Archive for October 17th, 2011

School children (c) Lynda BernhardtToday I would like to talk about a dynamic that exists in both my families of birth and marriage that I am sure is not unique to my family. In my family of birth, people were divided into two categories, the “strong” and the “weak.” Although nobody ever said, “Faith is the strong one,” or “X is the weak one,” everyone knew which column he or she fit into. The expectation was that family takes care of family, so it was the “strong” ones’ job to take care of the “weak” ones.

Not surprisingly, I married into a family just like this. I didn’t know that this was dysfunctional since that is all I had ever known in my family of birth. Hub’s family quickly determined that I fell into the “strong” category, so I was given the responsibilities of a “strong” one.

The strong/weak dynamic in families is destructive for those in both groups. The challenge for the strong is obvious – it is exhausting having to tow your own line plus the lines of other family members. Feeling responsible for others indefinitely is overwhelming because there never seems to be an end. The “weak” will always be “weak,” so those extra responsibilities will never go away. This breeds resentment.

It took me a long time to see the downside for the “weak” members, but I would today argue that this dynamic is actually more destructive for them than for the “strong” ones. When someone is constantly “told” through actions that they cannot take responsibility for their own lives, they live as if their wings are clipped. Even though these family members have many strengths, they become “blind” to those strengths. Because they believe that they cannot take care of themselves, they live as if they cannot.

Here’s something else that no one in my family ever told me – Believing that certain family members are “weak” is arrogant and actually encourages the weak behavior. For example, each time I assume that X cannot solve his own problems (whether they are financial or some other issue), I am saying, “I don’t believe in you. I don’t believe you have the ability to figure out a way to take care of yourself without me bailing you out.” I have heard this called “enabling,” but the word “enable” implies that the other person wants to be enabled. I believe that my “enabling” actions are actually encouraging dependence.

It took the encouragement of people who were not from dysfunctional families (or at least not dysfunctional in this way) to help me see that not getting involved (not giving money or advice) is actually saying, “I believe in your ability to solve your own problems.” I felt like such a terrible person for shirking my “duties” the first time I did this because I had been told my whole life that towing other family members’ lines was my duty. However, this advice was correct – When I stopped feeding the insecurity of being the family f@#$ up, the person found a way to fix the problem himself, which actually built his confidence!

Throughout my life, I was told that loving and caring about another person meant fixing his problems. Removing the judgment of the other person’s choices as well as the advice/fixing the problem felt like I was being “unloving” when, in actuality, it is  the most loving thing I can do.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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