Towards a Balanced Whole :
The Well-Functioning Family

Peter L. VanKatwyk, Ph.D.
Director of Pastoral Counselling Programs
Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, and
Kitchener Interfaith Pastoral Counselling Centre
151 Frederick Street
Kitchener, Ontario N2H 2M2, Canada

Counters a preoccupation with the dysfunctional family with a description of healthy family functioning through a balancing process between polar opposites. Constructs a Core Dimensions of Family Functioning assessment diagram, integrating the various perspectives of essential family therapies and culminating in the dimension of a spiritual presence in the family. Emphasizes the competence of families and couples to balance competing demands through a case presentation of a critical family life cycle transition.


In the world of therapy, the family plays a dominant and crucial role. The family represents one’s earliest and most enduring connection to the world. Therapists have been prone to locate the cause of their clients’ presenting problems or misery in the family connection; whether the more distant family by birth or the immediate family by affiliation. Psychological assessments often focus on what was traumatic in the client’s early family experience, something so enduring that it gets re-enacted in the present. Psychoanalytic theory eloquently describes how, in the first few years of life, family relational dynamics shape and plot the inner world of the psyche. Early family-of-origin experiences are internalized as personal maps of orientation, guiding persons in all subsequent interactions with the world and in their intimate relationships.

Patterns and Polarities

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, existential-humanistic thought often targeted the family in its destructive capacity to twist emotional and mental growth.1 Similarly, developmental psychology can highlight the deficits of the family environment.2 Some popular texts and television shows have depicted dysfunction in families as the constant in a vicious circle: "Dysfunctional families create dysfunctional individuals who marry other dysfunctional individuals and create new dysfunctional families."3 Recovery movements for Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families have further dramatized the traumatic legacy of the dysfunctional family. In the 1980’s the field of therapy began to protest against this preoccupation with dysfunctional families. A current textbook in family systems theory cautions that the term dysfunctional "has taken on connotations of serious family disturbance and causal attributions that tend to overpathologize families and blame them for individual and social problems."4

The main problem with the concept of the dysfunctional family, however, is not the emphasis on its debilitating impact but the assumption that families are either functional or dysfunctional. Clinical experience demonstrates that there is no one way to profile either a healthy or sick family or differentiate the one from the other. Families cannot be reified into discrete entities but, rather, constitute centers of interpersonal interaction pulsing with multiple patterns and processes. Criteria of functionality and dysfunction relate to the patterns that organize family process. Rather than by intrinsic qualities, a pattern is deemed functional or dysfunctional by how it fits in a particular context or family situation. To add further complexity from a family systems perspective, a pattern may function well in one subsystem, e.g. parents being absorbed with a needy child, but dysfunction in other system levels such as sibling or marital relationships. Families will express themselves through a multitude of diverse patterns, some functional, others dysfunctional, depending on its particular context.

In the Circumplex Model of couple and family systems David Olson presents a conceptual design that proposes that family functioning is a matter of balancing polar opposites. The model is set up along two major dimensions. With the dimension of cohesion or emotional bonding, families need to balance separateness and togetherness. With the dimension of flexibility or the ability to adapt to change, families need to balance stability and transition. In describing family functioning, Olson uses the metaphor of skiing: "A professional skier smoothly shifts his or her weight from one leg to another, whereas a novice skier tends to emphasize one leg or another. In balanced families, people are able to move in a more fluid manner... whereas unbalanced systems tend to be stuck at one extreme or the other and have a difficult time shifting..."5 From this perspective, family health is not predicated by a finite list of required qualities and necessary conditions. Optimally healthy families practice the art of balancing the various polarities of life into infinite configurations that are unique and attuned to the constantly shifting terrain of their family experience in its developmental and cultural context.

