NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Thursday, March 22, 2018

Breaking the Family Code of Silence in a Dysfunctional Family

One of the hallmarks of many dysfunctional families is that there is a family code of silence about the family's dysfunctional behavior.  This can include enabling addiction, sexual abuse, physical and emotional abuse and other dysfunctional behavior.  Breaking the family code of silence and how psychotherapy can help is the subject of this article (see my article: Dynamics of Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families).

Breaking the Family Code of Silence in a Dysfunctional Family

Children who grow up in dysfunctional families learn relatively quickly that there are certain subjects that the family doesn't discuss, and there are consequences for breaking this code of silence, including being punished, ostracized or identified as "family problem" or scapegoat (see my article: The Role of the Family Scapegoat and Children's Roles in Dysfunctional Families).

Young children have no choice in most circumstances than to go along with the dysfunctional behavior.  After all, they are completely dependent upon the family so that being an outcast is unthinkable.

There are some young children who take the risk of confiding in another adult--like a teacher, mentor or family member outside the immediate family, but this doesn't always lead to positive results, especially since, in most cases the child continues to live in the household and will suffer repercussions for revealing family secrets (see my article: Toxic Family Secrets).

Maintaining a code of silence about dysfunctional family behavior often becomes the norm for these children when they become adults.  Confronting the dysfunction can still feel risky--even if the adult child is no longer part of the household and no longer dependent upon the family.

The inner conflict of wanting to confront dysfunctional behavior vs. the fear of breaking the family code of silence is often a topic for clients in psychotherapy.

Fictional Clinical Vignette: Breaking the Family code of Silence in a Dysfunctional Family
After dating for a year, Megan and John began talking about getting married.  They were both in their mid-30s, they both wanted children and since their relationship was going so well, they agreed that they didn't want to have a lengthy engagement.  They agreed that they would rather plan to get married some time in the following year.

When Megan met John's parents for the first time, she was welcomed into their home with warmth and acceptance.  It was evident that they were happy that the couple was talking about getting married.

Megan knew that the next step would be for her to invite John to meet her family, but she dreaded the thought of John meeting her family.  Although no one in her family would admit it, her father had longstanding problems with alcohol that often resulted in unpleasant scenes at the family dinner table and during holidays.

Even though she and her parents lived nearby in New York City, Megan avoided going home, except during holiday time, and even then she sometimes made up excuses not to be around her family's dysfunctional behavior.

As a child, she loved being around her father when he was sober, which was usually early in the day.  But once he began drinking, he became verbally abusive, and no one was immune to his verbal attacks. She became very attuned to recognizing when her father was drunk and tried to stay out of his way.

She also didn't invited friends over to her house when she was a child because she never knew when her father would be drunk, and it would be too humiliating for her if her friends saw her father's behavior.

As a teenager, Megan summoned the courage to talk to her mother and her older siblings about the father's problems, but they tended to minimize the father's drinking.

Her mother told, "This is the way your father is.  There's nothing we can do to change it." And her siblings told Megan that she was "making a big thing out of nothing."  So, being outnumbered, Megan contained her rage and bided her time until she could go away to college (see my article: Being the "Different One" in Your Family).

After she graduated college, Megan moved into an apartment in Manhattan with a few of her college roommates.  She had one serious relationship with a man named Bill, before her relationship with John, when she was in her senior year of college.  She avoided introducing Bill to her family, but after she met Bill's parents and siblings a few times, she felt uncomfortable not introducing Bill to her family.

Before inviting Bill over to meet her parents, she spoke with her parents and told asked them to avoid serving or drinking alcohol when she brought Bill over.  Her parents were incensed that she would even ask this.  Even though Megan tried to be as tactful as possible, both parents objected to her "dictating" their behavior in their own home.

As a result, Megan nervously explained to Bill why she was avoiding introducing him to her parents. Although Bill said he understood, Megan always wondered after their breakup a few months later whether he was skittish about the possibility of becoming part of a family with such dysfunctional behavior.

Now that she was with John, Megan wanted very much for this relationship to work.  She had never revealed her father's alcoholism because she felt so ashamed about it.

On an intellectual level, she understood that she wasn't doing anything wrong and she didn't have a reason to feel ashamed, but the thought of John seeing her father drunk felt so humiliating.  He came from a relatively healthy family, and she wasn't sure he would understand or want to be around her family's unhealthy behavior.  And, yet, Megan still loved her family and, at that point, she didn't want to completely cut them off.

Breaking the Family Code of Silence in a Dysfunctional Family

So, feeling caught in a dilemma about what to do, she began attending psychotherapy.  Megan provided her psychotherapist with the family history, including the alcoholism, family secrets, the enabling and the family code of silence.

As she spoke to her psychotherapist, Megan began to get clearer that her father's behavior was completely unacceptable to her and, even though she loved him, she didn't want to be around him or have John around him.

Megan decided to try to talk to her mother about it one more time, so she invited her mother to lunch in a nearby restaurant one Saturday.  After the meal, she broached the topic with her mother again.  She told her mother that she loved both her and her father, but her father's drunken behavior was unacceptable to her and she didn't want to be around it.

