Posts Tagged ‘dysfunctional families’

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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On my blog entry entitled Is Anyone Else Struggling with This Time of Year?, which I wrote on October 8, 2009, a reader recently posted the following comment:

I wanted to respond to this post because this is a huge issue for me. I have been thinking about it a bit now because the holidays are coming up. I think I understand why they bother me so much and maybe it might be a bit of the same for you.

A few years ago I stopped going home for the holidays for obvious reasons. At first it was a huge relief to not have to go to my parents and pretend we are the perfect family. But very quickly the depression and sadness came back. And now the holidays are a HUGE trigger (starting now but getting worse around Halloween). It is because the not being with my family makes me think about all of the reasons I am not home with my family. Consciously or sub-consciously I am reminded of all of the reasons that I do not have the same family holiday as many people I know. Even if I have a boyfriend or friends to share these times with, there are still the constant questions from people about whether or not I am going home for the holidays, ect. My escape from my family is no escape when there are constant perfect family references everywhere. I think for 3 months before Christmas I am a freaking mess.

The freedom of not being with my family is an instant trigger of all of the memories of the things that are the very reason I am not with my family during the holidays- talk about a double edged sword!

I think we are all a bit screwed- putting ourselves around the people who hurt us is obviously hurtful. But choosing to not be around them means we also can’t escape and pretend that all of the reasons we can’t be around them don’t exist since and the holidays are pretty much a 24hr reminder of this.

Do you relate to this at all? ~ Tracy099

My response is yes – I do relate to this. I shared yesterday about getting triggered at the Halloween store over the weekend, and I am still not over it. All last week, life seemed easy and carefree. This long holiday weekend has been a real struggle. I am looking forward to having time alone in my house today (when hub goes back to work and child goes back to school) so I can focus on grounding myself.

I think Tracy makes a very astute observation. We protect ourselves by distancing ourselves from our abusive family, but the very act of distancing ourselves when society does nothing to talk about coming together throughout the holiday season is a constant reminder of the reasons why we are different.

I have done all that I can to ease this for myself. My sister and her children are the only family members that I stay in regular contact with, and they come to my house for the holidays. One the one hand, it is great because my son adores his cousins and I love seeing my sister. However, I am reminded of the family dysfunction whenever I see her (as I am sure is true for her as well), which makes it hard.

The holidays are definitely my Achilles heel, and it ticks me off because I have been doing so well lately. I don’t want to surrender three months of my life every year to holiday triggers (not including the Mother’s Day triggers at a different time of year). I want to reclaim this time and make it about something other than my history. I am not quite sure how to do that yet other than by upping my Xanax dosage.

Photo credit: Rosanne Mooney

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I understand why my mother grew up to be a child abuser. Her parents abused her, and she did the same to my sister and me. I don’t condone it, and I view her as weak, but I do understand that a person who has been abused might repeat what was done to him or her. I don’t even want to know how many generations of abuse took place that ended with my sister and me. I am glad that we stopped it.

What I find much harder to understand is why my father’s side of the family was prone to marrying abusers. My father could have married just about any woman on the planet, but he chose my mother, who abused my sister and me. Why did he choose her? What was it about her that drew him to her?

I just found out that my uncle (who married my father’s sister) was a child abuser as well. I knew that he was a raging alcoholic and could get mean as a snake when we was drunk, and I suspected that he sometimes got too rough with the kids, but I did not know the extent of his abuse until recently. In this case, none of the abuse was sexual, but he was physically abusive to his wife and children and even came close to killing them one time.

My father and his sister grew up in the same house. Neither of them were abusers, but they both chose to marry abusers. Neither of them liked the abuse, but neither removed their abused children from the abusive spouses. Why not?

There is one other sibling – my uncle. He had multiple affairs before my aunt finally kicked him out of his house. My grandparents (father’s parents) were very judgmental of this woman for dumping their son. My grandparents were also quite upset to learn that, in adulthood, my cousin cut off contact with her mother. They asked, “Who cuts off contact with their own mother?” Of course, they were asking this question of someone else who had done the same thing but did not tell them. I know why I cut off contact. Could my cousin have taken the same action for the same reason? If so, that makes this family 0 for 3 in choosing spouses.

What was it about this family that groomed three children to marry child abusers and not protect their children? (Assuming that my aunt was also a child abuser, my uncle left the kids behind and married another woman with children, so he made no effort to save the children.) Yes, I get that it was a different time and all that malarkey, but the parent-child bond has been the same since the beginning of time. I know how bonded I am to my child, and it would feel natural to kill to protect him. Somebody has to be really messed up in the head to allow another person to inflict harm on his or her child on a regular basis.

Does anyone have a hypothesis about what type of family dynamic breeds spouses of child abusers? To my knowledge, nobody in my father’s family drank when he was a child. My grandfather was strict and was known to hit the children over the head with the humongous family Bible on occasion, but I have never been told about beatings or sexual abuse. However, 0 for 3 is a really bad record. Any ideas?

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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Shack (c) Lynda BernhardtYesterday, I wrote about the ambivalence that a child might feel toward his birth family after being adopted out of foster care on my professional blog, Adoption Under One Roof. I would like to explore that topic here for those of us who were not fortunate enough to be removed from our “birth families.”

I have worked hard to remove my ambivalence toward my mother/abuser. I have reached a place where I mostly feel nothing toward her – no hate or love, just nothing. However, I continue to have ambivalent feelings toward my father.

My father was the “good” parent, but he was mostly absent. He was always away on business trips, leaving me to be raised by a mentally ill woman. On the one hand, my father was my “savior” in that he made my mother stop harming me when he walked in on her abusing me when I was around six. On the other hand, he swept the whole thing under the rug, and his “fix” only brought more abusers into my life. Ironically, I would have been better off if he had let my mother continue abusing me than to bring these other, horrible people into my life. I do think my father tried to do the right thing “in his own way,” but it was nowhere near enough.

I love my father for being one of the few adults in my life who did not abuse my body sexually. I hate my father for encouraging a relationship with my ritual abusers. I hate that he did not see that each time they visited, they raped his little girl. I love my father for providing for our family financially. I hate my father for leaving everything to my insane mother when he died, enabling her to p#$$ away millions of dollars. She now lives in a shack. He was a well-educated man, so why didn’t he set up the money in a trust fund so it would last? I will never understand that.

Meanwhile, my sister continues to wrestle with her own ambivalence toward our mother. While I have washed my hands of the woman, my sister continues to feel an obligation to take care of her. My sister barely gets by with government assistance as a single mother of two children, and yet she felt responsible for replacing our mother’s broken television set. No matter how many times I have told my sister that our mother is a grown woman who is responsible for purchasing her own appliances, my sister cannot let go of feeling responsible to take care of her.

Even though my sister feels this responsibility, our mother drives her crazy. My sister continues to visit with her because “she is still my mom,” even though it causes her pain and aggravation to visit with her. While I do not agree with my sister’s decision to continue contact with our mother, I understand it because I was once in that place. Ending the ambivalence toward her was very freeing for me.

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Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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