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Intern Post: Script Theory and the Missionary Aspect of Family Life

In the field of psychology, which I have studied a bit, there is a theory about human behavior called “script theory” which postulates that many of our behaviors fall into certain predictable patterns—as though we were acting them out from a script. Within a family, the members take on different “roles” and may act according to previous behavior patterns. When the “scripts” of the family members are affirming and peaceful, they promote healthy family relationships. For example, a habit of greeting family members as they return home from work or school and asking about their day, listening attentively, promotes emotional intimacy.

However, because our behavioral scripts are, in some way, inherited through our experiences, someone who has not witnessed certain positive interactions in childhood may not have a script for those positive interactions later in life. Now, of course that doesn’t mean that we can’t develop new scripts after childhood, although learning them early helps tremendously. While parents indirectly train their children to disagree respectfully and work out a difference of opinion peacefully, they also offer others who witness the interaction a new script for handling disagreements. By witnessing, internalizing, and utilizing a respectful script, the person who was a witness, no matter how old they are, can begin to heal their own relationships.

I’ve found this to be true in my own life, and a source of tremendous hope. Spending time with other families, particularly those from my home parish, has given me a number of new scripts that I might not have gained otherwise. I can see how a mom handles a toddler’s emotional outburst, how a sibling consoles his brother in pain, how a couple subtly shows tender affection, or how they communicate frustration in a way that leads to a solution instead of blame. Simply by living everyday moments faithfully, they witness Christ to me and give me new “scripts” that reflect the Word of God. As Pope Francis said, “The Christian family is missionary: it announces the love of God to the world,” (Twitter, Dec. 28, 2014)

Additionally, counselors and therapists can use this theory to help people develop scripts even beyond what they have personally witnessed. A client whose behavior patterns are not helping to improve their relationships and situations can be encouraged to think creatively about what different behavioral choices they can make. Likewise, when we are open to him, the Holy Spirit can inspire and move us spontaneously to love more generously and selflessly. In practicing virtue, we develop scripts for ourselves that tend toward the good. In prayer we can call on the Lord to help us recognize those scripts that don’t reflect His Word and ask for the grace to receive new ones so that we can love as He loves us.scripts-graphic

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