BRUNSWICK, Maine, May 19, 2021 /PRNewswire/ -- As the pandemic has persisted—even at its recently vaccine-reduced rate—so too have home-improvement and self-improvement projects. My husband and I opted for home improvement, but found self-improvement inadvertently. Our relationship profited alongside Home Depot's and Lowe's pandemic profits.
The decluttering process brought pain. Not the pain of obsessing over what physical stuff to toss, but rather the emotional pain that can get triggered by some of the physical stuff. We can't just consign that to the toss pile.
As a clinical psychologist who practiced family therapy, I'm keenly aware of deeply painful emotions that can accompany certain rediscovered objects in the attic—especially objects from one's family's past. Yet pain-inducing objects often hold clues to life-long struggles that, if faced, can be managed more successfully in the future.
Freud famously described psychoanalysis as an archaeological excavation of painful experiences hidden in the unconscious. "Decluttering the family attic" is an apt metaphor for what family therapists call family-of-origin work: excavating what has been hidden in our parents' "attic," and now in our own, though this time the nontangible stuff—the family's ways of relating that have gotten "handed down" from one generation to the next, like Great-grandma's teapot.
This handing-down process entails replicating your childhood family's relational patterns (or themes), in the family you have created as an adult. For example, I noted that families with warring parents not infrequently had a child who was "triangled" into their conflict, siding with one parent against the other, and who then replicated that pattern in their own created family. Or the "parentified" child who, finding herself (typically a female) in the "role" of caretaker to a needy parent, later has a child who is similarly parentified. And so the pattern persists, sometimes disrupting lives with dysfunctional roles that get re-enacted in successive generations.
Family therapist Carl Whitaker defined marriage metaphorically, as "a battle between two families [of origin] struggling to reproduce themselves"—like which way to hang the toilet paper. Going further, will a child replicate the role of the family's great hope, or the irresponsible one? The one who never returns home, or the one who can't leave home? The possibilities, which can be good or bad, are limitless, and whether and how they get replicated carry implications for the well-being of members of present and future generations.
These patterns do not typically recur with conscious intent. It's usually hard to see them in multigenerational terms as they occur. But we can discern them even decades later, if we sift through the "attic" carefully. Then we can consciously decide which patterns to replicate with pleasure, toss, or treasure but not use (my great-grandma's teapot). This is difficult, emotionally-laden work, but the rewards can be great: detecting the patterns—the "mechanisms" that have kept certain roles and themes in place—can liberate us from mindlessly performing dysfunctional re-enactments of the family drama.
Visiting our actual attic during the pandemic unearthed items that reflect noteworthy family patterns. The photograph of my demurely-smiling maternal grandmother, who did "too much" for others and resented perceived relational "debts." The photograph of my arrestingly-focused paternal grandmother, who, during the great depression, made my father attend night high school and night college (both while working full-time): The still-thriving CPA practice he founded in 1947 is testament to her fierce determination, his, and mine.
My parents' French provincial loveseat and my husband's parents' Hitchcock chairs are reminders of our struggles over furnishing our home in my family's French/English/Asian combination or his family's American colonial style. We negotiated room by room, and the attic furniture gives evidence of our hard-fought compromises. These reminders helped us navigate while doing our no-escape-from-each-other, house-arrest pandemic time. (I'm delighted to report that we just took our first trip together in 14 months to visit my sister in Connecticut; it was just what the pandemic doctor ordered!)
There's always more stuff to tackle in the "attic"—physical and emotional. We've vowed to return again, even as we now face the world more directly, including our "distanced" relatives, armed with our Moderna shots—and renewed appreciation of each other.
Barbara S. Held, Ph.D. is Barry N. Wish Professor of Psychology and Social Studies Emerita at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. For interviews with Dr. Held, contact Doug Cook, director of college and media relations, [email protected].
SOURCE Bowdoin College