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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Thursday Therapeutic Thought - Family Relationships

Photo courtesy of Minnesota Dept. of Health

Since we've spent some time discussing triangles last week, I wanted to talk about how these triangles form the structure of a family. We'll be borrowing some terminology from structural family therapist Salvador Minuchin, a giant in my field.

Since all our characters have family (whether they want to acknowledge them or not), this is applicable to all our work. Family structure is defined as recurrent patterns of interaction that define and stabilize the shape of relationships. Families have different subsystems (triangles definitely apply here, but also dyads between two people or even larger groups) determined by generation, gender, or even common interests. For example, teenagers in a home and their parents make two subsystems based on generation. This is called overt coalitions - unconcealed. But covert coalitions are usually more significant - those that aren't as obvious, such as a mother's tight bond with her only son that excludes everyone else.

Every family member plays many roles in these subsystems, just as our characters do. I'll use myself as an example: I'm a wife, mother, daughter, niece, sister-in-law. In each role, I'm required to act differently. if I'm mature and flexible, I'll be able to smoothly move from one subsystem to the next and vary my behavior accordingly (i.e., I can scold my daughter, but not my mother or husband). Ah...but how many of us are going to make our characters be "mature?"

Individuals, subsystems and whole families are defined by interpersonal boundaries: invisible barriers that regulate the amount of contact with others. These boundaries are to protect the autonomy of the family and/or subsystems by managing how close they allow others to get to them. Rigid boundaries that permit little contact with outside subsystems result in disengagement: independent but isolated individuals/subsystems. This type boundary is so stiff and hard that practically nothing can get through. Disengagement promotes automony, growth and mastery, but also limits warmth, affection and nurture. For example, parents who don't hover/fight battles for their kids force their children to develop their own resources. However, if the children are kept at such a distance, the affection is minimal and the parents will be slow to notice when children need support and guidance.

Diffuse boundaries result in the opposite: enmeshment. (We already had a Treatment Tuesday devoted to this.) The boundary is permeable...almost nonexistent. Support and affection are heightened, but at the expense of independence and autonomy. Children tend to become dependent on their parents and are less comfortable on their own or relating to people outside their family.

In between these two extremes is what Minuchin considered normal, or balanced. Normal boundaries are clear. They are neither rigid or diffuse. The subsystem can decide for itself what to "let in or out" in relation with other systems.

Application: When I'm writing a novel, I try to think about how I want my hero/heroine to react to others. Typically, their actions result from boundaries developed through their family structure. It's not imperative to define this for your reader, but it IS imperative that you be consistent with how your character reacts. To do that, you need to have defined for yourself how your character fits into the structure of their family, and whether that family has diffuse, rigid or clear boundaries.

Hopefully I haven't bored you with talk about family structure. Family therapy is a gold mine for character development, but I don't want to camp out here too long. Next week, we'll take a look at countertransference with your characters, so stop back by!

Wordle: signature


Jody Hedlund said...

Thanks again, Jeannie! You are so knowledgeable! Do you still work as a counselor now that you're writing and working as a mommy? Just wondering how you get everything done in a day?! :)

Jeannie Campbell said...

hey jody! yes, i still work as a counselor, although part-time (even less so now that I'm about to move). and to do today's post, i got up earlier than my baby. true dedication. :)

Jessica said...

Fascinating. Makes me wonder if I'm setting up my characters right or not. And makes me not want to examine my own family dynamics growing up. LOL!

Eileen Astels Watson said...

What a fun new look to your blog, Jeannie!

I'm going to have to look more closely at my characters' family dynamics now.

Jill Kemerer said...

Family dynamics--a lot of opportunity for character conflict! Thanks for the insights!

Katie said...

The book I'm reading right now - The Moment Between - had a character who is definitely disengaged! Great stuff, Jeannie!

Jeannie Campbell said...

thanks, ladies! hope it helps.

Terri Tiffany said...

I was a counselor for almost twenty years and every thing you said is so true and helpful to developing our characters. THe tough part is knowing how to get it on paper!:))

Tess said...

You woke up earlier than your baby? Wow - that is dedication :)
I love the Tues and Thrs on this blog. I'm taking copious notes and know it will help my writing. Thanks so much!

Jeannie Campbell said...

wow, terri...had no idea! i'm not running into many of us in the fiction-writing field.

tess...thanks for the encouragement!

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Both comments and questions are welcome. I hope you enjoyed your time on the couch today.