What is a well-functioning family?

What is a family, for that matter? We tend to start out with the belief that a family is quite simply what we have. Later on it is sometimes with mounting disillusionment that we discover not only that our own doesn’t conform to any general definition, but that the wider adult world is not anything like the one experienced within our childhood home. Later still, the idea of family ever having been a general thing at all goes out the window too.

I recently paused for thought over a tweet from Alain de Botton -

The stiff English upper lip survives in the loathing brought to bear on emotional matters, sweepingly dismissed as 'psychobabble'.

which seems to point to a psychological style embodied in a certain kind of traditional family well-known to wartime Britain and its preceding Imperial age. This was the family of formal hierarchy, of distinct classes of person determined by gender, by age, by marital status, by social class, ethnicity, and other markers of inferiority and superiority, rigidly prescribed and, for all that, both inclusive and cohesive as long as everyone knew and accepted their place, and relatively stable. It’s still a model much beloved and often mourned by social conservatives, and, as de Botton contends, one with much residual moral animus still active in the present. It was perforce a system in which much of what people actually experienced in relation to each other, the mind and its private thoughts and emotions, its loathings and its longings, were socially and politically invisible unless they were scandalously and ruinously revealed; entire lifetimes of subjective experience lived alone and in silence; great passions and deep sorrows suffocated under taboo, guilt, shame, and the threat of ostracisation and abandonment. Romanticism as an artistic movement, not least in its construction of the idea of genius, played a role in giving some expression to such psychological vulcanism - the eroticism of ballet, the self-destructiveness of poets and composers, the narcissism of visual artists, and the disillusionment and anger of novelists. It was a psychologically violent culture, and a terrible environment for mental health. Freud was pushing at an open door!

We have, at least in some circles, moved on relative at least to the above characterisation. We recognise that families are not just formal institutions in which people are place-holders and in which duties are acted out in public whilst real affections are transacted either in code of behind closed doors. Psychology, first as scientific discipline and secondly as popular culture, has demonstrated the positive value in terms of general well-being of both a formal role structure that endures over time as well as a relationship-based family process in which the mental life of the family is the subject of constant open and honest and respectful communication - the psychobabble of de Botton’s tweet. Amongst the middle classes of the modern liberal democratic world, the wise and insightful family has become less the seat of one’s social identity, status, and capital,and more the workshop of one’s personal well-being where the first structures are put in place on which both one’s strength of mind and one’s empathic imagination, what will combine into a powerful social conscience, will develop.

It is towards this newer integrated conception of the family that notions of well-functioning and poorly-functioning families refer, and it is a distinction that cuts across more traditional categories of good and bad families. This is, it seems, a difficult cultural transition for many who traditionally regard their families as high-status in public only to be revealed as psychologically abusive in private by subsequent generations - and it is now a commonplace and entirely non-contradictory that from a cultural-historical perspective it is possible to be both. Now that we are sociological and psychological in our view of what families do in terms of their intermediate place in the larger social systems of which individuals become a part, it has become possible to look at the family as having specific purposes, functions, and roles in the development of persons within stable and productive societies. Hence, the literature on “functional” families, and the sheer torrent of stuff about families that don’t, for myriad reasons, produce well-socialised people - the dysfunctional ones.

The functionalist view of the family is based on premises from evolutionary biology; the evidence that the human mind has evolved as part of a supremely adaptable biological organism capable of both highly complex individual behaviour and highly complex social behaviour. Our minds reflect the activity of large brains capable of sophisticated social communication and learning, long memory and imaginative recall, extraordinarily skillful tool use and creative problem solving, all of which evolved not in the image of a supernatural being, not to fulfil some sort of spiritual destiny, but as a part of a much larger planet-based organic system involving many similar species that has itself survived numerous existential crises and that adapts all the time to changing conditions. We are the planet’s most cognitively flexible, behaviourally adaptable, and successful migrant; our ability to cooperate with each other in order to understand, survive, and flourish in new and unfamiliar environments is second to none.

