Reflections on The Peace Family Project: One Family’s Story



Dean and Jenny have been recruiting families that are beset by Tempers, Fighting, Bickering, and other forms of contention to join others in becoming a “Peace Family.” Dean came upon this idea interviewing various family members about their preferences for “peace” in their family life. Many spoke against hostility and violence in their own histories, their current lives, in the media, and in the culture at large.
They wanted to draw the line at permitting such ways of relating into their own homes and lives. They were willing to band together to protest the effects of a culture that condones violence within families. For example, they went to such measures as turning off TV at times, not buying violence-supporting products, signing “non-proliferation treaties,” or circulating peace proclamations announcing their peaceful intentions.

Reflections on the Peace Family Project: One family’s story

Sandy searched under the sink for the dish detergent. A rank odor from the overflowing garbage can crawling with ants assailed her nose. “Alex.” she yelled, the familiar anger making her face burn. She anticipated with dread the familiar power struggle with her 11 year old step son. ‘Why can’t he just do this one damn thing?’ she muttered to herself ‘He is so spoiled!’ The usual excuses from Alex would be followed by his threats, his tantrum, and finally a lengthy bout of sulleness punctuated by fights with his brother Ray. ‘Why didn’t he take out the garbage sooner? Why do always I have to be the one to stay on him?’

Alex’s begrudging whine of “What d’ ya want?” filled her ears. As she turned towards his voice, a piece of paper caught her eye and triggered her memory. She had told their family therapist Dean a month before exactly what she wanted to happen in her new family of under two years. Foremost, she wanted her husband Jackson to deal with this kind of “garbage” himself. He needed to accomplish this without setting her up by blowing up at Alex when she complained about him. Jackson defended Alex by saying that she was “obsessively neat.”

She had made a commitment not to “smoulder” but instead to confront Jackson directly and honestly. Jackson had made a commitment to listen and care about Alex’s frustrations and worries and hold him to his promises. It was all laid out in black and white on the “Peace Agreement” taped to the phone machine at the end of the counter.

“I’m bored.” Alex grabbed the remote control for the TV out of his brother Ray’s hand. His step-mother Sandy and he had been battling over the “coming-home-from-school routine” ever since he stepped inside the door. He had been eating his after-school snack for what seemed like only 10 seconds before she had began to bug him about his errands and homework. Oh man, he’d had enough of that kind of thing at school. Some adult wanting him to do some thing in an endless parade of “you have to’s” punctuated by a few precious moments of “kickin’ it” with his friends. What was the point?

Alex hit the channel button ripping his younger brother’s cartoon from the screen. Ray let out a piercing screech. Nine-year-old Ray felt the urge to hit Alex hard, but since he knew Alex’s revenge would exact a lot more pain from him than he could deliver, he resisted. Just as he was about to emit a second car-alarm-wail (hopefully loud enough to bring Sandy’s protection and reprimand of Alex.), he was startled by Alex handing the remote back to him and telling him to put his show back on.

Ray was momentarily flabbergasted, but then he saw something that made him remember why Alex might concede the battle for the remote without a fight–a scrap of paper with the words PEACE CONTROL written on it was taped to its back.

During the family therapy meeting of a month earlier, Sandy her husband Jackson, and his sons Alex and Ray had faced the fighting in their home and laid the ground for these peacemaking ideas with their therapist Dean. The meeting had started with Sandy laying out her desparation about the family dynamics.

“Do you think your’e on your way to being portrayed as an evil stepmother?” Dean asked.

Sandy looked at Dean, with quickly reddening eyes. “I used to think that June, Jackson’s ex-wife, was a shrew. She had nothing about complaints about him, but now I hate to say I understand what she was talking about. I’m the first one to leave for work in the morning and first one to come home so I’m the one who’s there to watch Alex when he stays with us.”

“Yesterday I was looking down at a sink full of breakfast dishes and thinking ‘Why couldn’t Jackson or one of the boys clean these up before he goes to work or school? How come they’re waiting for me when I come home?’ and it struck me that I’m the one who’s left with the dirty messes in this family and that when I say how I feel about it I’m the new shrew.”

