Family Ties – Part 4

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 family ties 4

My eyes darted back and forth as I tried to keep up with everything that was being said.  Dad started talking, but then mom interrupted him, incensed by what he was saying.  Then the two kids jumped in, yelling angrily and adding fuel to the fire.  It was no use; by this point, the “conversation” had degenerated to everyone shouting over each other and no one listening.  There were tears, finger pointing, and angry outbursts.  It was total chaos.  Sigh…a day in the life of a family therapist.

But what was even more painful for me to see was that this interaction was normal for this family.  Mom and dad admitted to me that it was common for there to be yelling and angry outbursts, and that it had been this way for years.  It was only when their eldest son got charged by the police with assault that they finally came in for some help.

This is what I’d call a chaotic family – a home where emotions are out of control; roles and family expectations are unclear (and changed depending on the parents’ mood); discipline was applied inconsistently, from too lenient to too harsh; kids had far more power than they should; and they went from one crisis to another.  There was no stability or predictability.  Kids growing up in these homes learn that their emotions rule their lives, and crises are but a step away.  They aren’t taught how to regulate their emotions or tolerate distress, nor are they able to understand boundaries.  Drama is the norm. They then have difficulty maintaining stable relationships because their emotional chaos tends to push people away.

Contrast this to the disengaged family.  Independence is valued but to the point where there is very little involvement in each other’s lives.  No one talks about anything personal, emotions are frowned upon or shut down, and everyone is taught to be self-sufficient.  While this can appear to be a step above the chaotic family in that everything appears fine on the surface, often there can be hidden addictions, traumas that occur to the members that no one knows about, and the belief that everyone is ultimately on their own to deal with life.  Kids who grow up in this type of family have difficulty forming strong emotional bonds with others or learning how to be inter-dependent with a mate.  They also have little capacity to understand their own inner world, and so they don’t have the skills to know how to deal with symptoms of anxiety or depression, nor do they know how to deal with relationship challenges.  Avoidance is a strong feature of this type of family.

Then there’s the enmeshed family.  This type of family can seem to be very close and loving from the outside, but often, there are poor emotional boundaries between members.  People know too much about each other, and step in too often to rescue each other.  Members find it difficult to step back from the emotions of their loved ones.  Ties are strong in this type of family and very hard to break, because behaviour that doesn’t fall in line with what’s expected is quickly confronted (many times by guilt and emotional blackmail).  Because everything is done in the name of love, kids can find it very difficult to break free from the emotional obligations to their family of origin – the expectation to stay close and take care of each others’ emotions.  They’re responsible for each other’s emotional well-being, and so kids that come from this type of family will often find themselves pulled into unhealthy co-dependent relationships with others.  And they can also find it difficult to break free from their family of origin to bond in a healthy way with their spouse.

Finally, there’s the rigid family.   This is a family that has little capacity to adapt to change because things have always been done a certain way.  Often, it is ruled with an iron hand by a matriarch or patriarch, and everyone learns to dance to their tune.  Kids are expected to obey without argument, and questions about why things are done a certain way are not tolerated.  Roles and expectations are clearly laid out, and woe to the family member who tries to change this.  Because everyone suffers if someone tries to change things, all the other members work hard to control the “rebellious” one.  In-laws who marry into this family can find it very difficult to be accepted, especially if they’re not willing to toe the line or they dare to question the family rules.  They can then be ostracized, as can their spouse if they chose to break free.  Sometimes, family ties are severed so badly that family members refuse to talk to each other for years, the message being that until they’re willing to fall back in line, they aren’t going to be acknowledged.

As you can probably tell, I’ve described some of the more extreme cases of these types of problematic family dynamics.  Most families don’t look completely like this, and often, families can be a blend of some of these traits.   But take some time now to consider your family of origin, and see whether any of these patterns fit.  Consider your current relational and emotional struggles and see whether the roots of some of that is in your family system.  If you come from a family of abuse – emotional, physical or sexual – you may still recognize some of the family patterns I describe above.  But for you, your family has stepped very much beyond the line and has caused you harm.  If this is you, please get some professional help to process through the abuse, heal from the trauma and learn how to change those patterns in your own life so that you can break free.  If you live in the Greater Toronto Area in Ontario, Canada, please check out LifeCare Centres, where I’m the Clinical Director overseeing an incredible team of therapists.  Or talk to your doctor or pastor for a referral to someone reputable in your area.

Very often, these family characteristics or relationship dynamics are repeated generationally within a family – through genetics, attitude, behavioural patterns or belief systems.  Do you see this in your family?  This can include alcoholism, adultery, abuse and divorce.  Knowing your family history can help you choose to break the patterns.  With God’s help, you can begin new healthy generational patterns and develop healthy fruit.

Next week, I conclude this series on Family Ties by talking about ways in which you can break your family cycle.  If you haven’t read the first 3 parts of this series, please remember to check out Parts 1, 2 and 3!


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1 Comment

  1. Merry
    This is such a helpful series. So insightful as always. It is helping me understand better sine of my own history and identify the dynamics in my own family. I am sharing this with others for sure 🙂

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