Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Function in Dysfunction: Families in Transformation

I worked as a family counselor with a hospice organization for eleven years. During my first meetings with the person who had been admitted to our program, a program designed to deliver aggressive but not curative care to people with terminal illness, I came to expect and be prepared for the patient or a family member to take me aside and tell me that their family was “dysfunctional”. This admission was such a common feature of my early meetings with families that I learned, early on in my work, a kind of script for my response. My response was generally calibrated to fit the individual situation, but more often than not I found myself saying that I was not sure I believed the word “dysfunctional” was a very accurate way to describe how any family works or does not work.

I asked what the word “dysfunctional” meant to that person in relationship to their family. That in itself could turn into the basis of my ongoing work to help the patient and family integrate the anticipation of the devastating event of the expected death of one of its members. Generally speaking, and leaving out family systems that include repeated and multi-generationally enforced patterns of extreme and normalized torture and cruelty (and they happen often enough!), I was often able to help various members of a family reframe how they perceived the way their family worked as a system, even modifying the negative judgment in which they had initially compartmentalized their family’s functioning. In the end and often enough, if I was greeted with a quite common, healthy and functional will to comprehend how the love family members feel for one another is not often comfortably expressed, is full of normally complicated and difficult history and a wide range of feeling, many families could go about the business of caring for their dying loved one unfettered with the weight of feeling they are interminably wrong and flawed, a kind of a “double whammy” when one is attempting to carry out the extreme challenges of caring for a dying family member and all that it entails.

I think there is a common belief based in some ways on very real changes in how we think about families and the roles of men and women in families as well as attitudes about race and sexuality that have occurred over the past century that our families and how they work have become unfamiliar and undiscovered territory. We believe, perhaps rightly, that our families are made up of new combinations of expectations and untested norms and sometimes frightening and alien intentions and lack of intention… as if, in the past, there were clearer guidelines regarding what was expected from each family member and fewer deep and fracturing misunderstandings and communication gaffes than seem to be a huge part of how family estrangements and long term conflicts are born and sustained.

I cannot deny that there have been changes in how our society views the function of family as well as very real and obvious changes in what the family looks like in the United States and perhaps in the rest of the world. Deeply actualized alterations in how many people see race, and the overall move toward a willing or reticent integration of race, spirituality, sexuality and nationality groups have been seeded and taken root in the family. Mixed race families have become something of a norm and even accepted, with fervor or begrudgingly, even in individual families throughout the culture. Our own president is a good example of this shift.

The push for and the ultimate inevitability of non-heterosexual partnerships being given equal status in family and child-rearing has had a huge impact on our individual and collective ambivalence about what a family is, what it means, and what it does… how it functions as a basic foundation stone in the structure of humanity.

So yes, this change is real and, perhaps, a seminal and historically, bio-sociologically evolutionary event. We can choose to be excited and relieved by the change, or we can predict the doom and destruction of humanity based solely on the disintegration of the previous norms. Or both and everything in between.

Certainly the confusion and lack of confidence in families and in the culture in which the foundation is shifting could largely be attributed to the disintegration of previously held and maintained attitudes and norms.

That being said, there were always bi-racial people and couplings. But while we have suddenly awakened in a country in which we have, on one level, attained a long-awaited and, among the ethical and honest, hoped-for event… a non Caucasian president… we are also faced with the fact that in spite of that huge boundary being smashed, much has not changed. Much will not change.

The same can be said about non-heterosexual marriages and openly recognized long term same sex unions. They have always existed, and in some of the greatest and most long-lived human societies, they were an open and accepted feature. There was and is still war. There is still greed and human-to-human cruelty. And I would propose that there were and still will be family rifts and estrangements, heart-felt tearful apologies, and forgiveness as well as heartbreaking death-bed scenes due to the inability to come to understanding, and reasonable but painfully held differences that cannot be resolved.

