Bev and Jim are struggling with their marriage and young children in ways that they never expected. They have been together for 10 years, and in the past four years they have had two children. Their tensions began soon after their first child was born.
The child "awakened" a family pattern in Jim that was established when he was an infant himself.Jim's parents were hard-working people, who related with their children in "bursts."
"Dad was abusive with all of us," Jim said. "He hit Mom and he hit us. That's what I remember most. I will never be that way with my kids or with Bev."
Child abuse and wife beating are not being repeated in the next generation. They are not part of Bev and Jim's family.
But in a more subtle way, Jim is repeating the pattern of relating that he learned as a child. He is only with his wife and children in short, exciting bursts. Then he goes off alone - just as his own father did 30 years ago.
Because Jim is willing to look at and talk with Bev about his needs to avoid closeness and how these patterns got started in his own early childhood, their two children will have a chance to grow up in a healthier family.
"There's something inside of me that makes me cut them off," says Jim. "I guess it's the way I am, but I know it could mess us up."
Bev and Jim were very happy when Aaron was born. Their marriage was romantic and strong, and they worked well together as new parents. Jim was advancing in his job at a computer software company, and soon they were able to move to a larger house. Betsy was born 2 1/2 years later. The children are now 4 and 18 months.
Jim and Bev continue to work hard to be good parents and to be good to each other. Yet, Jim is increasingly less available.
Maintaining that he has always been a "night person," he stays up late to read or work with the computer. He starts his day some time after Bev and the children awaken, and he keeps to himself, reading the paper and then leaving for work.
There's lots of excitement when he gets home at 8 p.m., and he plays with the kids and their toys. But this lasts just a few minutes, then the children go to bed. Thirteen plus hours with the children leaves Bev exhausted by this time and soon, she too is asleep.
This pattern of family closeness was established when Jim grew up in his first family of five. The arrival of Aaron and Betsy have activated the pattern in a way that is not so unusual. Yet, because there are substantial differences between the two families, Jim had trouble recognizing he was falling into an earlier family pattern.
Jim remembers that there was plenty of time with his dad that was not physically abusive. "We had a farm, and I spent lots of time with him. Often he would be on the tractor, and I would be out in the fields, too. Or I played in the barn. He worked for the railroad, too. I guess we were about as close when he was on the tractor as we were when he was away with the railroad.
"Once a month, we went on a great fishing trip . . . for a day. We always caught fish. No sitting around. He worked one side of a lake, while I worked the other. Then we told jokes when we drove home. The next day, when I woke up, he'd be gone.
"My mom worked at the post office. Most what I remember about her, when I was younger, was when she and Dad would laugh real loud, or when they had fights. Like explosions in an empty house!"
As routines of closeness get established in families, they are repeated and built on. This is the way that family members learn to trust and learn how to love. When the closeness can't be ongoing, youngsters will learn to be close in other ways.
Jim is aware of the abusive part of his relationship with his father, and he will not let it be repeated with his children. More elusive are the long separations, followed by burst closeness that characterized the way he related with both his parents.
Today Jim repeats this form in his marriage and in his relationship with his children.
Aspects of closeness from our first families typically get repeated with our second families in our closest relationships.
Marital intimacy and sexuality frequently copy the ongoingness or separateness of first family closeness. Parent-child relationships are often copies of first family parent-child closeness patterns.
Recently Bev has helped Jim look at how he is repeating the form closeness took in his childhood.
"It's like looking over my shoulder, and I can see how we were close on the farm when there was a brief fight or a short exciting time. Then I look back, and I'm being with my wife and in the same way. And the kids, too."
As Jim and Bev talk about these repeating patterns of closeness and separateness, they can begin to look at how intimacy and being together in a relaxed, ongoing way can be frightening to someone who grew up with another pattern. They will be happier because of their discovery.