What do healthy families look like?

Having healthy family dynamics is such an important thing, yet few of us are aware of what that looks like because we tend to equate "normal" with what we are already used to growing up with.  Imagine Hope therapists are passionate about helping in all relationship areas, including family relationships, since these connections tend to have such a drastic impact on so many people.  Families can be: Enmeshed:  Enmeshed families have very few (if any) boundaries, which feels intrusive, disrespectful, shaming, and exclusive.  Enmeshed families can appear to be very emotionally close, but often, this is at the expense of each family members individuality.  In an enmeshed family, the family system may use shame or guilt to keep the child (even an adult child!) close, and may withdraw love or express overwhelming disapproval for things that go against what they believe to be the "right thing" for their kids.  Enmeshed families have very poor boundaries, whether they are physical boundaries (e.g., stopping by unannounced or coming in without knocking, rearranging furniture in their kids homes without asking, buying gifts that are unwanted and then acting out in anger or disapproval if you decline them), emotional boundaries (e.g., ignoring each others expressions of hurt feelings, using over the top and hurtful teasing, refusing to apologize for hurtful actions, or telling each other how they "should" feel), and mental boundaries (e.g., telling each other how they "should" think or what rules they "should" live by),  just to name a few.  A great example that Tammy used in her article on enmeshment ( http://www.imaginehopecounseling.com/fullarticles.php?ID=55 ), is the TV family on Everybody Loves Raymond.  The process of enmeshment in families can be so destructive because it doesn't allow each member of the family to be a unique individual who brings their own things to the family.  Enmeshed family members often feel forced into keeping secrets for fear of disapproval and shame, which makes it very difficult to be vulnerable and open.  I have seen many individuals and families in counseling find relief at realizing that the closeness they thought they grew up with, was really enmeshment.  Recognizing this gives each member of the family system "permission" to begin setting healthier boundaries and be more real with each other. 

Cutoff:  Families who are in cutoff do not know how to have healthy conversation and conflict.  When uncomfortable topics arise (or when a disagreement comes to light), the family members emotionally, physically, or otherwise cut off contact by simply refusing to speak to or see each other.  Many times, cutoff arises from many years of anger, bitterness and resentment.  One or more family members might refuse to confront hurt feelings with the person they need to confront, and instead, use distance in place of healthy boundaries.  An example of this is an adult child who has years of resentment toward a parent, but instead of confronting that parent with their feelings and setting boundaries, they haven't spoken to or seen them in 15 years.  Not all people are safe to confront and set boundaries with, but if years of hurt feelings and resentment exist, it's important that you gain peace of heart and closure without using cutoff as a tool to "escape" the uncomfortable feelings.  The old feelings from cutoff tend to be taken with us into other relationships, which causes unnecessary damage.

Interdependent:  Interdependent families are the healthiest family relationships.  They have a close and safe emotional connection that allows each person to be an individual.  Conflicts are brought up when they need to be (in a healthy way), and each person in the family feels like they have a voice that is heard and valued, which helps the family obtain resolution.  There is no walking on eggshells around each other, because each person truly wants to know how the others think and feel, as well as what each person needs.  Interdependent families are focused on what is best for the individuals needs, and see that having good boundaries really does benefit the entire family system.  They also are able to have good balance with seriousness and fun!  They don't feel like they need to keep secrets, and are not afraid to share who they really are, which makes it a safe place to be vulnerable and real.  Interdependent families don't base their identity exclusively on each other, or treat each member of the family as an extension of them.  Differences are celebrated (not shamed).  Parents allow their children to have their own lives, while maintaining a close relationship, and children don't have unhealthy dependency needs on their parents.  This is usually the goal for families that we see in counseling.  If your family is working towards this, good job!  You will all be happier and have healthier relationships as a result!

Where did you see your family fitting into these areas?  If you recognize yourself or your family in any of the unhealthy ways of relating, we encourage you to begin working on these relationships.  All of our therapists at Imagine Hope are passionate about helping families establish better relationships, so feel free to contact us for more information or to schedule an appointment for your family today!

Joleen Watson, MS, NCC, is a therapist at Imagine Hope Counseling Group. She enjoys doing marriage counseling, relationship counseling, couples counseling, and individual counseling.  Imagine Hope also specializes in family, child and adolescent counseling and serves Indianapolis area including the surrounding areas of Carmel, Noblesville, Zionsville, Westfield, and Fishers.