Your Family System — Open or Closed?

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Editor’s note: This article was originally published on October 9, and was among our readers’ favorite family-themed essays this year. We hope you’ll enjoy it as you reflect on your own family this Holiday Season.

Sitting in the living room with Jessie and her family, I felt almost enclosed in a box. 

This was a troubled family. The air was stifling, and no one smiled. Jessie and her brother barely spoke to their parents. Secretly, they both used drugs and alcohol. Jessie was rebellious; her brother was depressed.

As we talked, Jessie looked angry and sullen. She was uncooperative and spoke only when her parents asked her a question. Prior to my visit to her home, she had been very open with me, sharing her interests and her hopes, as well as her thoughts about her family.

Jessie thought her parents were critical, closed-minded, and demanding.

After spending a couple of hours with them, I agreed. There was no joy, friendship, or mutual respect in this family. No sense of delight in being with one another — only the expectation that both Jessie and her brother fall in line with the family schedule and march to the tune of their parents’ daily routine.

It appeared that both parents were scared to death of their growing and maturing children and didn’t know how to deal with the changes. So they simply closed themselves off to reality and tried to keep things the same.

I soon realized that Jessie’s family was a dramatic example of a closed family system. It required conformity. It tried to keep the outside world out. It didn’t allow for growth and development, and it didn’t welcome outside influences. 

No Dreams, Only Rules

The basic difference between a closed system and an open one is how it reacts to change. A closed system tries to remain static. It’s rigid and follows the same rules even though they are no longer appropriate. There is no flow of information, so people don’t share thoughts, interests, or dreams. Thus, no new ideas come into the system to keep it fresh and vibrant.

It’s like living in a house with all the windows and doors boarded up. It’s stifling inside. People can’t flourish — they can only exist because the family culture doesn’t support the natural changes that occur as kids grow older and mature into the people they are intended to be. 

In the end, a closed system fails because change is inevitable. A family that doesn’t accept it will eventually collapse. 

Because Jessie’s family couldn’t adjust to the normal changes that happen in families, both children felt trapped. 

The result was that Jessie got pregnant, the only way she could think of to escape from the suffocation of her family. 

Her depressed brother tried to commit suicide a few months later, his only solution for getting out.

Looking for Opportunities

In contrast, an open family system looks for opportunities to meet each new reality that comes along and to make changes to accommodate them. 

Healthy families dream together about what they want to create in the future. They talk about plans for individual family members and for the family as a whole. They strategize about how they will meet their goals and they look to the future with open arms.

But not all change is positive and not everything that happens in a family is for the best.

Let’s say that your teenager announces she doesn’t want to go to college even though you have expected her to study medicine. Or that your twentysomething decides to quit his job and become an artist. What if your 30-year-old announces she is getting divorced because she has fallen in love with another man? Or your oldest son has become an alcoholic?

These are changes in your family that you may not have expected or wanted. Yet an open and healthy family is one that has developed the skills to face challenges head on rather than one that looks away and hopes the problems will disappear.

It’s a family that is ready for the unexpected. You engage in the tough conversations — no matter what they are — relying on the trust you’ve built with one another and the communication skills you’ve developed together.

As an open family, there are no barriers between you because you work through conflicts as they come up. You see each other with caring and forgiving eyes instead of judgmental and critical eyes. There are no secrets between you because you maintain a constant flow of information among your family members.

Most importantly, open families do not view differences as a threat.

Here are five characteristics of an open family:

1. People Are Celebrated

A few years ago, Sherri confided in me that her daughter had just told her she was a lesbian. It was difficult for her and her husband at first. They hadn’t been expecting that news.

But they took a deep breath and said, “Okay, this is our new reality. We’re going to embrace it.” A couple of years later, their daughter and her partner married. At the wedding, Sherri lifted her glass of champagne, toasted her brand-new daughter, and welcomed her into the family. They celebrated the two young women for who they really were. 

In contrast, the other set of parents wouldn’t talk to their daughter and only begrudgingly attended the wedding. 

They never invited the newly married couple to their home and didn’t visit when they had a child. They allowed their prejudices and their inability to accept their daughter to separate them from her and her new family.

2. Relationships Are Nurtured

In a healthy family system, relationships are strong. Open families welcome spouses into the nuclear family and make them feel valued and important. They know it is essential to incorporate new members into their culture and to give them time to assimilate their ways.

In my own family, my older brother was the first to marry. My parents had a difficult time opening up our exclusive little family of six to his new wife. Sadly, they always considered her an outsider. It was painful for her and uncomfortable for the rest of us. And it robbed us of the closeness we could have had with her. 

