'Family math' doesn't always add up

Figuring out how families work can sometimes seem a lot like solving a rather complicated math problem.

When we are confronted with a series of numbers that are to be added, subtracted, divided, multiplied, etc. ... the first thing we do is sort out which numbers are involved in what operations, and what order they need to be done in. We work on each of these smaller problems to eventually come up with our final solution.

In this process, we rely on certain generally accepted rules of mathematics.

For example, we agree that one plus one equals two or twelve divided by three equals four. We couldn't do a math problem unless we had such rules. They make sense out of what otherwise would seem like nonsense.

There are likewise certain rules about families that can help us sort out how they work and can help us solve family problems when they arise. These rules, however, are often at odds with the rules we learned in grade school arithmetic or high school math. Let's look at some of these differences.

1. In regular math, one equals one (1 = 1). In family math, one sometimes equals one, but not necessarily. A person may think, feel or act one way one minute (i.e., seem to obey certain predictable rules), and differently the next (as though the rules have suddenly changed).

We just can't depend on a person being consistent or predictable. People don't always make sense. It's like one can equal one, or one and a half, or at times even two.

2. In regular math, one plus one equals two (1 + 1 = 2). In family math, one plus one is greater than two.

When we bring two people together in marriage, we create something more than just two people living together. The marriage itself takes on a rich, complex, and unique life of its own.

And when we add a couple of kids, the richness, complexity and uniqueness of such a larger family increase even more. A family, then, is always more than the sum of its parts.

3. In regular math, four minus one equals three (4 - 1 = 3). In family math, however, four minus one still equals four. Here we're talking about what happens when a person leaves a family.

When a child grows up, or a husband and wife divorce, or a family member dies, we tend to assume that person is "gone." They're not, though. Families continue to function in many ways as though those people were still there. They live on in our memories. And many of the patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviors that centered around those people remain a part of our family life.

4. In regular math, four divided by two equals two. In family math, four divided by two equals two times three.

What happens when family members are divided through divorce? In effect, we create two new families. Let's say the family in question consists of a mother, father, and two children. Through divorce, we wind up with two families, each with three persons (a single parent and both children). Each of these families will develop a personality, a style and a tradition of its own.

5. In regular math, we can say, "A causes B." In family math, we have to say that A causes B which causes A which causes B, and so on.

This probably takes us out of math and into logic. (I was never very good at either.)

Most of us see cause and effect as being "linear" - something comes first, which causes something else. In families, however, we need to see cause and effect as "circular."

Just as in a circle, there is no real start or beginning to what happens at any given time in a family. When a husband and wife argue, it may seem like he started it by using such a sarcastic tone. But what about her response - a stony silence (which he may have anticipated, contributing to the anger that was expressed through his sarcasm)? And didn't her silence provoke him to even more sarcasm (and then her to more silence)?

Though I'm pretty good at understanding families, as I said, I was never all that good at math, so I think I'll stop while I'm ahead. As you've guessed, I'm trying to make a point with all this.

Just as in mathematics, there are certain rules that apply to families. Of course, it is not as easy in families to sort out who is involved in what, or what's going on, or what needs to be done. But the rules are there nonetheless.

In fact, our families live by these rules all the time; we just don't always recognize it.

I wonder what would happen if we spent as much time learning family math as we do regular math. I bet our families might work a lot more smoothly if we did.

• Dr. Ken Potts is on the staff of Samaritan Counseling Center in Naperville and Downers Grove. He is the author of "Mix Don't Blend, A Guide to Dating, Engagement and Remarriage With Children."