Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Dysfunctional Family Role of the "Loser"

It seems like a lot more adults in the United States are living with their parents than ever before. Some of this is completely reasonable and is in no way indicative of significant family dysfunction, as economic conditions have led many twenty-somethings to require much more time to get their financial ducks in a row so they can move out and be more independent. 

In other cases, however, this phenomenon is due to significantly dysfunctional family dynamics. If the pattern continues into the adult children's thirties, forties, or even later, the odds that dysfunctionality is the culprit skyrocket. 

In  a previous post, I discussed some typical patterns that create this pattern, and pointed out that the adult children remain enmeshed with their parents because, covertly, they are taking care of some of their parents' needs. They may be mediating disputes between bickering parents who for whatever reason will not get a divorce; they may be helping take care of sick, elderly, or just plain lonely parents; they may be providing free cooking and housekeeping services for families that for a variety of reasons are not being done by someone else.

Or in some cases, all of the above!

This is the shell game that I refer to as Who is Taking Care of Whom?

I have seen cases of such patterns that continue throughout the entire lifetime of the adult child. You can find many examples of a sixty-something year old man or woman living with an eighty-something year old mother or father. The adult child's siblings may all be independent, but the "identified screw-up" seems to be the parent's favorite child.

Usually in these instances, the parent is taking care of all of the adult child's financial needs, including for housing, food and spending money, so said adult child does not have to work outside of the home.  The reason they do not work, however, is actually because they already have a full time job: taking care of their parents.

On the surface, it seems to all the world - and even to many peripheral family members - that the adult child is using the parent, and said adult child normally receives all of the blame for the dysfunctional living arrangement. They are accused of using the parents because of less than admirable motives.  Many such folks readily accept this blame, and in fact act in many ways to confirm everyone else's worst fears. They do this to protect the image of their parents, and in the process sacrifice their own reputation.

Another variety of this pattern is when the adult child living with parents pretends to be a failure who always seems to need the help of their parents. That is the version of the shell game that is the subject of today's post. The adult child appears to be a big loser in both love and work. Said adult children will venture out into the real world from time to time, only to return in relatively short order with their tails between their legs.

So how does one go about becoming such a loser?  Let me count the ways.

They may flunk out of school for various and sundry reasons that are not actually the real reasons. Alternatively, they may get a degree in something that qualifies them for a profession that is rapidly disappearing from the current landscape, so they cannot get a permanent job.

They may make impulsive decisions that get them in trouble in way one or another, and subsequently lose any job they do manage to land. They may even develop various medical or mental illnesses, some of which are real and some of which are feigned and some of which are both, but all of which appear to be far more disabling than these particular illnesses should ever be in real life (the role of the defective). Drug or alcohol problems are common.  Some of these folks are massively obese.

They may get themselves fired from a whole series of jobs, again for reasons which may appear legitimate but are masks for the real motivation of the job loser. Or they might take a job knowing that the company they work for is actually planning layoffs.

These people may also or instead play the role of loser in their love lives.  They may look like they are really trying to meet romantic partners by going to singles events or signing up for dating websites, but somehow very little comes of it. Or they choose partners - or a series of partners - who are abusive, have drug or alcohol or commitment problems, or are in other ways dysfunctional, so their parents have to come and rescue them from dangerous or dead-end relationships. Sometimes repeatedly.

Because of these patterns, the parents - who are in reality highly dependent on Mr. or Ms. Loser - often criticize the poor judgment of their offspring unmercifully.  

The more the parents criticize, the more the adult child continues making the same mistakes over and over again. The parent then feels justified in continuing to make the criticisms. On the rare occasions when the adult child expresses anger at the parent's constant harping and verbal abuse, the parent can point to the child's irresponsible behavior as justification for it.

In a very real sense, the adult child is purposely giving the parent this ammunition to use against him or her, although they do not have to think about this consciously while doing so because their behavior is habitual and automatic. This allows the parent to avoid feeling guilty for both their criticisms and for the fact that they are contributing to their own child's impairment. The parents, of course, act in this manner because they themselves are playing their own roles within the family.

Some are stuck in bad marriages because of family/cultural/religious prohibitions regarding divorce.  Some are females who are stuck in outdated gender roles with a prohibition against women being independent.  Some need their child to act out their own repressed anger because they cannot do so themselves - often due to family rules prohibiting anyone from being "selfish" enough to put their own needs above those of other family members.

There is a very incisive and sophisticated comic strip called Momma by Mell Lazarus that absolutely nails the family dynamics described above. A son named Francis is the identified loser.  He apparently does have his own apartment, which of course Momma is paying for, but he is constantly doing everything in his power to act out the various negative characterizations of him that Momma compulsively throws his way. 

It's kind of sad that a cartoonist understands this dynamic better than many therapists.


  1. Treating a "loser" would be tough. I would imagine that aside from the obvious "fixes"--losing weight, getting a job, etc.--the biggest obstacle would be the regret and mourning the patient would face at realizing they've wasted a lot of their life in a dysfunctional pursuit. I go as far as to say that looming regret might be the primary factor in keeping them from looking at their dysfunction from a more objective perspective.

  2. Wow! That hit the nail on the head!