What is a dysfunctional family?

A party in 1969 for my parents 25th anniversary. I would have been a junior in high school and my brother a freshman at Northwestern University. Do we look dysfunctional?

At a coffee shop Wednesday morning, I told the story of being at lunch with three other women years ago when one turned to me and said,  “You came from a functional family, didn’t you? We didn’t.”

I made a joke about hanging my head in shame. It is odd to feel “left out” by coming from a strong, healthy family – although one that certainly was not perfect.

One of my friends asked a very good question, “What is a dysfunctional family?”

If you have any problems in your family are you dysfunctional? What family doesn’t have problems?

I guess my family growing up was functional because there was never a time that I doubted I was loved. If anything, I suffered from too much love. All children should have that much suffering. I certainly hope my kids did.

I decided to Google dysfunctional family and came up with this definition on Wikipedia, which cited the book, Forgiving Our Parents, Forgiving Ourselves: Healing Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families, by David Stoop and James Masteller

“A dysfunctional family is a family in which conflict, misbehavior, and often child neglect or abuse on the part of individual parents occur continually and regularly, leading other members to accommodate such actions. Children sometimes grow up in such families with the understanding that such an arrangement is normal.”

Yikes! With that definition, I sure hope that these friends did not truly come from dysfunctional families. Of course, no one knows what goes on in another home, another marriage, another family, etc. Often, we don’t understand what goes on in our own homes.

Whatever happens in our families, it is good to talk and write about them to better  understand ourselves.

As I was walking home from the coffee shop, another memory came to mind. The year that our son Matt had his bone marrow transplant in Minneapolis and died, the comment was made to my husband and me that it was good that Maggie was living in a “stable home because yours certainly wasn’t stable during that time.”

This person meant well but was just clumsy in her speech. One thing that I learned from my experiences in life is to listen to the intent and not the precise words. Being human we aren’t perfect, a reason intent trumps specifics. I stumble myself when trying to express myself without the ability to rewrite.

I also know that unstable is not the same as dysfunctional, at least under that definition on Wikipedia.

Dick and I had conversations during those months when Matt was on transplant that speak to how we would handle incredibly difficult times. I remember a walk we took around the University of Minnesota Hospital where we agreed we would not blame each other for whatever happened and later that we would not let this terrible loss destroy Maggie or our family.

None of us go through life without tough stuff happening. How we respond is based, in part, on the messages playing in heads from our parents in their own times of trouble. I am fortunate that my tapes from childhood are functional, stable and loving.