Lessons From Healthy Family Dynamics
As a Marriage and family Therapist for over 35 years, I have worked to help families find healthier and more productive ways to deal with stressful times. To that end I have studied the growing body of science on effective relationships and organizational systems, and as I view societal dynamics I find myself wondering why politics has become so dysfunctional. I believe we can do better. In these trying times of unemployment, economic downturn and international tensions, we can choose to be better or choose to be bitter.
In the scramble for political advantage, it seems that keeping score about others has become more important than the welfare of our country. This is a hallmark of a dysfunctional family - finger pointing becomes more important than solving problems. In a dysfunctional family, right - wrong games rule and there is a dearth of the respectful exchange of ideas. Family members resist flexibility, and are unwilling to try and reach synergistic solutions together. Too much of the family's energy is tied up with thoughts and actions in the "Attack Mode".
This kind of mudslinging has a long history in America. "Vituperative language and over-the-top criticism of opponents are not new to our politics, nor is the idea that one side or the other is not patriotic," according to John Boardman of Washington and Lee University. At the beginning of our life as a nation, in the 1790's, the Hamiltonians and the Jeffersonians hurled insults and accused one another of being unconstitutional. More than two centuries later, the question is: Why have we not learned better strategies for conducting our political life?
As times become more stressful in America we are returning to name-calling and fear mongering. This is a shame. We now have a science of healthy relationships, as well as of effective leadership and communication, and we are not availing ourselves to their benefits. It has been demonstrated that many of the same strategies found in healthy families also apply to organizations. So what are some major differences between healthy and dysfunctional families?
A review of characteristics of healthy and dysfunctional families reveals better strategies for us as a nation. Compare these dysfunctional and healthy approaches to four important societal dynamics: taking responsibility, dealing with conflict, problem solving and dealing with stress. The dysfunctional approach to the dynamic of taking responsibility focuses on shame and blame rather than expressing ideas and feelings about larger issues, while the healthy approach is for individual family members accept responsibility for their part of the problem and figure out how to best correct the problem. When dealing with conflict, a dysfunctional family does so by using criticism, contempt and defensiveness, putting up walls and looking for scapegoats. Conversely, healthy families deal with conflict by facing the issues and fighting fairly, which involves learning from mistakes and developing more effective problem solving strategies. When problem solving, dysfunctional families are disrespectful of others and use the language of putdowns, while healthy families work together to solve problems and provide mutual respect, even when they do not agree on ideas. Finally, when dealing with stress, high anxiety leads to dysfunctional families turning on one another, while healthy families help one another.
Now take a moment and consider these dynamics along with the dysfunctional and healthy approaches and apply them to our political system today. Is the political discourse in America the behavior of a dysfunctional family or a healthy family?
Regardless of your answer to the previous question, what strikes me is how many hard-working Americans are concerned about all of the vitriol and scapegoating - because we know better. We know that healthy families search for facts together and respectfully consider multi-causality instead of jumping to conclusions and scapegoating. As a nation it is important to be aware that when times are more stressful and resources limited there is a human tendency to attempt to cope by using dysfunctional behavior like scapegoating, name calling, playing right-wrong games, mudslinging and turning against one another. These are stressful and high stakes times for our nation, and yet even during times of such turmoil there are lessons to be learned and choices to be made. As Americans, we are now faced with a choice of our own - to be bitter or to be better. What choice will you make?
Dr. Linda Miles