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The Story of Every Happy Family

What happens in families with mental illness?

The Story of Every Happy Family

Tolstoy wrote: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” What does that mean psychologically and dynamically?

Dynamically, many families are organized around the sickest member of the family. The family, consciously or not, organizes its day to day life around that person’s wants and needs: From what’s said to done, in many areas of ordinary living, until the organization becomes a system that’s accepted as normal, habitual, or ordinary.

Psychologically, happy families create reliable ways to help the person who is suffering by introducing realistic expectations, countering unreasonable demands with solace, and doing what’s possible to diminish pain. This latter point is key: Through interventions, which often come from outside the family, the sickest person recognizes that he or she has an illness that can be made easier to live with.

In contrast to happy families, unhappy families are persuaded, through contact with the sickest member, to create a life that reflects that illness. The lowest functioning family member becomes, ironically, the person who creates the family’s normalcy, habits, and day to day to day behaviors. In this way, the family indeed addresses the wants and needs of that person, but over time become very much like him or her. Hence, what develops is not only an unhappy person, but an unhappy family.

How does it happen that the mentally ill person becomes the strongest in terms of family dynamics?

Charm accounts for a lot: Mentally ill person have as their trump chiefly one characteristic, which is an effort to try and convince others that their wants and needs are paramount. They also make it clear that without help, they would wither away. And that the help being given creates a special, even secretive relationship between them and the family member helping them.

Punitive action is also part of the dynamic. The family member makes financial, physical, emotional, and sexual threats, and acts on them periodically, in order to get others in the family to do what he or she wants or needs.

Then, too, is the ability to learn the deepest shame and fears of others in the family and to exploit these, openly or not, to get what they want or need.

As a result of years and years of charm, punishment, and manipulation, other family members come to resemble the sickest one among them. This goes on for generations.

In contrast to unhappy families, happy families are created when a person from an unhappy family breaks away from what had been a closed system. It’s like leaving a cult, and discovering, too, that other solutions exist to problems, versatility is possible, and unhappiness need not be characteristic of family life.

The challenge for those who break away from unhappy families is two-fold.

Firstly, the unhappy family views the runaway as a traitor. They see his or her departure as a betrayal and judgment. They fear that the family secrets will be divulged, that they’ll be exposed. And they are right: It is a betrayal. It is a judgment. The family’s secrets will be put out in the open for all to see.

That’s the basis of so much great literature: Tolstoy, Bellow, Roth, O' Brien, Ferrante, Cusk, Knausgaard.

Secondarily, the person breaking away has to have the stamina and focus not to internalize the vituperation that comes to him or her from the family that he or she is leaving. That may be the hardest thing of all: Not to feel like a traitor.

Because after all it’s a liberation to know at once and with a degree of finality: That was an unhappy family.

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