Finding your place on the family tree

By Margaret M. Treadwell

Ninety-eight percent of the people who call my psychotherapy practice are seeking help with a relationship. Whether my clients are dealing with the bliss-laced jitters of pre-marital counseling, bad patches in their love affairs and marriages, or challenges in raising children and seeking new ways to relate to parents, I believe my most useful purpose is to help them find a better way of functioning within their family of origin and extended family, where we first learn how to negotiate all our relationships.

One person who benefited from bridging his family’s “intra-continental drift” over several years of coaching told this story:

“It all began after World War II separations when my family reconvened with Bronxville, N.Y. as the center, then exploded like a star to remote parts of the country from Buffalo to Minnesota and California. I’m an only son, and my motivation to reconnect with cousins came after the death of my mother and from observing my wife’s delight in her family reunions. I developed a yearning to have closer blood relations rather than rely on her family or my friends. Mother’s two sisters had large families so my cousins really didn’t need me, and I felt isolated.

“I began in 2007 to send out feelers, and made my first big mistake when I wrote that I wanted to plan a family reunion before another sister dies. A male cousin I seldom hear from hit ‘reply all’ to my message, chastising me for not being attentive enough to his mother who was dying of Alzheimer’s disease. It took some time to overcome this clash between us two firstborns. There were other reasons the reunion didn’t come together, as cousins cited rites of passage – weddings, births and a multitude of transitions. At least their reunion regrets kept me newly in touch, and I became aware of how important my staying the course was for our children and grandchildren to know my family.

“I began to realize that rather than herd all these cats, I’d have to start speaking to each cousin individually. I was surprised to find that one-on-one, each expressed an interest in expanding their circles to include more extended family. My efforts were a lot like fishing. I had to pay out a lot of line before I could reel in the fish. I’d wait but hold tight to the rod while I imagined how tempting it would be for each cousin to fall back to his or her own siblings. I learned how to take their “No, not now, ” less personally and never to ask defensively, “Why?” A leader’s motivation has to be sufficient to overcome resistance.

“The breakthrough came when I found out that I could book several days last August at The Bishop’s Ranch in the Episcopal Diocese of California ( near several cousins who live in the San Francisco area. Like a catered event where guests walk into a beautiful room, I began to paint an emotional picture of what it would be like to have a family vacation (not calling it a two-day reunion) at a convenient site. I wrote to them about the swimming and hiking through miles of gorgeous property, including vineyards. I knew I’d caught the biggest fish when my Buffalo cousin, whose travel would be the toughest, became excited about my plan. Her spark carried her sisters along for a full catch. Adept followers are crucial to good leadership!

“As the date drew near, I had a tendency to over-organize. I ordered logo T-shirts, found games to play, asked cousins to bring family pictures and written histories if available. But in the end I learned that none of this mattered as much as our time laughing and talking together – first in small groups and later all gathered around a table where we drew our family tree and filled in information for the roots and branches together.

“The result: Each person brought pieces of the puzzle of who we are and where we stand in the family as we unraveled the mystery of lives in previous generations. Our experience spread motivation for another reunion in two years, so everyone will participate and I no longer have to be head cheerleader. I feel myself more included and have become an integrated part of my extended family.”

“The ability to be more of a self brings people into better emotional contact with the most durable and reliable support system they will ever have. … Improving emotional contact with the extended family has the potential to significantly reduce serious physical, emotional, and social symptoms in oneself and/or one’s nuclear family (and)…appears to reduce an individual’s level of chronic anxiety.” From Family Evaluation by Michael E. Kerr and Murray Bowen.

Margaret M. (“Peggy”) Treadwell, LCSW -C, has been active in the fields of education and counseling for thirty-five years. Following a long association with Dr. Edwin H. Friedman, during which she served on his faculty, she co-edited and helped posthumously publish his book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.

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