Thursday, January 6, 2011

You Don't Always Get Out What You Put In: Unhealthy Relationships 101

In my last blog post I discussed relationships expectations and how to cope when your expectations are not met. As a follow up, I'm going to do two posts focused on identifying unhealthy relationships. The first post will tackle family relationships, and the second will focus on what I'll call "relationships of choice"- friends and romantic partners. Let's dive right into unhealthy family relationships.

A family is a complex conglomeration of personalities (my own personal definition). Throughout this post, I will use the term "family" to describe the environment in which an individual was raised. This includes two parent homes, single parent homes, being raised with extended family (e.g., grandparents, aunts/uncles, etc), foster homes, adoptive homes, etc. Basically, whatever you would consider your "family".

Psychologically speaking, the family is a very important in child development. In a healthy family, children are protected, nurtured, supported, encouraged to try new things, and learn how to navigate conflict through relationships with siblings or by observing the adults in the family. A concept that is thought to be particularly important is that of a family being a "secure base". According to Dr. John Bowlby, an attachment theorist, children who are securely attached to a parent (the mother) feel comfortable exploring new elements of an environment because they know that they can go back to the parent if anything goes wrong. (Read this article if you want a more in depth look at Bowlby's theories.) A secure base is very important for a child- it teaches him or her to have healthy levels of trust in others and fosters an interest in the world in general. Without it, children may be overly trusting of or lack trust in others, and may be unwilling to try new things, both of which can hinder a child as he/she advances into adulthood. Another concept relating to healthy families is the concept of "differentiation". Murray Bowen, a family systems theorist, healthy families foster individuation, meaning that all members are encouraged to be his/her own person and are supported in this endeavor. Go here to read more about Bowen's concepts.

If you just read the last paragraph and thought, "That is not my family!", you are not alone. No family is perfect, and most families have at least a couple of imperfect elements. For the purpose of brevity, I will briefly discuss a couple of elements of unhealthy families, and will provide links to websites where you may find additional information about each.

Substance abuse and/or dependence can greatly disrupt family functioning, and this can be true even if no one in the immediate family uses or uses heavily. For instance, having a history of substance abuse in the extended family (e.g., if your parents grew up in an alcoholic family, or if their parents grew up in an alcoholic family) can have trickle down effects on the generations that follow. Families in which there exists active substance use or abuse can be chaotic and unpredictable- a child may not know from day to day if the parent will be intoxicated or sober, which may make the difference between a calm evening or one filled with yelling, arguing, or crying. This can be a very scary environment for a child, and can lead to anxiety or depression, isolation from peers, and relationship problems. Children raised in homes in which there exists substance use or abuse may end up being substance users themselves and/or may enter romantic relationships/marriages with substance users, which ends up repeating the cycle in which they were raised. Additional information about some of the effects of growing up in an alcoholic family (which can also be applied to families in which there is drug abuse) can be found here and here. You can also Google search Al-Anon and ACOA for more information and local support groups.

Another unhealthy relationship pattern, which is at times also found in families in which there exists substance use/abuse, is emotional abuse. The type of emotional abuse I'm describing here can be a little more subtle than say name calling. It involves a parent withholding affection or praise, or placing conditions on receiving affection or praise. There's a thin line between making sacrifices for family members (e.g., doing something for a family member that you don't particularly want to do) and this type of emotional abuse, but the indicator this type of abuse is whether or not conditional affection exists. Some examples are getting the "silent treatment" or an "if you don't do it that means you don't love me" message from a family member. This type of abuse pattern often creates a "need to please" orientation wherein a child may be drawn to difficult ("hard to please") individuals and constantly try to please them, which proves to be very difficult. You can see how this might create an unhealthy relationship pattern: one person constantly tries to please while the other either rejects or accepts the advances. The sporadic nature of the response from the hard to please person reinforces the pleasing behavior, and the "pleaser", more often than not, constantly feels rejected but compelled to try again.

Another unhealthy pattern in families involves lack of differentiation. As previously mentioned, in a healthy family members are encouraged and supported in their individuation. At the appropriate time, children leave the family of origin and begin an adult life of their own. Ideally, parents support this transition and "release" the child to this life, and the child eventually develops an adult-to-adult relationship with the parent. Unfortunately, this doesn't always occur, and some families make it difficult for the child to differentiate. For instance, some families may alienate a child for seeking higher education, moving outside of the home or city, or other decisions that the child has made on his/her own. These messages create a "we/you" divide in the family, and the child is left to decide if he/she wants to continue to pursue the path he/she has chosen or be a part of the family. This is an unhealthy pattern because the choice is to be enmeshed and a part of the family (see the definition here) or individuated and potentially alone and alienated.

Ideally, a family should be a safe place. A healthy family loves its members and protects them, and provides a place for its members to receive support. Unfortunately, families are not perfect, and many people feel hurt and rejected when their family is not meeting their needs. I will post a follow-up to this entry that deals with how to cope when your family is not meeting your needs. But first I want to write about "relationships of choice" and how these relationships may be influenced by unhealthy family relationships.

Until next time-
Dr. Stanley

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