Love, Bowen Theory, and COVID-19
- April 15, 2020
- Ann Depner, LCSW
- 12 Comments
“People speak glibly of love as if it is a well defined entity.”
Murray Bowen, Family therapy in Clinical Practice, p. 419
That clutch in my gut when my son called to say there were three COVID deaths and a shortage of masks at his workplace – was that love? And how about that urge I felt to call him back the very next day? Recalling the fearful tone in his voice, I could almost feel the whirling blades over my head, outing me as a helicopter parent. Was my baby okay??
But I opted not to call. My “baby” is 32 years old and a competent occupational therapist, well able to manage his spike of anxiety. And I knew he could do it faster if I contained my own anxiety rather than lobbing it back at him. Hmm… Maybe that restraining insight was love.
Murray Bowen, the psychiatrist who developed Bowen Family Systems Theory, was not one to make arbitrary statements about a squishy concept like love. And while I also try to avoid arbitrary statements, I’ve thought a lot about love since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and its potential for “flattening the curve.” So in this time of coronavirus, and with Bowen theory as my backdrop, allow me to share my thoughts on the matter:
- The human experience of love is based on mammalian instincts we’ve inherited to mate, form pair bonds, and care for our young. Raising our young is a long-term, demanding affair, which makes the two-parent family well suited to the task. The hormonal dance between committed partners and between parents and children keeps the whole process going. Instinct is the ground of my energetic protective response to my son. But that instinct feels like love.
- Most often I think of love as a feeling. It can flare dramatically, as in “falling in love,” infused with fiery passion but prone to quickly fading. Or it can develop in a less gripping but more enduring form such as fondness or admiration. Bowen saw feelings in general as the conscious awareness of the body’s state of arousal or “emotional state.” We humans share such emotional states with our mammalian ancestors. But perhaps they lack capacity to identify and manage particular feelings like love or fear.
- Ah, there’s the rub. With some effort, I can identify and manage my feelings. Unlike the mama bear who is biologically bound to protect her threatened cub, I can notice when I’m feeling urgently protective and decide if enacting that urge will actually help my son (or whoever might be the object of my solicitous attention!)
- Then again, sometimes love is not about feeling at all. It’s a deliberate assessment of the greatest good for the greatest number. Early in the corona pandemic, I reluctantly moved to cancel a dinner party my husband and I had planned. I didn’t really think that we or any of our invited guests were much less apt to contract COVID-19 as a result. But by sacrificing what would probably have been a harmless and enjoyable evening for a few, I played a part in helping the many.
- And because I live and socialize in a relationship system, when friends and family saw me taking a principled stand – even on a relatively trivial matter like a dinner party – it affected them. As Bowen described human systems, each member continually affects every other member. Thus I have reason to believe that my stand on the dinner party may have influenced others to take similar, deliberately loving stands. Like a virus, love is contagious.
- Love calls me to temper my instinctually-based feelings with thoughtful planning for constructive results. Recently, I was excited to see an old friend on my weekly trip to replenish groceries. I swooped in for a hug, then backed off in horror as I realized I had totally blown the social distance contract. My aim is to learn from this, maybe laugh at it, and at some point in the future, to deal with my instincts spontaneously before they take over the show. Bowen would call this the “integration of differentiation of self.”
I would call it love – in the time of coronavirus, or any other time.
Ann Depner, LCSW
WPFC faculty member