The Family Forum: The Hidden Family System

By Michael Farnworth

Don’t forget to win first place

Don’t forget to keep that smile on your face

Be a good boy

Try a little harder

You’ve got to measure up

And make me prouder

We’ll love you just the way you are

If you’re perfect


I’VE BEEN STUDYING families and their dynamics for over 30 years now, and I have come to the conclusion that families are vastly more complex than we can ever imagine. In Mormon discourse, we talk about the family as being an institution more important than any other and beyond reproach. But the sad truth is, more people are hurt emotionally, physically, and spiritually in the family than in any other institution.

Why is this so? It’s not that the institution of the family is bad, rather it is because most the time its members are unaware of why they act as they do. As the sociologist Murray Bowen has written, “Parents aren’t bad, they’re immature.”

When a young couple marries, each of them brings a familiar system of interaction with them from their childhoods, complete with unconscious childhood pain, wounds, and immaturity issues. If they do not “wake up” to these unconscious processes, they will end up wounding their own children in the familiar pattern of their own childhood wounding. And thus, the cycle of abuse and dysfunction continues into the next generation.

To begin understanding family systems, we need to consider a seemingly illogical mathematical equation: 1 + 1 = 3.  When dating, we may feel that there is something wrong with the relationship, even though we can’t articulate it. “It’s not you; it’s me,” we might say as we break up. We’re partly right, because the unconscious family patterns we bring with us affect how the relationship is developing. You may be a basically good person and I may be a basically good person, but when we come together in a relationship, it doesn’t click. The pieces don’t fit together—or they fit to create a toxic relationship. The relationship that forms between two people inevitably develops a personality all its own—becoming the third “person.”

Similarly, the family forms as an unconscious system with an identity and life of its own. If left unchecked, it can eventually evolve beyond the control of its members, becoming a powerful reservoir of unconscious energy that feeds off the individual members while they feed off it. In other words, everyone’s at fault for the family dysfunction but no one’s to blame.




JUST AS A person can fall into habitual ways of dealing with the complexities of life, so can a family. And just as people may find themselves acting in irrational or destructive ways for reasons they don’t understand, so may a family. A person may hate how he or she acts but feel powerless to change it; so may a family. Destructive actions may spring from long engrained conscious habits, or from habits with roots that begin far below our awareness, making them effectively invisible to us. Something as simple as the way we touch someone, or how we feel when we perceive a threat may have been learned years ago when we were children in our families of origin. We might not remember how those habits were encoded, but they are there nonetheless, springing from the hundreds of thousands of little interactions we had every day, from how we were picked up and put down, to how we were spoken to, attended to, listened to, ignored, looked at or through. All these interactions, verbal and non-verbal, become familiar and expected, rooted in our minds and hearts, haunting or blessing us the rest of our lives.

Sometimes our marriage choice fits our unconscious history of family interaction and we get along pretty well. But sometimes, we get unlucky and the way we act, talk, and relate trigger unconscious fears and behavior patterns in our spouse, creating all sorts of problems. And being told to read the scriptures, attend the temple, and pray more can’t help much.




IN ORDER TO maintain themselves, family systems establish rules of conduct. However, these rules are rarely articulated, remaining unspoken but always in force. Many family systems do not allow the children to differentiate from them and become their own people. For example, parents (being directed by the family system they have unconsciously set up) may psychologically devour their children by projecting their goals, values, and identity onto them. Their children are likely to become enmeshed with these expectations and become pleasers, spending their lives attending to  others at the expense of their own psychological, emotional, and spiritual selves. They understand that the family system only values and loves them to the extent that they reflect and live what it deems important. If our enmeshed children turn out “well” (according to the image we projected on them), we assume the credit and pat ourselves on the back; if they turn out “poorly” (not according to what we projected on them), we denigrate ourselves.

If children don’t behave as we would like, or if they do not turn out as we would wish, they risk being psychologically abandoned, their parents turning their energies toward the children who still show potential, or who can be reclaimed. These abandoned children become loners who learn to take care of themselves. Both enmeshment and abandonment leave childhood wounds that are often replayed years later in these children’s marriages.

