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Just How Dysfunctional Is My Family?

My background in counseling is heavily rooted in the work of Freud, but modernized to not be quite so creepy. This means that much of the work I do with clients looks at their family system in their upbringing and current life. My honest assessment? Most families are screwed up. This is actually good news! I have yet to meet a family that is screwed up in a completely new and inventive way. Most family dysfunction I have worked with is rooted in enmeshment and role confusion, which is all fixable as long as the family is willing to do some work. The better news: even if your family is not yet willing or able to acknowledge and work on their dysfunction, any individual can work to create meaningful change within the system. An important caveat, if you don't want to engage in this work and would rather create distance from unhealthy family members you'll get no shame from me - do what is healthiest for you. If, however, you are committed to creating the family life you crave it is always best to start with understanding the issues at hand.

Family dynamics refer to the patterns of interactions between family members, and roles are the tasks and expectations that each family member has of one another. For example, if mom has been assigned the role of caretaker and she fails to meet someone's need the dynamics of the family may become hostile towards mom. It's important to note that these roles are rarely explicitly assigned or discussed, they generally appear subtly over time in the formation of the family. Another example, often when children/ siblings are introduced to a family system they become placed in a role as well. If one is placed in the 'troublemaker' role it becomes easy for the family to point much of their issues at that child. Similarly, a child placed in the 'golden child' role will have an easier time getting their way within the family. This is where sibling rivalry can emerge. Every family has dynamics and not all family dynamics are unhealthy, there are also plenty of healthy roles for family members to be in - for the purpose of this post we are focusing on those roles and dynamics which are dysfunctional.

Enmeshment in family systems is a term used to describe the closeness between family members. It is when family members are overly connected, which can lead to a lack of boundaries between them. An enmeshed family system will often have difficulty being flexible in their expectations of one another. This family may have strong beliefs about what one is obligated to do because they are 'family'. This system may feel overbearing and could create anxiety because if I don't do what my family wants I will be treated and viewed poorly. When enmeshment occurs, roles can become blurred, as family members can become too dependent on one another. This can result in unhealthy behavior, as family members may rely on each other for more emotional support and validation than is appropriate. I have worked with plenty of clients who describe their parents as more akin to friends than parents, and this rarely works to their benefit. Enmeshment may look different in different systems, sometimes parents rely too heavily on their children to meet their needs, and other times siblings may take on parental roles towards other siblings. Whatever the role confusion looks like, this enmeshment often spells emotional turmoil. So if I'm aware that my family is operating in a dysfunctional way, what can I do about it?


Boundaries. I have written a number of posts on the topic of boundaries because they are the key to engaging in more healthy relationships. It is important to maintain healthy boundaries in family systems, as it can help to ensure that everyone has a sense of autonomy and respect. If we imagine our family system as a three-dimensional object, with everyone in their place and assigned roles as support beams to the object, what happens when one steps out of line? The system will begin to break down. I'll be upfront, this will be uncomfortable. Generally, when one member of the family unit begins to set boundaries and refuses to engage in their assigned role the rest of the family rebels at them. However, like with any exercise in boundaries, if I hold my ground long enough people will adjust. In my own family, I was assigned the role of 'troublemaker'. For many years I played my part well, allowing my family to point their frustrations at me and lashing out to create more trouble as a result. Then one day, around the age of 21 I decided I had enough. I stopped gossiping with family members about one another. I stopped engaging in conversations and activities that were likely to lead me to lash out. I placed firm boundaries around the price of time - respect. For a while parts of my family rebelled, until eventually, it became clear that my price was fixed and they were willing to pay it. Today, I have a full and fulfilling relationship with my family of origin and each of them in their own time found ways to rewrite their own roles. Simply put, when we stop accepting less than we deserve, and we deserve quite a bit, we begin building the relationships we desire.

Of course, there are a lot of moving parts to family dysfunction and this post just scratches the surface. I very much enjoy the work I do with couples and families in session unpacking communication and conflict styles, family roles and boundaries, and all the other nitty-gritty that makes any relationship tick. I hope this post can help create a jumping-off point to the relationships you see for yourself. If further assistance is required I'd be more than happy to help!

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