Don Paglia | Marriage and Family Counseling. Constellations Workshops


Tip # 69:

“Angling may be said to be so like the mathematics that it can never be fully learnt.”

 Izaak Walton -The Complete Angler 

Some things seem to come about with age, along with the vast experiences one obtains from living long enough. Age on its own doesn’t bring about automatic growth. But, with age and with the accompanying experiences from life we are provided opportunities to learn to at least avoid repeating various mishaps and mistakes, and even to start considering better options. We can take some of this learning to build upon and improve our future. You get the idea.

It’s in no way a spontaneous thing. It takes time, persistence, and some reflection, to take on doing things that seem counter to this age of the quick-fix mentality. Some people refuse to learn from their experiences. They almost seem intent on repeating old ineffective behaviors while wondering why they are not having better results. It has long been pointed out that such logic is the very definition of insanity: doing the same things over and over and expecting different results.

A hallmark characteristic of any gridlocked system – a stuck system – is the unending treadmill approach of trying harder. Parents trying harder to change their child; managers trying harder to change their employees; teachers trying harder to change their students; clergy trying harder to change their congregations, and so on. Parents will lament, “If I told my son/daughter once I’ve him/her a hundred times…” The question needs to be, “Therefore what makes you think that on the 101st time the child will get it?” This is not a learning problem; it is a teaching problem.  

Some people in an effort to avoid making mistakes won’t ever venture out to have any new or different experiences. They stay in the same old place they were before and keep doing the same things over and over, even though they know that this is not working; even though they are unhappy.

There are also the people that keep bringing their past along with them into their supposed future and end up doing nothing more than a repeat – a recapitulation – of their past while calling it the future, all the while thinking they are living into some new future but it is just the same old same old. This, of course, is doomed to keep them in a survival mode that is either an unhappy and/or hum-drum existence.

Such ways are a much safer way to live – even if it isn’t really living. It is more of an existence. People, of course, see this as safer because it does not require risking anything new or different – unfamiliar. There is the famous quote of an unknown source that reads: “The safest place for ships is in the harbor, but that’s not why ships were built.”

We are living in a time where safety has become more important than adventure. However, it has always been in the spirit of adventure where real innovation and discovery reside. While I am not in favor of rash or foolhardy actions, nor do I subscribe to doing risky things that will likely cause serious injury or even death, I do think we have now taken this to such an extreme that we are losing out on huge potential for wisdom and growth. We’ve become a nation that does not know the difference between danger and risk assessment. In our society EVERYTHING is dangerous. PERIOD.

Like it or not, if we are to advance as individuals and as a society, we need to be willing to fail – to make mistakes – to fall short or fall on one’s face – if we are to ever grow. An enlightened and liberated way of living is to see that there is no such thing as actual mistakes. Instead, what we typically call mistakes are one part of a learning curve. I tend to call them learning experiences rather than mistakes. The key is to be able to take something of value from each and every experience no matter how it works out, especially with the ones that don’t turn out so well. Then we are more likely to keep from making those same mistakes again. When we ponder that which did not go well we gain insight. This does require a good deal of resiliency, thus allowing for the learner to stay the course and keep on keepin’ on.

Thomas Edison invented the light bulb by trying different filaments that did not work until he found one that did. Persistence paid off because he had the attitude that he was getting closer to finding the right filament as each of over three thousand designs wasn’t it. 

Learning requires a bit of both science and art. That’s because this business of growing from experience requires some of both science and art, meaning we must use our brain and our heart. Right now we are having some sort of cultural war about science verses politics – a one way vs. the other way. One rather than the other. This is not helpful. A better approach is a Both-And perspective towards the sciences and arts. Ultimately such a both/and makes for a huge difference and positive outcome. Many great scientists are/were also artists and poets; as well as many artists utilize good science in their creative processes.

Albert Einstein once said “a person that never made a mistake has never tried something new.” He also told us that “imagination is more important than information.” I imagine him shuttering in disbelief at our current locked down battle of a pro vs. con stance regarding science during this raging pandemic.

We, as a society, have been in a rut for some time – long before this pandemic. We have been building to this moment. The pandemic, along with the current recession and rampant unemployment, and the blatant racial injustice toward blacks and others have pushed us, hopefully, to go beyond our gridlock.

As I have stated before I hope it is a tipping point where we might otherwise have remained stuck had not these elements pushed us beyond the chronic anxiousness of our very lives. We not only have been stuck on an unending treadmill of trying harder and harder, but also we keep looking for answers rather than reframing our questions in new and more helpful ways. And we’ve also been caught up in either/or thinking that merely creates false dichotomies. I’ve mentioned these characteristics of stuck systems in previous blogs, but they are worth restating again. 

