32 Part 1 Understanding Families and Family Dynamics Viewing families as systems involves recognizing that the relationships formed among family members are extremely powerful and account for a considerable amount of human behavior, emotion, values, and attitudes. Moreover, like strands of a spider web, each family relationship, as well as each family member, influences all other family relationships and all other members (Figley, 1989, p. 4).Qualities of Healthy Families Studies reveal that functional families in virtually all cultures are able to adapt to change, set appropriate boundaries, develop relationships through open communication, promote re sponsibility, express confidence in themselves and their children, and are optimistic about their future (Cutler & Radford, 1999). Yet there is still disagreement as to all of the qualities of ideal healthy families. A fundamental disagreement exists over what the word health means. Health is an interactive process associated with positive relationships and outcomes (Wilcoxon, 1985). In families, health involves ethical accountability such as promoting good re- lationships and balancing the give-and-take among members (Boszormenyi-Nagy & Ulrich, 1981). Most families experience times of both healthy and unhealthy interactions during the family life cycle. One cannot assume, however, that healthy individuals necessarily come from continu ously healthy families (Wolin & Wolin, 1993). Highly resilient individuals who overcome adversities do well in life (Walsh, 1995). However, being in a healthy family environment is an advantage for learning productive relationships and is more helpful than not. As a group, healthy families have a number of characteristics in common. Families that are most successful, happy, and strong are balanced in a number of ways. They seem to know what issues to address and how to address them. Furthermore, they do not operate from ei ther an extreme cognitive or emotional framework. They exert the right amount of energy in dealing with the matters before them, and they make realistic plans. Overall, in families with a sense of well-being, multiple forces and factors interact in complex but positive ways. One of the most vital factors underlying a healthy family is the strength and health of the marital unit (Beavers, 1985; Lavee, McCubbin, & Olson, 1987). A healthy marriage “appears to be a multidimensional, complex, nonsummative unit” (Erkstein, 2004, p. 415). It is inti mate, flexible, and even synergistic (Olson & Olson, 2000). In such a relationship, partners adapt to and promote the individual growth of each other because they are healthy to begin with. Such couples get along and work at keeping the marriage exciting and open. They are able to be in touch with and express a wide array of emotions, communicate clearly, and are equalitarian and mutually supportive. “Individuals who are successful in their intimate partnerships are willing to make sacrifices and report satisfaction about sacrificing itself” (Stabb, 2005, p. 440). Many of the characteristics that distinguish healthy couples from dysfunctional ones also separate well-functioning families from those who function less well (McCoy, 1996). Accord ing to research (Krysan, Moore, & Zill, 1990; Stinnett & DeFrain, 1985), healthy families in dude the following characteristics: • commitment to the family and its individuals • appreciation for each other (i.e., a social connection) • willingness to spend time together • effective communication patterns
Chapter 2 Healthy and Dysfunctional Families 33 • high degree of religious/spiritual orientation • ability to deal with crisis in a positive manner (i.e., adaptability) • encouragement of individuals • clear roles The following sections address these characteristics, along with the importance of struc ture and development within families.Commitment At the core of healthy family functioning is the idea of commitment. “In strong families, members are devoted not only to the welfare of the family but also to the growth of each of the members” (Thomas, 1992, p. 62). A commitment to the family is the basis for family members giving their time and energy to family-related activities. Commitment involves staying loyal to the family and its members through both good and adverse life events. It is based on both emotion and intention. Couples and individuals, who have not thought through their commitment to one another or who are ambivalent about how committed they are, have difficulty staying in a marriage and working with each other. The result is often infidelity (Pittman, 1991).Appreciation The commitment that family members have toward one another is strengthened when they verbally or physically express their appreciation. In healthy families, “the marital partners tend to build the self-esteem of their mates by mutual love, respect, [and] compliments” (Thomas, 1992, p. 64). Other family members do likewise with each other. They avoid fights that take the form of personal attacks or violence (Wills, Weiss, & Patterson, 1974).Willingness to Spend Time Together Healthy families spend both quantitative and qualitative time together. “The time they spend together needs to be good time; no one enjoys hours of bickering, arguing, pouting, or bullying. Time also needs to be sufficient; quality interaction isn’t likely to develop in a few minutes together” (Stinnett & DeFrain, 1985, pp. 83—84). Events that encompass both qualitative and quantitative time abound. They range from family picnics to overnight campouts, to vacations, to special nights out that involve enter tainment, such as a play, bailgame, or concert. They also encompass rituals and traditions such as celebrating birthdays and anniversaries, family interactions at mealtimes, and ob serving rites of passage together, such as graduations, weddings, and funerals (Giblin, 1995). The idea behind spending time together is sharing thoughts, feelings, and identities. In the process, family members come to think of themselves as a cohesive unit and not just a random group of individuals.Effective Communication Patterns “Communication is concerned with the delivery and reception of verbal and nonverbal infor mation between family members. It includes skills in exchanging patterns of information within the family system” (Brock & Barnard, 1999, p. 36). When families are healthy, members attend to the messages from one another and pick up on subtle as well as obvious points.
