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5 Styles of Family Relating

How well does your family function emotionally?

"Collage Family" by Swiss-born artist Olaf Breuning, 2007

Families operate at different levels of emotional health. One way of measuring the well being of family relations is the Beavers Scale of Family Functioning, named for its creator, psychiatrist W. Robert Beavers.

The family is a system of emotional relationships and the Beavers scale identifies five developmental levels and patterns of relating within the family. I begin with the lowest classification for emotional competence in the family system:

Level 5: The "Family in Pain” is a severely disturbed system and the most dysfunctional level of family. It is characterized by disorganization, feelings of apprehension among its members and a permeating sense of imminent danger. This family system is ghost-ridden and marked by losses that go unmourned or unmetabolized. The passage of time is routinely denied. This collective entity lacks authority and clear leadership. There is little in the way of dependable interpersonal connection. Analogous to this type of family is a nation in anarchy or civil disorder.

Level 4: The "Borderline Family” exhibits limited improvement in relational functioning over the former level. In effort to master the chaotic family system, which is devoid of structure and internal regulation, this emotional collective has swung to the polar opposite -- adapting a rigid family system of rules. Disorder has been supplanted by dictatorship. Lack of authority gives way to the ascendancy of a tyrant who often rules by coercion and intimidation. Patterns of dominance and submission reign supreme. This is an emotional universe of strict surveillance designed to control not only the actions, but also the thoughts and feelings of everyone within the family. This is a system governed by black and white perceptions, and one intolerant of ambiguity. An individual is either perfect or monstrous.

Level 3: The “Rule-Bound Family” is a less compromised emotional system, less primitive in development. While it operates under strict behavioral dictates like the “Borderline Family,” these rules are internalized and enforced by individual group members rather than being imposed from one external authority figure within the system. In other words, controls on conduct emerge from within each person, not from the external demands imposed by a family despot. Family participants abide by unquestioned conformity to “oughts” and “shoulds” that they have all adopted as their code of family conduct. But here is the essential point: the rules of the system take precedence over anyone in it. What family members actually think and feel is sacrificed for what they ought to think and feel. Rules regulate behavior at the expense of spontaneity and the authentic experiences of individual family members. One loses the connection with one’s own emotional life, which must be repressed for the good of all. In the words of Maggie Scarf, “the richness of the individual’s subjective experience becomes truncated” (32). The crucial aspect: this family regime remains limited in its potential for intimacy.

Level 2: The "Adequate Family" and Level 1: The "Optimal Family" share many characteristics and represent the highest advances in family development. Both these systems are egalitarian structures and able to listen attentively to input from all members. Their differences lie largely in a matter of degree and in their potential for true intimate encounters among the family members. In The Adequate Family system, rules are clear but not written in stone. Their purpose is understood as serving the best interests of people, which is top priority. Thus rules are subject to revision when experiencial circumstances or real life challenges them. In this way, The Adequate Family is a flexible emotional system, having the capacity for structural growth and change. Less capable family systems balk at such adaptive shifts.

Level 1: The "Optimal Family" is able to adapt better than all previous levels to changes in family and its life cycle events. This is mainly due to a deep sense of security and trust in the emotional connection between family members. When conflicts arise there is firm belief in the possibility of working them out or, if not, respecting the difference of viewpoints. This kind of family can accept both love and hate within themselves and others in the emotional system. A full range of feelings can be expressed and is even embraced as part of that individual family member’s humanity. Individual differences are viewed as enriching, rather than threatening to the group livelihood. Difference is not an antifamily offense, but an welcomed asset, in healthy kinsfolk. Finally, The Optimal Family experiences genuine pleasure in one another’s company.

This holiday season exercise your muscles of reflective thinking: step back and take stock of how your family is interacting. Assess how its emotional system functions in terms of core issues such as power, control, communication, and intimacy.

While you witness your relatives from a thoughtful distance, keep in mind that their style of interface can alter over time. All it takes is one person’s change in the pattern of interaction in order to shift the entire family system dynamic.


Main Reference:

Maggie Scarf, Intimate Worlds: How Families Thrive and Why They Fail. New York: Ballantine, 1995.

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