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Any TFM situation is based on tensions, both unacknowledged and acknowledged.

There are two types of tension:

There’s tension as in when you’re feeling an emotional or mental strain which incidentally, is likely to be felt as physical tension over time, e.g. neck, back, shoulders, jaws. That feeling of tension that you have at times, say for instance, when someone makes a request that you want to say no to but have a fear of confrontation, is driven not necessarily by what the other person actually is thinking, feeling and doing (although it might be to an extent) but on your own associations, so in this case, with requests, saying no.

There’s also tension in the sense of there being strained relations. One or both of you knowing that there’s a problem, or that you don’t get on, or that there are conflicting ideas, expectations and even demands.

The tension is about the way that you each of you are feeling and perceiving each other, your own thoughts and feelings and the overall energy of the situation, so assumed or expected roles, expressed and unexpressed feelings and thoughts, past experiences, perceptions of power so superior vs inferior, and trying to anticipate and predict what’s next – these are typical sources of tension in TFM situations.

When you look at dynamics in families or in your interpersonal relationships in general, you will see that we’re all ‘guilty’ of slipping into roles that don’t always represent who we are but that we also tend to take up roles that serve an underlying motivation.

We might need to be needed, or need to be seen a certain way, or need to be in control or need to not be in control.

We’re not in our roles alone – we take up these roles with certain people who fit around them with their own motivations, whether it’s that we’re the ones who proactively choose the role or it’s the other party proactively trying to coerce, obligate or flatter us into them.

Roles are parts that we play, not necessarily our identity although many people do self-identify by their roles which can be limiting.

Think of a role as a costume. It keeps us in our comfort zone because we have a level of predictability and it’s serving our motivations but it doesn’t necessarily lift us and can leave us feeling frustrated and even resentful about being pigeonholed.

We may not be who we truly are. In a dynamic where each party is heavily reliant on one playing one role and the other doing their part, resentment and the resulting tension is guaranteed. Each party eventually becomes frustrated with the other for being in their role and also for the expectations, with neither really owning their part. E.g. The Rescuer and The Victim. After a while, The Rescuer becomes weary of rescuing even though if they weren’t doing that, they’d probably feel uneasy about their worth and The Victim becomes tired of being pitied and even controlled but then if they weren’t being rescued, they would have to step up and take responsibility for themselves. Each will hint at their resentment and other feelings through their behaviour but won’t necessarily recognise their part in things.

There are always down sides to having a role because for instance, if you rely on needing to be needed, you will at times feel overloaded but then at others, worry that you have no value or get into dodgy romantic relationships or situations that backfire and leave you feeling taken advantage of.

Then there’s the expressed and unexpressed feelings and thoughts. Often whatever we think we’re arguing or annoyed about is obscuring us from recognising what we’re really bothered about. The more that we swallow down our feelings and keep saying but not saying things via hinting (or keeping our mouth shut), is the worse that we feel, the more distanced that we become from our feelings and the issue, and it can become confusing about the origins of our feelings. What we don’t realise is that our feelings don’t just go away so if we’re swallowing everything to delay tension in the short term, we will hint at our feelings and thoughts with passive aggressive behaviour. We might not fully recognise the ways in which this manifests itself so are not aware of the effect of this tension on our behaviour and attitude within the dynamic and it will be the same for the other party, especially if they’re habitually passive aggressive. And so the tension keeps mounting and especially when it comes to family, there’s a lot of not saying how we really feel or saying what we really think because we’re trying to keep the peace but it comes at the price of our inner peace plus eventually the tension reaches melting point.

We also have to recognise that when we push down our true feelings and thoughts, we end up projecting, so just like the person who feels guilty about feeling an attraction to someone else then starts to accuse her existing partner of having an affair, those feelings and thoughts that are being pushed down by fear, guilt and a sense of obligation around family can often be projected as behaviour by the other party.

You might be familiar with this if your TFM is accusing you of stuff and saying that you feel certain things that just aren’t true.

Past history plays a huge role in tension and will heavily influence how much has been said and left unsaid, what boundaries have been had or not had, and ultimately our perception of our rights and responsibilities in that dynamic. The more unresolved past history, with ‘unresolved’ meaning not addressed and healed, is the more that we’re dancing around ticking timebomb. On top of this, past history unaddressed and unrecognised leads to patterns that affect our other relationships so we have the tensions from those plus the actual history with that person. We might think that they failed us or that we failed them. We might think that they don’t like us or that they think that we’re not good enough, or that they have a favourite, or that we’re “weak” or too something, or that they still have an issue about something we did that we’re also bothered about because we felt rejected or judged. Next thing, we’re trying to right the wrongs of the past with them or trying to do it via other relationships. We don’t see where we’re looking for validation, or corrections, or to even have what we feel is the debt that needs to be repaid. Note that past history does not always have to be about shared history.

A person who feels guilty about something they did to another family member or even someone outside the family might project that on to you if they feel guilty about it or you remind them of the other party.

If each party is focused on power (or one is) then it will become about superiority and inferiority and somebody is not going to like how they’re coming out on the end of that. Two people trying to be superior and you’ve got a battle for supremacy and control or at the very least, two people trying to be right which means that one has to be “wrong” or a “loser”. And going back to roles— if somebody has been lording it up over us and we’re suddenly seeing it, they won’t like that feeling of things changing even though it’s the right for the relationship and we might feel bad about the changes and looking for validation and round and round we go.

When there’s underlying tension, we also start to get a bit antsy, either because we’re using past experiences to predict what we think might happen next (which might be inaccurate but also be a case of re-pissing us off in advance of something happening that hasn’t actually happened) and we’re also living in the past and both affect our mindset, attitude and behaviour because we are unable to be conscious, aware and present. Our response can’t be based in the present so we may be blinded by certain biases towards the past that aren’t differentiating between that and the present. We may perceive a threat that isn’t there and we might under-react or in some instances, go to the other end of the spectrum.


  • Tension can be prompted by real and imagined concerns and evidence.
  • All of us bring at least a little baggage into a situation that feels like a conflict, it’s just not always easy to see it in the moment.
  • Even if we didn’t consciously choose a role, we must acknowledge if we have indeed functioned in a role that has contributed to tension that we feel about us or the other party.
  • A lot of tension is projection so if we can get to an honest place about our real feelings and perceptions, we can engage from an authentic place and know that we’re taking responsibility.
  • Ironically, a lot of what builds up the tension is doing things in the moment, in the short-term to delay tension our of fear of confrontation and trying to keep the peace.

Journal PromptJOURNALING: What is the baggage that each of you are bringing into the situation? It doesn’t have to be ‘big’ on your end but is there anything from the past and your habits that influences how you feel and respond in this TFM situation? Try to step back and see if you can recognise any of the TFMs baggage that influences the way in which they engage with you – it depersonalises it but also allows for empathy. For instance, I have found that members of my father’s family have a style of conflict that is very clannish and ganging up and of course it hurts but they do it based on a habit that has built over years of avoiding confrontation, blanking out stuff, going silent etc in order to cope with very painful situations. Make a note of the sources of tension so that you begin to form a clearer picture of what is really going on here. You’ve both been on a journey up to this point so it’s not just one thing – it’s a series of things leading to this juncture that maybe at the time one or both of you didn’t see as being as relevant.

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