“So, do you think that evil step-mothers are created when they try to clean up their husband’s family messes for them?”

“That a strange way to say it but it sounds true for me.”

“And that if they ask him to do it himself, they’ll be seen as a nagging shrew?”

“Uh huh.”

“It’s not just the dishes though. I heard you saying earlier that they are a symbol, right? Do you mind if I clarify with you what you feel the real mess is that you have to clean up?”

“No I don’t. It’s the conflicts in his relationships. The unfinished stuff with his ex, his family, and the problems that kids typically have with their mothers that he leaves to me–doing house jobs, forgetting homework, getting to bed, cleaning their room–that kind of stuff. He just lets them go and they build up and fester until I can’t stand it anymore. I guess I walked into it really thinking that it was all June’s stuff and that I could do better. Well, I should have known better. After pride comes the fall and I’ve sure fallen hard!”

“Was that the ‘devil’s bargain’ that led you unwittingly into the ‘evil step-mother’ role?” asked Dean.

“You could put it that way, yeah. Jackson and I fight over this all the time.”

“What would you advise yourself and other women who might find themselves in a similar situation to do about this?”

“Smoldering in resentment or self-blame doesn’t help. I’ve got to confront him directly and honestly about which of his conflicts are getting dumped on me.”

“So you think that if you confronted Jackson directly and honestly instead of smoldering he could resolve the relationship conflicts you would be handing back to him?”

“It would be hard for me to let him struggle with it because he wouldn’t do it the way I would do it. But I could respect his way of doing it if he really did deal with the conflict and not just blow up at the person, make excuses for them, or tell me I was making a mountain out of a molehill.”


“That’s not the way I want it!” asserted Jackson. “I grew up with that stuff and I hated it. Every time my old man got pissed at what I did he’d slap me around or put me down with insults. I don’t know which was worse. I don’t want to do that to my boys or the women in my life. I swore to myself that I never would and now here I am doing the same type of thing. Where will it all end?”

“Do you feel surrounded by a culture of violence?” asked Dean.

“Yeah, its everywhere,” agreed Jackson. “On the street, on the news, on TV, in the movies, its even in the cartoons they make for the kids.”

“It’s a challenge to get out of a long-term pattern of violent behavior when your’re immersed in a culture that supports it, isn’t it? Especially for a man, when so many male images equate heroism with being aggressive–like in sports.”

“Uh huh,” murmured Jackson, “especially for a man in my business. Most of the guys I’m around every day don’t know how to settle anything without threats. Jeez, I wish my sons didn’t have to experience this everywhere, especially not at home. I wish I could at least raise my own sons in a peaceful, non-violent home environment.”

Just two days before this conversation, Alex, and Ray had been dropped off by their step-mother at their father’s work place. Jackson had been trying to get his work done when a fight broke out between them.

“I had really had it up to here.” Jackson explained, waving his hand a foot over his head. “I needed to do business with my customers on the phone and they were at again. Something just snapped and I lost it. I was smacking them around and screaming at the top of my lungs. I swore to myself I’d never raise my hand after what my father did to me but there I was breaking my own vow.” Jackson paused with a catch in his voice.

“I need another way to handle this dammit. The way I did it last Thursday just isn’t Okay. with me and its not the role model I want for them either. I’m becoming more irritable and impatient with them all the time. That’s not the kind of father I want to be. That’s the way my old man was–always bristling with anger.”

“It sounds like you’re really looking for a different way to handle the boy’s conflict and your feelings as well.”

“Yeah. I’m fed up with myself and the fighting between them. Ever since I was divorced they haven’t been able to be together without a major fight. My ex-wife and I have to split them up. Most of the time, I have Ray and she’s got Alex. Last year I tried to take both of them on a vacation and we had to turn around and drive back because they couldn’t be in the car together.”

“You tried to have a vacation together with them and the fighting came along with you?”

