Families are unique. Each family has its quirks and idiosyncrasies, and no family is perfect. The most important aspect of family is that you are there to support and love each other through all of life's circumstances. However, sometimes dysfunction is a weed that hides among the flowers, quietly killing off what makes the family bond so beautiful.
When we grow up in a certain kind of environment, it seems normal. For that reason, it may be difficult to figure out if your family is healthy or unhealthy. The goal is not to create an idyllic picture like what you see on TV. Your main objective should be to recognize the difference between healthy and unhealthy characteristics and to address any dysfunction so that you can improve your relationship with your family. With that in mind, here's are some of the features that characterize a healthy family versus an unhealthy family.
Characteristics of Healthy Family Relationships
Families are the most basic social unit. Within our families, we learn the skills that make us successful at school, work and in all different kinds of social interactions. All families are different. Some are loud and boisterous, making jokes and picking on each other affectionately. Others are quiet and subdued, content to sit in silence in each other's presence or have quiet, meaningful conversations. However, no matter what your family looks like, there are a few characteristics that make a family healthy. These are the six C's of a healthy family unit:
- Caring: Caring families encourage each other toward success. They're not afraid to show affection through words or deeds.
- Consistency: Families make themselves available and work for each other's good. Whenever possible, they help each other out and share responsibilities. They also keep promises they make to each other.
- Communication: This is the foundation of any good relationship, especially families. Healthy families enjoy sharing positive news and tidbits about their lives. However, they're also able to address issues or hurts constructively.
- Coping skills: Crisis is a part of life. Healthy families use their collective coping skills and grow stronger together when forced to face adversity.
- Core beliefs: Everyone is entitled to their own beliefs and values. However, healthy family units generally share the same core beliefs. These positive values give them a sense of belonging and peace.
- Common interests: Healthy families enjoy spending time together. Despite the individual personalities of each member, they share common interests and have fun and laugh together.
Signs That You May Be Experiencing Unhealthy Family Relationships
If you come from an unhealthy family, you may not even realize it. After all, over time, you get used to the status quo. You may have noticed that your family doesn't treat each other the same way as your friends' families, but you may have chalked that up to different personalities. An unhealthy family unit, though, impacts how you view yourself and the world around you and can play a negative role in your mental health and self-esteem.
Dysfunction in family relationships can be caused by a number of different factors — unresolved conflict, misbehavior, abuse and more. Whatever the cause, there are a few things that characterize unhealthy family relationships, including:
- Poor communication: As we said before, communication is crucial to the family unit. Whether it's passive aggressive comments, angry and explosive fights or families that avoid communicating altogether, poor communication leads to misunderstanding and hurt.
- Lack of empathy: Your family should be a place you run to for solace, where you're welcomed with compassion and understanding. However, in unhealthy families, instead of empathy, there is anger and judgment.
- Perfectionism: Healthy families understand that there's no such thing as perfection in people. However, surprisingly, many unhealthy families have a dysfunctional need to be or appear perfect. This perfectionism can manifest in keeping up false appearances or having unreasonable expectations of perfection on their children's, or parent's, behavior.
- Lack of boundaries and control: Accepting boundaries means you respect someone as an individual with their own distinct thoughts and ideas. Some families, though, refuse to accept these difference and instead seek to control the other family members. Lack of boundaries and control can manifest in manipulative behavior or barging into situations inappropriately.
- Excessive criticism: There is a difference between encouraging a family member to improve and always finding fault. Excessive criticism means that no matter how hard you try, the other members of your family never find anything good in your behavior or actions.
- Fear and abuse: Families are supposed to be a safe place. When a member of the family is abusive, this creates an environment of fear. You may not feel safe being yourself, or you may try to get away because you're always afraid of the other person's actions. This is a red flag indicating that there is an unhealthy family dynamic.
Addressing Underlying Issues
In unhealthy families, the dysfunctional characteristics that define them are left unaddressed and thus never resolved. However, to improve your family relationships and take steps toward becoming healthier, these underlying issues should be acknowledged and talked through. If you and your family decide to work through some of the unhealthy aspects of your relationships, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- You cannot change the past, so don't let it control your present.
- You can't change people or control their actions, you can only control your own reactions.
- Protect your own well-being, and be willing to move on if a relationship is unhealthy and unchanging.
At the end of the day, your success and happiness are in your own hands. The dysfunction of your past doesn't have to dampen your future. If your family refuses to discuss the unhealthy aspects of your relationships, then it may be time to move on from trying to address those underlying issues.
The most effective way to heal is to lead a full and fulfilling life and to create a family of your own with healthy bonds. You can forgive your family while at the same time recognizing their dysfunction and establishing healthy boundaries to protect yourself.