What is a ‘Dysfunctional Family’ and How Does it Mess You Up?

May 21, 2007 11:59 am Published by

Last entry we briefly discussed how one’s early life experiences shapes a person’s worldview and often continues to impact your values and decisions long into adulthood. I thought it would be good to extend this discussion into the realm of dysfunctional families.

First, it is important (to me, at least) to communicate that I am as tired as anyone by our culture’s propensity to blame someone (or something else) for poor choices individuals make. (For example, I was upset by the media’s immediate reaction to blame the administrators of Virginia Tech for not responding more quickly after the assassin’s first series of murders – or their susequent blaming of mental health professionals for not “locking up” the murderer when they knew he was mentally ill.  Let’s get the blame right – the young man shot and killed people. He is responsible for his actions. The media also needs to understand the laws that are currently in place regarding a professional’s “duty to warn” before they start popping off in ignorance. [The laws may need be revised, but that is a separate discussion.])

I am not looking to attribute primary responsibility to a person’s parents or a “messed up” family for their own pattern of making repeated bad choices. I am clearly not into vicimization (making everyone who has a problem an innocent victim of someone else’s actions). Obvioulsly, there are lots of very healthy people who have come out of terrible family situations. However, other people’s actions can have a significant effect on us, especially those of our parents and family members. So let’s look at this dynamic, to try to gain a better understanding of what happens and why.

Let’s start by defining “dysfunctional.” “Dys” always means ‘problem’ – dysexics have problems with words (primarily reading), dysgraphics struggle with writing.  And dysfunctional individuals have problems with functioning well in the real world. It is not a pejorative or judgmental term (to me, at least) but rather is descriptive – these people are having a hard time getting along in their daily lives.

Similarly, a dysfunctional family is one that lives in a way that demonstrates significant problems in life — in relationships, at work, in their finances, managing their feelings, communications, and so on. As I have stated previously, one of my friends likes to say, “All families are dysfunctional, but some are more than others.”  This is a true statement. Dysfunctionality (and conversely, functionality) exists on a continuum – from mildly to moderately to severely, and so forth. So, we all fit into the category somewhere and somehow.

Practically speaking, what does a dysfunctional individual look like? Here are some common behaviors I have observed (and, unfortunately, have experienced in some relationships):

  • After spending time with them , you feel “fogged” — like you aren’t thinking clearly.
  • You thought you were thinking correctly about a situation, but after being with them, you now feel your approach to life is being questioned.
  • You feel blamed for the other person’s situation.
  • You consistently find yourself making choices on the basis on how the other person will react (because you don’t want to “make them mad”)
  • You feel responsible to “fix” a situation that is a result of another person’s (repetitive) choices.
  • You feel if you were a “good person” you maybe should help them out.
  • You are concerned about how innocent people (e.g. children) will suffer from the poor choices made by another person.
  • Other people are mad at you because you won’t “help them out” (just this once!).
  • You are being blamed for being unreasonable and insensitive to their situation.
  • You have been in this situation before (or one very similar to it) with this person. Probably, previously you “helped them out” and they are in the same again.
  • You have concerned that if you don’t rescue them from their current situation, the consequences are so significant that it may ruin their life in the future.
  • You feel pressured to make an immediate decision to “help out,” even though the problem has been developing for quite a while.
  • You feel “smothered;” the other person wants to get too close too soon or they cut off the relationship totally, for seemingly little slights.

Individuals who behave in these ways typically (although not always) learned more of these patterns from their families. This is where the issue of early life experiences comes in. Most of us learn about the “world” from our family, because initially our family and home is our primary “world” (but this has changed with the increasing use of babysitters, daycare centers and preschools).

In our early years we learn important lessons – whether the world is safe or not, whether other people (primarily our caretakers) are caring and loving, whether they can be trusted and are predictable, what happens when we make mistakes, whether we will be protected or whether we have to protect ourselves, and so on.

The problem arises when individuals are raised in homes where the “rules” and patterns of behavoir don’t really match the way healthy relationships occur in the world outside of the family. This is most clearly evident in homes with addictions (alcoholism, drugs, gambling, spending) or severe mental illness (depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, bipolar disorders, etc.). Individuals who struggle with these issues usually develop behavior patterns to try to “cope” with life, but their choices often lead to other problems.

Dysfunctional families often exhibit a number of the following relational / communication patterns:

  • Deceit (overt lying, not telling the whole story, or hiding the truth)
  • Indirect Communication (talking “through” others)
  • Inconsistent and unpredictable behavior
  • Volatile and explosive expression of feelings (usually anger)
  • Having a sense of entitlement (“I deserve..because I want it.”)
  • Blaming others, making excuses for one’s poor choices
  • Having to meet your desires now
  • Escaping from reality (through TV, video-games, drugs, alcohol, sleep)
  • Holding on to grudges and seeking revenge
  • Making verbal commitments with little or no follow-through
  • Focusing primarily on one’s public image and appearance
  • Disagreement leading to anger, “personal” attacks and hatred
  • Trying to control others through guilt, shame or anger

This is the reason that individuals who grow up in seriously dysfunctional families often have struggles later in life. Their early life history and experiences skew their views of what life and relationships should be like. For example, when a child grows up in a home where the father comes home drunk and is easily angered, the child learns to “stay out of the way.” They also learn to “cover their tracks” so they don’t get in trouble (or beat) when they have made a mistake.  And it is actually “functional” for children in these types of settings to lie – to protect themselves, their siblings or their mother. The problem comes when they are no longer in that relational environment and they transfer these behaviors to the other settings and relationships. That is when they become “dysfunctional” – that is, these behaviors no longer function well in the world they currently live.

I think I’ll stop there for now. Hopefully, this gives some insight into “dysfuntionality” as we encounter it in our lives (always in other people, right?). Next entry I may address ways we can manage situations we find ourselves in daily interactions with others who live in this manner.

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May 21, 2007 11:59 am


  • Sheila says:

    I would like to get any followup articles/teachings you do on dysfunctional people. This has helped me to realize that I am not alone in dealing with this type of person who leaves you feeling like you are totally at fault for everything and a terrible person. Thank you.

  • Paul says:

    Sheila, thanks for the note. I have sent you a handout by email that I have written on the topic. Hang in there and don’t let yourself get “beat up” relationally. pw

  • Ed van Eeden says:

    It’s all too true. A perfectly happy family can grow ‘dysfunctional’ in no time when one of the members picks up a gambling habit. When the desperation of heavy losses sets in, there’s no living with such a person anymore. A compulsive gambler will sacrifice anything to the desire of winning it all back. Even when there’s nothing left to put at stake. That’s when the true desperation sets in.

  • I appreciate the sincerity of this write-up of yours. Can’t wait to see more!

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