I doubt that my sister-in-law could tell you what my parents ever said or did that made her feel like an outsider — perhaps slightly inferior to the rest of us. But I’ll bet that she remembers how it felt. Those feelings of being demeaned, belittled, excluded, or judged linger on long after the events that caused them have faded. 

There is no such thing as a family that doesn’t change over time. When new members are treated with equality and dignity, the entire family benefits. Nurturing these new relationships in a positive and loving way is a hallmark of an open family.

3. Communication Flows

Last year, I was consulting with a family in which the pattern was to collude — to create triangles among members of the family. Their habit was to gossip about one another or to put down one family member in front of another. These triangles would set two people against a third. 

Triangles are destructive because no one ever speaks directly to the person with whom they have the problem. They only whine, complain, and criticize to a third person.

Nothing gets solved this way. Instead, it erodes trust and creates a secretive and distrustful environment. We worked very hard in this family to dissolve those triangles and allow the communication to be direct, clear, and honest. They made a commitment to stop the gossip. 

They promised one another they would not talk behind each other’s backs. And we practiced communication skills because they had not learned how to talk about their problems in a constructive way.

The result? This family learned to express their feelings honestly but in a nonjudgmental way. They learned to listen to one another without being defensive, to discuss issues rationally, and to find resolutions. Today they are a happier, more harmonious family. 

4. Rules Can Be Changed

In a family I’m consulting with now, there are unwritten rules about holidays. Even though the siblings are married with in-law families, they’re expected to be at the home of their parents at every major holiday — with spouses and grandchildren in tow. The rituals are set in stone. The food is elaborate. The decorations are perfect. 

The adult children don’t have time or energy for this anymore. The times have changed, but the rules have not. 

The result is that holidays have become drudgery for the siblings and their families. Most family rules are not written down, but everyone knows what they are. And they know they are not subject to discussion. When a system is static and fixed, it prevents families from evolving, and it becomes destructive to personal growth. 

In an open system, there is freedom to discuss rules, keeping the ones that are appropriate to the family’s needs and changing the ones that are not. Families that are flexible are much more likely to succeed over time. 

5. Change Is Embraced 

In Jessie’s family, the idea of change was frightening. Both Jessie and her older brother were becoming adults, but their parents were unable to go with the flow of natural maturation. They were frozen in place, not wanting to acknowledge how things were. 

Jessie’s pregnancy threw them into chaos. They kicked her out of the house, not even willing to talk with her about her options. Fortunately, she found a foster home until she was old enough to be on her own. 

Sandy experienced a similar situation when her teenage daughter announced she had gotten pregnant by a guy she had met on a European trip that summer. Unlike Jessie’s parents, Sandy opened her arms to her daughter, talked with her about her options, and supported her fully in the decision she made. 

Both families had to cope with an unexpected change. Only one family faced the change in a healthy way. By embracing the concept of change and understanding that changes will come into your family — whether you want them to or not — you will be better prepared to deal with them in a way that brings your family together instead of tearing it apart. 

Become a Family That Flourishes

Closed families circle their wagons and try to maintain the status quo. They consider life risky and dangerous.

Healthy, open families are growth-oriented, creative, and hopeful for the future. They view life as an adventure. They realize that each new person they add will shift the dynamic of their family. They look forward to the new perspectives of incoming spouses and the enrichment of a growing family.

They embrace new relationships, new ways of thinking, and new challenges in the future.

Here are some tips for developing a more open family system.

1. Adopt an attitude of acceptance. Teach everyone in your family that differences are not a threat, but an opportunity for increased tolerance, understanding, and wisdom. 

2. Take time to get to know every member of your family more intimately — including spouses and grandchildren. Learn about their interests, talents, ideas, and dreams. Let them know that you value them just the way they are, even though they may be different from you.

3. Spend time building relationships among family members. Plan activities that put different generations together and make extended family members feel as important as nuclear family members.

4. Don’t gossip about other family members. Encourage each person to speak directly to the person with whom they have an unresolved issue, and don’t allow two people to take sides against a third.

5. Be flexible in changing old traditions, rituals, and rules that have become outdated. Listen to the input of younger generations and create new rules that fit more appropriately with the needs and desires of your family.

6. Embrace change. It’s inevitable. Learn to go with the flow and enjoy the ride! Fear permeates the environment of a closed system. But an open system operates on a foundation of closeness, growth, and the ability to choose. These are gifts that will allow you and every member of your family to prosper, both individually and collectively.

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