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The Life Doctor

DOES YOUR family stereotype you? Are you always the sensible coper or the emotional one who needs to be looked after? Psychotherapists think that we and our families unwittingly collude to create an emotional stuck- in-the-mud.

In his new book Should You Leave?American psychiatrist Peter Kramer, cites an occasion when psychotherapist Murray Bowen broke his family emotional "triangles" so people could be themselves. During a family crisis he deliberately alienated family members who normally took his side. He wrote contradictory letters. They met for a weekend where everything exploded but Bowen held firm. And it worked. By one person breaking the pattern consistently, the others were able to take different roles. The needy sister became autonomous, the feuding brothers stopped. It revolutionised family therapy.

To test this out we asked a passive, responsible coper to be a tantrum thrower for a week. Anne, 27 (no, of course it's not her real name; how could she upset her mother?) says: "From an early age, my sister was the temperamental genius and indulged. There is this unspoken belief that my mother is a huge musical talent too, but that her children stifled her. My father does everything for Mum. My brother and I go round every Sunday to avoid upsetting her. Not my sister. They give her money, she goes round when she wants and treats my father like a taxi service. She throws tantrums if she doesn't get her own way."

Day one

No family contact. Normally I ring my mother every day. I don't. Weird.

Day two to four

Still no contact. If I didn't ring would I never speak to my mother again? Is she dead on the kitchen floor? Begin to notice how I might have been helping my mother be needy.

Day five

My sister rings me in tears. An orchestral job has been cancelled. Instead of saying "there there, there'll be another one soon", I say "you might never work again!" and throw a fit (I practised earlier). She stops crying, gets angry and gets off the line. My mother rings me. She has heard from my sister. How could I be so thoughtless? I should be supportive. I put the phone down on her. Wow. I feel scared and powerful at the same time.

Day six

The big one. For the first time in my adult life I miss Sunday lunch. No explanation, I just don't turn up. My father rings up. He reasons with me (like always) "You're upsetting your mother," I say "but what about you Dad? Are you upset? Wouldn't you rather skive off too and go fishing?" This is a first too, asking my father what he thinks. He is thrown. He says "That's not the point," but I can tell he's tempted. Maybe he'll rebel too!

Day seven

My mother rings me up. She is not hysterical. She says, "are you all right?" My mother has never asked me this before. For some reason, I become tearful. Another first. My mother is quite nice really. She says, "You don't have to come round on Sundays, you know." I am amazed.

"Families can get into established patterns," agrees Viv Gross, clinical director at the Institute of Family Therapy. "And we co-construct how we are; it's not just one-sided. Ideally families are more flexible. "If you want to start making changes, timing is very important. Don't do it during a big life-changing event. Think through the likely consequences. Even a tiny change may make a big difference. Be careful because different families will have different responses. Some people will just get defensive.

"You can test the water by having an `as if' conversation. Say to a particular person, `what would happen if I behaved like this?' That way they're not so shocked when it happens. But if you do decide on a change of behaviour be consistent. It's easy to give in."