34 Part 1 Understanding Families and Family Dynamics Within these families there is support, understanding, and empathy (Giblin, 1994). There is no competition for “air time” or silence. Messages are sent and received in a sensitive or caring manner. Brock and Barnard (1999) have delineated characteristics of optimal family communica tion situations. They state that in the best of circumstances, communication within families is of a high volume and includes seeking and sharing patterns. The messages between family mem bers are clear and congruent. In addition, healthy families deal with a wide range of topics and are open to talking rather than remaining silent. When there is conifict, these families seek to work it out through discussion. Family members seek to problem-solve. They are more likely than not to communicate in a positive tone.Religious/Spiritual Orientation A religious/spiritual orientation to life is a characteristic of “the vast majority of the world’s families” (Prest & Keller, 1993, p. 137). Involvement in the religious/spiritual dimension of life also correlates with an overall sense of marital and family health and well-being. Spiri tual beliefs and practices help families cope, be resilient, as well as find meaning and moral principles by which to live (Griffith & Rotter, 1999; Walsh & Pryce, 2003). According to re search, religion and spirituality have traditionally played an important part in the lives of some groups more than others. For example, collective faith has been the cornerstone by which African Americans were supported and sustained from the “oppression of slavery” to the “civil rights movement” (Hampson, Beavers, & Hulgus, 1990, p. 308). An orientation still exists toward the religious/spiritual in regard to both organized and unorganized efforts. The elderly and adolescent, to say nothing of those in middle age, are frequently involved in life matters that can best be described as religious/spiritual (Campbell & Moyers, 1988). In addition, members of families often deal as a group with religious/spiritual questions during certain events, for example, deaths, births, and mar riages. Couples, who share a common faith or orientation toward religious matters and who are intrinsically motivated in their religious/spiritual orientation, report more satisfac tion in their relationships than those who are divided on these issues (Anthony, 1993).Ability to Deal with Crisis in a Positive Manner A number of different types of crises affect families over their life span. Usually the most common type of crisis is an expected event, which is active. An expected event is one that is predictable and actually occurs, for example, leaving one’s family of origin to make a life for oneself, finding employment, or getting married. In these situations the general nature of the event is known but the specifics are always unique, hence the crisis. Families that func tion well in these times use such coping strategies as negotiating, seeking advice from those who are more experienced, rehearsing, using humor, and expressing emotions to deal with such transitions (Schlossberg, Waters, & Goodman, 1996). There are also nonevents, which are passive in the sense that they are events that do not happen as envisioned or expected (Schlossberg et al., 1996). Examples of a nonevent might be the failure of a couple to have healthy children or to reach their financial goals in life. In such circumstances, families are thrown into a crisis that may or may not be recog nized by others. Healthy families deal with these situations by expressing their emotions and supporting one another.
Chapter 2 Healthy and Dysfunctional Families 35Encouragement of Individuals Because families work as systems, they are only as strong as their weakest members. It be hooves families to encourage the development of talents and abilities within their individual members. Such a process is generally done systemically and is carried out over the family life cycle (Carter & McGoldrick, 1999). Encouragement is especially important at certain times in the life cycle. Among the most crucial times encouragement is needed are: • with school-age children as they engage in the educational process • with adolescents as they cope with physical changes and peer groups • with young adults as they move from their parents’ houses into their own psychologi cal and physical spaces filled with dreams and possibilities (Lambie & Daniels Mohring, 1993)Clear Roles Roles are prescribed and repetitive behaviors involving a set of reciprocal activities with other family members (Steinhauser, Santa-Barbara, & Skinner, 1984). Roles in healthy farm- lies are cleai appropriate, suitably allocated, mutually agreed on, integrated, and enacted (Minuchin, 1974). Some roles are necessar such as the provision of material resources. Others are unique and/or unnecessary, such as the acquiring of coins for a coin collection. The exact roles within families are determined by such factors as age, culture, and tradi tion. Healthy families strive to make roles as interchangeable and flexible as possible.Growth-Producing Structure and Development Patterns Healthy families are organized in a clear, appropriate, and growth-producing way (Lewis, Beavers, Gossett, & Phillips, 1976; McGoldrick, Gerson, & Shellenberger, 1999; Napier & Whitaker, 1978). There are no intergenerational coalitions (e.g., members from different generations, such as a mother and daughter, colluding as a team) or conflictual triangles (e.g., two individuals, such as a mother and father, arguing over and interacting in regard to a third person, such as a rebellious son, instead of attending to their relationship) as the basis for keeping the family together. Instead, parents are in charge (or, in the case of single-parent families, the single parent is in charge). Subsystems, such as those composed of family members logically grouped together because of age or function (e.g., parents), carry out needed tasks (e.g., parenting). Because the structure is clear, the boundaries (physical and psychological lines of demarcation) are and growth can take place. When a family member steps out of bounds, family pressure brings him or her back into line. This process takes place through homeostasis—the tendency to resist change and keep things as they are. For instance, if a teenager violates a curfew, the parents may “ground” the young person for a week or until responsibility is taken for coming home on time. Other salient features of healthy families that center around structure are those connected with the formation and display of symptoms. Some individual dysfunctions, such as depression (Lopez, 1986), career indedsiveness (Kinnier, Brigman, & Noble, 1990), and substance abuse. (West, Hosie, & Zarski, 1987), are related to family structure. In these situations, families are usu ally too tightly or too loosely organized, a matter that is discussed more fully later in this chapter. A