We are having a discussion about what a healthy family is. If you are new to this series, please return to Part One: Is Mine Free of Entanglements?, and then join us here. We are examining families as a “system.” In other words, families are like complex moving machines where each individual is an integral and interdependent part to its overall level of functioning. Today, we move to Healthy Family Series, Part 2: Is Mine Flexible?
Flexible means to be able to change or adapt with ease. Flexible families tend to move through turbulence embracing an adaptive posture and stabilizing it in the process.
Let’s explore two areas of flexibility:
In defining a family system, elastic means the following: One which has the ability to stretch, bend, or flex beyond it’s previously defined stasis.
Healthy family systems provide structure. However, they also take into account that there are many moving parts and variables. Thus, in order to keep things running smoothly it may require adjustments or shifts in how the system functions. Usually, when families are struggling and come in for counseling, they fall into one of two categories: either their system is extremely rigid or incredibly permissive.
In a rigid family system, there is typically a hierarchy of power or control in which change within the system is highly discouraged or not tolerated. Often times, expression of one’s beliefs which are contrary to family norms is unacceptable.
On the other hand, in a permissive system, there is an absence of authority or guidance. Members roles are interchangeable or undefined. It is difficult for the family system to function effectively, especially in disorienting circumstances, because of the inability to form a strong secure response in which to do so.
It is important for parents or care-givers to be accountable for the responsibilities of parenthood and to establish reasonable expectations for their children. As families grow and change, they experience different challenges as well as unforeseen hardships. Healthy families embrace change with a flexible approach, making changes and modifications in their roles and responsibilities.
Recently, I was working with an adult female client (who I will call Andrea) whose family embraced a flexible approach as they dealt with a difficult issue. Two years ago, Andrea’s mom was diagnosed with stage four cancer. Although Andrea has two siblings, she is the only one who lives in the same town as her parents. Because Andera’s father is disabled and not able to care for his wife, Andrea and her parents made the mutual decision for Andrea to sell her house and move in with her parents to assist with her mom’s care. Not only did this decision help out Andrea on a financial level, but it also gave her the opportunity to give back to her mom and dad, whom she adores and loves deeply.
As the above example illustrates, an elastic approach requires compassionate adjustments. With open communication and unconditional regard for one another, the flexible family morphs into a new and responsive family system.
Structure provides families with safety and security. An elastic approach allows for movement within.
With regard to a healthy family, energize means the following: The positive fueling by each individual within the family system.
Healthy family systems need a blend of structure and movement. Many times, that structure and movement gets clogged with negative behaviors. All too often, family members come together only to complain afterwards about one another or to spread gossip or rumors. Others relish the latest family drama, pulling in other family members in the process. Of course, all families have their problems and it is important they delegate times to communicate constructively and support each other through difficult challenges. However, when it becomes a normative behavior for one or more family members to dramatize and catastrophize problems (even minor ones), the system becomes drained and depleted. Over time and with repeated negativity or distrust of one another, the family system erodes from within and remains entrenched in its dysfunction.
Healthy families work hard at maintaining their flexibility through positive forms of energizing it. For example, compassionate and caring energy will fuel and feed the system. Family members feel comfortable and are more open to making allowances. Nurturing energy draws family members into a safe system where they feel acceptance and belonging, and thus, each member is more likely to contribute in positive ways. Empathic energy creates an environment of unconditional positive regard, cultivating a climate of vulnerability, courage, and support. Family members feel they can trust one another, drawing them closer together.
Over the years working in the area of betrayal, I have had many clients who suffered horrifically. Every kind of betrayal is unique along with its ensuing injuries. When a close family member is betrayed by another, the entire family system fractures. Many years ago, a female client (who I will call Alma) was betrayed by her husband of over fifty years. Alma and her family, who were prominent, well-respected pillars of their community, were devastated. The husband’s infidelity involved another family member, and thus, caused the family further embarrassment and shame. As Alma painfully worked through her grief over the loss of her marriage as well as the betrayal of her trust, Alma and her family embraced the situation with grace and dignity. Pulling in closely together and finding safety in one another, all family members used their energy in positive ways. In addition, they intentionally and purposely avoided depleting behaviors such as gossip and drama. Eventually, Alma’s family moved forward, fortified by their endless supply of empathy and compassion for each other.
In closing this section on energizing, it is important to note a couple of observations. Frist, there are families, because of culture, ethnicity, heritage or background, who pride themselves on the closeness of family culture and on the “theater” which accompanies that dynamic. If heightened levels of emotion or discourse contribute to the overall wellbeing – the flexibility – of the family system, then that too should be recognized and celebrated. Secondly, often times there are individual family members within a dramatic system who do not find serenity and security within it. Instead, they may feel depleted by loose boundaries or disrespected by potential negative behaviors such as gossiping, spreading rumors, and disclosing of private information. In these cases, it is up to individual family members to shore up their personal boundaries and to safe-guard their levels of energy.
Healthy families provide structure, allowing for shifts as needed. They are energized by each member’s positive contributions.
For part 3 in the series read here: Healthy Family Series, Part 3: Is Mine For-GIVING?
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