In his book of fables, the Rabbi and systems guru Edwin Friedman shares case notes on a family of four who sought therapeutic intervention. A mother; father; and two sons– close in age and antagonistic, they were focused on the symptiomatic, older brother: brooding, sullen, resentful, jealous of his younger brother’s easy-going nature and successfulness.
The Parents showed no overt favoritism and claimed real helplessness when it came to their older son’s mood or the boys’ quarreling. The older brother was unaware of how his negative attitudes worked against him, like self-fufilling prophecy. The younger brother, oblivious to his advantage, did nothing to disguise his success.
What in the parents or their lives contributed to the very symptoms they sought help for?
They reported their relationship began like a fairy tale– blissful, naive, mostly unaware of what was happening around them. They appeared cut off from their own origins: neither talked about any family other than their two sons. Had to surmise they had idyllic upbringings– everything handed to them on silver platters; raised without having to face significant struggles or challenges.
They both reported something happened early on in their marriage that change everything. “It’s never been the same since.” Afterward the father complained all the time about how hard his life is. And the mother reacted defensively, “birthing those boys for you, and raising them, that’s been no picnic in the park either.”
Their inability to bear pain or emotional discomfort surfaced when they encountered significant change. The wife recounted an instance early on, though she’s foggy on the details, when the husband decided to try something new. His plans didn’t work out. He blamed her for making him aware of the opportunity in the first place. Instead of simply putting responsibility back where it belonged… in his lap, “you made your own choice,” she would get defensive. She blamed some shady character, who she referred to only as “someone else who tricked me.”
Neither adult was willing to be accountable for his or her destiny. Both talked about how different life would be were it not for the other. The man blamed the woman; the woman blamed the environment. And guilt was flying everywhere. Their abdication of control of their own lives reached all the way to their present reality, their daily lives, and moment to moment existence. Neither took responsibility for his or her own desires, needs, love or hates. “She lords over me” or “He is the cause of my suffering.” Each granted the other almost unlimited power to guilt.
All this unhappiness, it is was if it was pouring right into their older son. But more troubling, the older son had “inherited,” maybe even perfected, their inabilities at taking responsibility for one’s own life. Instead of any accountability for his own situation, he placed all the blame on his younger sibling.
This was a family system totally lacking strength, namely individuals who can stand on their own. None of its members could define him or herself separately. so that they could relate in healthy ways. Not even the easy-going, successful younger son could articulate self-conscious boundaries or give his older brother “his own responsibility back.” Without some better way of relating, further harm, perhaps even violence, was destined to occur.
The treatment goal was to teach family members they were not “each others keepers.” Instead they needed to take responsibility for their own lives, learn to be his or her own person. Only if they could achieve some success with this, would they be able to connect constructively with one another. Otherwise, the family would inevitably continue to be a round-robin and pit of guilt and blame, instead of solid ground for healthy, responsible, adult lives.
They needed to be able to say, even in the face of someone else’s blaming or guilting them:
“This is how I am. You are different. The best I can do– for myself and for you– in fact, all I can do!!!! …is work on myself. I’m not responsible for how you think, feel or live. I have enough on my hands to deal with myself.”
Friedman was writing about Adam & Eve, Cain & Abel. Sunday in worship, we’ll look at Jacob & Esau, Rebekah & Isaac.
See you in church,
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