Perhaps the most simultaneously celebrated and reviled change in families and societies is the role of women. Again, in spite of great strides being made, from family role-change in respect to gender, to the rise of women in all levels of occupation, vocation and influence (and in spite of the fact that there seems still to be a huge gap in gender equity in many places in the world and in subcultures, usually in theocratic societies large and small even in the U.S.) much has not changed; much conflict on all levels of society seems, more and more, to be integrated in the nature of humanity as opposed to the nature of how societies and families have organized themselves.

What does all this theorizing have to do with the confidence we have or do not have in how our families look, feel and function? How can knowing that these changes are at the same time real and illusory… even disappointing… help you plan for your interactions with your long estranged cousin’s clan as you all attempt to put on your best behavior at the funeral of a family patriarch or matriarch?

Good question.

It seems to me the question is not how to dysfunctionalize or even suppress these new forms of family dynamics and attributes. Some, out of the irrational fear that comes from superstition, lack of understanding of and apprehension about irrevocable change, would like to.

Besides, the dynamics and attributes of this change have always been present in one form or another. Perhaps the biggest challenge in our society and in our families is how to develop personal and interpersonal skills to facilitate and cope with how these attributes are no longer as suppressed, are coming out into the open, are being expressed in their rightful and transparent places in our lives.

What if our task is not learning how to cope with the dysfunction these new family attributes have released, but how to adjust and tune into the potential they hold for us? What if the goal is to finally be set free from the vagaries and deep and often disastrous pitfalls of the patriarchal, racially segregated, rigidly and unrealistically heterosexual family models of the past?

Perhaps this is a major shift for human society. Perhaps the adjustments, the suffering as well as the opportunities and potential this change holds for us is on a par with other shifts in collective consciousness and ways of surviving.

What if these new emerging family models carry with them as yet unrecognized skills and tools for successfully managing and thriving on a transforming earth and in a human culture that remains a place of the best of times and the worst of times? Where will we be, or not be, if we allow the regressive elements of our society to further repress what are basic and necessary, if sometimes chaotic and not fully understood, ways to express human social equality at the very foundation of that human collective, the family?

It is clear we need skills, invention and confidence that we can move forward, eyes wide open. We have to seek out ways we have functioned, and functioned well, during such changes in how our intimate worlds are constructed and how they work. Instead of adopting a model of dysfunction we might fully invest in the understanding that the only reason the family and society in general has gotten this far is because of how the innate forces and systems of our evolving nature are based in function, in how things work, not wallowing in how they don’t work. Systems do not survive not working. If they do not work, if they are truly dysfunctional, they fail. In the biochemical physical universe dysfunction means disappearance. It can also mean transformation. But in that case the change is rooted in a will to function, and so the dysfunction or what is called dysfunction, is actually an integral part of how a system returns to, never really leaves, functionality.

So go to the funeral. Be prepared for the drama and sadness. Be prepared to be stricken by the suffering with which such human endeavors and functions are suffused. But just as one relative approaches you to complain bitterly about another, or a sibling weeps deeply and inconsolably about the lost opportunity to make right what might never have been made right anyway, understand this in terms of how you and your family work, not how they do not work. Then see where that leads you.

1 comment:

Iris Arenson-Fuller said...

This is such a good article and I am sorry I have taken so long to comment on it. You raise excellent questions and make really good observations. I have learned after working with families for so many years that there is no such thing as a perfect family group. Most, if not all, are indeed flawed in one way or another. I do think people often use the umbrella of dysfunction to excuse their own behaviors and to cease trying to improve their relationships. It would benefit all of us to focus on the ways in which our families have worked, rather than, as you say, on the failings and faults. It is so true that we are who we are both because of and in spite of our families. I believe we must scream out with meaning and intention that "the buck stops here" as far as carrying on hurtful and hateful ways of being and acting. Still we have all learned valuable lessons and been given tools to use in life, and important survival skills.

You always have a fresh, intelligent and compassionate take on things, Bob.