LinkedinTwitterThe DetailsConnectBlog Facebook Meet the TherapistHome For Writers

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Treatment Tuesday - Family Dynamics

Quick thank you to my O-town friends who did a shoutout for me on their blog Plot This. You're awesome!

Today’s assessment focuses on family dynamics. This happens to be one of my favorite topics, seeing as how I’m a Marriage and Family Therapist. We’ll be looking into what is called an enmeshed family system, courtesy of Jean, who wrote in this week.

Jean has a love triangle in her historical novel (don’t we love those!) and didn’t want the reader to feel any conflict at the end of the book with who the heroine ultimately chooses. So her portrayal of the scorned man is key to helping the reader feel satisfaction with the chosen man. Here’s a brief character sketch of Larry, the scorned man.

*Larry* comes from a wealthy background with an overbearing mother and henpecked father. He is adopted, but only finds out at the end of the book that he has a sister. For all intents and purposes, he was raised as an only child. He has witnessed his mother lashing out at his father and vowed never to make her that upset with him. He develops feelings for *Betty* who is not of his class set.

Jean’s ultimate question was this: I have Larry so tied to his mother that he can't break away from her. Do I need a good reason behind this? I want the reader to agree that Betty should tell him to go back to his mother and choose *Ted* to marry.

*Names have been changed to protect the fictional.*

Ah! [rubs hands together] This is a great question, Jean! Thanks for submitting. What we’ve got here in classic enmeshment. This is when individuals/families are too closely intertwined – so much so you can’t see where one ends and the other begins (kind of like the wires in the picture). The therapeutic term for this is “undifferentiated,” coined by Family Systems guru Murray Bowen. “Differentiation” is how capable a person is of being autonomous and individualistic. Where we fall on this continuum is based almost solely on how we were raised.

Larry unfortunately witnessed his parents in arguments that were unhealthy, causing him to form a rigid rule internally that he wasn’t going to do anything to make his mother treat him that way. That rule followed him to adulthood, but in essence, he never grew into a more adult way of interacting with his mother. He’s “fused” with his mother, accepting her word as gospel, never going against her, etc.

Enter Betty. She disrupts the family system by expecting (or hoping, I should say) that Larry will stand up to his mother on her behalf. Larry never does. At this point, I don’t think the reader will think Larry worthy of Betty. It would anger them that he would choose his mother over her. When you introduce Ted – especially if it happens after Larry does the unforgivable deed – the reader will already be smelling romance in the air.

So now the question is how you portray his enmeshment. Enmeshment/fusion can be colorful and humorous or dark and sad. When Larry is asked what he thinks about something, he would likely start his answer with, “My mother always says…blah,blah,blah.” He would always have to consult his mother about any course of action (yes, even romantic ones). He might put up a paltry fight if his mother disagrees with him, but Larry will ultimately cower to her because her approval and blessing mean more to him than they should. This is the crux of the issue which will hinder his forming any strong connection with Betty. I mean, what girl likes to play second fiddle to her mother-in-law? (or anyone else, for that matter?)

So hopefully this helps you with your dilemma, Jean. We want our readers to be satisfied, and a little character therapy can help us give them what they want. You know, I enjoyed this assessment so much I think I’ll continue on the same vein for Thursday’s Therapeutic Thought. Thanks for reading!

This service is for fictional characters only, so any resemblance to real life examples is entirely coincidental. Any other fictional character assessment questions can be directed to

Wordle: signature


Tess said...

This is so much fun! I can't get over what a great idea this is.

Jeannie Campbell said...

tess, you are so sweet to say so! it was slow starting, but after a bit of exposure, it's picking up. you are welcome to do a post on your blog! thanks for thinking about that.

T. Anne said...

Perfect assessment! Scary real life twinges in there too, thank goodness for the disclaimer at the bottom. ;)

Katie said...

LOVE IT!!!!!!!!!!!! So good! You are truly the one and only character therapist. I envision you sittin gin a cushiony chair with a plethora of characters lying on couches while you help them delve into their inner psyches. I love it. It's such a great visual! You should see if you can get a picture logo - something that looks likes that! We must talk soon!

Corey Schwartz said...

Came over from Katie's blog. This is so cool, I need to Tweet about it!

Ralene said...

Aw...look at everyone gushin' over you! It is well-deserved. I LOVE these posts. You definitely have found a fun, unique niche to get your name out there.

Jill Kemerer said...

Big smile on my face! I love that "Larry" can't break free from Mama. Haven't we all met a guy like that? Or listened to a girlfriend complain about a guy like that?

I'm SO into analyzing characters. Thanks for the help!

Post a Comment

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