4. A dysfunctional family does not teach effective living skills to the children.
A healthy family provides an environment that allows children to grow according to their own developmental needs. Children then learn to love themselves and others and to trust that the world can be a friendly place. A child needs a fairly consistent and stable environment.
An example of the dysfunctional family is one that never stays the same. Some victims of sexual abuse report living in more than one family, perhaps first with mother and father and next with grandmother and grandfather. Cindy shares that in her childhood she attended 19 different schools, including five during her high school years.
"I lived with my mother, my grandmother, my mother and stepfathers, my sister's father, and with several other family systems. Each on presented different issues that I had to work through as a part of my recovery. I had to deal with emotional abuse, chaos, and the aftermath of my sexual abuse, all of which made me think that I was profoundly inadequate as a person, since I was unable to alter or control what was happening. The lesson I learned from all of this was that I could do nothing about my life. No matter what I tried to change, it didn't work. No matter what I did to bring order, chaos always resulted. I could not make sense out of chaos.
I carried the outside shame of moving so many times an the inside shame of sexual abuse. When I left for school in the morning, I didn't know if things would be the same when I got home. I trusted no one because if outsiders knew my story, my pain would be worse. I not only acted toward others as if I didn't care, I began to shut down so I wouldn't care. I would say to myself, "Only breathing matters, and I am breathing." But, of course, breathing is not all there is to living. Also, several of the people in my care were alcoholics, which added to my confusion and lowered my self-worth."
Each family system teaches us something very deep about ourselves, and that message is not always positive. The sexual abuse and the chaos in Cindy's family taught her that she was profoundly inadequate. But she also experienced positive learning. Her mother said again and again, "Don't do as I have done, I've done it all wrong. You can do it better."
Cindy says, "She taught me that I was smart, that I could do it. She taught me that a better way existed. She didn't know that better way, but she taught me that if I searched diligently enough, I could find that better way of living. She was right. I found it with God."
Appropriate touch: a living skill
Building a healthy self-image in a recovering sexual abuse victim requires daily reinforcement in terms that demonstrate that person's value. We all need positive statements and healthy physical contact. God created us to give and receive healthy physical love, such as hugging, holding hands, and kissing. Unfortunately sometimes in a dysfunctional family the only touches we may have experienced were bad touches. The result is extremely confusing.
If you wanted to be held but the only time you received physical attention was during abuse, you may have felt guilty. This is a double tragedy. However, you can begin to understand that you were not wrong for having basic human needs. God intended for you to have these needs met in a healthy manner.
In your journal, answer these questions...
What role did touch play in your family of origin?
Describe how you react when you are touched by someone now?
Touch has to do with personal power and control. If you were touched when you didn't want to be and not touched when you did, you may have a difficult time accepting touch. You may not even know what is appropriate or inappropriate touch. Survivors are often re-victimized because they are not aware that they can say no to touch.
5. A dysfunctional family squeezes the members into rigid, inappropriate roles.
Children in dysfunctional families develop survival roles. These role are either assigned by the family or unconsciously chosen by the child.
Some examples of survival roles include:
- Scapegoat - usually blamed for the family problems
- Hero - works hard to bring respect to the family name
- Surrogate spouse - often takes the place of the emotionally absent spouse and becomes the child counselor for a troubled adult parent
- Lost child - never gets in the way or causes trouble because this family already has enough problems
- Surrogate parent - takes over responsibility of parenting tasks
- Clown - avoids the pain by being the center of attention
What effect did your role(s) in the family have upon how you coped with sexual abuse?
Can you identify roles that other played? What was the effect of their role on your feelings and behavior?
How do you feel after identifying your family role/roles? (Sad, lonely, ashamed, angry, afraid, guilty, other?)
M.J. describes how her sister was assigned the role of surrogate mother. "All my life I would remember how my sister and I were best friends, how she was always there for me. I would remember how she cooked for me. She dressed me in the mornings for school. She loved me." M.J.'s sister was in the role of parental child.
Sometimes in situations like M.J.'s, the child develops a fantasy bond with the sibling that is the surrogate parent. "I couldn't understand why, now that we are adults, my sister has never come to see me. I was always the one who went to her house. I always called her on the phone.
It took me a long time, but I finally realized that it was all make-believe. This 'bonding' was a way I had learned to cope in my loneliness as a child. My mother had made my sister take care of me. I realize now that she didn't even want to. As my sister and I sat on the porch holding hands, I would fantasize that she loved me. This love, this relationship, was only in my mind; it never really existed. The reason she never called now was because she didn't want to. She never came to my house because she didn't want to."
You may need to seek God's wisdom to become aware of fantasy bonding. We urge you to do so, for this knowledge can set you on the path to have real relationships with these relatives. Even if they are not what you thought or even what you wanted, they will be authentic relationships that you can understand and predict. Your efforts may even lead to loving and intimate relationships, if your relatives are willing to consider honestly all the factors affecting your former situation.
Describe in detail any fantasy bonding you may have with family members.
Sometimes survivors of sexual abuse have difficulty letting go of the feeling of responsibility for the abuse. They cling to a fantasy bond to the abuser or another family member who could have protected them.
Have you continued to accept responsibility rather than face the truth that your bond to one or more family member is a fantasy? Describe your experience.
As you process what you have just read, continue to keep in mind what is written in Isaiah 54:4 "You will forget the shame of your youth." Recovery is hard work, but I promise you that replacing the shame is exactly what God can and will do in your life.
As you grieve the fractured relationships in your life, know that "the Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit." Psalm 34:18. That is such a life-giving verse for me.
I continue to pray for each of you daily.