“The togetherness forces are derived from the universal need for “love,” approval, emotional closeness, and agreement. The individuality force is derived from the drive to be a productive, autonomous individual, as defined by self rather than the dictates of the group.”
“Optimum functioning would be somewhere near a fifty-fifty balance, with neither force overriding the other and the system sufficiently flexible to adapt to change.” (277)
Last year I became a bubbe (a Yiddish name for grandma pronounced BUH-buh, like bubbeleh) for the first time.* My contemporaries kvell (gush) over their grandkids but I hadn’t appreciated how gobsmacked I would feel when my own bubbeleh came along. Lucky for me, baby Stevie lives nearby, and I get to spend a lot of time doing my own kvelling.
Since her arrival, my daydreams are filled with thoughts of Stevie. Before a visit, I plan her next meals and activities. After she goes home, I review the new photos and marvel over how fast she’s growing. And, naturally, I shop for baby. While my husband strategizes ways to provide a healthy and enriching environment, I plot ways to spoil her. (Just kidding, Mamma.) Naturally, Stevie is the number one topic of conversation at home.
Despite my baby fixation, I manage to keep Bowen theory in mind while navigating evolving family triangles and relationships.
One of Murray Bowen’s most significant contributions was his recognition of the universal opposing life forces of togetherness and individuality. Birth and early infancy may be the time these forces operate more closely to the hypothetical optimum 50-50 balance than at any other point along the lifespan. (Epigenetics and the multigenerational history of the family may predispose the infant one way or the other, which is a growing area of research.)
I enjoy observing Stevie’s alternating pulls for individuality or togetherness as they interact with mine. For example, sleep training involves letting her cry for a time without picking her up. She yells for togetherness while I’m hoping for 30 minutes to myself during a long afternoon of babysitting. Sometimes, I want to snuggle but get rebuffed when the curious baby tests her autonomy, wriggling out of my arms and crawling after some interesting object. (I try not to take it personally.) Stevie’s strong biological impulse to explore her environment cannot always be indulged. She can’t be allowed to get close to anything dangerous, which is just about everything for an energetic nine-month-old!
Individuality, hers, and mine take a back seat where safety is concerned.
Bowen wrote, “I believe that the level of differentiation of a person is largely determined by the time he leaves the parental family and he attempts a life of his own.” (371)
The way a family negotiates the individuality/togetherness balance contributes to the level of differentiation of self, or emotional maturity, achieved by each member once they become adults. The level of emotional maturity Stevie will attain by the time she is ready to leave home is already being formed through innumerable reciprocal exchanges with family and significant others. The relationship triangle she’s in with her mother and father is the most influential. The better parents are at accurately assessing and responding to their child’s developmental requirements, while also honoring their own needs for togetherness and individuality, the closer they will come to achieving the ideal 50-50 balance.
What gets in the way of a 50-50 balance? As Bowen said, “The balance is sensitive to anxiety,” (277) with the system moving to a higher proportion of togetherness as chronic or situational anxiety increases. As that occurs, the ability for autonomous thought and action decreases, with more pressure to conform and give in to the status quo. The more anxious the family and the higher the togetherness pressures, the more the child grows up looking to others for caretaking, attention, and approval. They become overly sensitive when others get upset, reacting with automatic soothing, rebellious, or avoiding behavior. These habits repeat in future relationships, thereby recreating the same anxious environment of the original family. In this way, the higher balance of togetherness relative to individuality will perpetuate across generations.
Every living thing, from the most primitive single-celled organism to the complex human, needs to “know” what is the self from what is not the self. Survival depends on the ability to relate to the group while protecting personal boundaries. Under certain circumstances, evolution will demand the forfeit of the individual organism to the needs of the group. In other situations, the individual may preserve itself at the expense of the larger unit.
New parents know all about sacrificing individuality for the sake of the family. My son and daughter-in- law have their hands full navigating individuality and togetherness in their new family. There’s so much for them to juggle – work, baby, health, time together and time apart. I suppose it’s the togetherness force that makes this bubbe feel such nachas, or pride, in their accomplishments!
Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray. Family Therapy in Clinical Practice. Jason Aronson, Inc. Kindle Edition.
(*But hopefully not the last!)