A Family Vignette

In the British movie Shirley Valentine,6 Shirley’s husband Joe comes home one day from work to find a note pinned on the kitchen door: Gone to Greece. Back in two weeks. His wife has been persuaded by her girlfriend to come along on a vacation to Greece. While in Greece Shirley gets reconnected with a part of herself that got lost in some twenty years of being a wife and a mother. The two-week vacation stretches into months, with no end in sight. The distraught husband is in crisis, feeling cheated, abandoned, and increasingly unable to function on his own in England. In spite of ever more desperate phone calls from her husband and thoughts that she will be remembered by her children as "the mother who went on a holiday and never came back," Shirley holds on to her new life in Greece. With the family torn apart across continents, with all the symptoms of a typically "dysfunctional" family, the movie scripts a narrative where, to the contrary, Shirley emerges as the redemptive center of transformation, for herself as well as for her marriage and family.

The vacation tells the story of Shirley’s life stretching from a rebellious schoolgirl who becomes a devoted wife and mother. Her son and daughter have recently left home, as yet loosely connected to the adult world. The daughter, with all her belongings stuffed in bags, returns to mother when conflict erupts with her roommate. Greece is part of an extended geography in Shirley’s life. As a girl she was excited about the prospect of exploring the world but in school got the message that she would "never get far in life." She married early. We see Shirley and Joe as a young couple painting the kitchen walls. After a few playful spatters thrown at each other, a wild face-splashing chase ends up with both in the bathtub. Joe tells his wife: "A nut-case you are. I love you Shirley Valentine." Over the years the couple settles in with work and family responsibilities. After launching their children, Shirley and Joe regroup as a couple, this time without the playfulness. Shirley says of her husband: "He loved me because I was a nut-case, now he just thinks I am a nut-case." Shirley begins to talk to the kitchen wall and drink white wine when she prepares dinner. A critical event occurs when Joe comes home and tea is not ready. Worse, it is Thursday and, rather than the customary steak, Shirley serves chips and egg due for the Tuesday menu. Joe is enraged, screaming: "I think you are going around the bend." Shirley responds: "I hope so. I have always loved to travel." As routines and schedules constrain her in the kitchen, provoking the old adolescent rebelliousness, the wine beckons her to the land "where the grape is grown." On the inside of the kitchen closet is a large poster of Greece, on a door straddling two worlds.

This family context gives Greece a meaning different from the one generated by a moralistic or individualistic focus on Shirley as a middle-aged "nut-case" abandoning her marriage and family for a romantic adventure in the sun on an exotic island. The timing of this Greek "madness" links the children leaving home with Shirley left in the confines of her kitchen. The presenting problem from this family life cycle perspective is Shirley being stuck in, rather than abandoning, her family. The movie ends with Joe and Shirley meeting again, this time not at the kitchen table but in Greece at a beach table with a bottle of wine. This final image leaves us with the paradox that the absence leads the way to a new presence. In the following section I propose a family assessment model that will evaluate families and couples not by a contents analysis of requirements for the functional family but by a process analysis of balancing competing claims under unique and taxing circumstances.

A Balanced Whole

From the perspective of the Circumplex Model, family and couple relationships operate in a tension-filled field of polarities. Polarities are made up of seeming contradictions, such as being absent versus being present, or being on duty as opposed to being on vacation. Polarities, however, represent opposite ends that actually belong together and function as interdependent poles of "a balanced whole."7 Indeed, mounting strength at one polar end empowers the actualization of the opposite pole. In the Shirley Valentine story, the marital separation facilitates a coming together in Greece, suggesting that initially it was their togetherness that triggered the separation.

The Circumplex Model proposes that all the various theoretical concepts that over the years have been generated to describe family and couple dynamics can be comprised in just two polarity dimensions: the one cohesion, the other flexibility. There is a third dimension, communication, which is not a separate domain but a facilitating condition for the other two dimensions.8 This essay will expand the scope from two to seven polarities by incorporating the various perspectives of the major family therapies.