“Yeah, we couldn’t get away from it. They brewed up a spat in the back seat. I blew my top in the front. Sandy was surrounded with testosterone. That’s no way to have a good time.”

Alex interrupted his father. “It was better before you married Sandy, Dad. She’s bossy and she made you mean. First she gets on my case and then she convinces you to do it too. I wanna stay at mom’s full time.”

Ray disagreed: “If you did what she asked you to Alex instead of giving her a hard time, she wouldn’t have to go to Dad.”

“Shut up Ray, you don’t know anything.”

“You shut up.”

Jackson gave Dean a forlorn look. “See what I mean?”

“Alex doesn’t respect me.” Sandy added, then turned from Dean to Alex saying. “I’m not asking you to do what I want. I am asking you to do what’s right, like clean up your room and do your homework. I need your Dad to support me because he’s at work and I’m home alone with you and you need to listen to me. That’s why I go to him and tell him to tell you to do that.”

Alex appealed to Dean. “She makes it sound like she doesn’t pick on me for every little thing.”

Jackson jumped back into the fray: “Alex leave your brother alone and don’t talk about Sandy like that!”

Dean interrupted the beginning of another spat by asking Jackson, “Is it Okay with you if I talk with the boys about the fighting?”

“Be my guest.”

“Ray,” said Dean pointing to a shelf full of sandtray toys, “Would you be interested in going over there and picking out an animal that’s like the fighting that goes on in your family.”

While Ray headed over to inspect the array of miniature figures, Dean turned to Alex. “Was what just happened a good example of the kind of fighting that can take over in your father’s house.”

“Uh huh, that’s pretty typical.”

“How does the fighting work its ways? What would the next move be for you in this fight?”

“What do you mean–‘next move’?”

“I mean you said something about Sandy, Ray said something about you, Sandy said something about your Dad, and your Dad said something about you.”

“Oh, I guess it’s time for me to say something about Ray again or I could go after Sandy. It doesn’t matter who I said something about, pretty soon Dad would go off.”

“You’re pretty smart at figuring this out. Do you mind if I ask you another question?”


“Could someone else start something that would make you go off?”

“Yeah. Sandy does that when she goes to dad and Ray does it when he goes to Sandy.”

“Is there anyone that anyone else couldn’t make go off?”

After a moment’s calculation Alex concluded, “Nope.”

Just then Ray turned around with a Lion in his hand saying, “When someone goes off it’s like a lion roaring. But the roaring starts when somebody steps on his tail.”

“Hey, does that mean you could catch fighting by the tail before it turns someone in the family into a roaring lion?” asked Dean.

This question set off a roar of laughter and spate of Lion puns:

“If I catch you Lion around, I’ll step on your tail.”

“When I tell tails nobody better step on them.”

“If you think that’s funny, your Lion.”

“Would you rather roar with laughter than start an uproar?” asked Dean.

Alex and Ray agreed that a “naughty” uproar was a fun thing but that a family fight full of hurt feelings and hitting really stunk.

Dean asked each family member if they would be interested in getting the bad kind of fighting out of their house. They all expressed interest in this and were curious to talk about how this might work.

Jackson replied earnestly, “I’d do anything to keep violence and fighting out of my life and my family. A home should be sweet and peaceful not scary and hostile.”

Jackson’s words helped Dean to focus on a variety of musings he had had reverberating in his head for many years. He reflected on the sociological changes he had witnessed in his own lifetime and how these affected both the familes he saw and what he had to deal with as a family therapist.

Divorce, Dean reflected, was no longer a rarity but an expectable life event (Carter & McGoldrick, 1988). It had changed the shape of many a family and children’s roles within it. Children gained new relations that are hard to name– producing explanations such as “my step-mother’s step-child who lives with us during the summer.” New multi-modal gender, cultural, and economic roles and structures are being created by alternative lifestyles. Periodic migrations take place across religious backgrounds, racial identities, sexual preferences, and economic statuses. Children become shuttle diplomats or shuttlecocks in a game of parental badminton.