So, in looking at modern families not as ordered by divine decree (the biblical notion), or as an historically and culturally conditioned institution either deriving from, or at odds with, metaphysical conceptions of humans in their natural state (the Enlightenment notion), but in their fundamentally biological aspect of infant survival from birth to adulthood with all that that entails in terms of growing, learning, and becoming part of a successful pack, one is looking first at the set of relationships that result from the reproductive process, relationships that are initially defined by the complete vulnerability and helplessness of the baby and the powerful nurturing instincts of the parents and that change with its growth into adulthood, and secondly at the development of the personal autonomy and later political autonomy of each individual as they assume the rights and responsibilities of adult citizenship.

The crucial logical sequence here is that of the personal psychology of individual minds developing within the context of their particular biological (or proxy-biological) relationships, biological relationships which as personal unions between adults have developed within the specific socio-cultural context of their time and place. Socially functional families thus refer to those that on the whole successfully raise highly socialised adults who are well-adapted to the prevailing culture and society; in our current context that refers above all to people who have a deep and insightful understanding of themselves in relation to others, of others in relation to themselves, and of others in relation to others. Socially dysfunctional families contain adults that often do not understand well the network of relationships of which they are a part, or do not respond well to it. This is not to imply that socially dysfunctional families necessarily contain personalities who are, as it were, evolutionarily invalid; it is clear that people who in relation to others appear to have poorly socialised personalities can achieve considerable success. It appears almost universal that there are those who achieve success by exploiting well-integrated and socially stable systems - it seems no society is without its criminal elements, its freeloaders, its bullies, its snakes in the grass and its wolves in sheep’s clothing. “Functionality” as a checklist for good family relationships thus refers less to our evolutionary inheritance per se, and more to the way that inheritance determines the behaviour of individuals relative to their particular social environment. Yesterday’s warrior hero, or religious martyr is today’s psychotic CEO, or fanatical extremist.

So, given that within the culture of individual freedom and equality valued by modern liberal democratic society the standard for personal development is high levels of psychological literacy, self-awareness, personal responsibility for one's own actions, empathy, and ethical breadth, what characterises families that successfully inculcate socially desirable personal-relational values of this kind? What characterises a functional family in today’s world? Much has been considered on the subject. In outlining what I understand to be the poles at either end of the spectrum I am borrowing from the extensive literature profiling family systems. Many sources identify lists of observable characteristics and traits associated with family systems, but also stress that, as with any system, families work in holistic ways, and that single aspects must be understood in relation to the whole - systems thinking bears out Tolstoy’s insight that families work well holistically, when everything comes together, but go wrong in lots of different ways, with any fragment of the whole potentially able to trigger total system failure; there are a small number of ordered system states, but a very large number of disordered ones.

In a functional family, individuals are normally happy, and everyone normally enjoys family life.

In a dysfunctional family, high levels of recurrent conflict, expressed both overtly and covertly, are normal.

In a functional family, adults have personal psychological insight, and are guided in their relationships with others by critical oversight of their own cognition and behaviour.

In a dysfunctional family, adults have low self-awareness, are easily convinced by themselves and reluctantly persuaded by others, and behave impulsively.

In a functional family, everyone feels that it is safe to express their thoughts, feelings, fears, and desires concerning themselves, the family and the world, and for these to be different from others.

In a dysfunctional family, individuals are either afraid to express differences of thought or feeling concerning themselves and others, or do so aggressively as a way of silencing someone else.

In a functional family, family problems are discussed openly as they occur and with honesty.

In a dysfunctional family, conflicting needs are the subject of contest in which one’s own needs (often unconscious and projected onto others) remain unacknowledged and the needs of the other are invalidated, denied, minimised, disparaged, or ridiculed.

In a functional family, everyone FEELS noticed, valued, and actively listened to, especially during conflicts and crises (as distinct from seeming to have been listened to).

In a dysfunctional family, feelings or assumptions of superiority or inferiority are actively brought to bear on group decision making.

In a functional family, everyone constantly teaches others about themselves, learns about themselves from others, and learns about each other.

In a dysfunctional family, questions about each other are usually understood as challenges to explain oneself that contain implicit accusations of wrongdoing (even when they are not). Information about each other, when it is sought at all, is used selectively to confirm one's own assumptions about oneself and about others, not to question them.

In a functional family, everyone feels trusted to exchange roles appropriately; at different times, to both give and receive support, to both lead and follow, to accept sole responsibility, and to hold others accountable.

