Who's to Blame for Family Dysfunction?

Adult children and their parents both think I blame them alone for dysfunction.

Posted Nov 23, 2018

 Flickr, Adam-and-Eve by Kim Støvring, C.C. by 2.0
It's all their fault
Source: Flickr, Adam-and-Eve by Kim Støvring, C.C. by 2.0

In my post about the family dynamics of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), I describe the role of the spoiler. A child or adult child of a family that exhibits the family patterns described in my posts on this subject begins to behave in ways which turns things around. The child invalidates the parents' efforts to "help" or "take care of them" in nasty ways.

He or she essentially responds to invalidation by making comments that invalidate the parent right back. 

The reason the children do this is because they believe the parents need a child to be a target for their anger, and volunteer for the gig. They give the parents just cause by behaving in unreasonable and infuriating ways.

When it comes to the people who make comments on my posts on this and similar subjects, it always fascinates me how parents usually think I am putting all the blame on them for the family problems, while the adult children with the disorder react by thinking I am putting all the blame on them. With the exact same post!

Actually, everyone involved is, in a sense (as Bowen family systems therapists like to say) all beans in the same soup.  Not only that, but the parents’ problematic behavior is to a major extent determined by their interactions and history with their own parents. The grandparents, in turn, are affected by their parents, and so on. If we have to blame someone to get this counterproductive activity out of our systems, let’s all just blame Adam and Eve and be done with it.

As parenting columnist John Rosemond so aptly states, "Taking responsibility for something and self-blame are horses of two entirely different colors. The former is empowering; the latter is paralyzing."

Family systems therapists used the term punctuation to describe contradictory reactions to the same interpersonal behavior. People take something that is an ongoing problem created by continual reactions to feedback from two people with each other, and look at just one isolated segment of it - thereby artificially breaking up a process into misleading cause and effect attributions. They then react accordingly.

In reality, adults in any ongoing relationship are continually co-creating the nature of their relationship simultaneously. This phenomenon is called dialectic causality, and is described further here.

When each member of the relationship singles out (in a manner that is even slightly hostile) the other member’s contribution to problematic interactions without also acknowledging their own contribution, this invariably leads to fight, flight, or freeze reactions from the accused member because that person feels unfairly blamed. Regardless of the ultimate truth of any accusation or the validity of anyone’s angry feelings, this almost always cuts off any attempts by the involved parties to change the interactions or in other ways solve ongoing problems between them. Therefore, strategically, it’s pretty much always counterproductive.

Of course, there are readers commenting on my blog who do see the whole of the patterns in their lives but still do not know how to put a stop to them. In many cases the problems continue in spite of honest declarations of personal responsibility and even apologies -because there continue to be underlying issues that remain unaddressed.

Not reacting in an angry manner or sounding somewhat belligerent when someone is righteously angry is not easy, and takes practice. Often even minor changes in both words chosen and/or tone a voice make a huge difference in whether or not problem solving is successful. There are self help books available on how to do this, and in severe cases, the help of a therapist familiar with family dynamics is essential.