In Dean’s mind the family violence that boys and men participated in was woven into these changes. He remembered a time many years before when he was about to give a talk on his ideas about male disconnection, jealousy, and violence. That same week, he had read in the newspaper about a newly divorced man who lived in a nearby town who had murdered his wife’s lover, his wife, his two children, and then himself. Maybe it was due to the pensive state he was in from dwelling on these topics in preparation for his talk, or maybe it was the sheer nihilism of the man’s desperation but he had been seared with his own memories of lovers lost to other men–the shame, the rage, the fantasies of revenge….it was frightening to face these potentials.

The information age family had morphed into a recombinant structure during Dean’s career life. Sub-nuclear family parts combined into an unprecidented variety of blended and step-family configurations. Some of the questions he had to think about as a family therapist included: How do the changing male/female roles in these families get worked out? What myths, rituals, and rites of passages are we developing to meet the challenges of family relationships of our age?

For complex reasons, a male’s expected and exclusive role as an emotional protector or financial provider for his mate and children seems to have gone the way of previous predominantly male roles such as hunter and warrior. Are the roles men played in the primitive horde, the clan, the extended family, and many of those in the nuclear family as well, anachronisms in the informational age? One thing these roles have in common is that they require only a limited development of the capacity to create affectional bonds. Men can no longer replace these bonds with instrumental roles like provider and protector. Especially within new forms of family life, men can’t rely on biological mother’s to maintain the affectional work or play for them. They can’t rely on blood ties to form those bonds with their step children.

Carol Gilligan (1982) in her critique of the male bias of Lawrence Kohlberg’s work on moral development points out that the female focus on affiliation and attachment is often construed as a less developed moral stance than the individual vs. society philosophy that characterizes male responses to moral dilemmas. Is this focus actually the more adaptive stance now? Could it be that in order to adapt to new family roles, males must develop their capacity to attach, affiliate and develop the kind of affectional bonds that a recombinant family requires?

There is painfully little sociocultural support for males in our age to deepen their capacity to attach to and affiliate with non blood-related children, ex-wives, or in-laws for that matter. Is the ability to develop emotional attachments beyond ingrained biological, legal, and culturally supported relations is a primary developmental task for men in the informational age? What would the impact be on hopes for world peace if this can’t be accomplished? At a recent conference entitled “Peacemaking: the Power of Nonviolence”, convened with three Nobel Peace Laureates, and many other Peace workers globally, the focus began with personal peace and peace in the family, moving on through peace in schools and local societies, on to global peace. At this conference, Martin Luther King Jr. was quoted as saying:

“Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality”.

Isn’t the recombinant family structure an ideal “site” for this lesson? It presents a multitude of opportunities to create and nourish affectional bonds with non-related step-parents, step-siblings, and extended step-family members. The challenge is to accomplish this without breaking the bonds with non-custodial parents, their families and ex-spouses. It is a truly a fertile ecological niche for an adaptation to a new type of male socialization.

Shouldn’t men like Jackson as well as men in nuclear families prepare their sons for the likelihood that they will be a child or a father in a recombinant family instead of a blood-related family or be required to flourish in a diverse and shifting work environment instead of a tribe or a family farm? Shouldn’t therapists who are working with recombinant families, single-parent families, same-sex couple families and their members be challenged to articulate the emergence of a new story or myth for males in these families? In this story, fathers teach their sons how peace begins with their relationships at home, extends to their future mates and families and spreads to their relations with others on the planet.

When Dean was talking with Jackson, Sandy, Alex, and Ray, these thoughts had just begun to gell. It was only later that he realized his global dreams had coalesced into an idea for simple local action. At the time, he was moved by how Jackson wanted his family to be a cultural site for peace instead of violence.

