I Don’t Mind the Problem, It’s the Solution I can’t Handle

Photo by Joshua Earle“Because if you were the problem, chances were you could also be the solution. The only way to find out was to take another shot.”
― Sarah Dessen

I’ve been busy reading research again and thought I might share something that has been rattling around in my head across the last week or so. There’s some interesting, recent research (2014) about why it is that people deny problems {sometimes very big problems}. Researchers Troy Campbell and Aaron Kay of Duke University wrote an article, Solution Aversion: On the Relation Between Ideology and Motivated Disbelief, to address their research on this topic.

We propose a motivation behind the denial of many of today’s problems that is rooted not in a fear of the general problem, per se, but rather in fear of the specific solutions associated with that problem. 

 It turns out that contrary to what we might think, sometimes its not the problems people are resistant to facing, but rather the solutions to those problems. Campbell and Kay aren’t addressing estrangement or relationships at all,  they are addressing serious national and global problems like climate change, health epidemics and crime – but it occurs to me that their observations can just as easily apply to people problems, relationship problems, estrangement problems. Campbell and Kay point out

The solution aversion model predicts that certain solutions associated with problems are more aversive and more threatening to individuals who hold an ideology that is incompatible with or even challenged by the solution, and this increases skepticism of the problems’ existence. 

You might be wondering how this works for relationship and estrangement problems. Let me give you an example.

Darla and her Mom

Darla has been talking for a long time about how messed up her mother is. No matter what Darla does or doesn’t do, her mother is never happy. From time to time Darla’s mother cuts off their relationship, which is a source of great pain for Darla. During these cuts offs she expends enormous energy working to connect with her mother and maintain her relationship. To date Darla’s mother usually comes around and the relationship is restored – but the relationship is a fraught relationship that exhausts Darla. Darla feels anxious, waiting for her mother to “go off” and close off the relationship again. She feels she is “walking on egg shells” waiting for the next argument. She is angry and resentful because she “gives everything to her mother and the relationship” and gets nothing but “abuse, indifference and emotional distance.” Darla frequently says that she has to bottle up her thoughts and feelings and certainly wouldn’t share them with her mother because “who needs the drama”.

Darla thinks her mother has a problem {and she’s undoubtedly right} however, Darla’s mother is not the only person with a problem in the above scenario. Darla is content to spend enormous amounts of time researching and speculating about what is wrong with her mother, and what the solution is to her mother’s problems {what her mother needs to do differently, the assistance her mother needs to change etc}, but isn’t nearly as interested in considering her problem. It’s not that Darla doesn’t know that her behaviour allows the opportunity for the drama with her mother to play out over and over again – it’s just that Darla doesn’t want to look at, or follow through with what she will need to change to rectify the problem, her problem. She redirects exploration of the problems in her relationship with her mom,  back to her mother. In Darla’s story her mother is the problem, and the solution is for her mother to change.

Darla is solution aversive. 

Acknowledging that she is miserable and unhappy and the relationship with her mom feels terrible, isn’t an issue for Darla. The issue is if Darla wants things to change, if she wants to feel better, she’s going to have to look at herself. She is going to have to make some changes, possibly some very big changes that don’t only involve changing the way she does things, but may also challenge her most heartfelt beliefs about herself and her family {family is for life, mothers should love their daughters, daughters should love their mothers} about herself {I am a really good, caring, generous person, I deserve appreciation and gratitude from my mother} and about her behaviour and motivation for her behaviour {I’m doing everything right, this is not my problem}.

I don’t believe this is my problem!

There’s heaps of evidence that what Darla is doing in her relationship with her mother isn’t working. The stories Darla tells go back many years and there are a lot of them. The relationship themes are impossible to miss. Still Darla does the same things over and over, and wonders why she is still dancing the same dance, still experiencing the same suffering. Darla is even able to identify the patterns, the things that she does that don’t work and ultimately create unhappiness – but she’s not willing to see the problem as hers. Campbell and Kay refer to this as “motivated skepticism”, basically, in brief, “judgments of evidence are not independent of desires or motivations.” Darla might for instance say, “why yes sometimes what I do doesn’t work, but the problem is my mother’s behaviour”.

What does this mean for Darla? Well in the words of Campbell and Kay, “depending on how the circumstances threaten or support one’s respective ideologies and intuitions” will determine our willingness and ability to deal with the problem. The way we think about a problem is not only about what we believe, but is also related to our personal and social identity. It’s very difficult to move from an “other focused” understanding of a problem, to opening to see ourselves as part of that problem. It’s challenging to think that all the “good stuff” we are doing and giving, is not always motivated from a healthy place, or the not so good decisions and things we’ve done aren’t a matter of necessity, but are more a matter of choice.  It’s hard to consider that the person who really needs to change is us.

Why do we do this?

