SOURCE: Adapted from Helping Troubled Families by Charles M. Sell
*Enmeshment – This means family members become too closely bonded with each other. Strong families connect in a balanced way. They have a strong sense of togetherness, but it’s tempered by allowing members to be independent. They feel close and committed to each other, but their closeness empowers them as separate persons. Enmeshed families, in contrast, allow their connectedness to stifle individuality. They may also swing to the opposite extreme and be so independent that the members are disengaged.
Under the control of a parent, cohesiveness is often forced on the members. In an effort to overcome family shame, efforts are made to keep the family together. Members are expected to be loyal – being together is not necessarily desired; it is required. Members of strong families may get together for Christmas because they want to, but dysfunctional family members do so because they have to. Members of strong families enjoy each other; those of troubled families tend to endure each other. Enmeshment is often referred to as co-dependence, and it manifests itself in number of harmful ways. Family members sometimes feel too much, depend too much on, or do too much for each other. While some sacrifice is o.k., sacrifice can be harmful, not just to the one who is sacrificing but also to the one for whom the sacrifice is made. Jesus, by His crucifixion, is the greatest example of sacrifice, but His sacrifice was with purpose.
*Inadequate Communication – Dysfunctional families are notorious for their poor communication. They have the now-famous rules: “Don’t trust; don’t feel, and don’t talk.” A functional family has no such rules. The rules that keep dysfunctional families from talking come from the “elephant in the living room” phenomenon. The large beast represents the family’s problem. Fear and shame keep family members from discussing it. Initially their feelings may be so overwhelming that they deal with them by trying not to feel. Ignoring the most important family matter causes them to ignore other feelings and thoughts as well. Communication is superficial because of the threat of talking about their shame, fear, and depression. The family avoids healthy conflict and urges members not to rock the boat. Their desire for peace at all costs inhibits any authenticity, vulnerability, or transparency. Since they are unable to talk, family members struggle to adapt and survive, employing numerous defenses to ward off the pain. One of those defenses is denial.
*Denial and Reality Shifting – People in dysfunctional families usually have a distorted view of reality. They see the terrible things happening in their homes, yet they don’t recognize them for what they are. This denial takes any number of forms. They may minimize the problem. They may consider themselves normal. They may delay doing anything about it, thinking the problem will eventually solve itself. Being in denial causes people to experience what is called “reality shifting.” This is when there is a major discrepancy between what is said and what a child experiences. Forcing children to disregard what they experience distorts their sense of what is true and normal, causing them to live in doubt and confusion.
*Wet – Dry Cycle – Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde often come to mind when referring to addicts. They have a sober personality and an addicted one – and their families do too. This sobriety-intoxication cycle deprives them of one of the major traits of strong families – consistency. What is so amazing about these cycles is that the family members tend to behave like the addict. Families are not all alike when one of the members is an addict. While some families may feel close to each other, others may feel isolated from one another. Some may be tranquil, others combative. Yet they definitely exhibit two states. During the sober period, the home atmosphere may be very tense with children fearing the addict may move to his/her addiction. The contrast between the two states can be extreme:
Promises Made Promises Broken
This unpredictability and inconsistency can exact a toll on family members.
*Role Reversals — When one family member becomes increasingly disabled, other family members will begin to carry an extra load to keep the family going. Unlike the teamwork that exists in a healthy family, these responsibilities are unfairly distributed. As a result, the family members bearing the burden begin to feel resentful, angry, and frustrated. But the “don’t talk rule” keeps them from confronting the troubled member about his or her irresponsibility. They may also suffer their hard feelings to avoid arguments and uncomfortable scenes.
*Isolation – Troubled families often lack a key factor of healthy family life – contact with those outside the house. They are cut off from the many benefits people receive by being linked to the wider community and their contact with growth-producing relationships is limited. Because the family members are so enmeshed with one another, outsiders threaten the precarious “balance” of co-dependency. Also, because of their rigidity, they reject others whose ideas and practices may challenge theirs. Keeping the family secret of addiction or abuse makes them shun outsiders. Shame about that secret inhibits their getting close to others. In some cases, this isolation is a contributing cause of the family’s problems as well as a result. Physical and sexual abuse can more easily happen where it is unlikely to be detected by members of the community.