Tuesday, October 2, 2007


Tonight I’m thinking about emotional baggage. The big, big question for me is this: what percentage of people who come from broken/ dysfunctional families actually learn something and improve from the experience? And what percentage of them remain broken, themselves?

The flip side is: do folks who've never dealt with a major relationship blow-out suffer from naivite? Are they unprepared, unseasoned, for inevitable rocks in the relationship road? Will they enter a relationship with unrealistic and unsustainable expectations?

For me, “dysfunctional” means that a relationship takes on an aspect that ultimately causes its demise: abuse, neglect, lying, cheating, disrespect, mean-spiritedness, extreme jealousy, rage, passive-aggression, volatility, etc.

It’s hard for me to understand, because I grew up as the product of a near-perfect family. My parents were Christians and brought me up in a moral, nurturing household. We had family meetings to decide matters and let each individual’s voice be heard. Communication was direct and open. My parents never had major marital problems and demonstrated effectively working through the minor issues. We say, “I love you” frequently. I am still close to my parents and sister, and nowadays, I call them not out of a sense of obligation, but because I miss them and truly want to know how their day is going.

Years ago, I became very close to a person from a broken family. When he was age 15, his father had an affair and told his mother (who had struggled with dysthymia for many years and was incapable of holding down a job) that he didn’t love her anymore. The guy was a latch-key kid, and no one in his family communicated. The divorce was bitter, and none of the children, now grown, have been capable of having a relationship with the other sex for any length of time.

After the initial romance period wore off, he treated me in the same way that his father must have treated his mother: extreme neglect. Avoidance. No communication. Just left. This was, of course, very difficult for me.

So, now I have tasted a significant and dysfunctional relationship, and I can metaphorically peek over to the other side of the fence.

My answer to my own question is that it must be a mixed bag. I am sure a certain percentage of people, probably a majority, who’ve experienced broken families are dysfunctional themselves. They didn’t learn from the experience and carry around subtle but immense emotional baggage that they just can’t shake.

I also know that there is probably a small percentage of people who come from broken homes but who do just fine. One example is the case of Cousin C. She lived in a home with a mean and controlling father and passive mother. She does suffer from a serious inferiority complex, but she has remained happily married to one wonderful man for 20+ years. Success!

On the other hand, there are plenty of folks who grow up in a perfect social environment who somehow come under unhealthy influences and become dysfunctional themselves. Maybe none of the scenarios are correlated with one’s past or upbringing. But I’d wager to guess that they are.

Looking in my rear-view mirror, my hypothesis is that if you grow up in a dysfunctional family: fighting, non-communicating parents or close extended family, then you’re going to be carrying around some baggage so heavy that it starts to show after a while, despite attempts to hide it.

I stand at a crossroads. I’ve been through a heavy, pretty dysfunctional relationship, and it hurt like the dickens. Still hurts to think about giving love and trust to someone who trampled on them, repeatedly. As a result, I know that a major issue going forward is to again cultivate the ability to trust someone the way I need to in order to fully enjoy a relationship with a man. For me, trust must be earned rather than instantly granted. Anyone who rushes that process for me should prepare to see my back as I run away.

What do you think? Do previous dysfunctional relationships and/or broken homes predict future dysfunction?


LJ said...

I think your assessment is pretty much dead-on. There's definitely a mixture... those who choose to strive for so much more since they've been drug through a dysfunctional family upbringing and then there are those it seems to scar to the core.

I had an ex-boyfriend who almost had resigned himself to go through the same cycle, seemingly expecting to himself be divorced and leaving his hypothetical family some day. It was part of what clearly made his appeal fade quickly. And the odd thing is it truly wasn't like he was using it as an excuse. It was just all he knew and he just didn't quite get it. And I thought that was a really sad place for someone to be.

I have the strongest admiration though for that first classification. People who have been victims of any type of emotional abuse or neglect and manage to bounce back, refusing to buy into the vicious cyle, and realize they're capable of better. True admiration.

SciWonk said...

Thanks for your perspective, LJ.

Why is it that so few people are comfortable engaging directly on this issue? I think that the topic of baggage is *the* most taboo topic, even more so than money, sex, religion or politics. We'd all be a lot better off if we were more "real" with one another, when it comes to relationships.

LJ said...

I think some people are ashamed or just not open about it. Perhaps it stems from not wanting it to be seen as a weakness... or not wanting to receive pity. I think it is part of who someone is but doesn't (and shouldn't) fully define who they are.

Sherry said...

My response to your question is that previous dysfunctional relationships (whether personal or experienced vicariously through parents) predict future relationship problems only to the extent that a person does not learn from the earlier experiences. My sisters and I are the product of parents who were at times extremely unhappy with each other, always minimally communicative, and ultimately bitterly divorced. Two of us have certainly had miserable long-term relationships (me the longest at five years). All three of us, however, are in strong, happy marriages, due in large part to our understanding that good relationships take LOTS of work and to our desire to make it work with the men we love... I certainly believe that you're the type of person to do this as well -- a smart, capable woman who wants to be happy and is willing to work for it!

Sherry said...

P.S. Love reading your blog. :)

SciWonk said...

LJ: it's definitely just a piece of someone's overall persona, but that piece is so rarely discussed.

Sherry, knowing you for nearly 20 years has allowed me to see you experience some rough times when it came to your parents' relationship, and I can tell that you are one of those individuals who can see the problems and learn lessons from the experience that you apply to keep your own relationships strong. Good for you.

Thanks, ladies, for your comments.