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September 2013: Signs of Over-Closeness In a Family Business

Can family members who work together benefit from emotional separateness?

Blanket reverence for family togetherness often shields family members from an unpleasant reality: too much closeness can destroy relationships.

Nowhere is this more visible than in family businesses, where the cauldron of emotions among siblings and parents (and sometimes, uncles, aunts and grandparents) easily bubbles to an intensity level that exceeds the family’s capacity to manage it.

Having worked with hundreds of business-owning families, I have observed how strong emotional attachment ends up pushing family members apart. This happens not because closeness is bad, but because the intense need for it produces approval-seeking behavior that disadvantages the family as well as the business.

For most family business owners and the professionals that advise them – accountants, attorneys, financial planners, etc. – promoting emotional separateness while maintaining contact is a foreign idea. In a nutshell, it refers to the efforts of family members to lower their reactivity to one another, calm down, and adjust expectations of other family members based on the best interests of the business.

Such an effort requires a shift in unreasonable expectations, an extended time frame (it doesn’t happen in a few weeks) and the willingness to take responsibility for one’s own part in the family intensity.

This process begins with observation: “As I watch myself and other family members interact, what’s really going on?”

Signs of over-closeness

Watching how family members behave around each other often unveils signs of over-closeness, or what is often called, “emotional fusion” – the inability to separate. This can be seen when:

  1. “Family closeness” produces a fear that discourages disagreement and challenge.

  2. “Family togetherness” becomes exclusive, creating “insiders” and “outsiders.” For example, the business may lose talented newcomers who feel marginalized by “family insiders.”

  3. Family members become dependent on one another for “cover” and reassurance, relinquishing personal responsibility, autonomy and self-confidence.

  4. Employment of family members is defined by blood line rather than by proven talent and reality contributions.

  5. Family members who have grown into positions where they are no longer competent are protected from objective evaluation because of their “family ties.”

  6. Family members feel “hurt and offended” by candid critique from peers or superiors, and thereby miss the opportunity to self-reflect and grow.

  7. Family members report to one another, feeding the pretense of objectivity.

  8. Family members in non-leadership roles are treated with deference or suspicion based on their relationship to family members in leadership roles.

  9. Bickering family members – unable to emotionally separate – act out their intense reactivity in the company of non-family managers and staff, ratcheting up anxiety in the culture.

  10. Family members care more about being taken care of than about the long-term best interests of the business. This mindset is revealed by entitlement language such as “This isn’t fair” and “I deserve…”

  11. Family members who are new to the business, are placed in positions of responsibility before “earning their stripes”

  12. Family owners refuse to consider that the family culture might include emotionally-driven expectations that cannot be responsibly met, e.g. promising lifelong “security,” blatantly favoring family members, artificially advantaging relatives of family members, etc.

Family members who pay attention to these signals, and who observe their debilitating impact, are better positioned to manage emotional over-closeness. Noticing what is right in front of them is tricky, because over-reactive family members literally cannot see beyond blame.

While blame helps discharge anger, pain and discomfort, its effect on family relationships is counter-productive.

Influencing others by changing self

Usually, a turning point occurs only when one family member becomes willing to acknowledge her own part in the intense interactions. This more mature member gets interested in working first on calming her own reactivity, shifting her own unreasonable expectations and seeking outside assistance to increase her own clarity and courage.

The never-to-be-forgotten focus for any leader is not changing others, but influencing others by changing self. There’s a world of difference between these two mindsets.

In a family business, changing self requires a desire for emotional separateness from the intense family togetherness. Such separateness permits a motivated family member to watch the workings of an emotional spider web instead of getting caught in it.

Separateness does not mean cutting off contact or absenting oneself from family interactions. It means trying to remain emotionally separated from the intensity of family expectations and beliefs.

The process of emotional separateness, exquisitely termed self-differentiation by Dr. Murray Bowen, invites more mature family members to think independently about what they want and don’t want, about what they will do and won’t do. Progress is accelerated by engaging the help of a neutral “coach” who is able to guide a family member as they seek clarity about their own intentions and relationship strategies.

The irony of family relationships is that emotional separateness contributes to solid family connections more effectively than “togetherness intensity.” Force-feeding closeness is more likely to drive people apart than to pull them together.

The effort towards emotional separateness helps one to get along with family members without impinging on them, and to hold one’s position when family members use all the old, familiar tricks to hook one back into the emotional turbulence of the moment.

So what’s the bottom-line requirement for healthy separateness?

Becoming more interested in sober observation than in approval.

2 Responses to “September 2013: Signs of Over-Closeness In a Family Business”

  1. August 31, 2013 at 2:55 pm, Gary Barnes said:


Great piece. this quote brought me back to NSC training…”focus of a leader is not changing others, but influencing others by changing self.

Thank you.

  1. September 01, 2013 at 5:47 pm, Stephanie Ferrera said:

I think it was Carl Whitaker who said: “You can be as close as you are separate.” This paradox is the key to understanding that relationships improve as individuals work on differentiation of self. Thanks to you, John, for spelling out twelve markers of emotional fusion that gets in the way of effective family functioning. These markers apply to all groups, not only families and family businesses. They are closely related to the degree of dependence members have on one another.

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