Conclusion - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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Ghosts and Guests of Family Past in Relationships and Therapy
by Ronald Mah

Therapy may focus on the presenting issues identified by the individual, partners, or family members.  If issues with parenting, the in-laws, arguing, communication, time together, feelings, behavior, and so forth are relatively straight-forward, processing the individual's interactions with others or between or among the partners or family members for problematic assumptions and underlying intentions may be sufficient to facilitate a healthier relationship.  However, not only just "A couple therapist will miss important information if he or she fails to thoroughly explore the belief systems of both partners' families of origin during the course of assessment and treatment.  Obtaining such information helps the therapist gain a better sense of how family-of-origin experiences may influence partners' respective thinking in their current relationship" (Dattilio, 2006, page 361).  Individuals bring varied histories based on gender, ethnicity, economic conditions, and family stresses from their families-of-origin, perhaps from several generations.  These experiences shape not only their behaviors but also their expectations, hopes, and fears for a relationship and a new family's future.

The therapist should be inquisitive about how what has happened in the past is affecting what currently occurs between the individual and another or between partners or among family members.  "First, couples reporting problems with intimacy should be assessed for perceived dysfunctional family rules in their families of origin.  Second, individuals who present a history of severe family dysfunction that includes dysfunctional rules as outlined here may be expected to experience intimacy problems in dating.  Therefore, therapists should assess perceived intimacy in current relationships and determine if an association can be made between dysfunctional family-of-origin rules and intimacy problems" (Larson, 2000, page 171).  One or both individuals may be anticipating familiar outcomes- sometimes with great trepidation.  Or, they may be interpreting otherwise benign interactions from some distorted family-of-origin perspectives.  "The dynamic tension between present and past then becomes part of the process of working towards a different future than the one that is feared.  The therapist moves between the couple's different interpersonal worlds and their respective families of origin (the 'outsides'), and the internalized, sometimes forgotten or non-conscious worlds of each partner (the 'insides')" (Jenkins, 2006, page 125).  

The complexity of interplay can confuse and antagonize the individuals unless various influences are identified and their contribution to the relationship's experience.  Jenkins (2006, page 121) offers a representation of the individual's process in a chart.  The first column notes, "Context defines meaning."  Context, which identifies the individual's multiple experiences, especially the family-of-origin not only defines meaning but is intricately related to causality.  Key contextual components: culture and society, and significant influential people- parents, teachers, and later peer groups in particular in defining meaning affect causality and the individual's understanding of causation.  The dynamic of interpersonal experiences occur with the same significant influential people, which manifest, perpetuate, and confirm meaning and assumptions of causality.
As the individual internalizes causality and meaning schema in family and other social contexts, the schema projects causality and meaning to any new interaction with familiar and new individuals in familiar or new contexts.  Intrapsychic mechanisms are evoked consciously or unconsciously with another person in a relationship in some context.  The person develops a habitual style of interacting with intimate individuals that often persists despite new options for alternate behaviors.  The therapist should get the individual to examine previous experiences in order to liberate him or herself from restrictive behaviors that are not functional in the current relationship.  The therapist helps individuals identify what they learned was effective from their families-of-origin.  This involves how they perceive and react to close people may unfortunately be very dysfunctional in the intimate adult partnership.  One or both partners in the intimate relationship may already know by having experienced that rules of interaction from childhood are not working for them.  Knowingly or unconsciously, an individual may be unable to experiment with different beliefs and behaviors for greater relationship success.

