Family Dysfunctional Roles: Support Players

Family members seemingly above the fray may still play an important part.

Posted Oct 08, 2019

Wikimedia, Switchboard staff, public domain
Source: Wikimedia, Switchboard staff, public domain

In several previous posts, I examined how children often sacrifice themselves in order to stabilize unstable parents. I discussed common roles that they may play in order to do so like the savior, the avenger, the go-between, the defective, the spoiler, the black sheep, and the little man.

There are also some supporting roles that are somewhat minor and do not necessarily lead to personality disorders or major self-destructive behavior but remain important in dysfunctional families. I would like to describe two of them here. The first of these is what I call the switchboard. It takes place in families in which certain members have completely stopped talking to and seeing one another or, in some cases, have apparently cut off the rest of their family-of-origin.

My two posts on adult children who have seemingly "divorced" their families have been the most seen, the most commented on, and most controversy-generating posts I have written on this blog. Some parents reading the posts assumed I was advocating for such “divorces” and that I was blaming only them instead of their “narcissistic” children, although in fact, I was just commenting only about how they might know more about the reasons for the cut-off than they let on.

In fact, parents usually have engineered such cutoffs themselves through being knowingly toxic, under what I think is their belief that their children are better off without them. Also, I take the position that divorcing the most abusive, toxic parents is not the most ideal strategy in these cases — although sometimes it is the only available choice due to the lack of available therapists who understand systems thinking and know-how to coach their patients on how to effectively get through their parents' impressive defenses.

So, are such cut-off adult children really completely incommunicado with their parents? The answer in the majority of cases is a resounding “No!” There is usually at least one member of the family – perhaps a sibling, an aunt, or a cousin – who relays messages back and forth between the ostensibly-estranged parties. That is the role I call the switchboard.

The second supporting role I would like to describe is one called the circuit breaker, who distracts two warring family members just when their arguments are about to escalate into violence. This is seen in families in which anger is expressed overtly in ways such as screaming fits, breaking things, or pounding fists into walls hard enough to create numerous holes, but in which there has been no ostensible interpersonal violence or physical abuse directed at the other family member.

What happens here is that just when the anger is reaching the boiling point and violence threatens, one member of the family starts crying or creating some other distraction. The warring family members then cease the angry exchanges and go to the circuit breaker. The only time I ever personally witnessed violence in a family psychotherapy session was when I was meeting with a mother and daughter in a situation in which the circuit breaker was not present and therefore could not serve in the circuit breaker role.