Dysfunctional Family Role: Black Sheep

Children who act out their parents' repressed needs will eventually fail.

Posted Apr 19, 2019

 Black Sheep Surrounded by Leon Riskin, CC by 2.0
Source: Flickr: Black Sheep Surrounded by Leon Riskin, CC by 2.0

Are you a black sheep in your family? You know, the one that doesn’t seem to go along with the program and acts in ways that seemingly run counter to the values of the rest of the family? Guess what? You may not be nearly as rebellious as you think you are.

A frequent topic on this blog is dysfunctional family roles. Because of the biological phenomenon known as kin selection, individuals are often willing, in some situations, to sacrifice their own needs and desires in order to act in ways which stabilize unstable parents and maintain what family systems therapists refer to as family homeostasis

Many cultural changes have led to the current situation in Western countries, in which individuals are now much freer than they used to be to express their own wants and needs, separate from those of the family (self-actualization). The history of this is described in detail in Eric Fromm's masterpiece, Escape From Freedom. However, if a family is stuck in the past, members (especially the older ones) may be threatened by certain aspects of individual freedom. Those areas of self-expression may be enticing and seductive but had been strongly forbidden to them by the people that raised them in earlier times.

This desire-versus-fear dynamic is what the Freudians were talking about with their notion of intrapsychic conflict. What they missed, however, was that the conflict is not entirely intrapsychic, but is triggered and reinforced by an entire family. In fact, the “intrapsychic conflict” is actually shared by all of them! It leads to family members giving off mixed and contradictory messages to one another about what is expected of them.

A big source of shared intrapsychic conflict in families is changing attitudes toward individual satisfaction involving things such as the proverbial sex, drugs, and rock and roll. There has been a marked cultural shift in the propriety of "pleasuring oneself" with these pursuits. People may give lip service to such issues as sexual abstinence or reserving sex for procreation only, while at the same time covertly availing themselves of opportunities seemingly at odds with their expressed values.

This is the situation that may lead one member of the family—often but not always a younger child—to volunteer to be the rule breaker, enjoying that which is attractive, but forbidden, to all the others. The others, particularly the parents, get vicarious satisfaction of their own secret desires through watching their children indulge themselves.

However, the situation is far more complicated than it first appears to be. While black sheep may seem to be having a good time so the parents can live through them, that, unfortunately, is not their only job.

If they have too good a time, and end up being happy and content, a parent who was secretly and subtly pushing them to break the family rules starts to become unstable. Vicarious experience, while mildly satisfying, is just not the same thing as actual experience. The conflicted parents start to wonder about their own choices in life and may become depressed, begin to have marital problems with a spouse that has helped them go along with family rules, or engage in self-destructive behavior.

To prevent this and to keep the parents stable, the black sheep must also demonstrate the folly of engaging in the “rebellious” behavior. They do so by, in a sense, finding ways to make themselves miserable because of it. In a sense, they fail at it, so the parents can become once again secure in the knowledge that they made the right decision in sticking to the old prohibitions.

In the process of indulging themselves in sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll, black sheep may develop an addiction, contract a sexually transmitted disease, have an affair and destroy their marriage or their relationships with their own children, have multiple divorces, or become deadbeat dads. The rest of the family can then hold them up as examples that “prove” that the forbidden impulses are forbidden for good reason. The old family rules against self-indulgence simply must continue to be followed! 

If they want to redeem themselves, black sheep may have to join a 12-step program and renounce their own willfulness. They need to go back to that old time religion—and the group that they join, in order to maintain itself, also continually needs someone to do just that. Just like their families need them to do it.