Healthy Families Series: Is Mine Free of Entanglements?

By Holli Kenley

healthy families

There is much to be said on this topic of family entanglements; in fact, there are hundreds of books with tons of valuable information.

As we get started, I’d like to share an important concept. As a Marriage & Family Therapist, when working with families I view them as a sort of working machine, based on the theory of family systems. In other words, a family is made up of many moving parts (individuals). How well each part functions determines the level of functionality of the machine as a whole, much like that of a vehicle. Therefore, in addressing healthy families, I’d like you to think about your family as an intricate and interdependent working machine, with each person playing an important role in its level of wellness.

Is Mine Free of Entanglements?

Machines work well when they are free of entanglements.  However, it is not uncommon for various sources of debris to get caught up in them, disturbing and disrupting their movement.  Sometimes, one part may become dislodged or broken, interfering with the effective functioning of another part. The same principles apply to families.  In order to keep them running smoothly, it requires that families service their interconnections with three components: trust, truth, and transparency.

Healthy Families Series: Is Mine Free of Entanglements?

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Trust is the act of placing yourself and what you hold as important into the safe-keeping of another person or persons.

Trust is essential within families. Trust provides the foundation on which to build and strengthen your family relationships. A family which embodies trust does so by valuing one another. Although there may be differences in beliefs or personalities, each family member recognizes the individuality and regards the wellbeing of the other. Choosing to trust requires being vulnerable. Healthy family members recognize the risk and respond with acceptance and love.

Several years ago, my family experienced the passing of my father and uncle, within a five day span. Of course, family members felt enormous loss and sadness. At the same time, the dual loss also caused a wave of disequilibrium within our family. Several months later, one of my sisters moved to the area in which I was living. Together, we set aside our differing emotions we held towards our father and we chose to trust our grief with one another. We did not compare our experiences, we did not judge one another’s levels of grief, and we did not cast blame on anyone or anything for past or present pain. We listened to one another, met each other with unconditional positive regard, and each of us became the safe harbor for the other as we docked and unloaded our vessels of sorrow.  By valuing our individual position and place, our trust strengthened and carried us through a difficult time.

However, within families trust is often tested when various sources of debris enter and clog the system, hindering its formation and growth. A couple of entanglements include the following:


Alliances are described as two or more individuals in a family joining together around a belief or behavior, causing disturbance within the family. Typically, a crisis takes place or problems begin to develop within a family. Because family members hold differing beliefs and perceptions around the issue, factions form and members align themselves with those who hold their views. Courageous families open up the lines of communication and commit to resolving issues together.


Betrayals are defined in several ways: an investment into someone met with rejection or abandonment; a profound trust which is profoundly violated; and a truth which becomes a lie or a belief which is shattered. All three definitions are important and each one carries with it serious consequences. It is important to note that because family systems are built upon innate trust,  such as the  parent–child relationship, violations of deeply personal bonds of  trust within a family have the capability of disabling the system.  Families can recover from betrayals, but members must be willing to do individual as well as family work.

Thus, establishing trust and sustaining it takes hard work. Given the complexities of family systems, placing trust in someone should be done with intention and purpose. As the process unfolds, individuals should continue to challenge themselves as to why and to what degree they are trusting. Healthy trusting means family members not only remain safe-holders of truth for others, but they safe-guard their truths in the process.

Trust within a family is the salve which keeps the system running smoothly. Trust flows through interconnections primed with respect and regard.

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Truth is the act of being honest, with yourself and others.

Truth is also an essential component of healthy families. It has been my experience that when families members establish a solid foundation of  trust, truth has space to surface and sustain itself over time. As with trust, there is an element of risk involved. When individuals feel safe to express their truths, the family unit has the opportunity to become stronger and closer.

One of the tricky parts about establishing truth within a family is that its origin is contingent upon each family member’s relationship with truth. In other words,  in order to be truthful with others, individuals must first be honest with themselves.

For example, individuals raised in loving, respectful, and trusting environments, being comfortable in one’s truths is a natural outgrowth. Conversely, for other individuals,  unearthing their truths and coming to terms with them is not easy. It takes a great deal of courage and hard work as they assess and address personal injuries or past childhood pain. Lastly, in other cases, hurting individuals repress or bury their truths by numbing themselves with substances or turning to unhealthy behaviors or relationships as coping mechanisms. Regardless of situations or circumstances, in order for families to nurture an environment of truth, each member is responsible for maintaining a healthy relationship with it.

