“Men willingly believe what they wish.” ~ Gaius Julius Caesar
The predilection of groups for immoral behavior has been so widely studied, identified, acknowledged, and deplored that I hardly need to point it out. Studies such as the Stanford Prison Experiment and Milgram’s Electric Shock Experiment (to name only two) indicated that people are much more influenced by group dynamics and the expectations of authority figures than we think.
My recent thoughts about an act of courage I witnessed at a meeting of folks studying Jungian psychology prompted surprised comments from some. Probably most of us expect that mental health professionals, or those with above-average levels of education, are ‘healthier’ than the norm, just as we might expect church-goers to be more spiritual or Boy Scouts to help more little old ladies across the street.
The truth of the matter is that every relationship or group is sometimes only as healthy as its least developed person. Every group is vulnerable to the needs and demands of its most immature, unconscious, neurotic, or DSM-diagnosable member. It doesn’t matter as much what the cause of the group stressor is; it matters more how the stressor compromises the group’s level of functioning.
Healthy Group Characteristics
Before I give an example of how things can go wrong in a relationship or group (which I’m sure I hardly need to give), let’s look at some of the characteristics of a healthy group, even when that group is a couple:
- It is open, presenting options.
- There are spoken and unspoken invitations to growth.
- It fosters consciousness, supporting people who see what they see, think what they think, and feel what they feel.
- There is communication within the group.
- It honors the truth, and respects truth-tellers and truth-seekers.
- It promotes respect, tolerance, and acceptance of what is.
- Change and growth are possible.
- It is clear. There are clear boundaries between individuals and within the group; people understand the behavior norms and expectations.
- There is a group identity. Group interests are served at the same time that individual needs are acknowledged.
- The group has a direction, and works from a paradigm of order.
- The group atmosphere communicates support and empathy.
- Nobody is expected to be perfect.
- There is enough for everyone.
- There is a realistic view of control, and therefore flexibility.
- Values are identified, communicated, and supported.
- The group process is undergirded by its ethics.
- There’s a sense that trust, love, and acceptance can grow in the group; there’s a sense of community and belonging.
- When problems or conflicts arise, they’re recognized and solved.
- The group is open to outside help and advice.
- The group can be playful, have fun, and laugh.
Though it’s doubtful that a group will have all these characteristics at a given time, it’s possible. Many high-functioning friendships, marriages, partnerships, or families manifest these aspects of wholeness or health. What happens, though, when we interject a needy member into a healthy system?
Rather than waxing sinister in our musings, let’s use a typical example: the new baby.
Last week my nephew and his wife sent us a Christmas card that included a photo of them with their new baby, an adorable little boy who has his daddy’s eyes and his mama’s complexion. If I have ever known a high-functioning couple, they’re it. Both hold advanced degrees and have positions of leadership and responsibility at work. They eat right, exercise, stay in shape, and are good-looking people. They’ve got a nice home in a nice neighborhood and they’re nice people. They are ethical, open-minded, tolerant, and yet playful and fun to be around. They probably sound like a hundred couples we know or have known, right? They’re your neighbors, your sister, your kids, or you.
Now, insert baby into relationship. Throw in a complicated pregnancy, delivery, or post-partum period. Add some hormones and multiply by two leaking breasts and six weeks of colic and baby leave. Magnify with recession, increased work load due to layoffs, and an impaired sense of competence in both parents that will last, say, for the next two years. Formerly in-control human beings are at the mercy of a little tyrant who can’t be effectively shushed and who won’t mind his manners in public. This is a recipe for disaster.
We can smile, if we’ve survived parenthood, but we don’t particularly want to go back through that phase of life, do we? Whether the stressor is new parenthood or recovery from an illness, a move or a divorce or some other predictable life experience, we know that we’re weakened as individuals whenever our health, safety, and well-being are threatened. At our best, we would never cut off another driver in traffic, or cut in front of another person at line, or verbally bite the bank teller’s head off. At our worst, though, we’re all capable of sacrificing our values, of acting immorally, when we’re spread too thin.
This is why it’s important to remember what we value. Stephen Covey exhorts us to “begin with the end in mind,” which is to say that we all need to remember what we’re after. When I look back on my life, what sort of person do I want to have been? Do I want to be stuck in some developmental phase because I never dealt with my family-of-origin shit, and take it into every single relationship I have, to every partnering, to every group and workplace? Or do I want to grow as a person by first looking at myself?
I can’t look at myself without looking at my family of origin and really seeing what happened there. I must imagine what would happen if I re-created that family in a laboratory and set a newborn baby into it, or if I could watch that family function in a feature-length film. What happened there? What happened to me? What drama was acted out in that family that I keep acting out? This is what we should be asking ourselves.
As we ask ourselves such questions, we also have to be mindful that we’re surrounded by and in relationship to human beings who may or may not be asking themselves these same questions. Many like to think they’re honest enough to consider themselves, but most really aren’t. We can see where we’re letting ourselves and others down by taking a mental health check and discovering which values we’ve abandoned, what truth we refuse to see, what feeling we’re pushing down in the name of getting along or taking care of business or, yes, taking care of the baby.