Do You See What I See? Identifying Dysfunction in the Family System

In “Fabled Truths and Family Lies,” published in The Meadows’ Meadowlark Summer 2010 newsletter, I wrote about a client’s experience with childhood sexual and emotional abuse, her skewed self-doubt, and her perceptions surrounding that abuse in her family-of-origin.

Specifically, I addressed the challenges that arose for Leah* as she confronted her family’s collusion and denial regarding the abuse perpetrated by her father. The article explored Leah’s heroic, albeit painful, journey into recovery as she turned a reflective lens inward on her own need for healing. By so doing, she rejected and separated from her family members’ need to preserve their own version of the events.

That article hit an emotional nerve with many readers and, in the ensuing months, I’ve received several emails expressing relief and appreciation for the topic.

I also received a letter from a reader who described her own struggle with her decision to separate from her family-of-origin in order to begin her journey of healing. In her letter, she posed the question of whether her journey toward healing, which involved both physical and emotional distance from her family, was worth the price. That price, she went on to say, came in the form of missed opportunities to be with her family, emotional and physical distance from them, and the loss of a family bond. This reader closed her letter with this question:

“When we separate from dysfunctional family systems, are we in fact hurting that system? Or are we perhaps contributing to its healing by the void we leave in our place?”

There is no ONE correct answer, as each family system has its own fluid and relational dynamic. The healthier and preferred option for one individual (e.g., staying involved in an attempt to affect change) may not be applicable or recommended in another family system with different dynamics. The interaction that distinguishes one family system as healthier and adaptive might not be operative in a more dysfunctional, rigid, or disengaged/enmeshed family.

There are times when a void left by our absence beckons the very change we sought to achieve by our presence.

“When we separate from dysfunctional family systems, are we in fact hurting that system? As a therapist, I often address such therapeutic quandaries. What one individual chooses to do in one circumstance may not be the best course of action for another, even when different individuals make those decisions within the same family unit. Hence, decisions made by siblings or other family members may be different, as each member’s relationship to the family system is different. Inevitably, all decisions that we make for healthy recovery come with consequences. This might be the only certainty: that a consequence is certain.

I often ask my clients to play out a proposed decision to their end. In so doing, I ask them to remain mindful of likely outcomes and, more importantly, to be aware of outcomes that are potential or perceived. As we work through this process, my clients must weigh the emotional, physical, spiritual, sexual, and financial cost/benefits of their decisions.

Leah’s decision to separate from her family led to her desired outcome of healing and recovery. For another individual, staying in contact with her family — while using boundaries and increased self-care — may lead to, but by no means guarantee, the desired changes in the family system.

Easy, straightforward answers are rare. In matters concerning our families-of-origin, our only guarantee is that we will struggle in our path to serenity.