A Family’s Hidden Anxieties Can Harbor a Ticking Time Bomb

Murray Bowen was a trained psychiatrist in the 1950s and 1960s. He introduced breakthrough concepts in regards to common anxiety patterns found in families. Little did he know, at the time, that he would have a chance to “test” these concepts with his own parents and siblings.

In 1966, while he was teaching at Georgetown University, in Washington D.C., this world renowned family therapist flew back to his childhood home in Tennessee. A family crisis was escalating in the family business, of which he was a shareholder. The third-oldest sibling, Murrays’ brother, nicknamed June, who was running the business, was seeking control of this business. Dad supported him, Mom did not. The extended family was taking sides.

When Murray arrived he found the family at great odds. Here he was, a practicing psychiatrist, making great discoveries about family dynamics, now in the midst of his own family issues. Family members were talking about each other behind each other’s backs. He found himself feeling profoundly frustrated and depressed that no one would deal with their issues directly. After he left and could reflect on what he had experienced, he decided the time had come, he would use his own family as an experiment to test his developing concepts.

His strategy involved writing separate letters to his brother June, his younger sister, and their mother revealing the gossip spread behind their backs. Murray wanted to provoke conversation and bring issues out in the open to resolve long standing family tension. To his brother he wrote about the concerns, he, Murray had heard from other family members over the years about June’s inability to lead. June was irate. To his sister, Murray wrote that he had asked their brother June to watch over her, because other family members thought she was the emotionally charged sister. She was incensed.  And to their mother, he told what was in the other two letters he sent, that he was trying to infuriate his brother and how he, Murray, could push more buttons if necessary. He told his mother not to mention this letter to anyone.

In early 1967, he returned home to see how it would play out when he lit the fuse to “fan the family flames.” A family dinner took place the second night Murray was home. June and his wife, Murray, June’s sister, and their parents were present.  It didn’t take long for the confrontation to begin as references to the letters were made by June and the letter he received as well as their sister and the letter she received. June threatened Murray with a lawsuit and accused their mother of playing favorites with Murray. Their sister that said she was tired of being treated like a sick child. Murray confirmed that he and their Mom had been conspiring for years about who, other than June, would lead the family business.

As you can imagine, it was epic. Mom was outraged, denied everything and promised she would never tell Murray anything again.  The planned dinner ended up in a drama of personal attacks. Emotions that had not been expressed in years, if ever, were released.

The next day Murray went to June’s house and his brother, for the first time in years, felt at peace. Feelings were out in the open.  Their sister and parents felt the same.  At last, the issues were out. Everybody felt that it wasn’t necessary any longer to hide behind their words.   From this incident, the family’s relationships improved. This was a life changing experience for the entire family. 

Eventually this experiment led to Murray’s breakthrough theory for diffusing family anxieties where patterns have been built and supported. Bowen found that ”the degree of anxiety in any one family will be determined by the current levels of external stress and the sensitivities to particular themes that have been transmitted down the generations. If family members do not have the capacity to think through their responses to relationship dilemmas, but rather react anxiously to perceived emotional demands, a state of chronic anxiety or reactivity may be set in place.”

Many families struggle with effective communication around sensitive topics. How does your family deal with sensitive issues? Do they wait for the ticking time bomb to go off? Do they pass it on to another generation to deal with? Do they remain silent on the subject? Is there a process to talk about subjects with respect and without tension? Leave me a comment. I would love to hear about your experience in this subject.


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