Since dysfunctional families tend to have implicit and secret rules, therapy may be the first time that their rules are overtly discussed.  Initially very anxiety provoking, discussing what was not and could not be discussed can free an individual from applying the rules to the current relationship.  Parents and other family members continually reinforce family rules until children are indoctrinated.  This indoctrination persists with a new person in a new relationship compelling or restricting assumptions and expectations, and subsequent actions or responses.  These assumptions and expectations harm individuals developing intimacy if unrecognized, unchallenged, and unmodified.  Therapy seeks to expose problematic and challenge beliefs and then promote individuals developing beliefs that can facilitate an intimate and satisfying relationship.  Psycho-education about the family-of-origin helps identify the dysfunctional rules and promote insight about how they affect the relationship.  Larson (2000) suggests a series of questions as a guide:  "Which of these family rules are helping or obstructing the development of intimacy in your relationship?  How do these rules govern your intimate behavior with your partner?  What changes do you now see you need to make? Which rules do you need to discard?  What new ones do you want to make?"  These therapy guidelines should encourage individuals, couples, and families to transcend their dysfunctional family-of-origin rules and improve their experiences with intimacy in their current relationship (Larson, 2000, page 172-73).

The therapist needs to be aware of the limitations of attempting to alter individuals' family-of-origin scripts or templates.  It is unlikely that major schemata can readily change or that they can change completely.  When adult individuals form a couple, they do so with the core of self firmly and almost irrevocably set.  Small but significant adjustments or alterations however can be impactful.  "Many of these family-of-origin schemata form the basic fabric of an individual's cognitive structures that organize his or her understanding of the world, and sometimes the best that can be done is to modify them slightly.  The modification, however, may be sufficient that the person's partner will be able to accept living with the remaining belief system that is less likely to change… An advantage of the therapist's efforts to restructure one partner's schemata in the presence of the other, and vice versa, is that each person is able to observe how difficult it is for the other person to consider and enact change in core schemata" (Dattalio, 2006, page 371)

Accepting the individual's essential being, including as defined and structured from the family-of-origin honors and validates him or her.  Practically speaking individuals forming couples pick one another for who he or she is and for what he or she can be.  Despite problems, usually neither person in the relationship completely rejects the other.  If either did, then separation or divorce would be the activity rather than continuing in the relationship, or seeking assistance in therapy.  If what the other person can be is insufficient for a positive intimacy, then the relationship or marriage will deteriorate, divorce, or persist in pain or disconnection.  Processes such as therapy attempt to discover and facilitate for the individual to be what the other needs him or her to be.  In all the examples interspersed through this paper, one or more significant differences in belief and behavior was presented as pivotal to the distress and dysfunction in the relationship.  Therapeutic facilitation of growth and change in the key issues were in the case presentations and potentially can with other individuals be sufficient to stabilize the relationship.  For this to happen, the individuals would have to be otherwise essentially in sync.  Some pairings are extraordinarily, intensely, irrevocably, and fatally out of sync.  Such pairings may never persist long enough to be an enduring relationship or a couple, or come apart well prior to any consideration of utilizing therapy.  On the other hand, the fact of a couple reasonably presumes significant and compelling compatibility.  Once compatible, the relationship may get out of sync because of evolution and/or stress.  Or, the individuals may have always been somewhat out of sync but the partners shared an illusion that love would conquer their difficulties.  For these or some other reason, the individuals who presents for therapy may be relatively connected.  A need or desire to be bit more communicative, a bit less angry, a little more nurturing… but essentially each respective partner is still the person that each was attracted to in the first place.  

The family-of-origin experiences can create both the initial, the current fit, and the evolved misfit between the two partners.  Therapy from a family-of-origin orientation should honor the match or attraction and work to alter the beliefs and behaviors that are intolerable or not viable for a satisfactory relationship.  Family-of-origin oriented therapy may also find that certain beliefs and behaviors and certain personalities are too entrenched for adjustment.  These are the hauntings that cannot be exorcised.  The negative neurotic assumptions can be identified.  The accrued negative experiences examined for toxic conclusions can be understood to make sense of one's life, the partner's life, and relationship.  Therapy can try to create positive interactional reparative experiences.  The relationship can try to accumulate positive experiences that secure attachment and replace dysfunctional emotional and relationship schemata and scripts.  Relationship reality has been checked.  Despite everything, therapy… the partner… both partners… and the relationship may be found wanting.  For individuals in such couples, with good family-of-origin oriented therapy at least they may learn why the relationship is unworkable or why he or she and/or the partner cannot adapt.  Or perhaps realize…

"I married my mother!"

