Simon Fowler's Blog

rLiving Day 10: Family (Relational Proximity)

Posted by Simon on May 9, 2010

The girls were playing around in bed tonight, avoiding going to their own beds. They’d had a few spats today, as most days. But they were having a laugh now and suddenly M~ (3yrs old) grabbed C~ (5yrs old) around the leg and gave her the biggest squeeze saying, “I wuv you C~!”. I’m sure tomorrow at some point they’ll be screaming again. That’s what happens in families.

Who are the people most important to you? With whom do you have the most significant relationships?

I suspect you included, perhaps exclusively, ‘family’.

Why is that? Is it just, well, because? Maybe relational proximity explains why families end up being the most significant relationships we have even if they’re not the best. Relational proximity doesn’t guarantee relational health, it provides the basis of possibility for health. Here’s a quick attempt at working through the model in the context of families. I’m going to try it as though looking back. But first here’s a quick recap of the five dimensions:

1. Directness – the degree to which the relationship is unmediated and truthful
2. Continuity – the degree to which it has a history, the parties meet regularly, and it has an expected future
3. Multiplexity – the degree to which the parties know each other through different contexts
4. Parity – the degree to which there is a symmetry in power
5. Commonality/Purpose – the degree to which they share a sense of common purpose or identity

So here’s an attempt at looking at all five with respect to the health of family relationships.

1. Directness
+ We’ve shared physical space, face to face; our real selves have been more exposed to each other (at least in the early years, but even later it’s difficult to fake it) because it’s really hard to keep up a pretense ALL the time.
– Lack of face to face time with parents or even siblings has been a grievous loss (even if we got used to it).

2. Continuity
+ We’ve seen each other daily, weekly, monthly for years and years; we have a lifetime of shared history, and an unquestioned anticipation of a future relationship until the day we die.
– Moving away to different cities or countries, while not changing the deep sense of belonging, prevents us knowing each other as we are now (so we end up regressing to our teens whenever we meet!)

3. Multiplexity
+ The number of different things we’ve done as a family, the number of contexts we’ve seen each other in, is almost uncountable. So we really, really know each other, whether we like it or not!
– We were always taken to events and other activities by other people, not our mom or dad. We only had a domestic life together – eating or chores – we never did anything else, so I never knew what they were capable of.

4. Power
+ We felt safe and protected and also respected; encouraged to try things out knowing we had a back-stop.
– We felt scared and intimidated. We loathed the pain and humiliation.

5. Commonality/Purpose
+ We all had the same last name! We had the same blood. As an adopted child I never felt anything other than their true son/brother. We didn’t exist just for ourselves, we realized that as a family we could serve others.
– I was the outsider, the black sheep. We were expected to follow the family business, as though that was more important than just being family.

I’m not sure these are the best examples. But I think it’s possible to see that you need to have all the positive elements of these five to even have a chance to loving each other.

Do these resonate with you? Do the five dimensions help explain the dynamics of your family?


3 Responses to “rLiving Day 10: Family (Relational Proximity)”

  1. Kate said

    I think this is a really interesting way to look at family relationships… and pinpoints quite well where they can go drastically wrong. It seems to me that power is the dynamic that’s most likely to go wonky. If parents are highly authoritarian, or if siblings do not have balanced power, it’s likely that relationships will be distorted.

  2. Simon said

    Thanks Kate. I agree, it was when I got to power that I had to work a little harder to frame it in a positive light because it is so often only noticed when it creates obviously devastating effects.

    I think ‘power’ gets a bad rap these days. Given that everyone is all about ’empowering’ others it’s ironic that we’re also so disdainful and resentful of ‘power’. Clearly it’s the misuse of it that’s the problem, so we could do with much clearer thinking on what constitutes appropriate use of power.

    “Balanced power” is a useful phrase to think of with respect to siblings.

    • Kate said

      And with families, weird things create power. Like serious illness – someone who’s very ill likely has a great deal of power in the family – or involvement in a sport that requires disproportionate family resources (money, time). IME, unless those forces balance out over time, the family dynamic becomes very skewed.

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