by: Logan Cohen, LMFT-S
Your marriage is impacting your family for better, or for worse. In fact, a family can only be as strong as the marriage and partnership between the adult caretakers at the center of it. This is not a popular idea with most clients when they initially enter my office for couples counseling. It is quite common for me to hear parents expressing their love and devotion to their beautiful children, while in the same breath expressing dismissive, judgmental, and even contemptuous attitudes toward their significant other. Meanwhile these same parents will often express the belief that as long as they continue loving their children, then everyone and everything will be just fine. This could be no further from the truth.
Before I delve too deeply into an explanation of how a marriage can make or break a family, I want set some conceptual “groundwork”. A family is an organic system of relationships. All organic systems are also unique, given that anything purely organic cannot be “cloned”, or essentially recreated as an exact replica (natural, at least). Given that each entity in an organic system is unique, this creates quite a palette in the natural world for the diversity of organic systems to exist in general. Think about this for a second…have you ever met two people who were exactly alike and more-so, two families that were exactly alike? It just doesn’t happen in the natural world….
So we have all of these really diverse organic systems that exist and a family is just one example of this. While organic systems are incredibly diverse by definition, there are some similar phenomena, or “absolute truths”, when it comes to how systems (families included) operate as well.
1. The Emotional Climate of the Marriage Sets the Tone.
One of these phenomena is called “parallel process”. I will use the analogy of an atom here, which is perhaps the smallest and most simple example available. An atom carries all of it’s weight in it’s core or "nucleus", just like a family does in the marriage. In addition to the responsibility of carrying the weight of the family the nucleus/marriage also has the essential job of maintaining a positive charge. It is this positive charge that the electrons rely upon to stay in orbit in the “electron clouds” around the atom/family. If this balance is thrown off to the point of no return, then the integrity of the atom goes through what is called a “chemical change”, rendering it something different entirely! While I am a scientist after-all and can certainly “nerd out” out on Physics with you, that is not my goal here. However it IS my objective to help you see how even in the most BASIC of systems, these absolute truths are every bit as valid as the sun rising in the morning.
2. Self Awareness
Human Beings have an incredible ability for self awareness. With this self awareness, our species has been capable of even more amazing feats that push the boundaries of what seems possible from modern technological advancement to Buddhist Monks meditating through being set on fire in protest of War. I don’t think there is a limit to what us Humans are capable of and the skill of self-awareness is an essential part of this recipe. Another common and ESSENTIAL example of how us Humans use self-awareness is in “self regulation”. Self regulation is the process of recognizing the amplitude in one’s own emotional state, which MUST happen before an individual can implement a coping skill to regulate the initial emotional reaction to a level that is not so overwhelming.
Self regulation is so important because us Humans do NOT do well with being emotionally overwhelmed, which has been shown through research to create a barrier to rational thought, effective problem solving, decision making etc. While Humans are perhaps one of the more neurologically evolved of the primates, we are not the only primate species that relies on social bonds to self regulate optimally. Research and field observations by anthropologists and zoologists have long identified that other primates such as Chimpanzees and Orangutans utilize this more evolved/dynamic mode of self-regulation. The primates mentioned above actively seek out troupe (monkey family) members who are anxious or depressed, and will psychically groom them from head to toe for insects and parasites. Researchers thought nothing of it until we realized that the more emotionally overwhelmed a family member, the more time other Troupe members spent in this grooming ritual with them. Researchers also discovered that whether or not the groomers were actively finding parasites on their upset family member, they continued grooming until the receiving family member reached a certain level of self-regulation, which in turn sends a signal to the grooming monkey that their support has been effective so is no longer needed.
In times of more significant emotional distress and overwhelm for Humans, we seek out affection and support from our immediate Family members and when this is adequately present we can self-regulate with optimal efficiency, dust ourselves off, then go back out into the environment that beat us up to try again. Being able to rely on our family and community members to be there when we fall is not dependent nor weak. This is merely an acceptance of the inherent social nature of Humans and how we can actually be as effective as possible.
