What is a dysfunctional relationship?
A dysfunctional relationship is one where two people make an emotional “contract” and agree to meet each other’s needs in what end up being self-destructive ways:
- Example 1: I feel unable to take care of myself, you feel inadequate. If you take care of me, I’ll make you feel better about yourself. I’ll give up my independence, let you run my life, and remain loyal to you. In return, you meet all of my emotional and dependency needs. This can be a dependent woman who needs a husband to protect and provide for her, or an emotionally cut-off man who finds a “mothering” wife to anticipate his emotional needs. In a healthy relationship, both partners help the other to learn to do the things they can’t, instead of doing these things for them.
- Example 2: I have a lot of “emotional problems” because I basically feel very bad about myself, but I don’t like thinking about it. You have “commitment issues,” and want to have a relationship without feeling any vulnerability. We pair up, and I hit you with all my emotional needs. You can’t handle it, distance, and then have an affair. I get to play the martyr and feel morally superior, and say that you are the sole cause of all the problems in our relationship. In return, I’m emotionally cold and critical of everything you do, and you can justify sleeping with others to feel loved because I’m so mean. We each get one thing we want (feeling better about ourselves and having relationships without vulnerability) but each do this in a way that harms us.
There are several keys to understanding this:
- Both of us make choices to stay in this relationship, and while it is easy to see only one of us as being “dysfunctional,” both of us are dependent on the other
- These relationship gives us a chance to be close, but not too close, distant, but not too distant, and at any time we can change… we can use drugs together and become very close, or you can steal from me and buy drugs for your friends and make me mad…
- We stay in the relationship to avoid having to meet our needs for ourselves because we are afraid and anxious that we couldn’t live on our own
- We both justify our actions based upon the other; I wouldn’t be so critical if you didn’t sleep around, you wouldn’t sleep around if I wasn’t so critical, and we each have a comfortable justification or rationalization that “smooths over everything”
- The relationship ends when the cost of the agreement is too high; that means some relationships can go on for long periods of time, others are on again and off again, and some people just have a series of short, intense relationships followed by volatile breakups
Where Does It Start?
Parents and Young Children
This first relationship you have in this world is with your parents. That relationship is supposed to focus more on your needs than on your parents’ needs. Sometimes this isn’t so. Parents have children for many reasons, or may explain accidental parenthood to themselves in a number of ways. They may expect to be loved unconditionally (the “greatest gift of all, the love of a child”), to feel superior (“See that trash can? That’s where I found you and I can put you right back”), to “hold on” to a partner (“You don’t think your son needs a father?”), or to explain their problems (“You’re just like your father, lying whenever it serves you and just no good”). Parents may place their needs on the child, and expect the child to sacrifice his needs (i.e., to be silly, needy, and scared) to meet the parent’s needs and soothe the parents’ anxiety. Even a dysfunctional parent who denies can still be modeling very dysfunctional relationships for their children.
- Example 3: A parent who uses substances may expect an older child to take over parenting responsibilities. The child “agrees” to meet the parent’s need for assistance, sacrificing their childhood in return for love and approval. The child has little choice in this, so you may debate over whether you see the child as being dysfunctional, but he or she learns from an early age that pleasing others and taking care of them is how you get love. How many “Adult Children of Alcoholics” do you know who marry someone to take care of? The child, of course, may comply at first, but over time feel more and more inadequate. As a teen, she fights it and may have children of her own to show she’s adequate, convince his younger siblings to reject mother and side with him against her, or say he wants to return to his mother’s home but act out during and after every visit. This may not be conscious at all, but simply may make the child feel powerful. This leads to doing other things to feel powerful, like selling drugs to make people beg you for substances, stealing to have nice things your mother could never afford, or fighting others to feel powerful over them.
Adult Children and their Parents
You will meet people who, as grown adults, blame their parents for all their problems (e.g., “If they had loved me more… if they were more supportive… if they had not spoiled me…”). They basically say, “I am afraid I can’t change who I am, so if I blame someone else for it, I’m not responsible for the things I do and don’t do.” How many mothers do you see who become angry with their own mothers for caring for the children? Maybe they blame their parents for their own failures, and as adults say “I won’t let you hurt my children like you hurt me” as a way to avoid saying “I hurt my children.” Alternately, they may see their parents do a wonderful job, and say to themselves, “they love my children more than they love me.” Thus, making their parents out to be bad and selfish helps them avoid facing the results of their own actions.
