Many families are aware that they could stand some improvement. They admit, for example, that they’d like to be more intimate and less enmeshed, more joyful and less resentful, more open and less withdrawn.
These wishes, however, are rarely enough to motivate the family to do the admittedly unenviable task of searching for a family therapist, making the call and getting each member of the family into the room for an initial session.
More often than not, a genuine crisis has to occur before a family musters the courage – or feels the overwhelming necessity – to participate in family therapy.
Of course, beginning therapy before the crisis is an effective means of preventing the crisis from occurring in the first place.
But your family is unlikely to do that. Here’s why.
1) The Devil You Know vs The Devil You Don’t
You’re willing to admit that things aren’t perfect. You feel distant from your husband, sex is infrequent, fights with your children are common, sometimes you avoid going home after work, you’re aware of subtle layers of resentment towards your family starting to build, etc. It’s not ideal, but it’s also not the end of the world.
You wish things were different, but you’re willing to swallow the pill that they’re not. The hope that everything will magically change keeps your head above water, but secretly you know they won’t – you’d just rather not admit it to yourself.
That is the devil you know. And it is preferable to the devil you don’t. To change is to enter new and uncharted territory. You simply cannot know what you will find there. You might have the sense that everything will be better, but that is followed closely by the fear, conscious or not, that everything will be worse. Will your relationship be up to the task of handling sincerity, honesty and expression of genuine emotion? Or will such an effort be its ultimate undoing? Will your kids respond in kind to the imposition of firm boundaries? Or will they act out in such a way so as to ensure you never make the effort again?
These are the sorts of fears that cause people to remain where they are, bearing the status-quo with grim resolve under the half-hearted justification that this is simply the way things are.
2) Pain and Discomfort
The pressure cooker that is your family system is one of the most pertinent means of individual growth and realization offered by our culture.
The people closest to you – your family – activate you the most. It is one thing to bare your heart to yourself, another to bare your heart to a stranger, and yet another to expose your deepest vulnerabilities to the people closest to you.
The process is awkward. It is uncomfortable. And it takes guts. It is the foundation of intimacy and the seed of individual maturation.
We do not blame you if you do not want to go there.
3) Intimacy is disturbing
The process of family therapy involves increasing levels of intimacy with family members. The end result is a closer family. Our culture promotes a doctrine of intimacy, exuding its marvelous qualities and spouting it as the preeminent achievement of partners and families. In reality, intimacy is scary. And, we would argue, rare.
When a family experiences itself as distant, it is, in part, because distance is comfortable. There are moments of closeness – on Christmas morning, maybe – and that is as much as the family is willing to tolerate. Overcoming the distance means opening oneself up to anxiety. Family members might claim to want more intimacy, but they are actually fearful of it. This is a nice place to be: the claim without the work. In this manner, everybody can think they are doing something about it while simultaneously enjoying the comfort of not actually doing anything.
4) Fear of what might be revealed
In an individual, the unconscious serves an important function: it is where we store the aspects of ourselves that we would rather not acknowledge. A family system is similar. There is much that percolates just outside conscious awareness of the family members. This material feels dangerous and there are implicit agreements among family members to “not go there”.
Family members intuitively sense that therapy might break apart their fragile agreement to “not go there”. This means that certain elements all family members are complicit in avoiding might surface. Such a process can actually be immensely helpful to the family, but it is threatening to the system as is.
5) Personal responsibility
A phrase that people like in theory, but generally find disagreeable in practice. Personal responsibility suggests that each family member is equally culpable with regards to the current state of the family. Oftentimes, there is an impulse to direct all blame at one or two family members. The fantasy goes that if only they would change, everything would go back to normal and everybody would be happy.
Unfortunately, it is rarely so simple. Each family member must take responsibility for their role in getting both themselves and the family as a whole into its current predicament. This is the ground of growth and maturation, but it is generally an uncomfortable reality and one that people tend to prefer to avoid.
We have deep empathy for families who both do and don’t engage in family therapy. We understand that it is a scary prospect, and we don’t blame those families who choose to stick with the status-quo at the expense of individual growth, increased intimacy and familial maturation. If you and your family do decide to participate in family therapy, we promise it won’t be as disagreeable as you might fear.