No one can really understand the real interpersonal dynamics in a dysfunctional family. The subterfuge, the denial, the hate, the animosity all behind a cloak of normalcy. That pervading, putrid existence of pretense that shutters the insidious survival strategy of each member.
Leo Tolstoy rightly said. ”All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’
Image Source: Pixabay
Truth About Dysfunctional Families
Recently, Piers Morgan interviewed a serial killer: ‘The extraordinary thing about Bernard Giles is just how ordinary his background was before he began killing. He was one of four children from a stable family who enjoyed a perfectly happy, loving childhood with no abuse. (His siblings have all gone on to be successful, well-adjusted people.)’
Truth be told, no one just becomes a serial killer.
What many fail to understand is the skewed relational dynamics that are at play in many families, more so in a dysfunctional one. There are no equals among this kind of family. It is survival of the fittest, smartest or plain cunning. Each has his/her place. The pecking order depends on twisted parental/adult perceptions – talents of a member, or gender, birth order or simply whether the child was wanted or unwanted.
It is simply absurd and erroneous to assume that treatment is equal and fair to all family members. Despite external factors seeming the same for all members, there is inequality and unfairness in the interpersonal dynamics in any family. As much as parents claim to love all siblings equally, favoritism or plain dislike for a particular member are not uncommon..
Even in the same family, everyone does not have the same experiences.
Sadly, that’s what makes all the difference how we turn out – serial killer, depressive, borderline, narcissist, and if luck will have it super successful.
Complex Relational Trauma
In dysfunctional families, there is a consistent and convoluted power play along with subversion of rights. Abuse is not an isolated event. But is protracted over the course of childhood and many a time can be covert and insidious.
Complex relational trauma is the legacy of dysfunctional families and is transmitted from one generation to the next – grandparents, parents, children, grandchildren, et. al. All are caught in a macabre dance of pretend and placate.
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.
According to Renee Fredrickson, psychotherapist, and author of book Repressed Memories,
The abusive family system is a family in camouflage…the abuse is not only hidden from public view but from the view of family members themselves…anything that doesn’t fit is buried or rationalized away. Anyone who tells the secrets or points out the sickness is punished or even exiled. The façade is maintained at the expense of individual family members.
All family member actively or covertly keep at maintaining and perpetuating this twisted facade.
It is emotionally shattering to acknowledge that one’s family is abusive. Furthermore, it is just too painful to accept that the adults in our life are flawed and do not have our well-being at heart. Being abused, neglected, invalidated by the people close to you leaves you with a deep sense of betrayal. It destroys your core sense of who you are.
Survival means suppressing your true self and becoming someone who caters to the needs of the ones in power.
Playing The Role – Key To Survival
Children growing up in dysfunctional families develop certain skills and adopt roles within the family unit. Some of these roles may be more passive; others more active. Some change their roles as the family dynamic changes (i.e. when the oldest leaves home, etc.). An only child may simultaneously play all of the roles or cycle between them. Unfortunately, many of us continue to play these roles right into adulthood.
As a helpless young girl who had lost her mother, I had to deal with an abusive violent father, who regularly threatened to throw us out of the house. My only chance of survival was my grandmother, unfortunately, turned out to be an expert in silent treatment whose mood improved if you would help her in her chores and play therapist.
My survival strategy entailed becoming an Oscar-worthy actress playing a number of diverse roles. I became the caretaker, the clown, the therapist, the dishwasher, the babysitter, etc, whatever I discerned would keep me in their good books.
My final role was an act of great escape. Retribution was swift, I was denounced as the slutty black sheep.
Displacement & The Toxic Cycle Continues
In dysfunctional families, parental abuse and toxic behavior against one member is displaced onto the next helpless and gullible member. Thus a mother who is subjected to the anger of a violent partner ends up discharging her frustration onto the kid, who is less likely to retaliate. Or an older sibling ends up being cruel to a younger sibling.
My once caring brother displaced our father’s violence onto me, which was devastating, destroying the last vestiges of my self-esteem.
We are all wired to respond angrily to injustice and maltreatment. However, in most cases of family abuse or neglect, one is forced to keep silent. How can one protest, when one is dependent emotionally, physically and financially? Most traumatized children learn early that protesting parental unfairness is an unpardonable offense. Retaliation is quick and deadly – more violence, alienation, silent treatment, all too distressing for a child to cope.
Survival and self-preservation force one to repress any protests and complaints. However, this repressed rage does not disappear. It bubbles beneath the surface, like a latent volcano unleashing hot lava of rage onto innocent and unsuspecting victims.
Rage can be extremely quiet until it reaches a tipping point. Notwithstanding, it’s a shock for many people when that quiet, nondescript guy turns out to be a vicious school-shooter.
The only way we could ever understand why a person becomes a mass killer is to understand what happens in early childhood. How family dysfunction causes mental distortions which leads to societal disruptions.
Sadly, when children are mirrored hate instead of love, the outcome is rage and violence.
As long as we continue to diminish the family’s role and blame mental health services for societal ills we will continue to miss the early signs of a very troubled future.
Letting Go – The Key To Healing
There is no letting up in toxic families. No one is willing to accept blame or take on the burden of change. The toxic cycle continues. The one with power shits on the next in line. All the unexpressed childhood anger is transferred onto the next available scapegoat.
Until we clearly see the reality of our dysfunctional family’s patterns, can we truly begin to work at healing ourselves. Furthermore, we need to let go of the erroneous myth we have been carrying about our families. As long as we keep buying into the myth that we came from a healthy family, we will be unable to see our programed quirks.
Sometimes letting go of our toxic family is the only option in order to overcome the cycle of violence and hate. This may not be an easy option. But then there are no easy options in life. However, sometimes it is the only way we can recover from our abusive past. Not having to play pretend and placate, has allowed me to heal and become my true authentic self.
Healing our world means healing ourselves. When we overcome our dysfunctional family’s skewed dynamics, we rewire our brains to function with more empathy and love. By healing ourselves, we stop dysfunctional patterns repeating onto the next generation. Our children deserve to grow in a world where love and justice prevails.
The Eight Most Common Characteristics of a Dysfunctional Family
The Family: A New Way of Creating Solid Self-esteem by John Bradshaw
Healing the Shame that Binds You by John Bradshaw
Homecoming: Reclaiming and Healing Your Inner Child by John Bradshaw
Stand Your Ground: How to Cope with a Dysfunctional Family and Recover from Trauma by Katherine Mayfield