Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Historical Backdrop of Family Dysfunction

Victorian's Secret

In a new and fascinating book, Family Secrets: Shame and Privacy in Modern Britain, professor of history Deborah Cohen traces the historical development of the current concepts of, and attitudes towards, shame and family secrets in Britain over the last two hundred years. As described in a press release about the book, the author explores what families in the past chose to keep secret and why, and how privacy eventually came to be viewed as a sacred right, while at the same time a contradictory idea developed that family secrets are destructive. 

Deborah A. Cohen, Ph.D.

So why am I reviewing this book in a blog on family dysfunction?  Allow me to explain.

In my experience using my family systems-oriented psychotherapy model of treatment for repetitive and ongoing self-destructive and self-defeating behavior in individual patients, I without exception find repetitive and ongoing problematic interpersonal relationship patterns in the families of origin of the patient that both trigger and reinforce the patient’s ongoing difficulties.  

These so-called dysfunctional families are characterized by chronic conflict, inability to perform and fulfill family responsibilities, ongoing tension, and even abuse and neglect of children, domestic violence, and/or substance abuse.

Saying that self-destructive behavior is caused by family dysfunction of course just raises another question: Why are the family members all compulsively behaving in ways that make both themselves and one another miserable? Are they just mad, bad, blind, or stupid?

I do not believe they are any of those things. My patients and I are often able to trace back the history of their family's dysfunction through the use of a genogram or emotional family tree. As we look back over at least three generations, we find family members of varying abilities and propensities experiencing various individual traumas and interacting with their cultural milieu and historical trends. In the process they develop habits that are adaptive to their situation at that time. 

However, as times change, these habits become maladaptive, while the original reasons for their existence are obscured. For reasons that I will not go into here, some families get stuck in the past with these once useful but now counterproductive attitudes and rules of behavior – a phenomenon anthropologists call cultural lag. This “stuckness” often makes their otherwise horrific and inexplicable behavior more understandable, even as we do not necessarily condone it.  

Gaining this type of insight into one’s family dynamics is, in my opinion, the past way to gain insight about oneself. It also helps my patients develop empathy for both themselves and their problematic relatives, paving the way for discussions about family dynamics that do not cause fight, flight, or freeze reactions in members of the group.  Problem solving can then take place in a constructive atmosphere, and dysfunctional patterns can be significantly attenuated and even stopped.  My patients then feel free to give up their own self-destructive behavior.

Now of course the complete family history is not always available, as relatives who might know what happened to family members in the past die off. Sometimes the development of dysfunctional patterns goes back several generations, and my patient and I lose the historical scent, so to speak.

So what to do?

One possibility is geneological research. This has become very popular of late, and often is related to a quest to understand the behavior of one’s family over time. This popularity can be seen in the frequency of visits to the web archive, and with television shows like Who Do You Think You Are? and Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates.

The information in historical records, such as dates of immigration and census data about who composed the various related families during certain times, may at times be fruitful for trying to understand family dynamics, but they often do not really help a lot. They do not say anything about such things as why a family emigrated, or tell us that grandpa had a mistress, or that grandma was a suffragette. They certainly do not really tell us a lot about how various members related to one another.

On the television shows that I mentioned, subjects must turn to historians to help them understand what was going on culturally at relevant times and places, and this knowledge often sheds a lot of light on the experiences of early generations.

So, a knowledge of history, when combined with a knowledge about typical ethnic group norms (subject of a later post), can be extremely useful in making an educated guess about how and why certain family behavior patterns may have developed. These patterns were then transferred to succeeding generations through a process known as the intergenerational transfer of dysfunctional behavior (which will also not be discussed in this post. It’s described in detail in my first book, A Family Systems Approach to IndividualPsychotherapy). 

When I use the term history, I am not talking about the boring stories about the names of kings and dates of wars - those things which pass for history in American schools - but the history of societal forces affecting different cultures. In particular, the evolution of individualism from originally traditional, collectivist ethnic groups is a crucial and central theme.

So this is where a book like Dr. Cohen’s comes in handy. She focuses on England rather than America, despite the fact that she is an American professor, because she was able to obtain previously sealed documents from various archives in that country that shined a light on important historical cultural trends. She is therefore able to tell stories of how major historical developments affected the fortunes of specific individuals and families, which helps us to understand cultural trends from a very personal perspective.  

Fortunately, while there were and are many differences between the British and the Americans, the countries across the pond from each other do share many commonalities as well.

One example from the book of how cultural attitudes might affect the relationship between parents and their children was the prevalent attitude towards adopted children. Although widespread for a long time, adoption was not even legal in Britain until 1926. Adopted children were often seen as inferior. This was to a large degree a product of the widespread belief in the pseudo-science of eugenics (which is present in only slightly disguised form in many of today’s attitudes towards behavioral problems). 

Eugenicists believed that traits such as promiscuity or “loose morals” were genetically determined.  Since many adoptees were the product of unwed pregnancies, these children were presumed to be prone to “degenerate” behavior themselves. 

Another source of children for prospective adoptive parents came about during the World Wars. Apparently, in spite of the persistence of Victorian attitudes towards female sexualtiy, women whose husbands were overseas for extended periods of time often had paramours. If they became pregnant, they would often want to adopt out the baby in order to hide it from their husbands.

Causing childless couples keen to adopt children further grief - and a need to keep the facts of the situation secret from their social circle - were certain peculiarities of English law. For a long time, the natural parent could theoretically reclaim her child at any time. Furthermore, “The intent of England’s harsh bastardy laws was to inflict the sins of the parents upon their children; the stigma of illegitimacy was to follow a child through life" (page 126).

Because of societal attitudes such as these, adopted children were often never told that they were adopted. (Inquisitive children might nonetheless know based on the presence of clues such as their hair color or hush-hush conversations between their parents). Anxiety about the child making an embarrassing discovery led adoptive parents to want as few people to know about the adoption as possible – keeping the secret even from the child’s adoptive siblings. Birth certificates were routinely altered. 

Both the parents’ fear of discovery and the fear that the child would turn out badly because of his or her heredity almost certainly had a negative effect on the relationship between many adopted children and their parents. This in turn may have led adopted children to develop any number of problematic attitudes which later on might affect their relationships with their own children. For example, adopted children might have thought that the parents had no confidence in them, creating a self-fullfilling prophecy that they would become failures in life.

In a similar manner, Dr. Cohen uses fascinating examples of how families were affected by historical trends in societal and governmental attitudes toward factors such as race, divorce, developmental disability, and homosexuality. One interesting subject she discusses that I had never heard about was that, when India was a colony of Britain and a lot of British men (but not women) were there making their fortunes, many had mixed race children with native women. British law allowed the Brits to take these children to England over the objections of the children’s mothers. Various ruses were then used to hide the child’s Eurasian heritage from prying eyes.

The author goes on to discuss today’s culture in which the concept of privacy has been turned on its head to encompass the individualistic idea that individuals should be free to openly live their lives in almost any way that they please, and express their feelings and opinions openly without fear of retaliation. 

Some families have not received this message and, as I mentioned earlier, unknowingly remain trapped by the rules of the past. Being stuck in between two worlds can often lead to problems for the children of immigrants to the United States - a subject of post coming in the near future.


  1. I have this book. You just motivated me to get it out and read. Many people who havent gone through specific traums themselves still pick up on the secrecy and anxiety of the person who has. Wonder also about epigenetics research showing DNA changes in future generations.

  2. Great read. Thanks for connecting some dots between British history, culture and family systems.