Chapter 8: A Family that Hurts
What makes a family “dysfunctional?”
By definition, “dysfunctional” means simply that whatever is described as such fails to “function” according to its purpose. The purpose of a family is to provide for, or facilitate the basic needs of the members of the family so that their individual human potentials can be achieved. A family is dysfunctional when the needs of one or more members of the family are not being met.
It should be noted that a classic traditional family structure is not a prerequisite to being a functional family. Functioning families can be achieved within single parent families, stepparents, adoptive parents, foster parents, divorced parents, etc. And aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc. can all have a role in creating an environment in which the needs of each member of the family are being met. ….
What are the “needs” that families are meant to meet?
In 1943 Abraham Maslow categorized human needs into an ascending hierarchy that can be visualized as a pyramid or as rungs on a ladder. At the base, the most basic of human needs are physiological…air, food, water, sleep, warmth, excretion. The next level up are safety and security needs…shelter, employment, access to resources, physical health, protection from physical danger. The third level is love and belonging needs…friendship, family, intimacy with others. The fourth level is esteem needs…confidence, achievement, respect, etc. The top level are what Maslow characterized as “Self-Actualization” needs. These are characterized by creativity, self-awareness, meaning, reaching our potential as human beings.
… All this brings us to the purpose of this chapter. You may come from a family that never denied you your Physiological and Safety Needs. There was no sexual abuse. You were not beaten. You always had a roof over your head, clothes on your back, food on your plate and a secure place to sleep. You were allowed to have friends; your family participated in the culture and did not isolate themselves….
… But as you reflect on the Level 3 Needs (love, belonging, intimacy, etc), it begins to get a little cloudy….
… And as you continue to reflect your way up Maslow’s ladder you realize that things broke down entirely for your family life on level four: Esteem Needs.
Families have a legal obligation to provide for the safety and survival of their children. But it is not possible to establish standards to help children thrive and reach their potential as in Maslow’s ideal.
The best definition of the emotional neglect/abuse that concerns this chapter comes from Beverly Engel in her book, The Emotionally Abusive Relationship:
“Emotional abuse can be defined as any nonphysical behavior that is designed to control, intimidate, subjugate, demean, punish, or isolate another person through the use of degradation, humiliation or fear.”
[Questions this chapter answers…]
- How do I know when my adult relationships with my parents/family are hurting me/keeping me down?
- If I realize now that emotional abuse has continued into my adult relationships with my family, why have I allowed it to continue?
- Are there other, less radical intermediate steps you can take before “cutting away” from an emotionally abusive family?
- Does it need to be permanent?
- Are there degrees of separation as options in cutting away from a family that hurts?
And, for those for whom the Judeo-Christian ethic mandates that we “honor” our parents, there seems to be no asterisk providing an exemption for abusive parents. So…
- How do I protect myself from abuse while “honoring” my abusive parents?