Dean had become aware of how the idea of a creating an alternative cultural site could be utilized in therapy from his studies with Michael White (Epston & White, 1992: White,1989, 1991, 1995). White’s scholarship had renewed his interest in his half-forgotten readings of Michele Foucault (1965, 1990) and Erving Goffman (1961) in the early 70’s. White and David Epston’s application of these ideas had amazed him (Epston et. al. 1995a; White & Epston, 1990). Especially Epston’s Anti-anorexia league (Madigan & Epston, 1995; Epston, Morris & Maisel 1995b). Their idea was elegant in its simplicity. If a dominant culture imposed an internal conformity to its norms then an alternative cultural network could be developed to support liberation from those oppressive conventions.

Now Dean was witnessing Jackson hungering for changes that stood in contrast to the culture of violence and old fashioned expectations of family roles. Jackson wanted to be an island of peace in a cultural sea of “might makes right”. At heart Jackson supported his wife who did not want to carry on a gender role that set her up for failure. In response, Dean did not mention male socialization, gender roles, information ages, affectional bonds, cultural sites, anti-anorexia, or Narrative therapy. Instead, the words just slipped out: “You all seem interested in creating a peace family! How would you like to start a peace family project?”

Several members of the family nodded in unison. Alex muttered “yeah, why not”. Dean next step was to ask Alex and Ray to help him make a colorful map of the house, which they set to keenly. On a sketch of the house plan they filled in the areas that fighting had control over with various shades of red designating how hot the area was. This mapping revealed that the hottest area was the boy’s room and that the hottest spot was the TV–actually they had determined it was the remote control not the TV itself the deserved that distinction. Their parents had listened avidly relating their own bickering to that of the boys.

“Is a peace family a family that has devoted itself to bring peace ‘back home?'” Dean mused.” Peace to their interactions with each other, across gender differences, generations, and kin relations. Is it also about a feeling of serenity for each individual member–a chance to “shed your skin” or “be yourself and be accepted and respected.”

So many external forces divide and conquer family relationships not only by encouraging disrespectful and conflictual interactions but by imposing internal self-regulation and by intimidating, disqualifying and silencing any protest. Dean understood the perennial remote control fight as a classic example and found its parallel in the daily power imbalances of such things as age, gender, race, or economics.

American children like Alex and Ray are expected to conform to group norms–to “fit in,” “be considerate,” “think of others rather than just themselves.” Certainly these are worthwhile communal values, but these children live in an individualistic society that actively discounts relational values and glorifies individualistic accomplishments like aggression, winning, and making money. What are children like Alex supposed to do with contradictions like these. Everyday they experience dominating people gaining the rewards, might making right. Sensitivity and caring are the attributes of sissies.

Is it really that much different for Jackson as a worker or Sandy as a worker and a woman? As Foucault (1965) pointed out: If you speak up and protest you’ll be silenced through internal or external discipline. R.D. Laing (Laing & Esterson, 1970) used the term “mystification” to describe the bit of crazy making business that occurs when someone gives up on trying to be articulate about this kind of stuff and just starts acting destructive or weird. Isn’t this situation the one that Gregory Bateson and Don Jackson (Bateson, 1971, Jackson 1967) described as a “double bind?”

When Alex comes home from a day at school its no wonder he finds his little brother a convenient target for his frustration and domination. Ray responds in kind seeking out a an ally (Sandy) to equalize the power imbalance he experiences. As Betty Carter explicated it if Sandy follows the gender role prescription to maintain the mothering role for her husbands blood related children she’s going to end up being assigned the role of evil step-mother (Walters et. al. 1988). The kids will resent her intrusion into their relationship with their father and her attempts to replace their mother.

Her husband will not feel compelled to form a “mothering” relationship with his children himself. He won’t have the cultural support for developing those qualities in himself–he will be culturally supported in finding a “replacement mother.” He won’t have the cltural support to develop the internal qualities necessary to deal with the resolving the conflicts necessary to maintain a functional parenting relationship with his ex-wife. He’ll be culturally supported to rigidify the conflict by becoming emotional cut-off from her.