Over the years I have written about my relationship with my father. Although it was not a good one while I growing up, in my late twenties I decided I wanted to change that. I reached out to him while simultaneously seeking out counseling. It was in my recovery where I learned to be truthful with myself and to heal past injustices. Discovering my truths and honoring them  enabled me to develop an honest relationship with my father, something we had never had. For over a thirty-year span, I spoke my truths to my dad, as he did with me. When he died in 2015, we had a strong loving and honest relationship.

As with trust, there are entanglements which interfere with the emergence and establishment of truth. A couple of them include the following:

Secrets and Lies

Secrets suffocate truth. Secrets are kept alive with lies. When secrets are uncovered, they become sources of betrayal. Secrets do not heal families; they fracture them. Healthy families do not harbor secrets; healthy families boldly and bravely face the truth, together.


Denial is a powerful unconscious defense mechanism. Although there are times when it may serve as a source of protection (i.e. protecting an individual from being re-traumatized), denial  is harmful to individuals and families when it prevents truth from being acknowledged. For example, denial is closely associated with issues of addiction. When one or more persons within the family unit is unwilling to acknowledge their addictive behaviors or their unhealthy relationships with addicts, the entire family suffers. Healing begins with an honest inventory of oneself. It continues with honesty towards others.

Working with unhealthy families for many years, I am well aware that even when healing does take place, it is often not safe for some members to share their truths, openly and fully, with others in the unit. Much like trust, it is the responsibility of each member to safe-guard his truths and honor them. With whom and to what degree truths are shared with family remains in the hands of the holder.

Truth fuels the inner-workings of a healthy family system. Each individual must embrace truth before it can benefit the whole.

Healthy Families Series: Is Mine Free of Entanglements?

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Transparency is the act of integrating your beliefs with your behaviors, and allowing their convergence to be seen by others.

Transparency was placed last in our discussion, but it is an extremely important component of healthy families. When transparency is being practiced, whether it is on an individual basis or as a family system, there is a calm integrity which takes hold. There is no need for boasting or bragging. There is no uproar about a family’s effectiveness, righteousness, or influence. Transparency is apparent in the authenticity of a family whose beliefs and values are quietly reflective in the way they function and in the manner in which they treat one another and others.

Over the past several weeks, I have had the opportunity to travel through Alaska. As I do during many of my travels, I enjoy spending time among the indigenous tribes of the area. One of the  most remarkable characteristics of tribal culture is its transparency. While visiting a Tlingit village, other visitors and  I had the privilege of listening to stories told by younger clan members about their ancestors. They sang and danced for us. They showed us their clan houses and described the meanings behind their symbols and names. Most importantly, it was the young people’s humble spirit with which they presented themselves which embodied the essence of authenticity.

Transparency takes courage to establish. Transparency requires families conduct an honest inventory of threats  which might be interfering with the emergence and existence of it. Two of the most common include the following:


Families often times get caught up in labels. Saying who we are is important. However, practicing who we are is essential. Labeling ourselves, whether it be familial, spiritual, cultural, or ethnic identifications, is meaningless without healthy substantiation of it.  Healthy families do not need labels; they live by example.


We all wear masks, to varying degrees and for different reasons. However, when masks are used by  family members to hide truths or to misrepresent themselves to others, hypocrisy engulfs the family betraying the system from within. Healthy families do not wear masks; they do not need to.

Transparency is an admired quality of healthy families. Transparency takes hard work.. When I have had the opportunity to witness families in which there has been transparency, the beliefs and values are consistently modeled, both publicly and privately.

Transparency is a quiet strong energy. It supplies the family system with integrity.

For more in depth reading on this subject read Kenley’s book: Breaking Through Betrayal Second Edition

Publisher’s Note: Holli Kenley is an American Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and the author of “ Daughters Betrayed By Their Mothers: Moving from Brokenness to Wholeness” and “Power Down & Parent Up!: Cyber Bullying, Screen Dependence & Raising Tech-Healthy Children 

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