The Closure of Low Differentiated Families

The role of “opening” what Corona has closed places a great strain on the differentiation level of family relations. Corona and its management has “closed” the world, restricted most informal social contact and closed off close social contacts other than virtual.

We would do well to recall that the level of differentiation in a family is related to the degree of openness of the family system.

Systems are characterized by openness or closedness. You may recall how Minuchin formulated boundaries around subsystems, including the subsystem of the nuclear family. We conceptualized these boundaries as secondary to the function within the subsystems. And we conceptualized the function within subsystems as supporting intersubjective communication.

An open system maintains a to and fro relationship with what is outside the system. For most families this includes first and foremost the extended family, and includes contact with friends, neighbors and co-workers. It may include the possibility of opening the system to caregivers, including family therapists like ourselves. In an open system, contact with outside relations or opinions may be challenging but is considered interesting and positive. What each family member brings from the outside makes for robust diversity in relations in the family. Think of children who experience something novel in the home of a friend.

Closed systems, on the other hand, are mainly threatened by imports from the ourdie. The “we” is threatened by change and novelty or diversity is rejected. You can easily connect this notion with lower levels of differentiation, where anything new is a danger to the regulation and therefore rejected. And that rejection often extends to caregivers like ourselves.

We can now appreciate that the “closure” that the government requires of households today would on the one hand be unnatural for families of higher levels of differentiation and may threaten maintenance  of the differentiation level. For example, a family may have arrived at an equilibrium (homeostasis – as we will learn in the second semester – in which some emotional needs of family members are provided inside the nuclear family and other emotional needs are provided for in relations with nuclear family and friends. Under “lockdown” conditions, more of the emotional needs of family members are required to be met by the nuclear family alone, and what was intersubjective in an open system becomes more regulated in the closed situation, with a temporary lowering of differentiation level. If we care for members of such families, we can assist by creating awareness that the effect of the lockdown is not unexpected and is probably temporary and reversible. Contact with the therapist may be a differentiation-preserving experience for a family member or for the entire family.

Families of lower level differentiation may be endangered directly by the lockdown. It may seem paradoxical, since the lockdown only reinforces what has been natural. Indeed some folks on the autistic spectrum have been quipping, “Now I am not different, everyone keeps distance.”

But beyond the humor, before the lockdown the closed boundaries of the family had NOT been functional, they did not preserve intersubjectivity but rather kept relations at the regulatory level. With this additional burden of complete closure, the regulation becomes more stressed. For example, a young girl no longer can play with friends and feel a level of communication not available in her family. And her older brother no longer has emotional outlets with his friends and school. Both children are at risk for a loss of regulation that increases the risk that they turn on each other for regulation in a violent or sexual manner. And is there has already been physical or emotional abuse, the artificially closed system may increase it, to the point of despair and suicide. In such families the therapist may serve as a lifeline by providing the tiny channel of openness in the family. Some therapists may feel that the family or family member may need contact daily just to provide this contact.

And so “Corona Times,” by artificially closing what needed to be open, puts all families, but especially families with lower levels of differentiation, at substantial risk. Our role here is to help prevent a decrease in differentiation, and after this is over, is helping reverse the negative effects on differentiation.