Treating America’s “dysfunctional family”

For those of us whose academic and professional work has included the treatment of sick marriages and families over the years, it may be helpful for us to share a few insights here and there about how to find hope in this new 2017 of turmoil as Americans living in the United States. Or at least to stir a conversation.

Many folks going through 12-step recovery programs have found help and hope that also can bear much fruit in social media discussion, and elsewhere. Churches are in particular need of such discussions these days among their members.

Of course, we know at the outset that most dysfunctional families resist treatment or recovery. Starts with such psychological defense mechanisms as denial, or repression, or displacement, or projection, etc. But for those who do begin the hard work of recovery, these families have a remarkable resilience in “getting well” and becoming functional in the future.

Dysfunctional families begin in isolation. They have a sense of their own exceptionalism, or even superiority. They assume their strength comes from unity and so they often unite against a common enemy which they regard as “otherness” or “differentness.” They form tight bonds and boundaries; walls, if you will, to protect them from “stranger danger.” And they conserve the status quo at all costs. They are, by their very nature, conservative and prefer both an inward focus and a backward focus.

We know some things about dysfunctional families through the work of treating alcoholism and addiction, but I’ve always had the opinion all families have some level of addiction, secrecy, and self-protection from external reality. All families are susceptible to becoming little “post-truth” or “post-fact” societies.   Indeed, all of us as humans have some denial of reality that works to destroy us even in our quest to survive. It’s a bit of “chicken and egg” speculation as to whether our self-destructive tendencies begin with the individual or the family giving birth to the individual.

Doesn’t really matter.

What we do know is that dysfunctional families have role assignments that fly below everyone’s radar. And everyone becomes addicted, or dependent upon their own role for the family system itself to survive. Typically we have the user, the enabler, the hero, the scapegoat, the mascot, and the lost child. Every member plays a key role in conserving the family dysfunction or preserving the enmeshment from any healthy outside interference.

In case you’re not familiar with the terms I’m using here, the roles may be briefly defined this way:

User = the one who most often suffers from narcissism caused by deep personal insecurity (the Bible calls this person an idolater whose only ability is to love things and use people instead of being able to love people and use things).

Enabler = the one who keeps the user’s bad judgment and harmful consequences from becoming a source of his or her even deeper insecurity, makes excuses for him or her, puts out the fires started by his or her bad judgment

Hero = the one who tries to fix everyone else’s problems instead of covering them up (usually the one that seeks treatment for the user or even the family rather than conserving the secret, but never until he or she is totally burned out from trying to first fix it all alone)

Scapegoat = (also called the Bad Guy role) the one that family blames for the whole mess by having rebelled in ways that draw the fire and attention away from the user (giving the user all the more excuse to use)

Mascot = the entertainer who distracts the family from its own pain by making people laugh or otherwise avoid having to face their reality

Lost Child = the one who just goes along in order to get along and feels quietly miserable in ways others don’t even notice

Understand this: each of these roles is a miserable role. No member of a dysfunctional family is happy. Even the mascot burns out after awhile.

Were such a family used in a parable or allegory for today’s USA, there is a chance in my own opinion that each role could be identified with a particular segment of our citizens. And my guess is you might even find yourself to be living within one of these segments.

But if not………….

If you are able to define a different role for yourself, then you are the hope we all need here in America. This is especially true if you can honestly say you used to be in one of these dysfunctional roles but have now gotten free and found a healthier way to live. Given that, you are now part of the solution instead of the problem. You need to help those in your former role learn your new role. They will block you to hold onto the devil they already know, but you need to gently remind them that life doesn’t have to be this way. There are healthy roles to change into through recovery and therapy.

If you are not able to yet differentiate or separate yourself from one of these dysfunctional roles, if you feel like the burned out enabler or hero or scapegoat or mascot or the unrecognized lost child nobody even notices, then here is where your hope lies. It is inevitable that a crisis will come about in which these roles no longer function to preserve the system. Then, people will be forced to learn new roles that do function for survival. Every dysfunctional system will eventually implode. After which it will become reborn and free to become functional.

Yes, it is hard for such change to happen. It’s hard for it to happen even in one single family. The crisis has to await some new member entering the family to play a healthy role, or some old member leaving and removing an unhealthy role player (the loose rock that starts the landslide).

It is even harder for it to happen in a macro community or system such as a nation. Takes a lot of loose rocks to start that big of landslide. But there is always a first and second rock. The second is all important for reasons I may offer in a future blog.

On a global level, all of humanity is one big dysfunctional family awaiting our next crisis. As a Christian, but also a family therapist and pastor, this is where I view Jesus. He’s the assigned family therapist who helps start the rockslide, helps create the crisis, helps create the new reality with the new roles, and who gives hope to the hopeless and treatment to the sick. Does God have other therapists on staff? I believe so. But Jesus is my therapist. And I in my own sick human family have high hopes that if we do what he says, and assume new roles he prescribes, we really can get well. And we really can live in that functional family Jesus calls The Kingdom of God.

What is more, if we can play a role in the incremental changing of the macro system of all humanity, just one person at a time, then we can create a crisis big enough to easily re-form and heal this single nation even TIME magazine has now named the Divided States of America.


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