Ending the Cycle of Dysfunction

I come from a dysfunctional family. My parents came from dysfunctional families. My grandparents came from dysfunctional families. No doubt their parents came from dysfunctional families too, though I didn’t know them well enough to know the details for certain. Every family has some level of dysfunction, I am now convinced of this. Since we are human beings; flawed, imperfect and all lacking in some areas, certainly a level of dysfunction is implied and expected. But how much is tolerable? How often are we minimizing it or ignoring it all together? Don’t get me wrong, I realize as parents, we have enough to worry about. We already want the best for our children, such that we may be running ourselves into the ground to find what is “best”. And who sets that standard? Man? Society? A moving target in my opinion.

I believe whole heartedly in Christ and the fact that we are free in Him alone. We are safe in Him alone. The Bible addresses dysfunction. God is, after all, the ultimate functional father. And to be in God’s will, we have to know His will and like any good parent, He warns us and shows us the best path for our own protection. It can be extremely hard to live by faith, and to take steps that may be terribly uncomfortable now, in order to have safety, growth and goodness tomorrow. I don’t write this today to be preachy, I write it for realness.

I remember it clearly. I sat in my finished basement, one of my many lonely nights in my big beautiful home. With a husband asleep upstairs, and a child asleep many hours prior. A child who was just coming down off a terrible roller-coaster ride with his biological mother, her unstable visitation schedule, and it seemed as though things were finally looking up. My bank account, and my belly were full. My beloved cat had survived far longer than the vet said she would so she was curled up next to me. All was well on paper.

On paper.

To the outsider, I was in bliss. And I had lived that way for such a long time. Constantly silencing the nagging piece of my soul that was trying to tell me something was amiss.

“People would kill to have what you have, be grateful. Be thankful. Be happy.”

But that night I couldn’t take it anymore. My heart was confused. It was overwhelmed. The silence around me was deafening.

‘Something is wrong.’

I had everything I’d ever wanted, so I thought. All the things were lined up so perfectly and yet, I was empty. I was completely hollow. It was about that time I started being honest with my therapist, but more importantly, with myself. What was happening in my household wasn’t normal. It wasn’t good. It wasn’t healthy. We’d managed to re-create our childhood homes – two wildly different homes – and I could no longer hide the damage it was causing to my soul.

I began this blog, determined to nail this stepmom thing. I told myself that I will be the best wife there ever was. I will be the best mother there ever was. I didn’t understand at the time that I was incapable of doing that alone, and that having such high expectations were not commendable, they were self-destructive. Yet, I didn’t even know where to begin to make changes.

And what’s worse? I didn’t know much about myself at all. It was at this time that I was forced to take a good hard look in the mirror. My marriage was falling apart, and it was about to get worse. It was not only the terribly unhealthy behavior of my husband, it was the fact that I was pretty much clueless about relational health and how to thrive in relationships at all.

Three years ago I started walking on a long journey towards health. We don’t talk about health enough, in my opinion. Yes, we read all about what it takes to have abs, to lose weight, and to look right. But what if everything is beautiful on the outside and a trainwreck within? That is where I was. I had to learn about all of my flaws – and I mean all of them. My own codependency issues. Trouble with anxiety. An incredibly sensitive personality, that was crushed too easily, too worried about what others thought, and a controlling demeanor. I tried so hard to control my environment because I was so terrified of what would happen if I let go. My intentions were always pure. I can say that with all honesty. I was a great success in my twenties by the standards of education and salary -which is wonderful – except I was headed for a hard fall by thirty.

I don’t feel it’s necessary to share the specific areas of dysfunction within my husband but it is real. And it is deep. And the two of us were living a life that took many shapes – but it was never truly healthy. It wasn’t until I spent hours in a therapist’s chair and even more countless hours with my nose in self help books that I started to really change. Instead of being determined to be the picture of what I thought it should look like to others, I became the picture of what awoke and truly satisfied my soul. I learned all about myself, and am still learning. I learned about many different personality types (and disorders). I began to understand mental illness in a way that I never had before – and achieved a laser sharp ability to recognize it, and avoid it. I learned what makes me tick, and to have genuine empathy for others. But more importantly, I learned about the very damaging effects of dysfunction within the family model and how if left unchecked it is doomed to repeat itself – precisely what happened to me.

