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Breaking the Chain of Family Dysfunction by Lauren Christiansen

Updated: Sep 3, 2020

Photo credit: Pexels

Jennifer grew up in a highly dysfunctional home. Her mother died at a young age and her father was an alcoholic who went in and out of recovery. When drunk, her father was abusive and angry. When sober, he was quiet and sad. As a child, she would become hopeful every time he became sober again, but it made little difference. He was incapable of showing affection, whether drunk or sober. He never really went to AA or therapy. She internalized the rejection from her father, believing all of it to be her fault.

Jennifer ran away from home at 18 and rarely spoke to her father from that day forward. At 25 she met a handsome, charismatic man who professed his love to her. She noticed that he drank a little too much, but she didn’t let it bother her. After all, he had so much going for her and Jennifer was desperate to be loved. His drinking progressed over the years, just like her father. He began emotionally abusing her, just like her father had. He also went through moments of sobriety, where he seemed angry and sullen. Nothing she did or didn’t do seemed to make things better.

After she left her husband, she began to analyze the relationship. How could she have married a man exactly like her father, the type of man she had once ran far away from? How could she have put herself in that situation? She couldn’t understand what made her attracted to men so much like the type she despised. Why had she repeated this vicious cycle? Unfortunately, Jennifer is not alone. Many people who grow up in dysfunctional homes go on to marry people exactly like their parents. Why is this? Why do some find comfort in the dysfunction that caused them so much pain? Here are what some psychologists say:

Attachment Theories & The Unconscious Mind

Psychologists have put together research over the years that gives some insight as to why people choose relationships where their partner is similar to one of their parents. The research suggests that our earliest relationships with our parents influence the way we connect to others as adults, and creates an internalized script within us that tells us how relationships are supposed to work.

Insecurely attached children, or children who come from dysfunctional homes, may develop anxious or avoidant attachments. Anxiously attached people tend to have a negative view of themselves and seek outside validation from a significant other. Individuals who have avoidant attachments also have a negative self-image, but also tend to be passive and dependent. They crave intimacy but are terrified of being hurt, and usually distrust others. Individuals with these attachment disorders have difficulty forming healthy relationships later in life.

We Seek the Familiar

People are creatures of habit, and anything unfamiliar to them is going to cause discomfort. A girl who was abused as a child might be uncomfortable in a relationship with a man who treats her properly. As a child, she internalized the message that men are supposed to treat women like this. Though she probably knows this is intellectually false, she may have difficulty detaching from this belief, emotionally. Even though she might despise her father and want nothing to do with him, she will subconsciously seek out a relationship structure that is familiar to her. Therefore, a relationship with an abusive man will seem safer to her than a relationship with an emotionally healthy man.

We Pick What We Think We Deserve

Those who came from dysfunctional homes were emotionally or physically abused and neglected. When we grow up in homes where unconditional love is foreign, we internalize a false belief system that we are in fact, worthless. A healthy self-esteem is taught; it is not automatic. If one was constantly put down or criticized, then one will subconsciously believe they deserve that type of treatment. On the other hand, those who come from healthy homes where love was unconditionally dispersed tend to seek relationships with other emotionally healthy individuals. They have developed a healthy sense of self because their parents showed them unconditional love and acceptance.

The Chain Can Break

So, what can be done to stop the cycle? How do people like Jennifer develop a healthy self-esteem? How can she seek out a relationship where her partner treats her with the love and respect she deserves? Fortunately, there are many ways to stop the cycle of dysfunction. If one person receives the therapy and support system they need, it can stop the chain in its tracks. If this person can learn to love oneself and develop a healthy set of boundaries, their children will also internalize a healthy belief system.

Have you or someone you know escaped a radical movement or cult? Or, do you struggle with identity problems low self-esteem? If so, please contact Straight Talk Clinic at 714-828-2000 or visit our website at One of our therapists would be happy to speak with you.

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