If you are among the millions of Americans struggling to get love right, the odds are you came from a dysfunctional family. In fact, in the United States today, more people come from dysfunctional families than healthy families. It is estimated that approximately 70 to 80 percent come from dysfunctional families. Consequently, being normal in the United States today has very little to do with being emotionally healthy.
How can these figures be right? As we become more aware of how families work and how healthy behavior patterns are set, we recognize that child abuse, substance abuse, and other destructive behaviors affect far more people than was realized even a generation ago.
Of course, the perfect family or childhood does not exist. Despite the idealized portrayals of American family life in movies and television, real parents aren't perfect and most childhoods will have been disrupted by problems of one sort of another.
To say that a family is dysfunctional is to say that it doesn't work: It doesn't provide to a minimum degree what its members need for mental, physical, and emotional well-being. By contrast, a functional family is one that teaches children how to think clearly and act responsibly, to understand their feelings, and relate to others in a healthy way. It equips them with the mental, emotional, and living skills to deal with life as an adult. To the extent that your family failed to teach you these important skills it was dysfunctional.
Two Different Worlds
Children raised in dysfunctional families develop a way of thinking about and viewing the world that is not shared by others. As a result, they have a hard time understanding people from functional families and vice versa. It is as if they come from different worlds.
One of the strangest things about growing up in a dysfunctional family is that you don't know the difference between what is healthy and what is not. You may have thought that your family was fairly normal. Consequently you were not prepared for the shock of sharing your family experiences with others. John, who was raised in a dysfunctional family, joined a support group that began its first meeting by having everyone introduce themselves by telling the stories of their childhoods. As they went around the circle, John listened in disbelief. He thought some of these people were lying, because their stories were so completely different from the childhood he had experienced. He could not believe that they really received that kind of love and attention, that they were actually able to identify and talk about feelings, think clearly about reality, and express opinions. It seemed impossible to him that they actually learned how to relate productively to other people. These are the skills a functional family teaches its children day by day, and that a dysfunctional family doesn't teach in the course of an entire childhood.
The effects of being raised in a dysfunctional family are lifelong, because we never truly outgrow them. Even though what occurred in our childhood may have lasted only a relatively short time compared to the rest of our lives, our early training establishes our primary understanding of life and the way people act in the world. It constitutes our blueprint for adult behavior and the patterns we will re-create in our adult lives. The deeper our involvement with another person, the more strongly these patterns emerge. The more dysfunctional the patterns, the more difficulty we have in our relationships and our lives in general.
If you came from a dysfunctional family, it is important that you recognize this and the ways in which it may be affecting your choices and your ability to build healthy adult relationships. Without this awareness, it is far more difficult to address problem areas accurately and overcome the difficulties you may experience as a result.
Many people do not realize the extent to which their families were dysfunctional. Recognizing unhealthy patterns in your family of origin is difficult for two reasons. First, like many people, you may never have thought your family was dysfunctional because your family's ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving are the norm against which you measure the rest of the world. Second, it is sometimes difficult to detect dysfunction in a family because the dysfunction is often subtle. While some children suffer from obvious neglect and abuse, other children from dysfunctional families appear perfectly normal.
There are eight basic areas of potential dysfunction in families. The more these problem behaviors were present in your family of origin, the more dysfunctional your family was.
Family rules. Without learning healthy rules, we cannot create them as partners in adult relationships or as parents to our own children.
Role expectations define who we are and the parts we play in all our relationships: as child, friend, sibling, lover, spouse, parent. When our role expectations are dysfunctional, we do not know how to fulfill our responsibilities in a healthy way, what others expect of us, or what to expect of others.
Rituals. These are important to our understanding of ourselves and what is of importance to us. Without healthy rituals, we cannot celebrate what we value or our commonalty with others. Our sense of belonging may be compromised.
Social or physical neglect. When neglected as children we will not know how to conduct ourselves in appropriate ways as adults. We may find we lack the social skills to create healthy friendships, hold down a job, or develop relationships. We may neglect our physical needs, and our well-being may suffer.
Psychological, physical, or sexual abuse. Abuse causes very serious problems in adult relationships in one of two ways.