2007-09-29

Dysfunctional fundamentalist families (1)

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by Neil Godfrey

One of my helps when I had decided to leave religion was hearing a radio interview with psychologist Marlene Winell (link is to her website) and subsequently reading her book, Leaving the Fold. In her book Marlene makes the disturbing claim that the dynamics found in a fundamentalist family are often the same as those at work in other dysfunctional families, including those of alcoholics.

I could not deny her observations. They probably relate to the well-known fact that many areas noted for their religiosity rank higher than average in rates of child abuse, unwanted pregnancies, domestic violence, rape, and other crime. (I’m sure it has a bit to do with the way many fundamentalists react with arrogance and judgmental disdain towards anyone who seriously questions their beliefs.)

The following comments, and in particular her lists of characteristics often found in common among dysfunctional families — whether families of alcoholics or fundamentalists — are from her book (with her permission). The list summarizes the work of Bradshaw (1988), Satir (1972), Whitfield (1987) and Marlene’s own clinical experience. (p.129)

No family will fit any side of the following perfectly. Marlene Winell offers the list to assist readers in heightening their awareness and that’s my intention too. (p.129)

Unfortunately just reading a list like this may not be enough at first for us all to recognize which shoes fit. We may think because we pass on some we make up for the ones where we fail. Some may even be scandalized by some of these descriptions on grounds that they are “not biblical” :-/

But by offering the list here I will be in a position to refer to it in future posts when discussing related issues.

Healthy Family in Blue ; Dysfunctional Family in Red


Communication

  • clear, consistent, direct, specific, and congruent; openness and listening were practiced.

Communication

  • unclear, indirect, vague, inconsistent, incongruent, secretive; concerns not listened to; facade of normality.

Rules

  • clear, up-to-date, yet flexible, human rules; freedom to comment on anything; guidance and structure firm, but negotiable when appropriate.

Rules

  • covert, out-of-date, vague, inhumane, inflexible and rigid or wishy-washy and confusing; restrictions on commenting

Individuality

  • respected and encouraged; each member free to have their own perceptions, thoughts, feelings, desires.

Individuality

  • suppressed, conformity demanded, often subtly; criticism, manipulation used to control it.

Feelings

  • accepted and expressed.

Feelings

  • not accepted or expressed.

Needs

  • accepted, supported, and fulfilled.

Needs

  • not permitted.

Self-esteem

  • encouraged and supported; methods to gain approval are natural, positive, reasonable.

Self-esteem

  • discouraged; shame, judging, and competition used to control it; forms of gaining approval are negative, can be exaggerated.

Affection

  • freely given and received, verbally and physically; assumption of abundance.

Affection

  • withheld, measured, uncomfortable; assumption of scarcity; can be inappropriately expressed with sexual abuse.

Physical bodies

  • respected; sexuality treated as positive and natural; privacy honored.

Physical bodies

  • ignored, criticized, abused; sexuality shameful and secretive; privacy not respected.

Character

  • family members are honest, self-aware, accepting of responsibility; welcome feedback.

Character

  • family members play roles such as martyr or victim; unaware, blaming, hypocritical, avoiding; feedback unacceptable.

Expectations

  • reasonable; mistakes forgivable and viewed as learning tools.

Expectations

  • unreasonable and inconsistent; mistakes seen as failure, cause for blame and ridicule.

Humor

  • plentiful and friendly, light, well-intentional, bonding.

Humor

  • biting, sarcastic, veils unexpressed feelings, causes alienation.

Atmosphere

  • pleasant, fun-loving, spontaneous, relaxed, reliable.

Atmosphere

  • tense, unpleasant, controlled, serious; can be chaotic, unpredictable.

Relationships

  • trusting and loving; individuals equal in value.

Relationships

  • suspicious and jealous; power struggles for value.

Power

  • negotiated and shared; roles fluid and flexible, decision-making varies.

Power

  • rigid roles, patriarchal hierarchy.

Problems

  • acknowledged and resolved; conflict handled openly and creatively.

Problems

  • denied and perpetuated; conflict feared and avoided, erupting dangerously.

Interaction

  • with community and external world is open and trusting; new ideas welcomed as stimulating; children leave home with comfort and confidence.

Interaction

  • with world is minimal; outside involvement considered intrusive and dangerous, family system is closed, fearful, unhealthy; leaving home is problematic.

Goal

  • to promote health, happiness, and full development of all members.

Goal

  • control and survival of family unit.

In this type of family

  • children learn constructive behaviors that are appropriate to the real world; they grow in self-worth and confidence, drawing increasingly from the self.

In this type of family

  • children learn accidental, chaotic, destructive behaviors; they grow more doubtful, leaning more heavily on outside sources for support.

6 Comments

  • Pingback: Dysfunctional fundamentalist families (5): devaluation of feelings « Vridar

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  • 2008-10-29 05:43:37 UTC - 05:43 | Permalink

    Do you feel that every fun. family fits into these categories, or most or some?

  • 2008-10-29 07:26:56 UTC - 07:26 | Permalink

    I would only say that if the shoe fits, wear it. No doubt there are degrees. Some suffer far more than others. Woe to those who take their religion too seriously.

  • 2011-02-04 10:14:14 UTC - 10:14 | Permalink

    In my recently released novel “Stick Man”, I show through a fictional coming-of-age novel a young man’s deconversion from fundamentalism. The novel deals with why incest is prevalent in dysfunctional fundamentalist homes. I’m thankful to Dr. Winell for encouraging my right to think for myself, and I’m grateful Stick Man is bringing healing to others who bought it through Amazon.com

    Amicably,

    Richard Rossi

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