Families with First Order and Second Order Change

During one of our classes the first weekend of this semester the instructor brought up the common scenario of an adult returning back home and suddenly behaving the same way that s(he) did as a teenager. There were so many understanding nods of agreement in the class, from people I know well enough to know that they often do battle with their families of origin in a way significantly different from how they interact with their chosen families. While I understood the reason for this, and I could recognize that it commonly happens, I didn’t feel it resonate as something that is true for me. I’ve been sitting with that ever since the class, mulling it over, and I reached the “aha” moment when I realized that there has been such a significant shift in our family dynamics over time that our new homeostasis doesn’t match the old homeostasis we were in when I was a kid … so of course I don’t feel like a kid in that home anymore and yet I do fall into a certain role or pattern that is different from how I interact in my other situations in life.

When I was 17, my father was diagnosed with kidney failure and told that he probably had six months to live. It’s a long medical story but I’m happy to report that thanks to two transplants dad is alive and thriving 17 more years later. I have seen him undergo an amazing transformation in that time, and as he has changed, we have all changed. But he wasn’t always “the identified patient” of our family. That role shifted from time to time, swapped out as we all restated. When I was mired in depression, for example, it was me.

So, for many years we were a small system of five people who would change but we would only experience first order change. Roles might swap so it would look like things had changed in our family, but the system itself was still in the same old homeostasis it had always been. The family norms still stuck, the patterns were still there. The system’s energy always stayed the same, with someone else taking on the identified patient role from time to time.

I can’t exactly pinpoint what truly shifted over time to allow second order change to happen in my family. I can identify some crucial conversations that we had as a group, and many more that my siblings and I had together as a smaller group. Changes in my father’s health, in my parents’ life stage, in what happened when we each grew up and took space to develop as individuals on our own … those things all played their part. But what I do know is that however it happened, there was enough positive feedback for the change in the system that we were able to create a new homeostasis.

I do have a role in my family, and I do step right into it when the five of us are together as a group. But this new family dynamic has a lot more room for flexibility and individual growth than the old one did, so I’m able to be me inside of that role as well. I feel lucky for this.

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