I don’t know when “dysfunctional” became an adjective routinely attached to the noun “family,” but in my years of pastoral counseling the common denominator has been a complaint that “my family is so dysfunctional.” It’s led me to wonder what a functional family might be, and does anybody actually live in one? Before we get into that, it’s important to note that there are families, and family-like groups, that are habitually self-destructive, imposing serious physical and emotional damage on one another. They are not the subject of this article.
Recently I posed the question of what a functional family might be. The most common responses asserted that they are families where all work together for the good life of each. Each member enjoys being a part of the happy whole family, and each works to keep it happy. They are people living together, helping each other, because they love each other. Give me a break! Where, other than The Brady Bunch and Leave it to Beaver, did that come from? I don’t believe images such as these are helpful because no one’s family lives up to them. Each of our families falls short, some more short than others. It leads to the unrealistic expectation that, since we don’t live in that kind of family, our family must be dysfunctional, and we have been shortchanged for having to be a part of it while others are enjoying the fullness of life in their functional families.
Who sold us an ideal like that? I’ll tell where it didn’t come from. It’s not biblical and it doesn’t fit into the stories of Christian faith. True, we are commanded to love one another as Christ loved us, but we don’t do it very well, and those who have learned how to live into the fullness of Christ’s love have often paid dearly for it.
A functional family is a family that is good enough, a family that muddles through the vicissitudes of life with endurance, hope, and an ability to laugh and cry at the same time. Most, but not all of us, are members of one. Functional families can do the essential work of raising up new generations with a reasonable expectation that they will be well enough equipped to enter adulthood in an OK way. They are able to maintain relationships with siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, and even parents, through strains, fights, separations, tragedy, disappointments, successes, celebrations, good fortune and ill, hurt feelings, joy, delight, and tears.
One respondent to my question put it this way.
The psychologist Scott Peck defined community as a group of people who fight gracefully. So I guess one element has to be managing conflict, which means dealing with differences and keeping relationships intact. A functional family probably starts with parents of reasonable emotional intelligence, who make each other’s needs as important as their own, yet give each other the space to be their own person.
I like that, “reasonable emotional intelligence.” It’s not perfection, it’s good enough. Functional families are good enough. They are like your family and my family, including all the skeletons in the closet. But wait, surely we Christians have higher standards than that. Let’s turn to the Bible.
Consider Jesus’ family. As far as we know, his mother was widowed at a fairly young age. Her eldest son, a skilled carpenter, could have supported her financially, as was his legal duty, but he wandered off to be an itinerant preacher. At some point, his family thought he might be crazy, and tried to seize him. In the end, he was executed as a criminal, leaving his mom to weep at the foot of his cross. I don’t think that story line would be acceptable to the Bradys or Cleavers. James and John, working in their dad’s successful fishing business, just up and left to follow Jesus with no warning at all. Talk about disrespect! The last thing we heard about Peter was that he was off on a mission, leaving wife and mother-in-law to fend for themselves as best they could. I wonder if he had any kids? Abraham had sex with his wife’s maid, and that didn’t end well for the maid. David’s son pulled a coup d’etat on him. Well, I could go on but it would probably be a good idea to put the Bible down and look elsewhere.
I suggest the marriage ceremony. In our tradition we invite the couple being married to live in a covenant that includes foreknowledge that their life together will bring mutual joy, help, comfort, prosperity, adversity, sickness, health, riches, poverty, better times and worse times. It’s a life, that with God’s help and God’s blessing, will be a greater gift than anything else could possibly be, and yet it will come with that whole range of peaks and valleys. Perfection is never promised. Yes, each of us is disappointed with something about how our parents raised us, what our siblings did to us, and all the squabbling and petty jealousies that raise their ugly heads whenever we get together, but that doesn’t make our families dysfunctional. It means we are about as normal as most others in our messy but functional imperfection.
The Rev. Steven Woolley is retired rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. He serves at Grace Church in Dayton as well as chaplain of the Walla Walla Fire Department. Contact him at email@example.com.