The polarity of integrity and accommodation relates to the family or couple identity and is basic to understanding systems functioning.9 This polarity holds a theology of life and death. Applied to the family, each pole in isolation represents one kind of death: the one the xenophobic extreme of judgmental exclusiveness by which the outer world is excluded, the "death of mere self-identity," the other the promiscuous extreme of indiscriminate inclusiveness by which the outer world overtakes the family or the couple, the "death of mere self-alteration."10 Systems can die either by being too closed or by being too open: two opposite styles of dysfunction and death. Relational and personal health is found in the process of balancing these two poles: to secure an inner center and to engage outside influences and relationships that further define the center’s essential identity and potential. In the context of individual identity, Walter Conn combines these two polar ends as the critical requirement for self-transcendence: "My theoretical premise is that the fundamental desire of the self is to transcend itself in relationship: to the world, to others, to God. But only a developed powerful self has the strength to realize significant transcendence. My approach, therefore, recognizes two focal points in fundamental human desire: the drive to be a self, a center of strength; and the dynamics to move beyond the self in relationship. My interpretation of the desiring self will not only include both elements, it will insist on their inextricable connection: The desire to be a self and to reach out beyond the self must always be understood together..."11 The same principle applies to the desire and need of couples and families to both establish and go beyond their center.

This first polarity plots the relational interactions by which the family or couple defines itself. This process identity can be further delineated by focusing on three areas of family functioning: its political dynamic, its emotional system, and its spiritual presence. Each of these three domains, behavioral, emotional, and spiritual, contains two sets of polarities.

The system’s political dynamic relates to its structure and the use of power. Olson’s circumplex model defines the power structure in terms of family flexibility as the amount of change in its leadership, role relationships, and relationship rules. The extreme polar opposites are rigidity (too much structure) and chaos (too little structure).12

The Beavers’ model of optimal family functioning describes the use of power as the overt expression of relatively equal power in the experience of intimacy. In order to avoid competitive tensions and conflicts, Beavers emphasizes the need for complementarity in the use of power that "encompasses difference, not an inferior/superior dynamic."13 The extreme ends of this polarity are coercion over others and undifferentiated symmetry in the use of power.

The concept of the emotional system stands out in the literature of family theory. The Circumplex Model’s term family cohesion summarizes an abundance of theoretical terms describing emotional bonding among family members. Bowen’s biological theory of the emotional system describes the interplay of two counterbalancing life forces–togetherness and individuality in couple, family, and societal relationships. These two life forces, the one pushing towards attachment, the other pulling away in separation, constitute the two polar ends to be balanced in a relationship system. Bowen’s core concept of self-differentiation points to a state of perfect balance, something to aspire to though never to be fully achieved.

Salvador Minuchin graphically depicts family emotional connections through interpersonal boundaries: if boundaries are inappropriately rigid there is disengagement, if boundaries are diffuse there is enmeshment. On the continuum between these two extremes is the mid-range of clear boundaries where family members can be close yet maintain a sense of personal identity and agency.14 The concept of boundaries takes on special significance in family therapy when it applies to generational distinctiveness. Some of the most destructive family interactions take place in crossgenerational alliances violating boundaries that protect the integrity and safety of children or the solidarity of the parental/marital relationship. Perverse triangles portray a parent-child alliance pitted against the other parent, often posing split loyalty15 conflicts for the child where the love of the one parent comes at the cost of discounting the other parent. In contrast, when boundaries are overly restrictive and prohibitive, interpersonal connections are also impaired, often experienced in a sense of isolation and alienation.

A spiritual presence in the family is a more elusive concept in systems theory. It presupposes a belief system with significant transcendent values that emotionally charge and lend meaning to the life of the family and its members. This spiritual orientation becomes present in its functioning in the everyday interpersonal relationships of the family. The power of a caring and loving presence is noted in Beavers’s description of optimal families: "Empathy for each other’s feelings, interest in what each other has to say, and expectation of being understood encourage members to respond to each other with concern and action."16 This sentence rightly balances giving care to others (empathy for feelings and interest in listening) with claiming care for self (expectation of being understood). These polar ends of responsibility towards others and rights for oneself are prominent in the theory of Contextual Therapy. It is the ethics of justice that seeks a balance between give and take, grounded in the interpersonal bond of covenant trustworthiness.

