A dysfunctional stepfamily results when a dysfunctional first family transitions into a stepfamily, by either cohabitation or marriage. Additionally, two healthy first families can produce a dysfunctional stepfamily, by cohabitation or marriage, if they have unrealistic expectations or don’t know how to make a cohesive stepfamily from two different families.
Stepfamily dynamics begin the minute a single parent becomes seriously involved with a partner and the new partner starts interacting with the kids. A stepfamily is formed when the single family and new partner move in together (cohabitate) or get married. A single family refers to either a never-married parent or a couple who is divorced, widowed, or separated but not legally divorced. Of course, this includes any adult, regardless or marital status and without children, who become seriously involved with a single parent.
The definition a dysfunctional first family has evolved over the decades due to societal trends, and it varies by researcher or statistic-gathering team. Here, I am referring to a dysfunctional family as a family unit who is emotionally or physically unhealthy. This includes sexual abuse. Unhappiness is entirely different. Unhappiness refers to an emotion, whereas emotional health refers to a state of being or a state of mind. It is a long-term situational condition, whereas happiness is temporary. One’s happiness can change in minutes, hours, or days. An unhealthy living environment is ongoing. A person can be happy in an unhealthy environment or unhappy in a healthy environment.
A happy person in an unhealthy (dysfunctional) family may mean he/she is unaware of its condition. In most cases, this would be a young child who may not be a target of unhealthy attitudes, not exposed to them, or simply doesn’t comprehend what is going on. There are also many cases of adults who don’t know if their living arrangement is unhealthy or warrants leaving. They don’t want to be deemed a failure for quitting. Some people don’t recognize the warning signs because they can’t see the forest through the trees. Others don’t recognize red flags because they were raised in a similar dysfunctional environment. Adult children of divorce are more vulnerable to dysfunctional relationships because their parents were unable to model a healthy relationship. These are only a few possible explanations for becoming or joining a dysfunctional family. Researchers have come up with many more.
Divorce does not automatically beget dysfunction. Many single parents do a phenomenal job raising their children in a very healthy atmosphere. Respect, hospitality, and genuine concern for others are commonplace. Raising children without shame and not speaking poorly of the other parent keeps the child’s self-esteem intact. A positive environment is a matter of perspective and demeanor. Hence, dysfunction is unrelated to marital status or family structure.
How does somebody figure out if they are in a dysfunctional relationship? Moreover, how does one decide when it would be better to leave? Disagreements, miscommunication, and unhappy times exist in healthy relationships. Couples in them try to ignore occasional unresolved issues. Nobody can be happy all the time. Everybody has bad days. All children test their parents and try to get away with something wrong. They don’t always listen or obey. Many parents argue about how and when to punish their children. Therefore, the mere existence of these ordeals need not be examined closely.
Dysfunction is characterized by an excessive amount of arguments, unresolved issues, and unhappy times. Depression, addiction, and other behavioral or personality disorders are often found in members of a dysfunctional family. Gottman and Markman derived the Four Horsemen to narrow down why relationships fail: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. These qualities are indicators to re-evaluate your method of resolving conflict.
Ask yourself the following questions to help you determine if you are in a dysfunctional relationship. Then rate your answers with the frequency: never, rarely, sometimes, most of the time, or always.
- Do you care if arguments are resolved?
- Do you enjoy spending time with your partner?
- Does your partner make you smile by doing any of the following: complimenting you, doing something nice for you, say thank you/show appreciation, or remember special occasions?
- Do you feel comfortable discussing personal concerns with your partner?
- Do you feel that you and your partner are a team working together?
If you answered most of the time or always to 3 or more questions, congratulations! You are in a healthy relationship. If you answered sometimes or rarely to 3 or more questions, you are susceptible to unhealthy communication patterns. I suggest taking measures to improve communication or boost romance with your partner, such as taking a class through your church or finding a common interest in a couples’ social group. Reading books or doing research on the internet would be beneficial. If you answered never to 2 or more questions but did not answer most of the time or always to any question, I strongly suggest doing some soul-searching and getting a professional opinion. These questions are only a guideline to set you in the right direction. You are the only person who can determine the best environment for you. If you are in doubt, please seek professional advice. Many professionals offer evaluations or feedback for free.
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