This Is Us, Systems Style

This is Us is a beloved, popular new TV show.  If the reader is one of the few who haven’t seen it already, a family of five is featured; parents Jack and Rebecca and their 3 children, Randall, Kevin, and Kate. Kate and Kevin are biological twins while the orphaned Randall, born on the same day as the twins, was adopted.  One key aspect to the story line is that this is a Caucasian family that has taken in an African-American child as a replacement for a triplet who died at birth.

As time goes on, this loving family is seen to have many problems.  Jack struggles intermittently with alcoholism and chronic job dissatisfaction. Rebecca longs to be a professional singer but never makes it happen. She doesn’t appear to have any other personal goals or interests, and devotes herself primarily to parenting. Kate has a serious eating disorder that has led to her being extremely overweight. Following her mother’s pattern, she has no concrete professional or personal goals beyond the desire to become a singer. In her case, there has been no formal training even for that.  Kate’s fiancé, Toby, spends much of his time trying to understand and placate her insecurities and relationship ambivalence.  Kevin is a TV star but blew up his career with an on-set temper tantrum. He is a handsome womanizer who sabotaged his marriage to his high school sweetheart.  When he gets a second chance with her and with his acting career, he has an accident and develops an addiction to painkillers. Randall is the son who appears to have the most stable family life, with a beautiful wife and two daughters.  At the show’s outset he is on a quest to find the biological father who left him at birth. He has a history of panic attacks that revolve around his perfectionism. While he is financially successful, he, too, impulsively quits his job for an as-yet undefined, more fulfilling destiny.  Like Toby’s character, Randall’s wife Beth is portrayed as orienting toward stabilizing and supporting a more fragile partner.

In the second season a family therapy session is conducted as part of Kevin’s stay in rehab.  Old resentments surface, including Kevin’s perception that he wasn’t loved as much as his siblings.  Kevin’s argument is that Randall was mother’s favorite, while Kate was closest to Jack.  Another theme threaded through the series is ongoing trauma resulting from Jack’s tragic accidental death while the children were still in high school.  It is implied that this trauma is the trigger for Kate’s eating disorder, and perhaps Kevin’s problems as well. The individually oriented therapist on the show appears to support this version of causes and effects, which is congruent with a traditional attachment orientation.

Perhaps Kevin was insecurely attached to parents who preferred his siblings, and perhaps Kate has been unable to move on from the death of her father. Viewed through an attachment lens, Randall’s symptoms could be explained by the abandonment of his birth parents.

It is difficult to imagine any parents more devoted to their children than Jack and Rebecca. Jack suffers from periodic relapses that involve hanging out at bars and Rebecca makes one unsuccessful attempt to tour with a band. (An effort arguably sabotaged by Jack.) Otherwise, the parents’ lives revolve around their children and their activities to a noteworthy degree.  Jack and Rebecca are positive, patient, kind, understanding, and invested in the happiness and well being of each of their children.

Coming from such a loving and supportive home, how is it possible that each of the children has such difficulty navigating life’s challenges?

The problems seen in the various family members become more comprehensible when viewed through the lens of Bowen theory.

Jack has one friend, Miguel, who is also his co-worker.  Rebecca has none.  Neither have living siblings. (A story about a brother of Jack’s has been foreshadowed.) Jack’s father was an abusive alcoholic from whom Jack has been cut off most of his adult life.  His mother is deceased and not part of the story.  Rebecca and her mother had a distant relationship that Rebecca eventually severed after mother revealed herself to have racist attitudes.  (In keeping with a traditional orientation, this decision to cut off is presented as a positive action taken by a protective parent.) No other family connections are apparent.

Jack and Rebecca are thought to have an ideal relationship.  Miguel, who marries Rebecca long after Jack dies, describes his new wife’s first marriage this way: “They were one. There was no Jack, there was no Rebecca, there was just Jack and Rebecca.” (Season 2, Episode 12, “Clooney”)

Murray Bowen wrote:

In general, the more a nuclear family is emotionally cut off from parental families, the higher its incidence of problems and symptoms.  P. 264

Impairment of one or more children.  This is the pattern in which parents operate as a we-ness to project the undifferentiation to one or more children…There are two main variables that govern the intensity of the process in the nuclear family.  The first is the degree of the emotional isolation, or cutoff,  from the extended family…The second important variable has to do with the level of anxiety.” P.379

Jack and Rebecca come across as devoted, yet insecure parents. They long to do things perfectly, but this goal seems driven by fears of discomfort in the children and an endless quest to make them feel loved. Principles are subordinated by worry.  A good example of this occurred in a recent episode when Jack takes Kate out for ice cream, even though both he and Rebecca are worried about her weight and food obsession. (This vignette also illuminates the parental triangle: Rebecca is upset about being the “bad guy” to Jack’s “good guy”. Jack appears to agree with her, but then reverts to “good guy” when he’s alone with Kate and gives in to her demands for ice cream.  He says he won’t do it again when confronted later by Rebecca.)

The following quote by Murray Bowen is apt:

A shift toward togetherness of a family level can be illustrated by the anxious teenager who demands rights and freedom. The insecure parents object, and then go along with the demands to relieve the anxiety of the moment. Now the system is in balance at a slightly increased level of regression.  P.277

This is Us is an enjoyable family drama through which many concepts of Bowen theory can be inferred.  Emotional triangles, the family projection process, child focus, fusion, cutoff, multigenerational transmission, and emotional process in society can be identified.  It is interesting that a show that has seemingly been written with a traditional psychotherapeutic perspective in mind, i.e., the effects of trauma and insecure attachment, actually holds up better as an illustration of Bowen’s natural systems theory.  It appears the writers have accurately captured a realistic family dynamic in This is Us.

References: Bowen, Murray. Family therapy in clinical practice. New York, J. Aronson, 1978.


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