We can be gentle with ourselves here. It’s hard work to confront intractable problems and the suffering that go along with them. It’s confronting to have to look at the ways we engage with our problems that actually keep them going. There’s nothing quite as challenging as realizing that we have done the same thing over and over and over, looking for a different result – or seeing a pattern or theme and realizing that it might have been a part of our life for many years, or even, all of our life.  It can be shattering to realize that a problem we have blamed on someone else for a very long time, actually has a little {or more than a little} to do with us.

Are you solution aversive?

So a challenge for you. Think about the problems you are sitting with. Think about what it would mean if you were responsible to change those problems. What would the solution to your problems be, if the only person you could control was yourself?

Hint: The only person you can control is yourself.

Father’s Day: If Estranged Men Talked

man thinking

“When we share those stories we’ve been scared to share, voicelessness loses it’s wicked grasp.”
― Jo Ann Fore

There is much discussion of motherhood and the experience of estrangement. Maybe women are more tuned into relationship and the break of relationship. Maybe we think about it and write about it more. Maybe as women, we tend to focus our discontent on our same sex parent … and everyone knows that everything that goes wrong is a mother’s fault.

But what of fathers? What about men’s experience of estrangement? What about children’s experience of absent daddies. And adult children’s experiences of estranging and estranged fathers? Of this we hear so much less.  In an easy reversal, perhaps men have less space to think and write about fatherhood and estrangement. Perhaps it’s an emotional consideration and men are not given the space to speak emotively. Maybe estranged sons, think as much about their absent same sex parent, yet have less inclination or public permission to share their thoughts and feelings. Maybe its about the uneasy social tendency to blame absent fathers on present mothers, on feminism, on the disintegration of religion and “family values”.

I wrote about the absence of the male estranged voice in a post, Is Estrangement women’s work and said:

I know for a fact that men experience family estrangement in roughly the same numbers as women. I know this because women’s stories tell me this is the case. Women are estranged from father’s, brother’s, uncles, nephews, sons, grandfathers – and this means men who are father’s, brothers, grandfathers, uncles, nephews and sons are also estranged. I don’t for a moment think that men are unaffected by estrangement as an issue, and I know this in part to the men (however small the ‘sample size’) who have stepped forward as former research participants, post commentators, email writers and clients, to share their stories.

There are estranged men, estranged boys, estranged fathers without their children and children without their fathers. I know this matters. I know boys benefit from the presence of fathers who love and care for them, and I know with equal surety that girls do too. But just as the mother’s we are searching for and trying to be, need to meet the grade of “good enough” mothers, we also have a standard for “good enough” fathers – this is the father that we may or may not have had, and it may also be the father we may or may not be. We’re all trying to measure up.

Today, on Father’s Day, I’d  like to once again acknowledge the lack of male voices speaking about the experience of estrangement. I’d like us to remember that just because we don’t hear male voices as regularly as we do those of women, it doesn’t mean men aren’t estranged or their stories don’t matter. I’d like to pause for a moment to acknowledge the fathers who are estranged from their children (whether estrangee or estranger} and the children {adult children too} who are estranged from their fathers {whether estranger or estrangee}.

If estranged men talked, what might they say?


About Genograms


“I was thinking how complicated life is and how there are no simple roads or paths. We are a fabric of mistakes and hurts; a family tree of fumbled attempts, successes and failures.”
― Belinda Jeffrey

There’s been some discussion and comments about the use of genograms and I thought I would make some time to look at the use of genograms generally. There’s a great deal that can be said about genograms and I should be clear that not every person, whether clinician or lay person, uses them in the same way or for the same purposes. So this post then, is a general discussion of genograms and how they can be used in therapeutic work. Maybe I will write another post about the specific value of using genograms for estrangement work, however I suspect even a broad discussion will make the value of genograms clear.

What is a genogram?

A genogram is a family diagram, which can be thought of as an elaboration of the family tree. Genograms provide a way of mapping family patterns and relationships {structural and functional} across generations. Genograms provide a visual representation of family structures like family trees do, however, they also show intergenerational patterns of relationships, communication, connection / disconnection, quality of relationship, and significant life events of family members  that influence families across generations.

Who uses genograms?

A genogram is a part of many professionals work. Medical professionals might use a genogram to highlight health patterns and problems across the family, intergenerationally. An addictions therapist might use a genogram to trace patterns of substance use and abuse. A therapist might use a genogram to trace any number of factors including things like emotional and behavioural patterns across the family system, through time. Social workers sometimes undertake genograms to capture the same things other therapists are interested in, but also to explore broader social factors that impact upon families ie. migration, economic stability and poverty, institutional involvement {ie. criminal justice, family court, adoptions, removal of children, hospitalizations, education, religion etc.} and systems of support accessed by  family members {eco-mapping} and also to look at “family” {how family is conceptualized and socially constructed} more broadly when it is important and useful to do so.

It’s also not uncommon for individuals to start working on their family geneology {family tree} and to begin to develop it more fully to include relational patterns and themes. In short, anyone who has an interest in assessing the overall background of a family might find undertaking a genogram to be a useful exercise.

