What Is Family Dysfunction?

What Is Family Dysfunction?

written by: Dr. Deborah Bauers
by: Dr. Deborah Bauers
Family trauma Family trauma

The phrase "family dysfunction" is a well-worn descriptor used to label a cluster of common traits or behaviors that permeate and twist the dynamics of a family into a tangled web of unhealthy interactions. Although there is no perfect family and each has its examples of historical failure and success, there are those families that are characterized by pervasive patterns of interaction that are most commonly described as dysfunctional behaviors.

Dr. Salvador Minuchin describes the opposite ends of a continuum of family dynamics, both of which are considered dysfunctional. On one end of the spectrum is the enmeshed family that is characterized by an unhealthy connectedness (co-dependency) and blurred boundaries which make it almost impossible for members to emerge with independent personalities. The disengaged family lies at the other extreme end of the continuum. It is made up of parents and children who share basic needs, but little else. It is a family in name only and lacks intimacy and cohesion. Regardless of which end of the spectrum a dysfunctional family occupies, there are traits common to both.

Herbert and Irene Goldberg, pioneers in the field of family systems theory and experienced therapists provide what is considered to be among the most scholarly written works on the subject of family dysfunction. Their books have been in use in the university setting for over a quarter of a century as training texts for family systems therapy. "Family Therapy, An Overview" (Edit. 7, 2008) provides excellent insight into characteristics of dysfunctional families. Goldberg and Goldberg discuss most common traits of both enmeshed and disengaged families.

Family systems therapists generally identify the following unhealthy distinctions of dysfunctional families:

Poor communication

In a dysfunctional family, members tend to communicate poorly and not listen to each other. They talk "at each other," instead of "to each other." Individual feelings are not recognized or validated. Parents lecture rather than participate in a shared conversation. In an enmeshed family, family members are discouraged from having thoughts, ideas, or beliefs that might threaten the way the system currently operates. Parents devalue input from children that questions or challenges their established authority.

Disengaged families simply don't take the time or have the interest in pursuing communication. Family members live, not in community, but in some degree of isolation from each other. There is little mutual accountability or responsibility except in areas that pertain to daily maintenance and/or survival.

Unhealthy boundaries

Dr. Henry Cloud, author of "Boundaries" maintains that boundaries define "Who you are, where you end, and where others begin." Boundaries in relationships are what distinguish each person as an individual with separate thoughts, behaviors, and feelings.

In an enmeshed family, boundaries are rigidly placed around the entire unit and the most powerful individuals control the whole the system. Family members are encouraged to keep and protect family secrets. In an enmeshed family there is lack of privacy and members intrude and interfere in each other's lives. Enmeshed families are frequently characterized by some form of abuse which may include physical, sexual, or substance abuse. Family members who attempt to break free of enmeshment are usually ostracized and accused of betrayal.

The disengaged family has few boundaries. Each member functions independently. Empathy and compassion for family members is often low to non-existent. In contrast with the enmeshed family's over involvement in each other's lives, in the disengaged family there is no sense of cohesiveness or family loyalty. Children in a disengaged family are always neglected to some extent. Physical needs may or may not be met, but emotional needs are neglected. Just as the enmeshed family exerts strong control, the disengaged one has no internal control mechanisms and members tend to react to the community outside the home rather than living in community with others.

Performance-based identities

In the enmeshed family, members are manipulated, coerced, and even shamed into protecting the family. Individuals can feel a tremendous amount of guilt when they fail to live up the expectations of others. Children often have roles that have been scripted by parents. These roles predetermine how they should act in certain situations and deal with outside threats to the family system.

Children who grow up in disengaged families are not taught self-control or how to set personal limits on behavior. They are generally starved for attention and soon learn that they can obtain it through negative behaviors. Teenagers who shop lift and wantonly destroy the property of others are often children growing up in disengaged families. Vandalism and petty theft can be performance-based behaviors that provide individuals a false sense of importance.

Lack of emotional maturity

Family members living in an enmeshed system are not given the opportunity to develop emotional maturity. Sharing personal feelings is a taboo that threatens to expose the family dysfunction. Love is a twisted emotion often conveyed as conditional, dependent upon whether a child or spouse complies with familial expectations. Children who grow up in an environment where there is no emotional security can reach adulthood without being able to label or express what they are feeling appropriately. Where there is no emotional validation, there is no emotional safety.

In a disengaged family there is little, if any, expression of affection. Children grow accustomed to fending for themselves and there is no emotional role model. Disengaged children become street-wise and learn to survive on their own, often resorting to unconventional and lawless methods. Feelings are a luxury that they can ill-afford because giving into a negative emotion can jeopardize survival.

Denial and dishonesty

Both enmeshed and disengaged families tend to live a lie. The enmeshed family preserves the appearance of normalcy while hiding the severity and source of its dysfunction. The disengaged family may deny its very existence but, at the very least, decries the importance of the family unit. Dysfunctional families lie, not only to others, but to themselves. Neither end of the spectrum is willing to honestly confront its dysfunction or take steps to change it. The enmeshed family fears retribution and change. The disengaged family detaches itself from the need to be a part of a family system.

Dysfunctional families generally have one or more dynamics that tend to permeate the entire system and alter the way in which every family member would normally function. These dynamics may include drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, poor parenting styles, and criminal involvement.

Severely dysfunctional families have little chance to develop normally because of long-term twisted and unhealthy dynamics. These familial patterns force members to abandon dreams and hopes for the future in favor of developing coping mechanisms that will focus on self-preservation. Dysfunctional families don't thrive; Instead, their members spend their lives trying to find ways to survive.