions, how did he behave in private?
And, despite the fact that at least one of the daughters wanted to return to sessions, I never saw them again. Needless to say, this father was hell-bent on maintaining control over what he referred to as his ‘very close’ family relationships.
This example is what I’d refer to as an ‘outlier’ experience, at least in my office.
However, it dramatically illustrates the point I’m trying to put forth: sometimes ‘close’ is not the quality of relationship that we should necessarily aim for since it can be imbued with an obligation to think as a collective as opposed to as an individual, thus, leaving the members of this unit feeling they’ve betrayed the others if any one of them might differ in their opinion – or act in any way contrarily from the unit’s ‘norm’.
Consequently, I typically encourage a supportive environment within relationships and my work in these cases involves helping them create healthy distances among each member where it’s not required that they experience the ups and downs of the other(s) in the unit.
In other words, the members don’t choose to respond in what is referred to as ‘codependent’ behavior.
To illustrate what I’m referring to, I’ll draw upon my story of the two “cow” families that I often use when working with clients who are (re)acting codependently in their relationships.
There are two families of cows who live in a large field. The entire field is surrounded with an electric fence to ensure the cows don’t escape. On one side there’s the first family, a large ‘close’ family of cows and, a football field apart, there’s a second family of cows who could be characterized as close but supportive of individual choices.
Imagine there’s little space between the individual cows in the first family.
One day, one of the members of the first ‘close’ family casually bumps into the electric fence and the shock of this cow experiences immediately reverberates among all the other members. Each are affected to more or less the same degree, and, as a result, none are left to help support the others.
On the other hand, one of the members of the second ‘supportive’ family inadvertently bumps into the electric fence on their side, and because the members have maintained a healthy distance from one another, they notice one of them was affected by the shock, but none of the others have been.
Consequently, all the cows of this family were available to support the affected member, but without having to take on the painful experience themselves.
So which is the healthier family? Obviously, the close and supportive one; not the codependent one.
I use this story to illustrate the importance of maintaining a healthy distance in relationships that are important to us. In other words, this distance is vital in terms of being able to remain connected to ourselves, our own thoughts, interests, beliefs, and values, while similarly remaining connected to those we love.
The connections aren’t always simultaneous since there are times when we’re required (or simply have a desire) to give primacy to own ‘selves’, and in healthy relationships this distance isn’t viewed as threatening and, consequently, doesn’t create feelings of resentment among members because it doesn’t put at risk the connections we have to others of importance in our lives.
Finding the balance between these two is an ongoing challenge for most of us, for sure, but it is possible. And, when individuals find that very ‘sweet spot’, their lives are deeply enriched, both as an individual and as a member of an important unit.
So, which cow family do you belong to?
Are you threatened when those you love yearn for the space to experience parts of their life that don’t directly include you? Or do you view that desire as the much-needed fresh air to keep the relationship dynamic and interesting?
Similarly, are you bringing some of that freshness to your own life experience and to your own relationships in this important way? Perhaps it’s time to assess all the important relationships in your life within this context.
I’d love to hear how your assessment goes, so feel free to drop me a note to offer me your welcome perspective!