Limitations of genograms

Firstly, a genogram is generally created through the viewpoint of an individual and as such, reflects their view of the family, family members and family dynamics. Other family members might see the genogram differently. They may know different things or emphasize different relationships, patterns or themes. Genograms sometimes change across time as family circumstances change, perspectives change and additional information becomes available. Sometimes genograms fail to capture the different views of family as expressed by different cultures – this comes down to the experience and understanding of the person undertaking the genogram, and their ability to create a ‘living record’ that best expresses the family as understood by the individual.

Benefits of using a genogram

From my perspective there are so many benefits to creating a genogram. I am sure that I will capture some and miss others. The benefits of creating a genogram may change across different clients and families – something that is of critical importance to one person, may be of less importance or interest to another. Here’s some general advantages to using a genogram:

1. A genogram is a visual representation of a family – it provides a broad “birds eye” view of the family. A genogram can be very illuminating as it provides a great deal of information that is easily “seen” as opposed to writing a family history which may take many pages of text.

2. A genogram seeks a holistic overview of the family. As individuals we tend to emphasize certain relationships, patterns and themes and may easily miss or overlook others. We might not see aspects of relatedness that may be subtle {or not so subtle} yet exert a great deal of influence on the family. Most importantly, a genogram helps us to look at family as a “system”.

3. A genogram facilitates the ability of individuals to see commonalities and uniqueness in family members. It can pinpoint emergent identity collisions and can be an excellent tool for identity development work.

4. A genogram helps explore connection and relatedness in an explicit and visual manner, not just between the individual and family members, but across the family system and intergenerationally. It provides relational context and a visual language to bring patterns of relatedness to light.

emotional connection





5. A genogram can assist individuals to explore communication patterns across the family. How do people in the family communicate? How is emotional intensity expressed? Who does the talking? Who is quiet or silent? What is being said? What goes unsaid? Is there a price for speaking about certain things? Who pays the price?

6.  Genograms break down the isolation experienced by many people within their family system. Family problems are seen in a broader context and individuals are not scapegoated. Problems can be expressed as personal problems, inter-relational problems {between certain family members but not others}, family problems {appearing in many relationships across the family system}, intergenerational problems {appearing across the generations} and socio-economic/socio-political problems {problems which are “bigger than” individual family members or the family as a whole, but impact upon the family in significant ways.}

7. Genograms make emotional and behavioural patterns explicit across the family system {intergenerationally}. We have the opportunity to see the “trickle down” effect of many family and relationship problems. However, genograms don’t just illuminate the things that are not working in a family system. Genograms also highlight family strengths, resilience, enduring bonds and positive ways of maintaining connection. Genograms can show us where a family is doing well.  We can begin to see why people may behave as they have done, why we behave the way we have. We see the ripple effect of patterns and themes across the family.

8.  Genograms help clarify options for movement and change. They help identify patterns and themes which are impacting upon individuals and often pinpoint areas for personal development and growth. Sometimes genograms provide great insight about what is likely to change and what is not.

9. Genograms facilitate alternate interpretations and “stories” of family experiences. This is very powerful when individuals are “trapped” in retelling a story over and over, without broader and more compassionate vantage points, for themselves and others.

10. Genograms can show how much we don’t know about our families. A genogram can show missing people and relationships, highlight unknown or untold stories and histories and makes breaks in relatedness and connection more explicit. For people who are estranged, a genogram can be the first place where we really “see” just how many ‘cutoffs” there have been across our family system.

11. Genograms allow for a visual representation of how families “come together” through marriage or other connections. They let us see commonalities and differences between our birth family and our family of choice and allow exploration of how we carry our family of origin experiences into other relationships. This lets us see the strengths and challenges that individuals bring into their relationships together, and express through our own parenting.


I’m sure there are a variety of other benefits to using genograms I haven’t captured in this “off the top of my head” discussion of genograms. However, I think the 11 reasons above make it abundantly clear that genograms have a place in doing family and relational work.

There are certainly people who are resistant to undertaking a genogram and for whom the effort seems unnecessary or just not useful. Some people feel that they “know enough” about their family and are not interested in learning more. Some feel that to undertake a genogram may mean they will need to change their perspective or ways of thinking and feeling about their family. Some people worry that there is an expectation that they will need to understand or “forgive”. Some people think undertaking a genogram is too much work, takes too long, or they simply aren’t interested in their family members. Others quite simply aren’t ready or willing to see the patterns or themes expressed across their family, and by themselves.

The short reason for doing a genogram for me as a therapist, is it provides very clear, concise information that allows me to understand a client’s family in context. It helps me to see what is being focused upon, and what might be being overlooked. It lets me hear what’s being talked about and what isn’t. It shapes the therapeutic experience, and allows for more directed, compassionate and insightful interventions.