Confronting the Myth of the ‘Normal’ Family

200280664-001Therapists give a great amount of lip service to the idea that normalcy is a very difficult, if not unfair, thing to assess when it comes to families. However, in my discussions with colleagues, I am always surprised at how easy it is for them (and me) to reach quick conclusions about the health of the family systems we work with. Terms such as “enmeshment” and “rigidity” are often thrown around with, I suspect, the lack of understanding of the family that’s required to really reach those kinds of conclusions.

I think it hit home a few weeks ago when another therapist described her client’s family as enmeshed. Although probably not the basis of her argument, she proceeded to explain that when she went to college she spoke to her family a handful of times each semester. She was focused on her life and her objectives. The relationship with her family had become secondary from that point forward.

I found myself thinking, “That’s weird.” Followed by, “Man, she would have a field day with my family.”

So I went to my go-to defense mechanism and intellectualized the whole thing by bringing up the importance of culture in influencing one’s conclusion. Some of the other folks there came back with equally logical arguments, namely that enmeshment can reach a point where one can call it enmeshment regardless of culture. The back-and-forth sounded pretty much like that for about half an hour.

What I would have said, if I didn’t care about causing others to question the “normalcy” of my family, would have sounded something like: “Wow, that seems pretty cold to me. I couldn’t imagine my college years without having talked to my family or seen them every week.”

But I didn’t. I just took what the other therapist said (which was probably the only authentic comment that came out of the entire discussion before I screwed it up) and threw theories at it. I avoided a more substantial personal discussion about how we (the people in the room that day) are heavily influenced by our own life experiences in coming to judgments about others and the potential impact this may have on our thinking when it comes to figuring the problem out.

It was a reminder about the importance of being careful in not defending our own families or ideas about family in our work with families. Keeping most of what the family does that is healthy intact does not invalidate how our families work. That difference isn’t always pathology, it’s just a difference. As healthy as our families may be, they do not form a legitimate basis from which to understand other families. How our families “do it” may actually create real problems in other families.

I understand this is something that was drilled into me 15 years ago during my studies, supervision, and training. It is something that anyone who does any sort of therapy should always have in their head. But managing our expectations and ideas of how the world should work takes a lot, and its presence in our interventions and our thinking can be very insidious. It’s funny, because we work in a profession that, depending on how you look at it, demands that we work toward a goal of normalcy yet refuses to give us the ability to define it—and rightfully so.

I guess that’s why the DSM is always such a hot mess … but we won’t go there.

Over the years I have shifted to thinking that terms such as “enmeshment” have little meaning. Regardless of what category a family may fall into, health has more to do with whether folks are happy and how they adapt to problems. If that’s good, then so is the family.

What is good for the therapist is good for the client. There are legitimate reasons for family members to cut off communication or set hard boundaries. Sometimes it’s even OK if the issue is a matter of principle. Before doing so, we should make sure that the problem we have with another family member is one that actually affects us, that the issue has more to do with the impact on our lives than how we think the other person should be living theirs.

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  • AudrA

    June 19th, 2013 at 2:12 PM

    I remember feeling like such an outsider as a kid because I wasn’t raised by my mom and dad but by my grandma. Although a little more typical these days, a generation ago this was a little more unheard of. I remember thinking how much better and more NORMAL my life would be if I had parents raising me, but I am so glad that I have gotten past all of that. I know now that the situation I lived in was the ehalthiest one available to me even though I totally did not see it that was at that time. I am thankful for the people that I had in my life during such a hard time and now looking back I see that I would not trade this for another version of NORMAL for anything in the world.

  • Jenni

    June 20th, 2013 at 4:16 AM

    What can we say? What works for one family may not work for the rest, but if it works for yours, and all is healthy, then I would take it and run.

  • Jeanine

    September 26th, 2023 at 3:48 PM

    John thank you! I’ve been saying this very thing for years. A therapist diagnosed my family as enmeshed after only 4 sessions? This was used in a custody battle between my daughter and her husband! Guess who won! Now because of a poor evaluation bias and lack of seeing the whole picture my grandchildren, daughter and our family is suffering gravely for years. Serious bias brought on by judgements based on very little to no evidence!

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