The Quandary of the Use of ‘Dysfunctional Family’
In troubled families, abuse and neglect are permitted; it’s the talking about them that is forbidden.” ― Marcia Sirota, Author
I was at a holiday party when a friend asked me about my family of origin and our distance. I didn’t want to get to into it — it was a party after all, so I said I grew up in a very dysfunctional family and, even after all these years, we haven’t quite healed. She gave me a response I’ve heard often:
All families are dysfunctional.
Thing is: I don’t think all families are dysfunctional.
When I was a teenager and my mom first discovered self-help books, there was maybe one shelf of them in the “New Non-Fiction” section. Then two shelves. Then an entire section.
‘Dysfunctional family’, during this weird, very-pre-Ellen/sort-of-Sally-Jesse/totally-Oprah/definitely-not-Phil self-help revolution, had been introduced as a term to describe what happens when a family deviates from what is healthy and safe and creates a dangerous environment not designed for sound emotional development.
During the self-help boom, there were other big terms, too: codependent, enmeshed, toxic, birth order (scapegoat, lost child, clown, hero…), enabling/enabler.
Out of the bunch, ‘dysfunctional family’ caught on and quickly became a catchphrase, an Oprah-highlighted term, and, for me, it was a phrase to which I clung.
It was as though I discovered a new universe. I felt relief, for the first time, that what I’d lived through, what I was trying to get out of, why I was the way I was, had a name and was, indeed, not normal.
As I got older, it was a phrase that I felt explained my life. I didn’t want to tell people outright: my childhood was not okay, my home wasn’t safe, my family harmed me, people in my family did things that I can’t talk about.
I thought using this word — dysfunctional — would make people understand. Like it was a keyword, a clue, a password into my world. A word that told all the dark secrets I didn’t feel safe talking about.
There is No Clear Definition of a Dysfunctional Family
The American Psychological Association (APA) offers this bland definition of a dysfunctional family:
a family in which relationships or communication are impaired and members are unable to attain closeness and self-expression. Members of a dysfunctional family often develop symptomatic behaviors, and often one individual in the family presents as the identified patient.
A dysfunctional family, or the instance of it in and of itself, is not a diagnosis as defined in any of the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) editions. A dysfunctional family isn’t an illness; it, or its patterns, can be the cause of illness.
A ‘dysfunctional family’ is determined, like the workings of many creatures, through dissection. Ripping off the outer layer, slowly peeling back the tissue, pulling out each part, labeling each item, slowly piecing together how each part worked, where each part fit, what would exist if the parts were not there.
The problem is, of course, for those in dysfunctional families, the unspoken rule — don’t talk — is embedded so deeply that making dissection and discovery is sometimes impossible.
Families are Messy (But are They All Dysfunctional?)
“Perhaps nothing so accurately characterizes dysfunctional families as denial. The denial forces members to keep believing the myths and vital lies in spite of the facts, or to keep expecting that the same behaviors will have different outcomes. ” — John Bradshaw, Author
Messy. Ugly, at times. Frustrating. Hurtful. Overprotective. Overlooked.
People say the wrong things. Parents react the wrong way. Habits can be bad and mistakes will be made. I believe it’s normal for parents to NOT do everything right.
Are all families ‘dysfunctional’, though?
Do all families lack the safety of parents who are mostly predictable, who care, are competent, and are willing to laugh and experience happiness? Are all families neglectful and abusive toward their children? Do all families have undefined rules: do not talk, do not feel, and do not trust? Should we all describe ourselves as victims and survivors?
I really hope not.
I don’t want to downplay the burdens and tragedies and fears others feel and may have experienced within their own families. Everyone alive has struggled and dealt with pain. Everyone’s story is different and I don’t want to compare my family’s story with anyone else’s story.
(But, if people feel they, too, came from a dysfunctional family — am I suggesting that they didn’t? Aren’t I then comparing my story with theirs?)
Normal: From the Latin — Normalis
I spent decades of my life searching to understand what ‘normal’ is, never sure I could feel or be normal. Like I’d lived locked in an attic or raised by wolves, everything I did, and, at times, still do, I question: is this right? is this what I’m supposed to feel? is this how I should react? is this appropriate behavior?
Society adapted this word, ‘normal’, from our dearly, somewhat, departed Latin word ‘normalis’ — meaning “made according to the carpenter’s square.” (Literally the word is about right angles — right [versus wrong]. Side note here: The whole idea of the colloquialism of square— ‘man, don’t be a square’ — totally just changed in my head!)
The use of the word ‘normal’ became big in society. (Like ‘dysfunctional’ but bigger.) Perhaps its innate for humans to seek a defined ‘normal’ (as I sit here asking myself if this whole thing I’m doing right now, writing this out, is normal), but, it seems, societies definitely need to have a ‘normal’.
Normal is our baseline; that which we use we measure our lives, our successes and failures, our good and bad, our same and different. Fear of the ‘other’ — used so deftly by those in power to destroy, distinguish, and diminish — is based on the concept of normal.
For me, the person raised by wolves — or, more accurately, raised in an extremely toxic and unhappy environment, the need to understand ‘normal’ is like learning to walk or learning how to see: I can’t step out of unhealthy without knowing what is healthy.
My ‘adopted’ family is huge — and loving. They mess up, they argue, they’ve hurt each other— but they talk, they share, they are honest, and they can trust each other and they trust others. Ultimately: they have each other’s backs.
I am lucky to have them in my life. I’m beyond lucky.
It’s Not About the Term ‘Dysfunctional Family’
“I had a very dysfunctional family, and a very hard childhood. So I made a world out of words. And it was my salvation. ” — Mary Oliver, Poet
Right now, I’m not in touch with my family of origin.
I’m not sure if this is the correct choice or not, but at the moment, not being in touch is good for me. I feel a sense of relief. The most toxic and abusive of my family are dead, but, even so, I can’t find comfort and don’t know how to build healthy relationships with those who are alive.
Unfortunately, when people say “All families are dysfunctional” I immediately feel shame, I doubt myself and my choices. I think I’ve failed as a human, daughter, sister. I’ve failed those who are a part of my family of origin by not being a part of their lives. I’ve failed because if all families are dysfunctional, what is wrong with me that I can’t make mine work?
What I’ve discovered as I look at my need for this phrase, is that I wanted to address my ugly, damaged past by classifying it in a neat, simple statement, because I still hold some embarrassment about my life. I wanted an easy way to say everything without saying anything at all — a behavior I honed as a child. I wanted people to understand without having to explain: what I went through was awful, but here I am and I’m pretty good.
I think, most of all, I wanted to use it like a crutch. An easy out for my decision to not work on my relationship with my family of origin. I want there to be no shame on my end, no guilt, no questioning.
But the difficult, and delightful, reality of being a healthy, functional adult is that I have to own my choices — my choices are all mine. There are often no clear cut answers to the trickier questions in life. We wade through and do our best.
I think this holds true for anyone seeking to come to terms with emotional injuries: we don’t have to rely on or be validated by others’ ideas of what we know is true of our experiences. We deserve to liberate ourselves, our relationships with our past, and our paths toward becoming who we are from the confines of dysfunctional definitions and inaccurate stereotypes. And, ultimately, we deserve to allow ourselves to be uncertain, uncomfortable, honest, and fallible beings using the power we acquired from the past to be, decidedly and determinedly, present.