by Dick Innes
I grew up in what used to be called a broken home. Now it is called a dysfunctional family and I am defined by a fancy title. I am now an ACDF--an Adult Child of a Dysfunctional Family!
Home for me was not a happy place. My parents' continual fighting ensured that. For their own painful reasons, by father and mother were unable to make a happy home. Eventually they divorced but my scars remained. My dad was physically present but emotionally absent. Consequently I felt unloved and rejected by him. And, while by mother was outwardly very functional and held the family together, instead of her meeting my emotional needs, she leaned on me to meet many of hers which were not being met in her marriage. Thus my parents' dysfunctions were passed on to me and I, in turn, repeated them in my marriage. And unless I resolve these, I will pass them on the my children. Some I already have.
Like my mother, outwardly I was very functional, but inwardly I was hurt, angry, afraid and insecure. To overcome, I needed to get into recovery.
The reality is that "hurt people hurt people" and what we parents don't work out our children will act out in one way or another and what we fail to resolve is destined to be repeated.
The Bible pointed out 4,000 years ago that the sins of the parents visit the third and fourth generation.1 Probably more than anything else, it is the "emotional sins" that are passed down from generation to generation. It has been said, for example, that alcoholism effects up to seven generation.
Sound hopeless? It is--unless we who have been hurt get into recovery to break the chain from generations past. If not, our children will be attracted to spouses from dysfunctional families and repeat the cycle and their children will do the same.
How then do we recover? It isn't easy, but with humility, honesty, courage, persistence, God's help and, where necessary, the help of a trained counselor and/or a support-recovery group, it can be done.
First, face reality. Realize that you are not alone; most families have some dysfunctions because nobody had perfect parents. The important thing, however, is that we admit our dysfunctions and avoid denial--the major barrier to recovery.
"Hurt people hurt people."
Sometimes when a family is in denial the one acting out negatively is made the scapegoat for the family sickness. Other members reason, "If he would change we'd be okay." However, in every dysfunctional family there are no innocent parties. All are contributing something even if it is being a enabling codependent, such as the spouse of an alcoholic.
Second, accept total responsibility. As long as we blame anybody else for our problems, we avoid facing what we are contributing--and never recover. It would be easy for me to blame my parents for my problems, but they were also the products of their upbringing and did the best they knew how. So I look at my family, not to blame, but to understand what I need to resolve. Blaming others for my difficulties is a handy excuse to hang on to if I don't want to grow up.
No matter what happened to me in the past, I am responsible for what I do about it now and for what I become. It may be true that "I was a victim in the past but if I remain one, I am now a volunteer."
We act out because we don't feel loved.
Third, recognize the rules of dysfunctional family living, which have been identified as follows: you don't talk, you don't trust, and you don't feel. That is, there is no trust in sharing family problems openly and honestly. Family secrets are kept hidden. Members are afraid to share their feelings. And the family lives in denial.
Fourth, get connected. We act out because we don't feel loved. So we overcome problems, addictions and destructive behaviors not just by stopping the behaviors but by being connected and loved.
That is, we need to be connected to the pain we avoid when we act out so we can face and resolve the cause of it. We stop acting out to feel the pain which in turn motivates us to get the help we need.
At the same time it is absolutely essential that we be connected to loving, accepting, and non-judgmental people with whom we can share our darkest secrets and who will love and accept us as we are. Through their love and acceptance we learn to love and accept ourselves. It is this love that heals us and sets us free. But we can only be loved to the degree that we are known. Thus to be known we need to bring our dark side into the light. As the Bible teaches, when we walk in the light and confess our sins and faults to trusted friends we get connected, we find forgiveness, and we are healed.2
Fifth, follow God's plan for recovery. We were damaged in unhealthy family relationships--we are healed in healthy family relationships. The church, when it is functioning as God intended, can provide the most effective means of recovery we can find. When we come to God through Jesus Christ, his Son, and confess our dark side and secrets to him and receive his forgiveness, he adopts us into a brand new family--the family of God.
As the rules for dysfunctional family are you don't talk, you don't trust, and you don't feel, the rules for a healthy family are that you do talk, you do trust, and you do feel. So, to recover from the effects of a dysfunctional family background, you need to find a church or chapel that has groups where it is safe to talk, to trust and to feel--where you will be loved for who you are and not for what you have or haven't done.
Furthermore, these small groups--be they care groups, support groups, therapy groups, or twelve-step recovery groups--are the closest thing to a family you can find. And as long as they are open, honest, safe, accepting, non-judgmental and loving, they hold the key for the recovery of millions of families and individuals.
Finally, ask for God's help. It is important not just to ask for help to overcome acting out symptoms. These negative behaviors show us that something is wrong at a deeper level of our life. So, we need to pray as follows, "God, here are symptoms I see in my life (name the problems). Will you give me the courage to face the causes behind them and lead me to the help I need to resolve them." If you truly want God's help and do your part, God will help you.
1. Exodus 34:7; 2. I John 1:7 with James 5:16.