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Sunday, December 15, 2013

Who puts the dys in dysfunctional?


I hear lots of stories about dysfunctional families. Conversations on elevators, in coffee shops; it seems everyone has one, and everyone’s family has invented a new brand of dysfunction. I hear about fault and blame, and the speaker is always the innocent bystander. I have decided we are not innocent bystanders of our family’s dysfunction. We are the dysfunction. When we cannot mold them to fit our expectations our families become dysfunctional.

I am not talking here of situations where family members endure any kind of abuse. I am talking about the average family that suffers only from problems of their own making.

The reason our families are destined to be dysfunctional is because they are comprised of fallible human beings. Human beings are never perfect. Our parents were works in progress trying their best to raise works in progress. We are works in progress and our view is clouded by the fact we cannot be objective with our family. We offer less contempt to strangers, are more understanding of our neighbors and have more unconditional regard for our hair stylists. 

Sometimes we are mad at our family because of past indiscretions. Sometimes we are mad for something that was said, or not said. Sometimes we are mad because they are unwilling or unable to assume our perspective. Many times we’re mad for something they don’t even know they’ve done. And we sometimes speak out of turn about these loved ones…refuse to go direct, justify our silence with a reason, leaving our trail of gossip to erode other family relationships. Because of course there is always a reason for why we cannot go direct and why they are at fault. And when we are looking for it we can always find examples of exactly the misbehavior we’re looking for.

So, the people who mostly put up with our unique brand of shit day in and day out, year in and year out, made sure we were fed and cared for, overlooked our screw-ups, helped us pick up the pieces when we did something stupid and stuck up for us every chance they got, those are the people we treat with the most distaste? Our families are there to remind us that changing friends is way easier than staying and working it out with people who remind us every time we see them that we’re not quite as cool as we think we are, but love us anyway. By adulthood we’ve tied all our neurosis to our families.

So we want our families there to support without question. We want them to read our minds, act in ways we are incapable of and when they don’t meet our expectations they are dysfunctional. Friends would abandon us if we treated them the way we treat our families. They would write us off for withholding, being conditional and judging.

We want from our families what we really want from these friendships—yes men, yes to our way, yes to our whim, yes to our brilliance. Endlessly supportive families all rallied behind everything we think and everything we do.

Add to all this, it truly doesn’t matter what happened in the past in the family, it is the perception of what happened that has left a distaste in someone’s mouth. I know a story of a man whose memory is that his family left him in a restaurant when he was 8, and didn’t come back for him until hours later. His siblings don’t remember the story quite that way, but he has carried that burden his entire life. We carry our past like a beacon calling us back to the painful moment and spinning it forward onto a culpable face.

When the family is dysfunctional wouldn’t it great if we asked, “How have I contributed?” Because if there is dysfunction, we all own a piece of it. And only when each one of us is ready and willing to own our part do we have a prayer of eliminating it. But given the choice to stop judging or get along with our families, based on what I’ve seen and heard I get the sense we will pick judgment every time. 

So my holiday wish is for all of us to find some forgiveness in our hearts. We cannot expect our world leaders to give us peace when we cannot even find peace in our own hearts. Maybe we can make some peace in our own heart and replace some gift we were going to give with the story of how we did it. We all have the power to change our family's dysfunction, and transform our lives.


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