The psychoanalytic theory of Self Psychology proposes a polar structure for the self in relationship with a significant other. Kohut developed a double axis theory based on two reciprocal human relational needs: 1) to be affirmed by significant others as special and, 2) to have a significant one to admire and take comfort in. These two poles constitute the bipolar self.17 These two relational needs stand out in early childhood when the child strives for recognition and looks to the parent as an object to be idolized and imitated. In a perfect family scenario the child’s grandiose self is transformed into healthy ambitions and the idealized parent is internalized as ideals and values. In reality the two polar needs are never fully satisfied, even under the best circumstances, but persist through time. This is demonstrated when others continue to be recruited in our lives as selfobjects, to perform the ongoing functions of mirroring (i.e. validating the self) and idealizing (i.e. soothing the self).

This polar structure of the self accentuates the spiritual dimension in human nature. The need to idealize points to the need to transcend one’s individual identity and limitations and merge with someone or something larger than the self to comfort as well as to inspire and guide. The need for mirroring is the need to discern and be confirmed in one’s special giftedness, purpose, and vocation in life. Idealizing and mirroring are relational pathways towards a cohesive self and a meaningful place in the world. Ideally both idealizing and mirroring are present, but in the absence of one the other can still facilitate the development of the self. When these two relational needs are arranged as polar ends–one assigning greatness to the self, the other assigning greatness to the other–the potential for absolutizing one or the other becomes apparent. In the context of the family there is the possibility of the extremes of either a family clan, where the ethnocentric ideals, values, history or religion of the family become the dominant reality, or a person cult, where the narcissistic needs and aspirations of the star of the family or the claims of privileged status of a family member structure the family.

Applications

The Core Dimensions of Family Functioning (CDFF) diagram is intended to be incorporated as an internal map of orientation for the counselor, as a safeguard against the more dogmatizing, limiting, and pathologizing tendencies in therapy and pastoral counseling. To further extend the use of the CDFF table, it can become a psychoeducational assessment tool to be shared with families and couples as a discussion guide. If Shirley Valentine, alone or with Joe, would present for therapy, the CDFF diagram could signal a variety of issues to be pursued in exploratory and affirmative conversations. In letting the diagram outline draw the therapy map, the following issues present themselves:

Identity: Shirley married young, before she had time to establish a cohesive sense of herself. Prematurely her personal identity merged with the marriage and, soon after, a family. Her family involvement included the loss of personal friends except the one girlfriend, significantly a person who had been recently divorced and presently in search of a new life. The family has launched the two children. With the children gone, Shirley finds that the marriage also is gone. In terms of the identity polarity, the extreme of exclusive family involvement raises the urgency of connecting with a world beyond the kitchen door

Political Dynamic: The story accentuates a rigid structure dramatized in oppressive rules about when to drink tea, and what to eat on what day. When Shirley changes the menu she faces Joe’s outrage. There is a parallel reality with Joe–running his shop is a harrowing and isolating experience for him. Joe and Shirley come across as two disempowered people, the one confined in the shop, the other in the kitchen. In sharing their powerlessness, their intimacy gets lost in an escalating struggle for personal control.

Emotional System: Shirley becomes aware as her children leave home that she herself has never left home. Greece is the symbol of a world she has never known and that now beckons her. The story of the two children dramatizes the polar ends of attachment and separation. The daughter, even though gone, still clings to her mother and readily regresses to child dependency. She is enraged when her mother is leaving, and in her feeling of abandonment she allies with her father in insisting that Shirley’s role is to be the caretaker at home. In contrast to his younger sister, the son has left home and relates to his parents as fellow adults. He confronts the father for living a boring life, tied to a small world of work and home, not able to meet his wife in a new world. In this sibling story, clear boundaries and strength of self-differentiation are contrasted with emotional triangles.

Spiritual Presence: Shirley acts out the anger of grieving the losses that have accumulated over the years. It starts with telling Joe to go away and read the paper when there is no tea and dinner is late. The episode foreshadows that she will not just be late, but not be there at all. In the movie the absence of tea progresses to an absent steak and culminates in an absent Shirley. Their covenant arrangement and trust is broken. The balance of caring has been too long in favor of Joe and the family. In addressing the imbalance, she is drawn into an extreme position: claiming her own life at the cost of her marriage and family.