Parents and their Adult Children
Parents of adult children can sometimes fall into this category too. They enable an adult child by hiding his faults, taking over his parenting responsibilities, avoiding any challenge to stay clean and sober… all in an effort to gain their love and affection, feel like “good” and very needed parents, and avoid facing how they raised him.
Siblings and friends
Siblings and friends can enter into the same kinds of “contracts” noted for couples. They are always in some trouble and need money or advice, or just can’t “get a break” and make bad decisions. They pair up with people who then feel like they are savvy, intelligent, and lucky.
Why does this go on?
Families Teach this to Children
- Sometimes this happens through one generation. One parent is grossly negligent, allows the children to be sexually abused. The children grow up angry, wild, and end up pregnant early. They don’t want to be parents, leave the responsibility to their own parents, and the cycle happens again by the same abuser. Another parent is angry and physically abuses the children. They grow up, have kids, swear to be different, but are unable to handle stress, anxious, and easily “set off.” they transmit their anxiety to the children, prompting acting out, and then they hit their own children. The cycle continues…
- Sometimes this happens through multigenerational processes. Each generation “adds a bit more on to the pile.” One mother is an angry and critical woman, who raises timid and insecure children. They partner with dominating and uncaring people, who provide little love. Their children react by picking partners like their own parents, and trying to gain the love from them they never got from their parent.
- Sometimes we see the pattern. You hear people say “She married her father” or “they had an argument and he said she was just like his mother.” Sometimes our families involve us in unhealthy relationships and we seem to repeat them almost on purpose. Freud called this a repetition compulsion and saw it as a sign of dysfunction. Others have seen it as an effort to fight with our weaknesses until we overcome them. Family systems theory says we do it without realizing it because it’s how we learned to be close, to establish distance, and to cope with life and define ourselves.
Dysfunctional environments play a role too.
Maybe your family was always poor, but maybe it wasn’t. Your mom was a neglectful mother. You had to live in a poor neighborhood with crime and violence, and are overprotective of your own children. They rebel, move out on their own, and live in poor and violent neighborhoods, get victimized because they are young and naive, or pick dysfunctional partners because they are still childlike in their needs and feelings of separation and loss. The dysfunction continues almost despite the family’s efforts.
Think on what you’ve seen:
- Substance Abuse – The disruption is normalized, the roles (like caretaker and enabler…) are taught and reinforced, and the family minimizes the abuse, thus it gets passed on because warning signs are ignored, the roles are familiar, and other ignore the seriousness of the behavior. You hear people say “I wanted to change him like I couldn’t change my father.” There has been a lot written on codependence. This is basically learning patterns of tolerating and accommodating substance abuse from your family, and carrying on these patterns of behavior after grown up. The same can be said about the increasing divorce rate, increasing violence, and increasing materialism in our culture.
- Mental Illness – Take the dependency and fears of abandonment to a greater extreme; if you think you are crazy or don’t deserve anything better, you’d settle for whoever would take you.
- Violence– Think of abusers who play mind games based on the weaknesses of the women they are involved in, control over things like money and housing, and issues such as a pattern of violence across generations.
- Boundary Disruptions like DCFS – This one may not seem clear, but think on this:
- The disruption of the family’s boundaries and system only knocks out the supports that may have allowed it to appear normal before. The longer you stay involved, hold a microscope and mirror up to the family, serve as outsiders in their business etc…, the more anxiety it stirs and the more difficult it is to deal with that, so it becomes a problem of more dysfunction to deal with it.
- Think also on a mother daughter pair who haven’t gotten along in years, who now have to work together to care for the children; a grandmother may not have been a great mom, but may honestly work to be a good grandmother and redeem herself with a second chance, while mom may feel jealous of the attention her children get and feel her mother is undermining her authority, judging her, and trying to ruin her children’s lives like she ruined hers… Stuff that didn’t lead to a blow up before will now…
So what do you do?
- Offer therapy for individuals, couples, and families to address both general and specific traumas or problems, and well as to address adjustment to “normal changes” in the family.
- Offer support for skills building to open doors to new options for coping, as well as educate about new ways to do things for those who want to change.
- Enrich community support through resources such as churches and church support systems, neighborhood improvement programs, parental involvement in the school, neighbors knowing neighbors, and divorced/single parent support groups, etc…
- Fund primary and secondary prevention efforts, or intervention at key times, such as birth of children, completion of high school, moving to a new neighborhood or home
- Follow Bowen’s admonition and study your own family before studying and intervening in others’ families.