Megan could see her mother's eyes glaze over as Megan brought up the topic of her father's drinking.  She expected her mother to "check out" during this discussion, but she persevered.  When she saw that her mother was distracting herself by looking at her phone, Megan put her hand over her mother's phone and said, "Mom, do you understand what I'm saying? I won't come over anymore until dad gets sober."

When her mother made a gesture to leave, Megan asked her to stay and to hear her out.  Reluctantly, Megan's mother sat down again and glared at Megan.  Then, her mother's eyes welled up with tears, "I know your father has a little too much to drink sometimes and he says things that he regrets later, but what can I do?"

Megan wanted to tell her mother to stand up to her father, but she didn't want to tell her mother what to do.  So, instead, she focused on herself and told her mother that she couldn't tell her what to do.  She only wanted her mother to know that she was fed up with his behavior, and she would stop coming over if he didn't get help and stop drinking.  She explained that she felt that if she continued to come to the house under the current circumstances, she would be enabling her father's behavior and she no longer wanted to do that.

She also explained that she and John were planning to get married and have children and she didn't want John or her future children to be exposed to her father's drunkeness and the family's enabling of that behavior.  Megan's mother was silent, but Megan could see that her mother was inwardly seething.

A few days later, Megan spoke with her psychotherapist about her lunch with her mother and how frustrated and angry she felt about her mother's reaction.  Despite that it was very difficult for Megan, she also felt freer and lighter after the discussion she had with her mother.  She made a commitment to herself that she would continue to stand up for herself.

Megan also had a talk with John to explain her family's problems.  Although she felt embarrassed, she was relieved that he was so understanding.  She suggested that he could meet her siblings, who were all their own, away from the family home, which he agreed to do.

In the meantime, Megan and her psychotherapist worked on her unresolved childhood trauma related to the effect of the family's dysfunctional behavior using EMDR therapy (see my articles: What is EMDR Therapy? and How EMDR Therapy Works: EMDR and the Brain).

Over time, Megan and her psychotherapist worked through the unresolved childhood trauma with EMDR therapy, but it was neither quick nor easy.

Megan and John planned a small wedding with his family and their friends.  She invited her mother and siblings, but they refused to come because Megan excluded her father.  Although it was very difficult not to have her parents there, Megan knew she made the right decision for herself by not inviting her father.

A couple of years later, Megan was at home when she received a call from her mother that the father was in the emergency room after waking up looking jaundice.  Putting aside her resentment, Megan went to the hospital and stayed with her mother while her father was admitted to the intensive care unit.

The doctors explained to them that it appeared that Megan's father's liver was failing and they would need to do tests.  He explained that this was a very serious medical condition, and they might have to place the father in an induced medical coma.

At that point, Megan's family, including the father, had to confront the seriousness of his alcohol problems and that he might die from liver failure.  The father, who was in a great deal of pain, apologized to the mother, Megan and her siblings for upsetting them.  He held Megan's hand until he was taken away for tests.

It turned out that a medically induced coma was unnecessary, but the father needed surgery and he was warned by the doctors that if he continued to drink, he could die.

After the father recuperated from his medical problems, he agreed to go to an inpatient rehabilitation program for people who abused substances.  After he was in the program for a couple of weeks, Megan, John, her mother and siblings visited the rehab on family day.

They participated in a family education program and then they met with Megan's father and his primary counselor.  During that family session, Megan's father apologized again and made a commitment that he would do a six month outpatient chemical dependency program, attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and get a sponsor so he could work on being sober.

It was an emotional meeting for everyone.  The counselor encouraged the family members to attend Al-Anon, a 12 Step anonymous program for family members who are part of an alcoholic and codependent family (see my article: Al-Anon: Beyond Reciting Slogans).

As time went on and Megan saw that her father was really serious about recovery and staying sober, she and John began attending occasional family dinners.  After many years of experiencing her father's alcoholism, it took Megan a while before she could trust that her father was serious about his recovery.

Breaking the Family Code of Silence in a Dysfunctional Family

But throughout it all, Megan felt confident that she knew what was acceptable and unacceptable behavior to her and that if her father relapsed, she knew what she needed to do to take care of herself (see my article: Is Self Care Selfish?).

Breaking the family code of silence can be a daunting endeavor, especially if you're the only one in your family who is willing to do it.

Years of going along with enabling behavior can numb you emotionally to dysfunctional behavior and cause you to be in denial about it.  But once you've made up your mind to place your own sense of well-being ahead of the family code of silence, you can take the necessary steps to take care of yourself, and psychotherapy can help you.

Getting Help in Therapy
It takes courage to confront longstanding family problems and how these problems affect you (see my article: Developing the Courage to Change).

If you have been struggling with the effects of dysfunctional family behavior and a code of silence around it, you could benefit from attending psychotherapy (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy).

A skilled psychotherapist can help you to identify the problems, take steps to take care of yourself, and work through the unresolved problems in therapy (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

My experience as a psychotherapist of 20 years has been that experiential psychotherapy usually works best to overcome unresolved trauma (see my articles: Why Experiential Psychotherapy is More Effective to Overcome Trauma Than Talk Therapy Alone and  Experiential Therapy, Like EMDR Therapy, Helps to Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs).

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples, and I have helped many clients to overcome unresolved trauma.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.