“Every family is dysfunctional!”
“What family isn’t bat-shit crazy?”
“There is always that one member that ruins the family legacy.”
You’ve heard it all! The word ‘dysfunction’ rolls off the tongue as common as sweat drips off the brow. Because of its commonality, people have begun to normalize that dysfunctional families are miraculously inherited.
Sorry to burst your bubble – it is not and it isn’t normal.
To know if your family has dysfunctional characteristics, we must first explore the Family System.
Let me sum it up.
The family is a system consisting of connected components (i.e. family members) organized around various functions that interact to maintain balance and a state of equilibrium (McWhirter et al., 2013).
Families are interdependent in that each member of the system influences and is influenced by each other member. Each member contributes to the equilibrium or homeostasis balance. Homeostasis is represented by a particular family’s ongoing behaviors, habits, expectations, and communication patterns. It is closely related to defined roles of each member of the family.
Just to let you know: It is normal for all families to endure crisis when transitioning from one family stage to the next during the Family Life Cycle. This happens when there is normal family development and families negotiate these transitions adequately.
So what isn’t so normal? A closed-system family.
A closed-system family can be blatantly obvious or sometimes extremely subtle. Usually the roles are not conscious attempts to keep the family imbalanced or to maintain instability. Rather it is the pattern of behavior that maintain homeostasis that are rigid and unyielding.
Typically closed-system families contribute a disproportionate share of troubled youths to society because problem behaviors emerge more in closed family systems.
Closed family systems also typically demonstrate one of two major types of problems: detachment or enmeshment.
(This is where you find out which family you have, if either).
Detachment: a detached family is one in which the individual members function separately and autonomously with little family interdependence (McWhirter et al., 2013). When a family member faces time of stress, the family hardly seems to notice or respond at all. Boundaries are so rigid that only a high level of individual stress may activate support from other family members. The family members don’t get their social and emotional needs met, nor do they learn appropriate ways to meet the needs of others. Despite these circumstances, the family often remains intact because of no alternative. Unfortunately, detached families produce young people who form inadequate or dysfunctional relationships outside the family because they haven’t learned how to have good relationships within the family. They likely are unfamiliar that other kinds of relationships are possible.
An example of a detached family would be the one I grew up in. Rarely praised. Rarely hugged. Rarely heard “I love you.” Just like family functions vary from culture to culture, so did we. I would not say it was like this all the time, but the majority of the time. My father was a military man, and most of his life being spent in the armed forces, he developed a sense of rigidity and focused on structure. Having a father like that isn’t that bad, and not all military personnel raise detached families. The one familiarity that strikes me the most was the part that an individual’s stress will likely go unnoticed by other family members unless the stress is high and most likely had to be dramatically shared with the family to get a response. The family system – especially that are closed – are not easy to change. In my case, as I’m sure with most of the family, we have learned to accept that is how our family functions. What is funny is that we recognize it but don’t know where to begin to change it. So the next best step that I know I have taken is to approach other relationships completely the opposite. Does it always work? No. The “use-to-a-certain-regiment” can be clearly seen sometimes when communicating with others, however, I try to rectify myself when I notice it. This was only one example.
Enmeshment: enmeshment families demonstrate such intensity and closeness in family interactions that the members are overly involved and overly concerned with each other’s lives. Youths growing up in an enmeshed family have a distorted sense of involvement, attachment, and belonging. They fail to develop a secure sense of individuality, separateness, and autonomy. When a member of an enmeshed family encounters a stressful situation, the family is likely to respond by rescuing rather than teaching constructive problem solving. Subsystem boundaries are weak, easily crossed, and poorly differentiated; children may act like parents, and parental control may be ineffective. For youths, there is a distorted sense of belonging and attachment that interferes with the capacity to negotiate developmental tasks successfully.
An example of an enmeshed family is one I had the pleasure (not) of witnessing. A few years back I was dating a younger guy. I didn’t know until four months into our relationship that he was part of a well-known family brand. With his “title” came responsibility. However, as I’d say, he had “minions” to help make decisions for him most of his life. He had no clue of autonomy, and unfortunately what most would consider “abnormal” family behavior, he did not see it that way because he did not know any better. Quickly after I found out his status, things started to get weird. It was like I was getting a glimpse into his world – like peaking through the blinds out of curiosity. I started to notice he was very vague about his life and the life of his family. He and his mother were very close – almost too close for comfort. But I ignored it because coming from the other end of the spectrum I thought maybe their relationship was considered normal. They lived miles apart. They’d speak every day – sometimes five times a day, especially when I was around. He had no sense of establishing boundaries with his mother and spending time with me. I’d often make this known, but he thought I was trying to eliminate his relationship with his mother completely, which was not the case. We traveled together to visit her. That’s when I couldn’t turn a blind eye. One morning I slept in and woke up later than my boyfriend. It was a pretty big house so I called out for him. I hear him say “in here”, which directed me into his mother’s bedroom. I walk in and see my mid-20 year old boyfriend laying in bed under the covers snuggled up to his mother. It gave me the heebie-jeebies. What is worse is that both didn’t see anything inappropriate about it or recognize an unhealthy attachment. Furthermore, I found out through public records that incestual relations were encouraged in the family to keep the inheritance and the name going within the family. My stomach churned whenever I looked at him after that and I was out! Now that is certainly considered over involvement among the two.
Now with the closed-system family out of the way, I must indicate what an open-system family is and how that family functions. Open systems interact with the environment and so may be capable of both adaptation and flexibility. Adaptation depends on the family’s stability to permit family members to develop coherent, separate identities to make necessary accommodations to environmental changes.
NOTE: Due to culture sensitivity, all or part of the above may not apply to certain cultural domains. Also, no family system is completely closed or completely open.