Functional dysfunctions: families in life, transitions, and therapy

As a family therapist, I thrive on the family communications that most would not even notice: the body language, the eye contact, who sits by whom, who speaks to/for whom, and so on.  The actual words take second place to the intense signals sent between family members…and even more so if certain family members are unable to be in attendance.  With so many people in the room and their stories, connections, backgrounds, and hidden agendas filling up every inch of space, how is a therapist to see it all clearly?  I admit: when I first started seeing families, I felt a high level of anxiety as I tried to keep track of all of the dialogue (verbal and nonverbal) in the room and tried to get a picture of the family’s story while honoring their culture and presenting problem.  I still feel that today, but the anxiety is lessened and the energy is more focused on getting each member’s viewpoint, reading the multiple forms of communication, and adopting a curious and open stance.  I have learned that often the person that is “identified” in the session as “needin’ fixin'” is often the unknowing recipient of a mixture of all family members’ struggles, concerns, and personal issues.  Whew – how exhausting! As I was reading an interesting family therapy blog, I started reflecting on the author’s point that the family member who is “identified” as the problem might suffer low self esteem, guilt, and depression based on the unconscious projection of the family’s issues on one or two members.  Thus, the family gets more dragged down by the new issues created by placing this weight on that family member.

I decided to write about this topic today based on a recent episode I watched of the TV show “Brothers and Sisters”.  This show, centered around the cycles of the Walker family, is the poster child for family struggles, transitions, love, and heartache.  I admit that almost every time I watch it, I cannot hold back the tears and I think it is because of how connected and committed this family is.  Granted, it’s a TV show and it exaggerates normal family processes, but I believe that everyone could find some part of the Walker family that he or she can identify with.  I love the diversity of this family and how it is defined not only by blood connections but by creating new definitions for what “family” means to each member.  The most recent episode made me think about how families react to tragedy and how each family strains to get back to that “balance” or homeostasis that they had (however functional or dysfunctional it might have been) before tragedy struck.  As the Walker family tries to cope with enormous loss, each member isolates and creates barriers between other members and it is up to one family member to confront his family about the distance created between them as they struggle to cope.  He tells his mother that he misses her meddling, overbearing, over-involved, controlling self, and that she “was the best mother ever” when she was embracing her natural tendencies.  Since a lot of the show is focused on the mother’s boundary-breaking in her childrens’ lives, I found it interesting that in the wake of crisis, what this family really needed to heal was for them to re-balance, and to find their old ways again.

So, in family therapy, I wonder how it is decided what is healthiest for the family?  Are their normal, regular, comfortable, dys/functional cycles and patterns helping them or hurting them? Would going back to those patterns help a family in crisis or did the patterns themselves help to initiate the crisis?  And can crisis ever be a good thing?  I think it depends on how one defines crisis, family, normal, and healthy.  It is different for everyone, and a family therapist’s primary job is to get those definitions from each member and to see how those definitions function within the family system.  It is also crucial to observe how each family member reacts to change in the system and how each member strives to regain that balance.  Family therapy is challenging — for the clients and the therapist — but it is essential in a society that is growing and embracing all types of family structures.