For many, the family is a place of nourishment and joy in the good times, and of love and support in the bad. But for others it is a place of confusion and manipulation, even of torment and abuse. Of course, some families are hopelessly dysfunctional and beyond repair. Even therapists will admit that escape is sometimes the only option. More often, dysfunctional families are composed of well-meaning individuals doing their best.
There is no typical dysfunctional family. However, certain traits do appear again and again.
Hostility to the Outside World
Dysfunctional families tend to adopt a hostile or antagonistic stance towards the outside world. These usually take one of two forms. First, they may develop an ‘us against them’ attitude. Outsiders, from neighbors to extended family, are seen as intrusive or threatening. Such an attitude can usually be traced to the insecurity and jealousy of one member. The father, for example, may have suffered a childhood filled with abuse and neglect. He now has a family of his own and is determined no one will spoil it.
Then there are families who become actively aggressive, often picking fights with, or developing feuds with, their neighbours. This is usually because they have generated so much anger and aggression among themselves that it spills over into the outside world. Bitterness can also develop. People trapped in an unhappy family may resent the happiness of others, sneering at them and making jokes about how perfect or boring they are.
In healthy, happy families, love is unconditional. It flows freely between the members and is not given in expectation of a reward. In dysfunctional families, by contrast, relationships often resemble business arrangements. A mother, for example, may invest love in her child on the understanding that he will return love and affection in adulthood. When he inevitably turns into a moody, ungrateful teenager, she feels cheated. A husband may pretend to take an interest in his wife’s complaints about her job because he is hoping she will allow him to go away on a golfing weekend with his friends.
Lack of Intimacy
Dysfunctional families often disguise their problems very well – even from themselves. What they, and others, take to be intimacy and love may in fact be a clinging neediness or dependence. The healthiest families are composed of individuals who are both close and distant. The parents are both self-sufficient, with friends and lives of their own, and they encourage their children to be the same. Because of this, the love they develop for one another is deep and authentic. They spend time together and support one another out of love, not duty. They do it because they want to. And since each member is happy and independent, the others know that the love they receive is authentic.
Unhealthy families often deny reality. The parents, for example, may resent and fear their children growing up, so they try to scare them about the outside world and discourage them from leaving. Mature, sensible parents accept that their children will want friends and lives of their own and will love their own partner and children more than them. In a mature, stable family, the parents will also have a realistic attitude towards their relationship. They will openly acknowledge attraction to others and even flirt a little. But they can do so because the marriage is founded on trust. They have committed not from a fear of being alone but because they enjoy one another’s company.
Healthy families also deal well with grief. Again, the members are realistic about death. When someone dies they grieve and suffer deeply, but they do not romanticise or cling on to the suffering. They suffer because they loved and miss that person, not because they feel they ought to.
Analyze a dysfunctional family and you will often find a great deal of manipulation. This usually begins with fear and leads to a vicious circle. Imagine a middle-aged woman named Sue. Her childhood was filled with insecurity and neglect and her first marriage was a failure. She has now remarried, had a son, and is happy for the first time in her life. But Sue dreads losing what it has taken her so long to find. So she makes it clear she cannot survive on her own. When her husband and son go away camping, she tells them how miserable and lonely she was while they were away. Or she phones her husband at work to tell him that someone followed her home and is loitering outside. The message is simple – ‘I cannot survive on my own’. Next, she distances herself from her friends and gives up her hobbies. Again the message is clear – ‘I only want and need you two’. And of course, now that she has lost her friends, she really does need them.
Lack of Clear Boundaries
Finally, there will be a lack of clear boundaries. The relationships are demanding or engulfing, with little or no respect for other family member’s privacy. But this problem goes much deeper. In truly dysfunctional families, people have no respect for the other person’s separate identity and only a vague sense of their own. Confusion reigns as to where one ends and another begins, and each will constantly try to guess how the other is feeling and what they are thinking. One consequence of this lack of boundaries is that a dominant personality usually emerges and sets the emotional tone. A family presided over by an angry, violent father will itself become angry and aggressive, just as a family whose dominant member is depressed will become miserable and gloomy.
It should be emphasized that no family is perfect. Therapists can spend years trying to unravel the neuroses of just one individual, so the complexity involved when five or six people of different ages live together can hardly be exaggerated. But, with the right attitude, even the most dysfunctional family can change.