IMMIGRANT FAMILIES 2:
In Search of the Most Important Relationship within a Family
Conflicts within a home may surface in many ways: battered wife, rebellious teenager, adulterous husband, and disrespectful daughter-in-law and non-communicative couple, just to mention a few. The immediate causes of conflicts may also vary: from cooking to child discipline, from complaining in-laws to confronting your father, from career to check-book balancing and from church to conversing with friends.
How can a family begin to work things out in the midst of seemingly insurmountable difficulties and tensions? How can a person find his way out when all he can see are road blocks in every direction?
In this article, I would like to share with you that the only way out of family conflicts is to work toward and maintain the primacy of the husband-wife relationship. Unless the relationship between a husband and wife is predominant, difficulties involving other relationships, children, in-laws, career, etc., cannot be resolved.
I believe the Bible teaches the most important relationship within a family is not one of the father and son but husband and wife (Gen. 2:24; I Cor. 7:39). But traditional Chinese teaching maintains the most important relationship within a family is that of the father and son. Accordingly, when a man gets married, the focus is not on him getting a wife but on his parents having a daughter-in-law. The purpose of marriage is for the procreation of sons and not for the happiness of the couple.
The teaching of the Scripture on the primary relationship of husband and wife is in direct conflict with the traditional Chinese teaching that the most important relationship within a family is between father and son. Further, I believe this conflict constitutes one of the most serious tensions between Christianity and traditional Chinese culture. It also helps to explain why there is so much tension within the Chinese families in North America where the culture is greatly influenced by, though not conformed to, the Bible.
Before I demonstrate to you the reasonableness of upholding the husband and wife relationship as the first step in solving family conflicts, I need to share with you about the structures of human relationships in terms of solid and dotted lines so that the latter presentation will make sense to you. I guarantee the explanation will be simple and straightforward if you would follow it closely.
STABILITY vs. INSTABILITY
Take the example of a boy (B) who happens to like 2 girls (1G and 2G) and the two girls also like him. Referring to Diagram (1), let us use solid lines to represent the fact that the boy likes the two girls.
As for the situation represented in Diagram (1), what do you think is the relationship between the two girls? Do they like each other? Do they get along cordially?
Of course not. It is easy to see the two girls would not get along because both of them like the same boy. Let us use dotted line to represent the feeling of dislike between 1G and 2G, as shown in Diagram (2)
Referring to Diagram (2), would you say the relationships among these three persons are stable or unstable? Do you think they get along fine or do you expect them to have tensions and conflicts? Among the three persons, which one do you think is under the most pressure?
You would probably agree with me such a system as represented by Diagram (2) is not stable. Things as existing in Diagram (2) cannot last for long, something has to change. The one under the most pressure is the boy because he has to decide which girl he really likes.
From Diagram (2), we can derive a couple of general principles: (see footnote)
1. In any triangular relationship, if you have two solid lines and one dotted line, the system is unstable. The persons involved in such a system are under stress and changes will likely take place.
2. In a triangle with two solid lines and one dotted line, the person who is under the most pressure is at the point where the two solid lines meet, as represented by the boy in Diagram (2).
How can the unstable system in Diagram (2) become stable? The system will become stable if the boy were to choose either the first girl, as in Diagram (3) or the second girl, as in Diagram (4).
(In either case, we can derive a third principle):
3. In any triangular relationship, if you have two dotted lines and one solid line, the system is stable.
Before we go on to show the reasonableness of the Biblical position that the husband and wife relationship should be the most important within a family, you may be interested to know that:
4. A system is stable when you have three solid lines.
5. A system is unstable when you have three dotted lines.
Dotted Line between Husband and Wife
The reasonableness of the Biblical position of “one flesh” can be readily seen if we can show that the untenable positions when the “one flesh” concept is violated.
In a husband (H) and wife (W) does not have a “one flesh” relationship, the line between them is dotted, as in Diagram (5). Y in Diagram (5) may represent anything: an issue, a person, career, money, sex or in-laws.
In order that our discussion be more concrete, let Y be the child of the couple in Diagram (5).
Now, the couple can have only one of four possible relationships with their child. These four possibilities are:
(A) Both like him, Diagram (6);
(B) Both dislike him, Diagram (7);
(C) The husband likes him while the wife doesn’t, Diagram (8);
(D) The wife likes him but the husband doesn’t, Diagram (9).
Let us examine each diagram, from (6) through (9) and see how unsatisfactory each one of them is.
Both husband and wife like the child. Notice the system consists of two solid lines and one dotted, meaning it is unstable. Notice also that the pressure, where the two solid lines intersect, is on the child. In this family situation, which is most common among Chinese families, both husband and wife try to please and/or make demands on the child. Both try to win over the child. The child is placed in a position where he does not know whom to please. If he pleases his father, he will automatically displease his mother and vice versa.
For example, if the father wants the child to go to bed at 7:30 but the mother wants the child to keep her company and watch television until eight, what should the child do? He is being placed in a no-win situation. In extreme cases, children from this type of home develop abnormal behavior patterns, as a result of trying to comply with the mutually exclusive requests of his parents. The child is torn between the two forces which are at odds with each other.
The remedy for families of this kind is not to put more pressure on the child, expecting him to change, but to encourage the couple to build a better relationship with each other. If the couple is on better terms with each other, the difficulty of the child will automatically take care of itself. If and when the relationship between the husband and wife is restored, the line between them will become solid, making the system stable.
In this case, both parents do not like the child. The system, comprised of three dotted lines, is unstable. The child in this case is either abused or ignored resulting in permanent emotional damage. Family members within such a system either fight with one another or give one another the silent treatment.
Again, the way to help this family is to begin with the couple’s relationship. When the line between the couple is sold, making it a stable system, they can then be encouraged to work on their relationship with their child.
In this family system, the father sides with the child, leaving the mother out in the cold. Notice the system is stable and there is no pressure for it to change. It is predictable that wives in this kind of system may suffer continual psychosomatic sicknesses; depression, lower back pain, ulcer, high blood pressure, just to mention a few.
Diagram (9) represents a family system (notice it is stable) where the mother establishes a closer relationship with the child than with her husband. This family structure is common among Chinese families. Many husbands have told me, “I feel my wife loves my son more than she loves me.”
In such a family setting, the husband tends to work overtime, turn to the bottle, have a second career or have an affair.
In this case, as in the above three cases, the couple needs to work on their relationship if they expect to see a good relationship with each other and with their child.
The Bible teaches the primacy of the husband-wife relationship. We have attempted to show that if the husband-wife relationship is not good, then there is no basis for them to build a good family.
These principles were first proposed by F. Heider and later further explained by diagrams by C. Cartwright and F. Harary. For further reading, please refer to:
Heider, F. “Attitudes and Cognitive Organization,” The Journal of Psychology, 1946, 21, 104-112.
Cartwright, C. and Harary, F. “Structural Balance: A Generalization of Heider’s Theory”, Psychological Review. 1956, 63, 277-293.