If you are going to be good enough at this Parenting thing, not Parent of the Year or President of the PTA but still getting it done while not harming your kids, you HAVE to utilize self-regulation. Let’s face it, we are glad our kids are so cute because if they weren’t, well I’m a mandated reporter so…lol…But in all seriousness the self-regulation is perhaps the most essential skill to good enough parenting. Those little buggers can be little balls of chaos that are at times just plain talented at grinding our gears, and any amount of that irritation that we allow to be taken out on our kids, even under the name of “discipline”, is a disservice to their optimal psychological and emotional development. The more we can practice Balanced Parenting (Tips & Tricks On Parenting Difficult Children), the less our kids will resent them for what can essentially amount to Bullying, or otherwise abusing our Power as Parents to influence the behavior of our Children at a level that is not developmentally appropriate. This in turn can be a factor that blocks them from growing into the confident and vibrant Humans they were destined to be, so their resentment in this context could be justified of course depending on your unique position here.
Just because we know redirected anger has no place in the relationship between us Parents and our Children, this is MUCH easier said than done! What good enough Parent wouldn’t want a supportive Co-Parent for that journey?? The more we can rely on our Partners (or “Co-Parents in Crime”, depending again on how playful you would like to be 😊) to be a soft place for us to land and collect ourselves when we feel hurt and insecure or scared of a potential threat to self/loved ones, the faster we can get up, brush off that dust, and get back after it both inside and outside of the home.
As Children grow up, they watch their Parents much more closely than we realize or could even comprehend. We are the center of their Universe (whether they are consciously convinced yet or not) and this is part of the reason Parents advise their Children to “do as I say, not as I do.” We know how powerful this watching/learning phenomena is for our Children and we want to minimize untenable lessons through faulty Modeling, a term used by Sociologists to describe the most powerful force of socialization, whereby younger Family members learn how to think/feel/behave through observation of their older and more experienced community members. Through the first and most impressionable stages of their lives, our Kids learn what love, romance, and essentially kinship affection looks like from observing us with our Partners in our current relationships.
Now that you can see how fundamentally important connection, love, and displays of kinship affection are to the health of both a Human Family and a Primate Troupe, what kind of dynamic do you want your Children to recreate with their future Partner(s) and Family Members? No matter what you have told them and what they encounter outside of the home, their experiences and observations of your relationship with your Partner will be the foundation for how they relate to others. This is the basis of how the process of transmission of intergenerational family legacy plays out over time from one generation to the next.
6. Family Cohesion ("Loyalty")
Finally the mention of “loyalty” is noteworthy here. At the beginning of this article, I referred to the couple who tried to convince themselves that their love of their children would somehow rescue the Family when their Marriage had grown cold a long time ago. These same Co-Parents believed that their coldness towards each other had gone either largely un-noticed, or could somehow be mitigated by their “allegiance” to their Children. While this is a valiant idea and I applaud the intentions of those Co-Parents, there is no honor amongst thieves, as they say. Whether we like it or not, we are still one of the most important people in the Universe to our Children and given this fact, they cloak themselves with part of our identity. Our Children literally identify with a piece of who we are (or who they think we are) so strongly out of their own allegiance to US, that when we treat our Co-Parent poorly, we treat a part of our Children poorly. In this dynamic we are essentially asking our Child to denounce a sacred part of their identity, which they cannot do unless they are disloyal to themselves and their other parent. Are you still thinking that the initial strategy still builds a sense of loyalty?
The author of this article is Logan Cohen. He is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and the founder of New Leaf Counseling Group, as well as a Clinical Supervisor for both the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy and the North Carolina Board of Licensed Professional Counselors. The practice was founded on the belief that relationships are a beautiful and effective vehicle for growth and transformation, whether the therapeutic work is being done with the relationship(s) directly or just with one individual in the relationship. You can click here for a current list of professional therapists who all share this same respect for utilizing loving human connection as a vehicle for growth. Consider giving back to yourself by contacting one of us for a free initial consultation and remember, we have room for you to GROW.
Are you looking for a Couples Therapist near you to provide support through Marriage/Relationship Difficulties in Charlotte, North Carolina? You can book an appointment with us TODAY.