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Death, Distance and Dynamics in the Bush family

By Laura M. Benton, from the Multicultural Family Institute.

Triangles in Families

According to family therapist Murray Bowen, the two-person relationship is the basic unit of any emotional system. However, the two-person system is an unstable system in the sense that, under stress, it tends to draw in a third to stabilize, creating a three-person system of two-against-one, or two-helping-one. When the anxiety gets high enough in any one triangle, it spills over into other triangles, spreading further and further into the whole family system. Thus, triangles form when discomfort in a two-person relationship runs high and expands into other relationships in the family, binding family members into a series of repetitive interactions and roles. These interactions can develop into problematic behavior patterns in the unwitting participants of the triangle. When there is discord between two people, they commonly attempt to alleviate the discomfort by forming a triangle with a third. Families repeat themselves. According to Monica McGoldrick in the upcoming third edition of her book on Genograms (W.W.Norton, 2007), What happens in one generation will often repeat itself in the next; that is, the same issues tend to be played out from generation to generation, though the actual behavior may take a variety of forms.[and] relationship patterns in previous generations may provide implicit models for family functioning in the next generation. On the genogram, we explore patterns of functioning, relationship, and structure that continue or alternate from one generation to the next.

Using a genogram enables us to gain insight into intense familial relationships, and given the familys structure and position in the life cycle, to hypothesize about the important relationships and boundary patterns of that family. Understanding triangular patterns where two family members join against a third is essential in understanding family relationships. Detriangling is an important process through which family members free themselves from rigid triangular patterns. (Genograms 3rd ed, Ch.1) The presence of relationship triangles can be seen in the Bush family, where family members appear to be unwittingly following the patterns of triangling of previous generations as they form their own families.

Triangles in the Bush family

George Herbert Walker Bush and his wife Barbara had three young children (George W., age 6, Robin, age 3, and Jeb, a newborn) at the time that their middle child, Pauline Robinson Bush whom the family called Robin, was diagnosed with leukemia. Robin was named for Barbaras mother who had been killed in a car accident (in which her husband was driving), just three months before Robin was born. The parents never told George that she was ill, though they did instruct him to stop playing with her, his major playmate, because she was becoming more frail. During Robins illness, both parents spent a lot of time away from their home in Midland, Texas, taking her to Memorial Sloan Kettering hospital in New York, where Georges uncle, was a doctor. Robin was given treatments there and her parents stayed in the uncles apartment. Tragically, despite the intense treatment, Robin died two months before her fourth birthday. During her illness, George W. and Jeb, as often happens with siblings when parents must take care of one child who is very ill, were left home to be cared for by neighbors and extended family (Kelley, 131).

George and Barbara decided not to have a funeral for their daughter, and reportedly spent the day after her death on the golf course in Greenwich, CT. The paternal grandmother, Dorothy Bush, and Georges close friend Lud Ashley, arranged and buried Robin in the familys plot in Greenwich, Connecticut. George and Barbara, did not attend the burial, just as Barbara had failed to attend her own mothers funeral three months before Robin had been born. In fact, they did not even speak with young George about her illness and death, a fact which caused him to feel cheated of the chance to grieve his sister, to whom he had felt very close. His relatives recall that he was very upset and experienced nightmares and tearfulness following her death (Kelley, 142). Interestingly, in 2000, when George W. Bush was 54 years old, he had his sister moved to the same place where his parents plan to be buried in Texas.

Pauline Robinson Robin Bush

Barbara reportedly fell apart after the death of Robin, crying, retreating to isolation, grinding her teeth at night and smoking excessively. Her relationship with her husband was polite, but distant. He was absent much of the time, travelling extensively for weeks at a time in an attempt to build his business ventures and further his political connections. Since she had only distant relationships with her siblings and other family members, she was isolated, with no family support, so the responsibility of caring for her in this state fell to young George W. He reportedly tried to make his mother happy, becoming a clown to engage her and cheer her up. Feeling lonely and overwhelmed, especially after she became pregnant again just six months after Robins death, she kept young George with her. He recalled that he felt she smothered him, and he was isolated from peers because of the time he spent with her. Because of Barbaras distant relationship with her husband and her grief over the loss of her daughter, she and her oldest son George forged an intense and special relationship.

It has been suggested that this early loss and being drawn into a bond with his mother, which was part of several interlocking triangles (with her lost daughter, her lost mother, and her distant husband) influenced George Ws behavior as his life became a party, full of humor, driven by chance, shaded by fatalism and he apparently delayed his childhood and adolescence until he left home for boarding school and college. There, he became known for his raucous socializing, partying, and substance abuse. It was said that he made sure he continued his learned role of entertaining and engaging others, as there was a small party wherever he went( Kelley, 256).

The Bush Family 6 moth after Robinson's death

While this relational triangle could be seen as an isolated development , when we look at generational relationships in the Bush family, we begin to see patterns that repeat themselves. For instance, wives in the Bush family appear to serve the cause of their husbands careers, no matter the cost to their marriages and family relationships, while they develop intense bonds with their children. Like George W., George Herbert Walker was said to have an extremely close relationship with his mother, some describing this as the closest relationship in his life (Kelley, 330), and he too had a distant but admiring relationship with his father, Prescott Sheldon Bush, who was an alcoholic, was occasionally verbally aggressive with his wife, and was a physically aggressive disciplinarian of his children. He pursued his political career with fervor and was said to have a hot temper.

Interestingly, George W. also suffered the effects of alcoholism, was said to be verbally aggressive with his wife Laura during that time, and developed the same political drive as his paternal grandfather. It is no wonder that they share such similarities, since George W. and his grandfather Prescott were both the oldest children in families where the second sibling died at age three, and where fathers travelled extensively for work.

The Bush Family


Bowen on Triangles March 1974 Workshop transcribed and edited by Ken Terkelsen, M.D. pp46-47.
McGoldrick, M., Gerson, R., Petri, S. Genograms, 3rd edition (in press, 2007), New York: W.W. Norton.

Bush Family
Frank, Justin (2004). Bush on the couch: Inside the mind of a president.
Kelley, K. (2004). The family: The real story of the Bush dynasty. New York: Doubleday.
Minutaglio, B. (2001). First son: George W. Bush and the Bush family dynasty. New York: Three Rivers Press.
Phillips, K. (2004). American dynasty: Aristocracy, fortune, and the politics of deceit in the house of Bush. New York: Viking.

You can download the BushTriangles.gno file that contain all genograms displayed in this article.

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