Vallarta Tribune, Mar 5-11, 2006, issue # 465, pg 20

We all have a family of origin whether we grew up with them or not, whether we get along with them now or not, or even if we are in contact with them or not. No family is perfect. All families have varying degrees of dysfunction; it’s just that some function better in their dysfunction.

Family system

The family is a system. Each member is interconnected to the other and affected by the other both positively and negatively. Think of a mobile, when one piece moves, all the pieces move. This is especially true when you are growing up and living in the same household, but it holds true long after everyone has moved out and gone their separate ways. Of course, it also depends on how much you stay involved in each other’s lives. Some people have to completely cut themselves off from their family in order to survive and heal.

Multi-generational

Families pass so much down from one generation to the next. Think about how much is determined by our families’ traditions, values, beliefs, interests, activities, and behaviors. The language(s) we speak, ethnic and cultural foods we eat, values and beliefs attached to our family’s culture and religion, interest in a certain sports team, passion for a certain social cause, are all strongly influenced by our family of origin.

We also learn to value family or not, how to treat our parents and grandparents, our siblings, friends, neighbors and community. What is the degree of respect in your family towards each other? How were the boys in your family taught to treat women? What was expected of them; to help around the house, to excel at sports, to receive high grades, to have lots of girlfriends or get a lot of women (sexually)? What was expected of the girls; to serve the boys and men, to get a higher education, to marry and have children, to travel and be independent?

All of this influences what we are raised to believe is “normal” or “acceptable.” This includes the dysfunction and often damaging ways that we learned to think and behave regarding abuse (sexual, physical, emotional, or verbal) and domestic violence, addiction and co-dependency. The need to have power and control over someone, intimidating them with anger, manipulating them with guilt, or controlling them with fear, may have also been present in your family system. Addiction (including alcoholism) is also passed down genetically and generationally through learned behavior. The co-dependent reaction to addiction is also a learned response passed down through the generations.

Familiar vs. unfamiliar

Quick! What word do you see in the word “familiar?” That’s right “family.” Therefore that which is “familiar” is “family” and that which is “unfamiliar is “un-family.” We stick with what is familiar even if it isn’t good for us because it is taught to us and established as normal. It is also “comfortable” in the sense of knowing what to expect, how to react and manage situations and people, and we know all too well how it feels.

This is not a conscious decision or choice, but rather a repeated pattern of what has been normalized. A battered woman does not intentionallylook for a second or third abusive relationship even though she finds herself in one after the other. Sometimes she justifies that at least this relationship isn’t physically abusive, for example; A daughter of an alcoholic doesn’t intentionally look for an alcoholic or addict to marry, nor does she say to herself as she’s growing up in an alcoholic home, that “this has been so much fun I can’t wait to do it all over again when I grow up.”

This is also true for the batterer or the addict. The abusive husband witnessed and was most likely victim to abuse as a child, just as the addict observed that turning to drugs and alcohol was a way to escape and cope with life. Neither of them grew up thinking that it was fun or admirable to watch their Dad beat their mom or throw and break things, or call them names and tell them how worthless they all are. Nor did they think it would be fun to spend their adult life being drunk and hungover or high on drugs with major personality changes, not remembering what happened for hours at a time, or crashing their car, or spending all of their money just to support their habit.

Inevitably, we end up repeating the same familial patterns. We resist change; it takes us from the familiar into the scary unknown world of the unfamiliar. Sometimes we go to extreme lengths to hang on to the familiar even when it makes us miserable or destroys us. Just the thought of leaving our comfort zone can be paralyzing. It takes a great deal of strength and courage to step put of our comfort zone and enter the unknown. However, it is necessary in order to break the cycle, and it will be painful as well as liberating.

Written by: Giselle Belanger, RN, LCSW, CADC