July 7, 2021

Why Can’t My Family Change?

A stable family system will acknowledge discomfort and use the pressure to change to a new homeostasis, celebrating the new joys while mourning to loss of the old ones. Unfortunately, these transitions are not always so graceful.

By Jonathan Wolfrum, LMFT|Adulting
Why can’t my family change? | Evergreen Counseling | Berkeley, CA | www.evergreencounseling.com

Nighttime can be the hardest time to be filled with big questions about life.

The darkness already makes the world small, and friends are often out of reach.

Despite the claustrophobic unsuitability, night seems to be the most common appointment time for this mixture of distance and isolation.

The quiet of the small hours eliminates distraction and uncomfortable thoughts come to the surface.

Most of us eventually find our way to the internet, which is never far, and these thoughts end up in search boxes.

Complex questions that probably surprised the engineers who expected the internet to be little more than an exchange of Costco hours and news.

There are many questions people ask, but this article is for anyone who ever asked Google “Why can’t my family change?”

The question is worthy of philosophy, but people who have experienced conflict with family members have little luxury to contemplate the vastness of what change is and can be.

We just want to be able to have a holiday without arguing with a sibling, or being ridiculed by a parent, or made to feel inadequate by the comment of an aunt or uncle.

It wounds and infuriates us when family or friends rehash old wounds and begin ancient arguments all over again.

Often, we find ourselves drawn in, acting out a part we had thought we left behind.

The rebel, misbehaving to give everyone a target.

The clown, making everyone laugh.

The helper, refilling every plate, all in an attempt to just get through the day.

These roles are exhausting and shallow, leaving us tired and unsatisfied with the way we spend some of the most culturally important days of the year.

The fact that we get sucked into these roles is a clue to the process that is happening here.

Even with our knowledge that we don’t want to engage in this process any longer, we still find ourselves dancing to music that has long stopped playing.

In psychology, this phenomenon is called homeostasis (a term borrowed from life science) which is the tendency for systems to curb change in favor of a stable, though not always enjoyable, norm.

Though it may sound reductive, a family is a system, albeit an infinitely complex one.

A family has its parts that all interact, and these interactions have mutual impacts on all parts, as well as the system as a whole.

As frustrating as it feels to have our families not change, without a mechanism for self-correction against unnecessary change, a system will break down.

Homeostasis occurs when our bodies regulate our blood sugar, hydration, temperature, and breathing in order to keep these factors near an optimal point.

If these factors change too much, we become sick and endanger our lives.

Homeostasis is so essential to life, why is it such a problem for families?

Unlike the relatively straightforward examples of human physiology above, human psychology is dynamic.

The safe range of blood sugar and oxygen stays the same pretty much our entire lives; our families do not.

When it comes time for major transitions in the cycle of our lives such as puberty, leaving home, new children and advanced age, maintaining the status quo can be harmful.

The process of leaving home is largely about individuating from family.

All the terminology of “finding yourself” and “learning who you are” heavily suggests that these tasks are not easy to do when surrounded by the people we have known the longest.

On some level, our culture knows that young adults need to separate from their childhood home to grow.

This is celebrated with graduations and collective hard work to launch young adults into the world; yet when these young people come back, the change that was so recently celebrated is now ignored and resisted.

The homeostasis asserts itself, trying to bring the part back to the place it was.

This seemingly wasted effort is often forgivable.

Watching kids become adults is hard. It signals that time is marching on and that we are all getting older.

It’s a loss of the times we enjoyed so much and a reminder that life is uncomfortably short.

A stable family system will acknowledge this discomfort and use the pressure to change to a new homeostasis, celebrating the new joys while mourning the loss of the old ones.

Unfortunately, these transitions are not always so graceful.

Families with trauma, abuse, and other toxic secrets will be more resistant to change because a shift in the system isn’t just uncomfortable, it’s seen as a threat.

Your refusal to tolerate being belittled or your efforts to reduce your drinking shine a cold, hard light on the parts of the system that people don’t want to look at.

You begin to appear to others like a part of a machine refusing to do its job, risking a breakdown of everything.

Many families are surviving the hardships of poverty, discrimination and illness and don’t have the luxury of a breakdown.

The machine has to keep running to keep alive.

Even families who have achieved material success and no longer face these challenges to a dangerous level can continue to behave as if there are tigers around every corner.

So, “Why can’t my family change?” Because the system believes that change is a greater risk.

This is not to excuse a toxic resistance to change.

It isn’t right that people have to make choices between living a healthy and authentic life and basic functioning.

Thankfully, while not every family can change, many can, just not on their own.

Therapy and other forms of mental health treatment can reduce the barriers to adaptive change, making the process less of a threat and therefore easier.

Traumas can be healed, abuse can stop and honesty can be endured.

Once the old homeostasis is shed, a new one can emerge, more satisfying and loving than what proceeded.

I would love to help you or your family understand the homeostasis you feel stuck in, and change it for the better.

If you would like to find out more about me and my approaches to therapy or to book a consult call, please explore more here.

Medical Disclaimer

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