At Brown Brothers Harriman (BBH), we have worked with families for over 200 years, and through this work have come to understand and appreciate the complicated dynamics that affect their ability to have smoothish relationships, to make good decisions together and to be good partners with one another. While it is second nature to discuss the markets, taxes and investing with our clients, we also work with our clients on family dynamics, which can be particularly challenging during a time of anxiety and isolation. Helping us with this work is BBH Senior Advisor Ellen Perry, who shared the following thoughts on family systems theory and how it is relevant today.
Understanding family systems theory can change how you work, how you live and how you experience your own family. And the theory is this – your family of origin is the most intense set of emotional relationships you will ever have. You are more emotionally hinged to your parents and siblings than you will ever be to anyone else. That does not mean that you love them more – it means that you are more emotionally reactive and much more highly attuned to them. This also means that this is true of your children’s relationship to you and to one another. If you think about this, you will see dozens of examples of relational complexity in your family. This dynamic means that because you pick up almost imperceptible signals from other family members, the chance for smooth, effortless relationships is harder. You can see and feel this in your own family: Sisters sit around a table talking, eating or trying to make a joint decision, and one of them raises an eyebrow, snickers or rolls her eyes – and tension rises. Or Dad breathes a particular way during a discussion, Mom looks displeased at just the wrong time, or your brother takes a cell phone call at an annoying moment – the reactivity is just so high that it triggers us, and we have an intense emotional response. The actions that trigger us are often no different from those that a friend or colleague might make, yet we have such a stronger emotional reaction to it from our family member. The complexity is not just our reaction – it’s why we have it: We assume negative feelings and judgments behind their actions. It isn’t just the snicker – it’s the criticism, dismissiveness or judgment that we believe is behind it. We, therefore, can easily feel hurt or angry.
Family systems theory can help inform how we make decisions and interact with family during the COVID-19 pandemic. As we are all spending so much more time together, it is helpful to understand what we can do in the face of this emotionality. The surest antidote is open communication. As you feel triggered and judged or hurt, ask the person for clarity about her feelings. Listen and try to believe the explanation. In the absence of asking, assume good intent. When you get into a difficult discussion or moment with a family member, try to understand your part in the dynamic – not just the other person’s. Understand that at this moment, anxiety is so very high everywhere, and being stuck at home with immediate family can heighten that – no matter how much we love them. Cultivate compassion. It is essential right now as we all feel uncertain and anxious. People are afraid and, in many ways, grieving. Everyone processes and expresses fear and anxiety in their own ways. Many of us are not reacting in our normal ways. Try and reflect on how the person normally acts, not just how she is behaving today or this week. Do not open old, painful arguments with family members. It is not the time. Be gentle with yourself and with those around you. When you feel triggered and upset, pause before reacting. Count to 10. Just a small pause can allow you time to choose how to react. You circumvent your automatic reaction and give yourself a choice in how to respond. It is a profoundly impactful moment of choice. Practice kindness inside your family.
While we know that now is not the time to make broad, sweeping changes, for some conversations and decisions we do not have the luxury of an unlimited timeframe. If you would like to discuss techniques other families have successfully used for making sound decisions during turbulent times, please reach out to a BBH relationship manager or wealth planner.