"That's why I can't stand him!"

"No wonder she makes me crazy."

"I did that just like my father!"

"So, that's why I'm attracted to bad boys!"

"Next time, I know who to avoid…really!"

"Hey honey, did you put gas in the car?"  What was the tone of that comment?  What was the facial expression… the body language?  "I need to run out to the city after work to pick up the kids' equipment for the game."  Pauly looked expectantly at Salome.  Salome cringed reflexively, subconsciously becoming 6 years old again trying to anticipate her dad's mood.  Anxious, scared, resentful, and angered in quick instantaneous progression surged through her.  Pauly was making demands, expecting her to screw up, doubting her, making her feel a screw-up… again.  Salome felt the energy percolate rising to a boiling point.  But wait, all intentions and cues given in real time indicated Pauly was not dangerous.  But her first master… that is, her father had been erratically and unpredictably mean and humiliating many times over and over.  And, Pauly was not her master!  He was a boyfriend.  Salome had started to misinterpret Pauly's gentle cues as "Here we go again."  Instincts and intuition created uninvited guests and ghosts of shame and psychic devastation, and Salome was ready to go code red and launch the retaliatory defensive-offensive strike against Pauly.  

Unlike their ignorance of what caused the dog Hester's virtual paranoia however, Salome had learned how she carried her childhood survival instincts into her relationship with Pauly- into her entire adult life.  She shifted from "This must mean that Pauly is criticizing me," to "This might mean that Pauly is criticizing me."  Pauly caught the slight flicker of doubt in Salome's eyes.  Before he could ask her what was up, Salome's hesitation… "might mean," gave her enough time to do a quick reality check.  "Well, I did put gas in the car.  Maybe he's just double-checking.  And what of it?  It's not like I'm going to get massacred!  I can handle it… handle Pauly!  I'm not a little girl anymore."  Although, her sensitivity and vulnerability initially altered perception and interpretation of Pauly's relatively benign words, she was able to interrupt her own process to see the current situation more clearly.  "Yes, I put gas in this morning," she said with a smile.  "Thanks!" smiled Pauly in return.  Despite her anxious anticipation, curtailing her instinctive survival responses prevented the anxious prediction creating the replication of old painful experiences.  Simple.  Done.  No secret tests.  No implied messages.  No danger. No drama.  Or, a quick manageable little drama within Salome among her inner child, ghosts of her father, and her adult competent strong self.  Most critically, no nonsensical unnecessary toxic drama corrupting the relationship between Salome and Pauly.  

When one person or another can insert another reality-checking voice in the internal dialogue, it may preclude relationship harming reactive words and behavior in the relationship.  This person can be either Salome or Pauly in this couple- preferably both of them.  Or, if one can activate a calming persona to counter neurotic instincts, individuals are less likely to be carry the dysfunctional models and developmental survival instincts from problematic family-of-origin experiences.  Salome or Pauly may need to both develop such a persona for their relationship to work.  The family-of-origin forms the foundation for one's perceptions, values, expectations, and standards for intimacy and relationships.  A sound foundation offers structural health for development and growth.  And, a flawed foundation predicts continual instability unless it is addressed and repaired.  The intimate relationship where such problems will arise is at the same time, the very situation for remedying foundational issues.  This occurs in the reparative relationship.  As much as a person such as Salome needs to grow individually and take control of his or her words and behavior, he or she can only do so with another person or situation where there is enough tolerance, care, kindness, and investment.  Pauly may be such a person and be the essential counter-part in the situation for this to occur.  Throughout this book, therapy has been characterized as individual, couple, or family therapy.  Intimacy and relationships require the other person or persons.  Whether dealing with an individual, a couple, or a family, there is a requirement for individual health and growth.  However, it is in a dyad or larger system- usually, a couple or a family where the individual health and growth is both manifested and nurtured.  From the relationships in the family-of-origin to the new relationships, layers of individual processes create exponential possibilities.  Identifying and understanding how personal dynamics became personal remains a key to functionality.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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