Characteristics of a Dysfunctional Family

According to the Handbook of Relational Diagnosis and Dysfunctional Family Patterns by Florence W. Kaslow, the near universal characteristics of a dysfunctional family are the following:

  • Lack of empathy, understanding, and sensitivity towards certain family members, while expressing extreme empathy towards one or more members who have real or perceived “special needs”. In other words, one family member continuously receives far more than he or she deserves, while another is marginalized.
  • Denial (refusal to acknowledge abusive behaviour, possibly believing that the situation is normal or even beneficial; also known as the “elephant in the room.”)
  • Inadequate or missing boundaries (e.g. tolerating inappropriate treatment from others, failing to express what is acceptable and unacceptable treatment, tolerance of physical, emotional or sexual abuse.)

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
– Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

  • Disrespect of others’ boundaries (e.g. physical contact that other person dislikes; breaking important promises without just cause; purposefully violating a boundary another person has expressed)
  • Extremes in conflict (either too much fighting or insufficient peaceful arguing between family members)
  • Unequal or unfair treatment of one or more family members due to their birth order, gender, age, family role (mother, etc.), abilities, race, caste, etc. (may include frequent appeasement of one member at the expense of others, or an uneven enforcement of rules)

“After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relations.”
– Oscar Wilde, A Woman of No Importance

Kinship‏ Systems

The anthropological term kinship entails all human relations or connections by blood, marriage or adoption. Seven major patterns of kinship systems of the human family can be identified through anthropological and ethnic terminology:

  • Eskimo kinship (lineal kinship)
  • Hawaiian kinship (generational system)
  • Sudanese kinship (descriptive system)
  • Iroquois kinship (bifurcate merging)
  • Crow kinship (expansion of bifurcate merging)
  • Omaha kinship (expansion of bifurcate merging)

All systems listed below have a nuclear family in which everything is viewed from a person called Ego; he or she has a brother and a sister, a mother and a father. All supplementary descriptions (listed below) explain the uniqueness of the respective kinship system.

Eskimo: Ego has a mother and a father, a brother and a sister. Siblings of Ego’s mother and father are known as aunts and uncles, all of their children are cousins. In short, this is the common European kinship system. (lineal kinship)

Hawaiian: All cousins are brothers and sisters of Ego. Also, all aunts and uncles are mothers and fathers of Ego. Basically, Ego’s entire family consists mothers and fathers, and brothers and sisters. (generational system)

Sudanese: Ego has no aunts or uncles but father’s brothers and sisters, and mother’s brothers and sisters instead. The children of these people are paternal and maternal cousins to Ego; the paternal and maternal cousins who are children of Ego’s father’s brother and Ego’s mother’s sister are parallel cousins, the paternal and maternal cousins who are children of Ego’s father’s sister and Ego’s mother’s brother are cross cousins. (descriptive system)

The Iroquois, Crow, and Omaha kinship systems have the following in common: Ego has a mother and a father, a brother and a sister. The sisters of Ego’s mother are Ego’s mother as well, the brothers of Ego’s father are Ego’s father also. All children of Ego’s mothers and fathers are his sisters and brothers. The brothers of Ego’s mother and the sisters of Ego’s father are Ego’s uncles and aunts respectively.

Iroquois: The children of Ego’s uncle and aunt are Ego’s cousins. (bifurcate merging)

Crow: The children of Ego’s uncle are Ego’s cousins; the female children of Ego’s aunt are Ego’s aunts as well, the male children of Ego’s aunt are Ego’s fathers. (expansion of bifurcate merging)

Omaha: The children of Ego’s aunt are Ego’s cousins; the male children of Ego’s uncle are Ego’s uncle as well, the female children of Ego’s uncle are Ego’s mothers. (expansion of bifurcate merging)

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