In a dysfunctional family, individuals adopt and remain in the same roles in relation to one another, and are reluctant to either relinquish or adopt a different role in response to opportunity or need.

In a functional family, spontaneous laughter and fun; humour is without hidden messages in double meanings.

In a dysfunctional family there is a lot of silence when there is not open conflict; humour is often enjoyed more by some than others.

In a functional family, adults and, along a progressive learning curve, children and young adults take personal responsibility for their own cognition and behaviour, and collective responsibility for family problems.

In a dysfunctional family, adults model, and children learn, avoidance of personal responsibility by means of projection, blaming, and the manipulation of others' feelings of shame and guilt; individuals, often children, are derided as selfish, cruel, or abusive for not meeting the unacknowledged needs of adults; parents single out individuals as either the golden child or the scapegoat.

In a functional family, individuals communicate with each other directly.

In a dysfunctional family, individuals communicate with each other indirectly through others.

In a functional family, no secrets or hidden compulsions.

In a dysfunctional family, some family members, or even everyone, knows things (and knows that others know things), that must not be said.

My years as a schoolteacher taught me something that I really didn’t know until I had started making the decision to leave. I learnt what learning actually is - and it became very clear to me that a modern state school is not a good place for it. Learning is not either an activity, or a series of tasks that can be managed with teachers, schedules and curricula. Learning, in short, is a kind of self, a receptive self. It’s very close in my mind to Keats’ amazing notion of “negative capability”; being in a state of acutely sensitive awareness of yourself in your environment, an environment that of course includes other people, whilst also holding in suspension one's sense of certainty, of fact, of familiarity, all assumptions that things should, must, or need to be as they are. It's an open mind to whatever reality might be, as free as possible from the limitations of what we already know. It’s been called many things - zen, mindfulness, flow, the zone, growth mindset…- but I think of it as a self fully aware of itself, aware of its own creative process as separate from the world outside of the self, and aware of the crude but often beautiful model of that world it is creating out of the body’s information. It’s not necessarily a heightened meditative state, or a fleeting one, but it is I think a vulnerable one. Most of us achieve it, to one extent or another. What a learning self needs are relationships with other learning selves who will respect and take care of their own and others’ emotional and intellectual openness. Conversely the worst situation for a learning self are relationships with others who don’t learn, won’t learn, and maybe haven’t even learnt what learning is. Non-learners want self-serving narratives in their relationships with others, and will exploit the openness and receptivity of those around them if they can; they want simplicity the better to make decisive judgments and will deride those who seek to understand things in more complex and provisional ways, they want certainty and fact and will seek to impose authority in order to close debate, or will insistently defend one-sided arguments against evidence and reason. Relationships with non-learners will fuck you up; pretty much the definition of a dysfunctional family. Under these circumstances we selectively shut our learning self down for self protection - sometimes we shut it down early on in our lives, and sometimes for good.

What is a well-functioning family? A functional family, I suggest, is a learning family in which people have learning relationships with each other. But why do I ask? The simple reason is that I am trying to learn how to protect myself in relationships with people who do not know how to meet their own needs in ways that do not deplete others, and, even more importantly than that, to ensure that I do not abuse others for the same reason. I grew up in a family that was highly dysfunctional in this way, and I have spent most of my life trying to understand it.

The more I have learnt to recognise the dynamics, the less tolerant of dysfunctional systems and the relationships within them I have become because, as I have experienced it, one's attempts to protect oneself inevitably become a challenge to the status quo and are met with disdain, contempt, aggression, accusations of narcissism, of cruelty and of abuse, and other manipulative behaviour; Rule No. 1 in every dysfunctional family is that you cannot refuse to take part, to play along. Over the last twenty years I have become increasingly decisive, and the consequences have been increasingly life-changing. The history of my relationship with my birth family has been characterised by underestimation of how serious the problem was, and how far I would have to go to address it (and I still haven't succeeded).

However, I have not lost over time my strong feeling that what the problem of poor primary relationships presents is something too big for one's own capacity and ability to change - I have a jazz musicians attitude; ultimately it's your music, not the work of another composer, although of course one is making use of a shared language. This kind of self-reliance may or may not be the best case, particularly with respect to the challenge of sustaining relationships with poorly self aware adults rather than just avoiding them, but it continues to motivate me to think, talk, and learn about it.

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