The American family may be in serious trouble. Unhealthy family environments may be caused by alcoholism, wrong ideas about child-rearing, physical abuse and even sexual abuse. But unhealthy families can be rebuilt, and God's Word provides a blueprint to show how this can be done.
Jack and Wanda seemed to have an ideal family. Their friends at church knew them as a handsome young couple with four attractive children. Jack was a skilled tradesman, and Wanda was a full-time homemaker. They lived in a nice home in a nice subdivision. All in all, they seemed to personify the American dream to most who knew them.
There was a darker side, however. Much of what their friends thought they knew about Jack and Wanda was an illusion. Though the couple kept up a good front for years, eventually cracks began to appear in their facade. You see, Jack had a drinking problem and it was growing steadily worse. It was the family secret.
As Jack's drinking increased, Wanda became more resentful, and the fights between them grew more frequent and intense. By the time Jack finally acknowledged that he had a problem, and sought help, Wanda was so overcome with bitterness, resentment and hurt that she no longer cared. Over the next several years, this "ideal family" came apart—with tragic results for each member. Their lives went from dream to nightmare.
This, of course, is not an isolated situation. According to a United States government report on alcoholism, almost 18 million adults in the United States were classified as problem drinkers. Of course, it is not merely the drinkers who have a problem. As in Jack's case, the problem drinker directly affects the lives of others, especially the children who grow up in that environment.
The patterns of how we function in life are developed in childhood. The most important aspects of what we believe— about ourselves and the world around us—are formed by the lessons learned at home. There are millions of adults who grew up in alcoholic homes. Millions more grew up with other scars. According to Susan Froward, coauthor of Betrayal of Innocence, at least ten million American women have been incest victims. While these particular statistics are based upon the United States, similar figures apply in Britain, Canada and Australia.
As we look around our hurting world, we should recognize that no one comes from a perfect background. However, millions have grown up in circumstances that have left particularly deep scars. These scars will, if not addressed and healed, simply perpetuate the sins of the fathers onto the children— even to the third and fourth generations (see Numbers 14:18).
With so many coming from unhealthy family backgrounds, does that mean that all of these millions have no chance for future happiness? Are you automatically doomed to repeat the problems of the family in which you grew up? Is it really possible to break the cycle and rebuild a healthy family?
The problem, of course, is not that people set out with a goal of being unhappy. They simply do not know how to do the things that produce happy results! So many times, growing up in a deeply troubled family environment, children promise themselves that they will not put their own children through such traumas in the future. Yet just the opposite is usually the case. Problems are perpetuated. Why?
Much can be traced to the lessons and survival strategies we learn as children. The hurt, the fear, and the resentments accumulated during childhood are carried into adulthood. Those feelings are all too often carried into new relationships. Those who never learned to trust as children lack the ability to enjoy true intimacy as adults. They were never taught by their parents how to relate to others (Proverbs 22:6).
To change, one must first face the past honestly, looking into the mirror of God's law (James 1:23–25). Truth is the gateway to real freedom. While we cannot choose our past, we can make choices about our future. Before we can go forward, we must face where we are in life and how we got there. By understanding the dynamics of our family system, we can come to understand things about ourselves—why we think and feel the way we do.
When a child grows up believing that his best will never be good enough, or that he must struggle to earn love, or that he is responsible for everyone else's happiness, he will have real problems in establishing healthy adult relationships.
Facing the past is not about blaming Mom and Dad—it is about becoming honest with ourselves. We can never work on a problem that we do not see or will not admit. Taking inventory of our own lives, including our feelings and the beliefs that underlie them, is crucial. If we want the future to be different from the past, we must specifically identify what we intend to do differently. Good intentions of "doing better" are not nearly enough. What exactly will we do differently? None of us can change in generalities, only in specifics!
Pretending that nothing is wrong does not make it so. We must not deceive ourselves (Jeremiah 17:9; James 1:22). However, when we honestly face an issue, we can see it for what it is, and we can make choices. This is a first step in dealing with childhood wounds.
