In a famous 13th century prayer, a monk known as Francis of Assisi wrote, “Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love.” I aspire to such grace. This call to be “an instrument of peace” has echoed throughout generations. It has inspired bird baths in quaint courtyards, where we might find momentary solace before plunging through doors where partners and children wait, erupting with intermingled needs for affection and independence.
Learning How to React
In the beginning of our relationship, my wife and I were more volatile in our arguing. Early in our marriage, my wife would frequently ask, “Are you OK?” I’d become irritated at this. It’s funny to us now, but one night when I chose to lie down on “her” side of the bed, she said, “No, I’m not going to sleep on this side.” I wanted to make some kind of point about being flexible with the way we did things. But she liked how we each had our own side of the bed. She got really frustrated, but I refused to budge, thinking she’d give in. Instead she slept on the floor.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Who you are speaks so loudly, I can’t hear a word you’re saying.” Unfortunately, who we are together in moments of difference and duress is often more a caricature of reflex and mood than of our strengths and common interests. In any corner of our lives, when we react to underlying insecurity, panic, anger, or despair by attacking or retreating, a primal “fight or flight” instinct trumps our capacity for empathy and negotiation. Our impulses have the power to paralyze character and relationship.
How do we act in spite of such anxiety rather than at its whim? To the extent that we fail to go toe-to-toe with our own reflex and mood, our reflex and mood may go toe-to-toe with the ones we love. We find ourselves acting in ways that sabotage our own efforts to get more of what we want, whether it be understanding, connection, or behavioral change.
My wife and I argued a lot in our first years of marriage. One night, she sensed an odd vibe from me. I didn’t like her asking about it. The situation grew from there until we were both angry. She went up to our bedroom and shut the door. After a little while, I went up, wrote a note about how much I loved her, and slid it under the door. Before too long, the tension lifted.
We don’t argue all that often now. That volatility is not there anymore. We’ve learned to read and respond to each other better. We have also learned to be not only more vulnerable but also more constructive in how we navigate the complex and the difficult.
The Family as an Emotional System
Quick surges from anxiety to embattlement lead us nowhere good. As parents, partners, or coworkers, we can easily become stuck in dynamics revolving around momentary self-interest. Zig Ziglar said it best: “Be careful not to compromise what you want most for what you want now.” Especially in our families, we must address that pink elephant in our homes, the differences in perception, and the distance that acts as a wedge between us. Whether that distance stems from pride or fear, in the space between we find ourselves stumbling in a dance. This dance is not so much with the one we love as with a personification of our own anxieties and desires.
Families are emotional systems made up of powerful forces that can heavily influence the behavior of the members. When the behavior of a family member threatens the balance, counterbalancing emotions and behaviors of other members help preserve the familiar flow. Everyone in a family participates in the emotional system.
The truth is, quick surges from anxiety to embattlement lead us nowhere good. This is the case whatever role we find ourselves in—partners, parents, or coworkers, among others.
One family member may become relationally distant for a time. But if another becomes depressed, this might result in the distant member’s return to a deeper level of emotional engagement. There are countless examples of such dynamics. The behavior of each family member flows out of the emotional climate of the family system. This is not unlike the operation of a thermostat, which kicks on regulatory cooling when temperatures run high and regulatory heating when temperatures run low. In a similar but far more complex fashion, families have many different types of thermostatic feelers. Emotional feedback loops shape families.
Over the years, my wife and I have come to understand more deeply the intimate personal qualities and beliefs we hold about ourselves, as spouses and as parents. Some of these are helpful, while others may be harmful or not correct. We have learned that when we’re willing to adapt with one another, and in community with those we love, we not only have an increased opportunity for peace, but also to nurture one another’s strengths and interests. To grow, people must first experience freedom within the pushes and pulls of powerful self-perpetuating forces in which problems—and families—maintain themselves.
When we demand, criticize, belittle, or detach, we find ourselves going round and round in a dreadful dance. Where there is hatred, injury, doubt, despair, darkness, or sadness, may we learn instead to steady our anxiety, lean into our faith, and share our burdens with those we love. We will also, in time, develop the ability to better know when and how to lay off of or lean into one other.
May we be, through all difficult times and against all impulse to the contrary, an instrument of peace in our families. If you are in the midst of hardship or heartache, you are not alone. And there is help. Begin your search for a compassionate, qualified counselor here.
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