Murray Bowen, the founder of Family Systems Thinking, would call these times we find ourselves in a Societal Regression. We’re caught up in a social science construction of reality that focuses falsely on classifications such as the psychological diagnosis of individuals or their “personality profiles” and sociological or anthropological niches, rather than on what would best be described as the emotional processes that transcend those categories. It is worth noting that all forms of “colonized protoplasm” have in common patterns that are endemic to all organisms – irrespective of any differences.

As a result of this Societal Regression we have framed our various struggles around the Self verses Our Togetherness dichotomy. And we remain locked into an either-or methodology. Those who claim their freedom is being denied by having to wear a mask and/or to socially distance are using such a dichotomy, you could say “me vs you.” We need to have a “me and you” approach.

We will not find our way out of our gridlock simply by developing some new methods for “tinkering with the mechanics,” or by redoubling our efforts to try harder.

No, the way out is by shifting our orientation regarding how we think about relationships from one that focuses only on techniques meant to motivate others, to an approach that, instead, focuses on the leader’s own presence and his or her being. Leadership is not the same as management. Leadership is another name for being a self-differentiated person – it applies to parents, pastors and presidents, and all in between. This is such a huge shift. The need of well-differentiated leadership is not about getting an autocratic or a bully to run things. It is about having leaders that can think systemically and can take a stand. They are people who can operate within an anxious system. This goes counter to our ordinary way of thinking, as well as our anxious desire for a quick-fix solution.

As a marital counselor couples come to me wanting to learn how they can get closer. I often tell them they are already too close, and that their closeness is not a good togetherness; it is, instead, a stuck-togetherness. Their stuck-togetherness is one where each gives the other power over how each feels about him/her self. If the couple is able to re-orientate to what is required for them to emotionally separate, then they will discover how to remain together physically.

This idea that they are actually too close emotionally speaking initially sounds crazy. It is a paradox. Even when the couple first takes in what I am saying and initially agrees, they usually have also ready-made “yes, buts…” I must continue to restate this paradox over again and in different ways until it becomes their new way of thinking.

I have also discovered there are many ways to do marital counseling. Ideally both parties come in to do the work each needs to do – in tandem with each other – and to learn how to stay out of the other’s way while still being supportive. Sometimes when only one is willing to come, I agree to work with this one who seems to appear as the more motivated partner. It then becomes a matter of assisting the motivated partner to become more self-differentiated, less reactive to their partner, and able to manage him/her self within an anxious system. This usually requires an objective looking into the dynamics of one’s family of origin.

The task of every marriage partner is to “leave one’s mother and father while also remaining connected.” Couples are confronted by two opposing loyalties – a loyalty to parents and a loyalty to their spouse. Leaving home requires a capacity to be disloyal to one’s family of origin in order to become a loyal spouse committed to building a successful marriage.

Leaving home is an emotional process and has little to do with geography. One can move down the street and be emotionally separated from one’s family of origin, whereas one can move to the opposite coast and still be enmeshed in one’s family of origin. An enmeshed partner means he/she is not available for the marital relationship. 

Individuals who cut-off in an effort to leave home fail at doing any better. Cut-offs and enmeshments are one and the same. Those that cut-off from their families generally do not heal until they have been reconnected. Leaving home is the major developmental task every person must successfully do in order to become a mature adult, one capable of entering into successful, committed adult relationships.

Needless to say, taking this approach of having each partner work on his/her own self-differentiation within marriage requires working on one’s self. This is about resolving how one originally learned to relate to one’s family of origin. Too often clients come into counseling for a quick-fix solution. They want some skills or techniques that will solve their current upset. “Give me the how to.” However, skills or techniques alone will never do the job. This is because substantive change has to do with how one is being in their relationship rather than what one is doing. It has everything to do with one’s presence. Learning how to not be reactive to one’s partner’s reactivity requires discovering how we got to be this reactive way in the first place.

By becoming a well-differentiated leader is not about telling others what to do or coercively orders them around. It is not a matter of willing others to change. Rather, it has to do with the leader (be it a marriage partner, a parent, a pastor, or a government leader) being able to define him or herself clearly, being able to take a stand, being clear and well defined.

It is also about being less likely lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about, and able to maintain a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence. People that can take stands risk not pleasing others. No one does this easily, and most of us have to learn to improve our capacity for such an approach.

When I am coaching one marriage partner – or both – to be this way they inevitably get sabotaged by the other partner and/or by family members, as well. Systems thinking tells us that when one person goes about making changes the rest of the system will be challenged, and therefore initially more anxious, and resistant. When the one initiating new ways of being is able to stay the course they discover an eventual shift within their marital relationship for the better. Quite often the other party who at first resisted and sabotaged begins to come around and he/she starts making the necessary changes needed, as well.