Your Dysfunctional Family

What is a functional family, anyway?

Posted Apr 06, 2009

Families are not fair and we don't choose the one we are born or adopted into. Today a family is what most people are in recovery from. What is a functional family, anyway? Why doesn't yours match up?

Here are three key elements of "the functional family".

1. The functional family encourages the optimal growth of all of its members and provides a safe space where individuals can more or less be themselves. Families promote of sense of unity and belonging (the "we") while respecting the separateness and difference of individual members (the "I").

2. Parents make and enforce rules that guide a child's behavior but they do not regulate the child's emotional and intellectual life. Individual family members feel free to share their thoughts and feelings on emotionally loaded subjects, without telling others what to think and feel, and without getting too nervous about differences.

3. Parents are calmly connected to their own family of origin, and no family member has to deny or silence an important aspect of the self in order to belong and be heard.

That's the ideal, but not the reality for families. In my forty years of clinical practice, I have yet to meet such a  family.

Of course, I have not yet met every family.

Families are dysfunctional because families are anxious systems. There is always something that sends emotional shock waves through a family as it moves through the life cycle. You can't observe the anxiety in a system, but you can observe the signs and symptoms of an anxious system, just like you can observe the signs and symptoms of your anxious self.

Anxiety, for example, drives triangles. As anxiety mounts people talk about other family members ("I'm so worried about your brother's drinking!") rather than directly to them. Family members take sides, lose objectivity, and over-focus on each other in a worried or blaming way, and join one person's camp at the expense of another. Anxiety heightens reactivity, which makes family members quick to try to change and fix each other.

Novelist Mary Karr once wrote that a dysfunctional family is any family with more than one person in it. So true. It's simply a matter of more or less. Admittedly, more or less can make a big difference.

Your family is the deck of cards fate handed you. You've probably already discovered that you can't change your family. You can, however, change your part in the patterns that bring you pain. How you navigate family relationships is up to you.

Changing your steps in the family dance is the challenge of at least one lifetime. Happily,  even a small change will make a very big difference in your life.