Terrible events leave deep scars. One of the hardest ways to respond to hurtful and unfair events is to let go of them. So often, we can feel justified in holding on to resentments because of life's unfairness. In the long run, however, resentments hurt most the ones who harbor them.
The Bible is the world's premier psychology book. The Creator, the one who designed the human heart and mind, authored it. In its pages are the stories of many real life men and women, the choices they made, and the consequences of those choices.
One of the most tragic episodes recorded in scripture is the series of incidents that culminated in the rebellion of Absalom, son of King David. The story did not start with Absalom's rebellion, of course. It started almost ten years earlier with the rape of his sister, Tamar, by her half-brother, Amnon. In the aftermath of this incident, Absalom seethed with a deep inner rage for two years. He was furious about what had happened to his sister (2 Samuel 13).
After two years, Absalom invited all of his brothers to his ranch for a barbecue. Taking advantage of having coaxed Amnon away from Jerusalem, he killed him and fled the country. King David was devastated by the news. He had now lost two sons, one dead and the other in selfimposed exile. After about three years, there had been no contact between King David and the estranged Absalom. A ruse by Joab, who was a nephew as well as a close aide to the king, resulted in King David sending word to Absalom to return to Jerusalem. After his return, though, Absalom still was not invited to spend time with his father, or even to see him face to face. King David was so hurt by what Absalom had done that he simply could not bring himself to reconcile completely. Several more years passed, and Absalom grew increasingly resentful of his father.
Finally, Joab succeeded in breaking the logjam once again, and the king invited Absalom to visit him (2 Samuel 14:21). There was an outward reconciliation, but Absalom was now so consumed with resentment that he began to plot a revolution to seize his father's throne. When he thought the time was ripe, he struck. At first it seemed that he would be successful, but in the end his army was defeated in battle. Before the armies had clashed, King David had instructed the soldiers not to hurt Absalom, but to "deal gently for my sake with the young man." Those instructions were ignored and Absalom was killed. David was devastated. "O my son Absalom—my son, my son Absalom—if only I had died in your place!" he cried. "O Absalom my son, my son" (2 Samuel 18:33).
This whole tragic account is about holding on to deep hurts and resentments. Were those hurts real and understandable? Of course they were! However, and this is the point, they had a devastating effect on those who held on to them.
Jesus Christ emphasized, over and over, the importance of forgiveness— of letting go of the resentment and hurt. As He was taken to be executed, He Himself exercised unilateral forgiveness. Speaking of the soldiers who were carrying out His crucifixion, He said, "Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do" (Luke 23:34).
One of the most important decisions anyone who has come out of a hurtful background can make is to let go of the hurt and resentment. It is often hard to do, since we consider ourselves entitled to those feelings because of what happened. Yet resentment is the source of most spiritual maladies and, when retained, is the root from which bitterness grows.
Face the past honestly. Acknowledge the hurt and loss. It is okay to grieve a loss, but then let it go. Whether to hold on to past hurts or to release them is your choice. Choose to forgive and to go forward.
Trust and respect are elements at the heart of healthy relationships. Hurtful experiences in a sick family environment undermine proper respect and damage the ability to trust. But why are these elements so vital, and what can be done to rebuild them?
In healthy families, good communication is one of the most important tools. Knowing others' thoughts, ideas and feelings allows problems to be addressed and resolved. Using negative and hurtful words, and not listening attentively, will stifle attempts at communication. "But avoid foolish and ignorant disputes, knowing that they generate strife" (2 Timothy 2:23). Failure to show respect to other family members will undermine their willingness to express what is really on their minds. No one wants to be held up to ridicule or belittled. We only really open up to those with whom we feel safe. A dysfunctional family is not a safe, emotional environment. As a result, its members do not learn healthy communication skills.
If you grew up in such an environment, then you must learn new and different skills if your current family is to have a different atmosphere than did your family of origin. Much of this hinges on building an atmosphere of trust and respect (1 Peter 2:17; Hebrews 12:14). Trust is built up by consistently carrying through in many little things. People feel respect when they are paid attention to and treated with courtesy.