Your soul knows what it needs. I believe we were all created for a specific purpose, with specific talents and specific deficits. One of the reasons I am still childless myself is not only because the dysfunction was running rampant in my own home and I refused to perpetuate it, but because the idea of screwing up kids and sending them to a therapist’s chair was downright terrifying.

I have stopped letting that fear dictate my future, but only because I believe good parents do 2 things –

1. They strive to be the healthiest versions of themselves possible.

2. They recognize they are never without some deficits and so they connect themselves and their children with other healthy individuals who do life alongside them. Together they can all fill in various gaps. After all, we were made to do life with others.

These days I do not obsess nearly as much as I used to about the disease of dysfunction; I now dance with it. I don’t let it overpower me, because I’ve learned that the best I can do is stay ahead of it, keep learning and remain determined to keep it out of my life.

But the truth is that it wasn’t until I faced it head on and went to war with it that I was able to come out stronger and truly be as victorious as God calls me to be. I searched endlessly for answers. I spent time feverishly in my Bible, with mentors, and anyone whom I trusted to give it to me straight. I was determined to stay in close communication with God, even though I admittedly stumbled and still do. I constantly come back to the fact that God knows better than me, and He is shaping me daily. I became unafraid of the discomfort of growth because the discomfort of stagnation was crippling.

As a society we are obsessed with blaming others for our shortcomings. It leaves every relationship shallow, especially the relationship we have with ourselves. Many of us have wonderful wisdom from our parents, and I am no different. By all means, it wasn’t dysfunction only in my family of origin, but if we are honest, for many of us, dysfunction was a main ingredient. Dysfunction wins because we don’t even recognize it. We settle for the lie that ‘it’s just the way I’m wired’ and it continues to dominate our households and claim our children, and their children, and so on. The day I chose to stop settling was the day I truly began to live.

It has not always been popular in my house. Remember, one person can ignite a change, but change isn’t always welcome. The truth is it’s been an uphill battle trying to bring healthy family dynamics into my home. It’s taken an intense amount of prayer, patience, grace and determination and I can’t honestly say it’s all healthy and ironed out now. But I have put an absolute stop to tolerating it in my life where I’m able, and I have stopped tolerating it in the life of my boy as well, where I am able.

Today I just want to encourage you, not to be afraid of demanding a healthy functional family. Seek your weaknesses like it’s your job – unemotionally. Learn to remove emotion from your honest assessment of yourself – just seek facts. Those facts will help you find other facts and before you know it, you’ll have many new skills and you’ll never settle for the disease of dysfunction either. Many of these kids have enough dysfunction in their lives as it is. You can’t change anyone else, but you can be the light for them where other adults are lacking. Don’t shy away from the job because it seems too big, or will cause too many waves, or you think you can’t make a difference. I believe strongly that the conversation about dysfunctional homes needs to get louder, wiser and more prevalent. We can change our stars. Join me.

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4 thoughts on “Ending the Cycle of Dysfunction

  1. super good article. As I read it I thought of my personality….how pure my intentions are only to be faced with criticism….how sensitive my spirit is only to get bruised from a rude comment. I believe though that the word ‘dysfunctional’ is overused. There isn’t any family without problems.There isn’t any couple without issues between them in one form or another. There isn’t any perfect family. We are sinful and live in a world of dysfunction, death, darkness and need to be the light and salt.

  2. I love this. Thank you for being so open, honest, and vulnerable. Sometimes being a stepmom gets so hard, I want to give up… There are so many things I’d like to do to help my step kids, but, as the stepmom, I have no power. I make suggestions, but they go unheeded. I offer advice, but it’s not taken. That’s when I think I just need to let go and let God. And, I know there is truth in that statement. But, I think for me, the reality is it was an excuse to give up. But, after reading this, I think that perhaps I need to keep keeping on… As you said, it’s not easy, and it won’t happen overnight, but it’s still worth trying, still worth the effort. So, I thank you for sharing. And I wish you light and love on your journey. 🙂

  3. Thank you for this beautifully written, and very honest, post. It hit so many points that I’ve been struggling with in my journey to be The Best Step Mom. I will be using it as food for thought for my next piece….thank you for the inspiration!

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