A Family Systems Approach to COVID-19 and Every Other Drama

How have you been handling the prolonged stress of the pandemic? Has your fuse gotten shorter? It appears the whole world needs therapy. How do we survive the madness we’ve been seeing? We have taken up sides on whether to mask or not, to buck “The Man” and become libertarian super-spreaders, or to hunker down and Lysol everything. What is going on? Whatever it is, we’re becoming afraid and frayed as a society. Anxiety is rampant. World civilization is at stake at the same time as the relationships in our own homes. We need help!

Family Systems Theory may offer a helpful strategy. It gives us a macro view of our society in the midst of COVID-19, but it also goes to the micro view as family stress is in everybody’s home. We need to recognize that what we’re seeing is a personal, communal, national and international systemic crisis. Systemic crises are like sepsis in the body that causes total organ failure, one after another. It’s the domino theory made very real. Seeing and treating COVID as a systems problem may actually help us survive, and find an emotional vaccine, if not an actual biological one.

Think of it like pulling in a medical team that looks at all of a person’s ailments instead of just the presenting problem. To help the person, you need to look at multiple body parts and interconnections. Edwin Friedman is the author of the two most-used books by therapists and clergy in situations like this. These two books are helpful to anyone. The first is his seminal work, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue. The second book is one that anyone in a family, church, local community, or nation needs: A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.

Most of us are individual-centered in our diagnosis of issues both in our personal family and nation. It’s like the couple that comes to see me so that their teenage son can get help. In family systems theory what happens to one member of the family happens to every member of the family. The teenage son is the identified presenting patient, but the whole family system is really in crisis. It’s like a baby’s mobile that is attached to the top rail of a crib. If you weigh one piece of the revolving objects down, it throws all the others off balance. Everything and everyone are interconnected.

The same is true in a community, church, country and world. As much as we would like to fix a particular identified patient or group, that only masks what’s wrong with the whole system. You can switch out individuals like Trump, Pelosi, Schumer, Barr, or whomever and things might seem to get some immediate relief, but it doesn’t take long before things revert to the same patterns. It’s called homeostasis or the “same state.” We try to change things, but the more that we try, inertia makes it all spring back into the same place. The names may change, but there’s still anxiety in the system. It shifts around, but that’s about it. We can blame it all on one thing like the “Deep-state” bureaucrats in the swamp, but the reality is that the whole system is a swamp, you and me included. As the saying goes, “We have met the enemy, and they are us!” We need a cure that really works, rather than one that just shifts the blame.

So, what should we do? This is where Murray Bowen of Bowenian Theory leads the way in an overarching manner, though, frankly, practitioners like Edwin Friedman and Monica McGoldrick make family systems theory more accessible to the masses. Whether one is talking about a family, country or world, the same principles are at work. The world needs to be in family therapy right now. We need to understand that it’s going to take a group effort to analyze our condition, and work our way out of it through some serious conversations. We don’t need to focus on individuals or even be sidetracked by constant fact-checking. Most conflicts are about emotional processes, not the facts. It’s often not what we say (facts), but how we say them (emotional process).

Joe and Sue get married and bring all sorts of expectations into the marriage from their families of origin. They are more in heat when they get married than in love. Along comes Baby, and their “perfect” world changes. They fall back on instincts, primordial cross-generationally transmitted patterns of values and ways of being. Tensions rise and guess where the tension goes – to Baby. Whenever we find ourselves stressed we tend to avoid risking our relationships with our key partners, so we pull in a third party or issue to be the dumping ground for the stress in the whole system.

We create a triangle to relieve the pressure. This triangulation has been on full display during the pandemic. We’re mad as hell at one another, but to salvage our relationship we put the onus on China, W.H.O., the CDC, Andrew Fauci, the President, the Congress, the Deep State, those pesky Russians, whomever, and somebody. Triangles are normal. As a matter of fact, triangles are the most stable form of construction on the planet. The pyramids are examples, but triangulation in a family, city, or country just picks a relief valve in one corner who then gets sick on behalf of the whole system. The problem is that it keeps us from figuring out what’s really eating us.

What we need is self-definition, or as Bowen, Friedman, and McGoldrick call it – self-differentiation. We need to step away from the triangles, defect-in-place while remaining in relationship, and exhibit non-anxious presence. We continue in relationship with the other parties in our many inter-locking triangles, but we refuse to play the stupid self-defeating blame games anymore. We need to metaphorically super glue our feet to the floor, and keep our mouths shut except only to make “I-Am” statements that define who we are. Differentiation and self-definition don’t mean we’re going to take our ball and go home through an emotional cut-off or fake distancing that really doesn’t help. You can move halfway around the world and still be caught in a triangle. Rather than cutting others off or emotional distancing, we promise to stay in relationship and work through what the real culprit is in our personal, national, or international crisis. It’s called leadership, responsibility, and engagement. It’s hard work!

What we’re after is like a crime drama, a psychological who-done-it where we ponder together where the anxiety in the family system is coming from. Once we can name the real reason for the drama, we can actually demythologize it and do something productive about it. We move from subjective emotional processes to objective reasoning. We need to keep asking the same question, “What’s really going on here?” Rather than blaming, shaming, or going for the obvious easy answer, we should avoid quick fixes and look at EVERYTHING, as if we were all observant Persian cats, taking it all in and figuring out, “Ah, this is where this is coming from.”

No doubt the answer ultimately comes from John 10:10, “The thief comes to steal, kill and destroy,” but Jesus says, “I came that they might have life to the full.” Amen, but to hear Jesus above the din of all the drama, we need to calm down and ponder. Ask the right questions. Don’t jump to conclusions. Take a step outside of yourself and take a big view of things. What is causing this, not WHO is causing this? Remember, what happens to one member of the family, happens to all. Let’s work on this together, by the grace of God!