Shirley has been serving the needs of her family for over 20 years of family loyalty, yet not gained personal affirmation and recognition. Her story illustrates the feminist critique that women have been assigned the one-way vocation of being there for others. In Greece she enjoys a brief romantic interaction, meets people, makes friends, and finds a job. Greece symbolizes that Shirley has found her place in the world. Greece also signifies the place where Joe and Shirley need to meet if there is to be a new beginning and a new life for them as a couple and as a family.

Conclusion

The CDFF diagram highlights seven universal principles or values of family health to be pursued in a lifetime of balancing its polar ends. This approach acknowledges the constantly shifting terrain that families and family members need to negotiate in defining themselves in their daily lives. The CDFF approach highlights the following main characteristics:

• It is multi-perspectival by incorporating diverse viewpoints in a comprehensive framework, informed by the wisdom of essential family theories.

• It is process-directed in its focus not on a content analysis but on the tensions and shifts in family interactions within the larger picture of the family in its developmental process and cultural context.

• It is health-oriented by its emphasis that potentially pathological extremes can be part of the family’s resilience and wisdom in re-establishing its balance.

• It is spirituality-informed by its therapeutic aim to resolve polarized extremes and impasses into a process of transformation and by its theology of health as a balancing act sustained by the hope and vision of moving towards a "balanced whole."


The Journal of Pastoral Care, Spring 2001, Vol. 55, No. 2

Footnotes:

1See for instance R.D. Laing, The Politics of the Family–Massey Lectures (Toronto: CBC Enterprises, 1969). Also the popular psychology of Transactional Analysis in the 1960s and 1970s, with its emphasis on the potential dire consequences of early parental injunctions.
2A popular example is the psychoanalytic approach in The Drama of the Gifted Child: How Narcissistic Parents Form and Deform the Emotional Lives of their Talented Children by Alice Miller (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1981).
3John Bradshaw, Bradshaw On The Family (Deerfield Beach, FL. Health Communications, 1988), p. 62.
4Froma Walsh, Normal Family Processes (New York, NY: Guilford, 2nd ed., 1993), p. 9.
5David H. Olson in Froma Walsh, Normal Family Processes, p.111.
6The 1989 film, starring Pauline Collins, is based on the play by Willy Russell in Shirley Valentine and One for the Road (Great Britain: Methuen Drama, 199; 1991).
7This is the term Paul Tillich uses when discussing the polarity structure of being in his Systematic Theology (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1967), Vol. I, p.198.
8Olson in Froma Walsh, Normal Family Processes, pp.104-138.
9This polarity is similar to the one of individualization versus participation in Tillich, Systematic Theology, Vol. III, p.30.
10Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Vol. III, p.33.
11Walter Conn, The Desiring Self: Rooting Pastoral Counsellng and Spiritual Direction in Self-Transcendence (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1998), p. 5.
12Olson, Ibid.
13Robert Beavers in Froma Walsh, Normal Family Processes, p. 82.
14Salvador Minuchin, Families & Family Therapy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974) pp. 54, 55.
15Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy & Barbara Krasner, Between Give and Take–A Clinical Guide to Contextual Therapy (New York, NY: Brunner/Mazel, 1986), p.421.
16Robert Beavers in Froma Walsh, Normal Family Processes, p. 83.
17Heinz Kohut, The Analysis of the Self (New York, NY: International Universities Press, 1971).

 

Figure 1

Core Dimensions of Family Functioning

FOCUS POLARITY EXTREMES PRINCIPLE

family:
1. integrity and judgmental indiscriminate family/couple -identity accommodation exclusiveness inclusiveness definition

2. structure and rigidity in chaos in rules system flexibility roles and rules and leadership change -political dynamic

3. power and coercive control undifferentiated relationship equality over others symmetry intimacy

4. attachment and clinging and reactiveness and self separateness dependency disengagement differentiation -emotional system

5. affiliation and triangles and isolation an generation boundaries split loyalties alienation distinctiveness

6. responsibilities no caring no caring covenant and rights for self for others trustworthiness -spiritual presence

7. idealizing and a family clan a person cult vocation mirroring confirmation

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