Your mate will never open up to you until he or she feels safe in doing so. How do you create this safe environment? First, you must ensure that private comments are never repeated in a way that embarrasses the person who confided them to you (Proverbs 25:9). Also, confessions of inner fears or insecurities must never be saved up as ammunition to be thrown back in the face of the one who said it the next time there is a disagreement.
Where there are people, there will inevitably be conflict from time to time. But when an atmosphere of trust and respect prevails in the home, that conflict will be resolved in healthy ways. Concentrate on building trust and showing respect by both your actions and your words, even in times of conflict (Philippians 2:3). With time, there will be tangible results. None of us can make someone else change, but we can choose to make changes in our own lives.
"Balance," it has been said, "is a razor's edge!" Overcompensating— going from one extreme to another— seems to be the human tendency. Substituting different extremes does not promote balance.
Some family systems are so rigid and controlling that they stifle family members. Others are so loose and permissive that they produce a sense of chaos. Neither of these is a healthy balance. If one mate is too strict, lenience from the other mate does not produce balance. A structured environment, by contrast, produces proper balance in the home, in which each family member is still able to be an individual.
In unhealthy families, the leader either abdicates his responsibility to guide or else seeks to control all the other members. What is a healthy leadership style? The early New Testament church provides an interesting example. After all, the Church is called the "household of God" (Ephesians 2:19) and has many of the characteristics of a family.
From Acts 6:1 we learn that the number of the disciples in Jerusalem had multiplied to many thousands. Next, we learn that problems arose with certain ones feeling that their needy were being neglected. How did the leadership respond? They could have called everyone together and "chewed them out" for voicing complaints. They could have become defensive, responding that they were doing the best that they could, and putting a guilt trip on those who complained. They did neither.
Instead, they listened to what was being said! After listening, they called everyone together and established the parameters of a solution. They next delegated, to those closer to the situation, the responsibility for filling in details. In this case, the problem was resolved by preparing a list of individuals who met the qualifications the Apostles had enumerated. The result was received positively, and the Church grew even more (v. 7).
The Apostles avoided making several of the most common mistakes that cause people to be frustrated with their leaders. They did not stifle communication by becoming angry with those who brought them unwelcome news. Neither did they frustrate the Church by going to extremes of either failing to respond and provide leadership or else trying to micro-manage and control every facet of the solution.
This is a clear picture of how healthy leadership works, and how it applies to the home just as much as to the Church or to other contexts. Listening, establishing parameters and guidelines, and then giving people room to work out specifics are all-important keys to balanced leadership.
A dysfunctional family is an unbalanced environment. Rebuilding healthy families that function properly always involves a restoration of balance. Children must be given guidelines and parameters of acceptable behavior. However, within those boundaries, they should be allowed to develop their own individual tastes and interests.
Families should neither be disconnected and uninterested in one another's lives, nor enmeshed and entangled in each other's lives. There is a healthy balance in maintaining interest and involvement while still giving others room to be individuals and resolve problems. In Genesis 2:24, the Creator God said, "Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined unto his wife, and they shall become one flesh." A new family unit was to be created. Of course, loving children will continue to honor and respect their parents, and loving parents will remain deeply interested in the welfare of children and their new families.
Unhealthy, dysfunctional families perpetuate themselves—but not because people consciously seek them. They persist because people lack the knowledge, the skills and the will to build something better. How, then, can you guarantee that your future will be different than your past?
First, you must choose to acknowledge the past honestly, and then to let it go. You can make a choice to turn loose of hurt and to replace it with forgiveness. Forgiveness, after all, is a choice! Instead of being controlled by fears and insecurities developed over a lifetime, begin to develop a deep, personal relationship with your Creator. When you choose to be guided by trust in God, rather than fear of people and circumstances, you will find whole new vistas of life opened to you. Seek to build trust and respect into all of your relationships by giving respect and showing yourself trustworthy. Finally, seek balance by learning how to be involved without being enmeshed.
We live in a world of hurting and broken family relationships. Yet, regardless of your background, it is possible to rebuild a healthy family. Your Creator has provided the instruction book, but you must put His instructions into practice to gain new knowledge and new skills. Seek help and go forward. The result will be worth all of the hard work that may be ahead!