Main Menu

The Togetherness Force

What we have seen and heard we announce to you too, so that you may have fellowship with us....Thus we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. (1 John 1: 3 & 4 NET)

It seems to me that instead of the experience of joy when people come together, the experience of friction, exposure, and difficulties occur.

Murray Bowen, one of the fathers of Family Therapy in describing the family interaction process describes this friction as the "togetherness force" or what I call the compliance force.

In most cases this force is usually organized around anxiety and is often brought to bare on family members or others in order to maintain compliance and to minimize the anxiety of a person or persons in a family or group.

The existence of “Whistle Blowers” in government agencies, when they resist unhealthy compliance, are good examples of people who experience the 'togetherness force". They are put under tremendous pressure to keep quiet in order to maintain the status quo and are threatened with harsh punishments when they feel compelled to challenge it.

When I was a young counselor intern I was unaware of the duel relationship I had with my employer. He was not only my employer/director he was also my acting supervisor in my profession as a marriage and family therapist. As an intern I struggled financially and was looking for ways to increase my income.  I revealed my struggle with the staff and the bookkeeper suggested that I speak with my director about how I could still be employed as an independent contractor and have the center pay for my FICA tax. When I approached my director with this request he asked me who had mentioned that to me, I mentioned the  bookkeeper, and he said that my request was impossible to fulfill and dismissed me.  Subsequently, at a later staff meeting my director asked me to stay behind because he wanted to talk to me about something.  When everyone had left the room, I was sitting in the chair across from him, he leaned forward and mentioned in a low voice that he was going to fire the bookkeeper and that he just wanted me to know that and that was all. He then dismissed me from his office. I took it for what is was, a threat directed at me in order to not make any requests like that ever again or I might also loose my position as an intern in his counseling center.

The author Harriet Lerner in the book The Dance of Anger uses the phrase “change back message" rather than "togetherness force” when describing the interaction sequence that helps to squelch change.  This force can be both internal or external. It can come from within ourselves through fears and uncertainties or it can come from people around us telling us to not rock the boat. 

Jesus and the prophets of the OT are excellent examples of those who did not comply with the “togetherness force”

Another example of the togetherness force on a very simple level can be found on Sunday morning when the pastor of a church directs the congregation during the fellowship time to, greet someone you do not know. The feeling of anxiety immediately rises and you begin to look for someone you know hoping to get out of the awkwardness of trying to greet the person you don't know.

A fairly mild illustration comes from the newly-weds' married life. Once the initial politeness has worn off, the couple begins to notice that those cute little idiosyncrasies that were once so endearing are now becoming the focus of obvious and needed change.

One might immediately recognizes from this fairly low level exposure that when people really do get together, really do know each other, that this is when the difficulty in developing relationship is truly exposed.

How is it then that the Apostle John can say his "joy is made complete"? Where is the joy in that?

Linear vs Circular Defined

This force obviously can create divisions among families and groups producing what are called linear interactions. They are interactions that only seek to dominate and project blame resulting in a win loose dynamic.

On the other hand when the “togetherness force” is mixed with an ability to accept individual self expression it can be a way for members in the family learn to grow and develop personally.

This will produce circular interactions or interactions that based out of a sense of self reflection, or an awareness of how one sees how they maybe contributing to the conflict, not seeking to win but rather to learn.

An Example Linear vs Circularity from My Own Life

Many years ago, as a young man newly out of graduate school, I was involved in a Bible Study with my wife that emphasized total honesty. There was a person in that group who made me nervous. He was loud and clearly opinionated, vigorously challenging anyone if their opinion differed from his or if he felt that others were heading in a direction that he thought was wrong. I felt that he was projecting his authority over the whole group, though he did so with very little tact and no formal theological training. One evening, during the course of our conversation I began to interact with him to correct him by carefully placing questions that would challenge him and make him see the error of his ways. After the meeting was over, while driving home, my wife mentioned to me that she noticed how angry I was in responding to this person. I was taken aback, I had not in the least noticed that this was happening, I was at that point unconscious of the level of my anger and my blindness to the togetherness force.

I have to confess at this point, that at times, and in the past very often, I have been expertly capable at blinding myself to what was actually taking place inside of me by minimizing my true feelings. This, I am quite certain was something that developed in my family of origin in order to manage anxiety and conflict. I became a person who wanted to avoid or at least manage conflict and anxiety by minimizing it, by compliance, by distancing myself, or by hiding who I was through the simple process of keeping my mouth shut. I lived by the rule, "it's better to be thought a fool than to open one's mouth and dispel all doubt". Consequently, I developed many coping behaviors, not the least of which was an ability to come across as sensitive, caring and in control even when, in reality, I was very angry or afraid. I did not know that this was a way to "hate my brother." I was in fact confirming what John says in this epistle and I was not walking in the light. With my wife's loving perceptiveness she confronted me at this point, and reluctantly, I recognized that I had a problem.

The Purpose Of Circularity

Relationships, if deeply experienced, will expose our "sin" revealing our desire to rely upon our own power to protect ourselves or inflate our egos. On the other hand relationships, if properly perceived, can also reveal the pathway to our needed restoration or what CS Lewis would describe as the work necessary for our preparation for life in Heaven; the development of self-giving love that comes from the grace of a Father who forgives our every sin.

In other words the “togetherness force” in relationships inherently creates compliance and escalates anxiety, tension and conflict, but if we can learn to use this tension and conflict to understand ourselves better in the light of our relationship to God rather than use it to dominate, blame or self protectively accomplish our own agendas, we can begin to understand what it means to be transformed by “grace”.


As I said earlier, I had a problem. Since I had committed myself to a group that was dedicated to following Jesus through radical honesty I knew at that point that I had to confess my underlying behavior to the very person that I was trying to avoid. I knew that I had to contact this brother to reveal to him my true motivations and to ask for his forgiveness.

Well, that evening I followed my conviction and made an appointment to see him the next day. When our meeting occurred I confessed what I had done and he responded to me, "I knew you were trying to murder me". At the time I was a little shocked by this description and I thought that in part this was just the hyperbolic way my friend spoke. Yet as I have come to learn, whether or not this was true of my friend's way of expressing himself, it actually hit the mark.

Listen to what John says: Everyone who hates his fellow Christian is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him. (1 John 3:15 NET) (When we see ourselves in the light of our relationship to Christ helps us develop Circularity in our relationship with others)

At that moment I was in a crisis. I was face to face with the experience of togetherness and it was producing a conflict that forced me to experience two realities at the same time.

The first reality was about me. I began to see very clearly who I was and what I wasn't, all under the glaring light of objectivity. I could not hide, I could not run, I had to face the awful truth of how I went about protecting myself and inflating my ego. I was being forced to see my fear of conflict, as well as the fear of rejection, while simultaneously facing the thought of loosing my reputation as a likable, well thought of person. My self protective facade was being ripped away, my ego was being deflated.

The second was my utter dependence upon the awareness of the depth and breath of God's grace through Jesus. Stripped of my previously unconscious agenda, I was both simultaneously uncompromisingly undone and completely restored because of the Gospel.

John would put it this way: If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. (1 John 1:8, 9 NLT)

You must understand how revolutionary the Gospel is to the dynamic of human interaction. Apparently John knew this!

This is eventually how the members of the Trinity interact cf Philippians 2

This my friend is why I think he says; "his joy is made complete." I am certain John knew how difficult relationship development could be. He knew that exposure of our dependence upon our self protective ways had to occur before healing could take place, and clearly he knew that true healing could only take place when those in need are able to live out of the grace of the Gospel, and this is the amazing grace that makes us able to love one another, broken and needy as we are.

comments powered by Disqus