Dean had learned the hard way over the years that these cultural contradictions easily escape therapeutic attention. When the family or its members and not the problems end up in therapy then therapy becomes another cultural site for discipline, diagnosis, and confirming the status quo. Dean, Richard Maisel, and Jennifer Freeman wrote (Lobovits et al. 1995) that cross-fertilizing families with different ideas that they themselves generate– ideas like the ones that come out of a Peace Family Project– helps to develop an alternative cultural site–one that puts mystifying processes and dominant cultural contradictions on the spot and the family off of it.

Charles Waldegrave, Kiwi Tomasesee, Flora Tuhaka , and Warihi Campbell (Waldegrave 1990, 1991; Tomasese & Wladegrave, 1993) had inspired Dean, Jennifer Freeman, and David Epston (1997) to write:

Many family and child problems are not entirely of our individual making or under our individual control. Rather, they reside in the imbalances in our society–which value the individual over community, the secular over the sacred, the masculine over the feminine, money over time, the affluent over the poor, etc. These imbalances press on families, threatening to “divide and conquer” them. Fear, frustration, or desperation can take over, leading to hostility and resignation. Everyday family interactions can become tinged with bitterness, sarcasm, and accusation. (pp. 193)

“So here’s the list I’ve gathered of the most serious fighting hot spots: The dinner table at homework time; The bathroom in the morning when it gets heavy use; The car when someone wants ‘shotgun’; and The TV remote control in the boys room. Which one of these would be the best place to begin our conspiracy against fighting? Which one would prove that the peace agreements you’ve committed yourselves to are for real?”

“Let’s take a vote.” Ray suggested. Secret ballot voting seemed like a good democratic, pro-peace, anti-fighting idea. Voting as a method of choosing was agreed to by consensus (another pro-peace process). The TV remote was the winner by a landslide.

“How should we take the remote away from fighting and put it in hands of peace?” Dean asked.

Alex had an idea. “We take turns picking shows and we have a clause in our peace agreement that says that everyone has the right to control the TV when its their turn and that no one can take away that right.”

“You’re into rights aren’t you?”

“Yeah, I think respecting someone’s rights is what it’s all about.”

“Where’d you get that idea?”

“I heard about in history but I really learned it from Dad. I love when he says that he respects my right to disagree.”

“So you’re interested in expanding rights in the family?”


“Do you mind if I conduct a little experiment?”

“What is it?”

“Well let’s suppose this pen was the remote control. You sit here and Alex you sit there. Now suppose Alex is watching a program and the remote is on the table n front of him within your reach just like it is now. I’ll be Fighting and I’ll whisper in your ear and try to get you to pick it up and turn the channel. Are you game?”

“Okay, I’ll try it.”

Dean whispers in Alex’s ear, “Go on take it, you’re bigger than him what can he do about it anyway.” (Alex doesn’t pick it up.)

“Why didn’t that work?”

“He’ll just tell Sandy or Dad and it will start the Lion roaring.”

“You are quick!” “Okay here’s another one. Go on pick it up, you can threaten to kick his ass if he so much a raises a peep.” (Alex doesn’t pick it up.)

“I guess you really are committed to peace and can see how stepping on the Lion’s tail will start the roaring. I’ll have to try another tack beside intimidation huh. He did it to you last time you can tell Dad and Sandy that you’re getting even.” (Alex’s hand jerks but he still doesn’t pick it up.)

“You’re getting tough for peace, you won’t buy fighting’s excuses. Alright one last try. “Why care? Why not start a fight? Nothing’s gonna really change. You might as well blow it up here and go live with your mom!” (Alex goes for the “remote control” (pen) but then he puts it down.

“Hopelessness almost worked, didn’t it? You were tempted to give up and say ‘forget it’ weren’t you? Are you going to have to use your hope to maintain the peace?”

“I guess when I’m down I’m nasty,” admitted Alex, “and then even if I know it’s going to cause a blow up, I just don’t care.”

“How should we remind you about that fantastic pro-peace insight so you can use it against the fighting?”

“I got an idea.” Ray proposed, “Let’s put something on the TV.”

“Why not on the remote control itself?”

“Yeah, something like PEACE CONTROL.”




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