Counseling Resources

Three Rules of Dysfunctional Families

Many of our clients seek counseling in order to make sense of their unique story and family background. Often, there is a desire to break long-standing patterns of dysfunction in order to not pass hurtful behaviors to the next generation. The unhealthy cycles of abuse and addiction are usually repeated because they are familiar, and will remain in motion until there is an intentional movement to change. Claudia Black, author of the best-selling book, “It Will Never Happen to Me” has identified the unspoken rules of a dysfunctional family. The basic purpose of these rules is to cover up destructive behavior and the shame/blame cycle that exists in the home. By following these rules, each member of the family becomes complicit in keeping painful secrets, thus keeping everyone bound to feelings of shame and helplessness, which reproduces abusive and addictive behavior.

Don’t Talk
Family thinking under this rule goes something like this: “Don’t talk to anyone outside our family about what you see going on in our family. This is normal family life. Don’t tarnish our reputation – appearances are very important so don’t embarrass the family. Don’t talk about it within the family either! We will only discuss safe subjects and pretend everything is OK. Don’t ask questions and don’t share your feelings! This is dangerous because someone might get upset. Remember, no one else understands our family, so don’t try to explain it to anyone. If we can keep things hidden and you can keep our secrets, everything will be ok.”

Don’t Trust
“Don’t trust anybody outside the family. Who knows what they might do or say about our family? You don’t want to be responsible for that do you? Besides, they are probably just like us anyway. You need to care for us and not worry about them. If you trust someone else with our family secrets I will feel betrayed. However, don’t lean on me, because I cannot take care of you. If I fail you, it’s probably your fault anyway, so you’re not allowed to be upset with me. I know I’m not perfect, but can’t you just forget about it and move on? Don’t make a big deal about it.”

Don’t Feel
“If you don’t allow yourself to think about the situation, it won’t hurt so bad. After all, you really don’t hurt that badly. Those are just silly, childish emotions. It’s better to put them out of your head completely. You shouldn’t feel this way anyway because your life isn’t that bad. Look at all I do for you! You have no reason to be angry with me. Besides, your pain is not nearly as terrible as mine so don’t share your emotional pain with me because I don’t know what to do with my own.”

These rules are not posted on the refrigerator, or even spoken out loud, but they become the subtext for how the family functions. In order to stop generational cycles of painful secrets, these rules must be broken, but it takes self-awareness, education and a support system to begin to address these dynamics. If these rules feel familiar to you, then it may be time to give yourself permission to break them. Our trained professional counselors are attuned to these patterns, and can help strengthen you and help you discern how to establish new, healthy patterns of relating.

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