Denise came to counseling after her father had died of a heart attack at the age of 84. She had been on a cruise to Alaska when he died, and she felt guilty for leaving her 76-year-old mother and younger sister to plan the funeral. A few months later, Denise was flying back every other weekend to Denver to clean out her father’s belongings and check in on her mother. She complained that her sister rarely stopped by to help, even though she only lived half an hour from their childhood home.

Denise always thought her mother would be the first to go in the family. She had diabetes and had experienced a heart attack several years before. Her father had been in great shape and was a regular at the gym. He was actively involved in a local church and was president of the local American Legion.  He also took on most of the household responsibilities—he loved to cook and paid all the bills. Denise was surprised to learn how little her mother knew about their finances—she couldn’t even tell them where to locate important papers in the house. “She can barely make scrambled eggs. She eats TV dinners and I can’t get her to leave the house more than once a week.”

As I met with Denise, I learned more about the facts of her parents’ families. Her mother’s parents had both died early deaths, and she had married Denise’s father right out of high school. We explored how Denise’s position as the oldest daughter in her family, as well as being closer to her dad, made her feel extra responsible for her mother’s well-being. But the truth was that her mother was 76, had no signs of mental deterioration, and could drive herself around town.

Denise spent a lot of our time together explaining all the tasks she tried to get her mother and sister to do when she was back home in Maryland. She encouraged her mother to get to know the other women in her exercise class. She begged her mother to eat healthier. She asked her sister to visit more frequently and follow up about their mother’s doctor appointments. Her father’s death had left a giant hole in the family, and Denise was trying her best to fill it by overfunctioning in these two relationships.

“Have you asked your mother what it’s been like these past few months?” I asked Denise.

“No,” she replied. “That never occurred to me.”

“I would just be really curious to know what her thinking was,” I said. “To be married to someone for almost 60 years and then to have to adjust to being on your own.”

Denise’s way of managing the anxiety in her family system after her father’s death was to direct her mother and her sister. And for the most part, it worked. But it also led to increased conflict, as Denise felt that she couldn’t really enjoy her time in Denver. Her visits felt like work, and there wasn’t a lot of flexibility in the relationships.

In these situations, it’s easy to look at people like Denise or her father and see them as the more mature or more differentiated individuals. You could also look at them and blame them for taking on too much responsibility in the family. But the reality is that each person in this family equally participated in the emotional process. It was probably just as easy for Denise’s mother to let her daughter begin to call the shots after her husband’s death as it was for Denise to step in and do it. Everyone plays their part. Denise had seen her father as the hero and her mother as the slacker, but the reality was that each played a role in the emotional process of her family.

Denise began to think about how she could access her mother’s thinking and her sister’s thinking before automatically stepping in and directing them. We talked about how it would be uncomfortable and anxiety-producing to stay focused on herself rather than the two of them. Denise decided that she would keep going to Denver to visit, but that she would let her mother set the schedule. This was difficult at first and led to more than a few squabbles, but she found that she had more time to listen to stories about her mother’s life and learn more about her father as well. Her mother never magically became a social butterfly. She didn’t start learning to cook super healthy meals. But Denise could begin to see that her mother was a capable adult who could function on her own. And that trying to function for her certainly would never make her more capable.

Denise also grew closer with her sister and her sister’s children. She watched as her sister’s oldest daughter taught her grandmother how to navigate the Internet and upload photos. Over time, her family system was becoming more flexible—it could adapt in multiple ways and didn’t just need one anxious overfunctioner to plug all the gaps.

Like Denise, it’s easy to look at someone in your family, your work, or wherever, and say, “They’ll never change. They’re too old. They’re too stubborn.” This is the danger of looking at the individual, or the symptoms of the individual, rather than the relationship system. The truth is that if you can change, then the system will change along with you. This doesn’t mean that there won’t be a reaction, or complaining, or setbacks, but being more of a self does lead to greater flexibility in the relationship system. And it’s never too late to be more of a self.

Denise saw that by focusing less on her mom and by focusing more on her functioning in these relationships, she could be a calmer presence in her family, including with her own spouse and children. Because it wasn’t too late for her to change, it wasn’t too late for her mother to change as well. When we become more flexible in our own functioning, we increase the flexibility of the whole system.

This week I’d like to challenge to you think about how focusing on changing others (or their seeming inability to change) keeps your relationships inflexible.

1. How can you engage in these relationships to learn more about what people think, rather than simply tell people what they should be thinking?
2. How can you step back and give people the space to surprise you with their capability?
3. How can you sit with the anxiety of being in the room but not stepping in and functioning for them?

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