The family system also maintains itself by unconsciously assigning roles to the children (roles are, after all, much easier to relate to than dynamic, changing human beings). These roles are meted out according to the needs of the family. For example, first-born children are often recruited for the hero role in order to give the newly created family a sense of credibility and success. Other children are recruited to fulfill the roles of rebel, saint, surrogate spouse, lost child, mascot, caregiver, or peacemaker depending on what the family system needs. In my family of origin, my older brother was originally assigned to be the family hero but he forfeited his role when he began drinking and getting into trouble. The hero role fell to me, and I took it up. My older sister became a surrogate spouse for Dad, my younger sister became the mascot-clown, and my two younger brothers became the sick-lost one and the surrogate spouse for Mom.




FAMILY SYSTEMS ALSO have particular themes and methods of filtering information. In active Mormon families, the major theme is usually religion and obedience; thus it is common to give gifts of scripture or church-related items and take vacations to Mormon historical sites. Of course, these families will also have prominent sub-themes such as sports, hunting, fishing, education, status, money, recreation or a combination of such.

But whatever the themes may be, and whatever information they may tend to promote, they are dwarfed by the effects of how the children are treated. If children feel demeaned when they are spoken to, if they are yelled at, if they are shamed for not being good enough, if they are threatened, if they are compared to their siblings, ignored, or even good naturedly mocked and teased, these patterns of interactions will become hardwired into their minds and crop up later when the children grow up and begin raising their own families. The same is true of children who are respected and talked to with equality, compassion, and fairness.

Dysfunctional family systems can be characterized as being closed to new information, feelings, roles, or ways of being. The more closed a family is, the more static and unchanging the family roles and rules are. For example, a boy in a closed family that is given the rebel role in youth will likely have that role projected onto him for the rest of his life, as if his soul had somehow become frozen during childhood.

Open family systems, on the other hand, tend to allow more alternatives and freedoms for its members. They will tend to allow different information and perspectives to be expressed. Children in such families don’t have to remain stuck in their childhood roles; they can change and exchange roles as they mature. In healthy families, the members are more valued than the system; in unhealthy families, the system is more valued than its members.




SHADOW ENERGY IS made up of the un-owned parts of the family—the parts that are ignored or suppressed because of fear or humiliation. This nonintegrated energy has its roots in the unconscious shame that the young bride and groom bring with them when they establish their new family. They feel flawed: like they don’t measure up, like they’re not good enough. These feelings drive them to become obsessed with perfection in an unconscious attempt to redeem themselves. The mother’s shadow history may include hidden childhood sexual abuse or a food addiction. The father’s shadow history might involve a weakness for pornography or a problem with lying. Whatever the case, their shadows usually include a strong sense of inferiority and a need to hide their real thoughts and feelings.

The family shadow thrives on the denial of problems, on hiding behind pretense. A family with deep shadow energy will often spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about how they are perceived by the community, ward, and neighborhood.

Just as individuals are often blind to their own shadow energies and problems, so are families. When the shadow energy becomes too powerful for the system to keep repressed, the family will often sacrifice one of its children as a scapegoat in order to remain in balance. Understanding the child who has been thus sacrificed is often a key to understanding what is going on behind the closed doors of a family—what kinds of scenes unfold in the home when the public’s eyes are absent.

When in the privacy of home, abusive punishments can seem normal, even necessary. We can lose control as our menacing shadow energy breaks loose. But then, just as quickly, our shadow can disappear back into the darkness, leaving us frustrated and regretful—and our children frightened. As this column has talked about before, the trauma inflicted by threatening situations can have a huge impact upon the developing brains of young children. Even if one is not the victim of abuse but merely a witness, the trauma is encoded into the pathways of the brain.

The ultimate shadow punishment occurs when we disown our own child. This abandonment, this excommunication from the family constitutes the deepest of rejections and is fueled by the unclaimed family shadow energy originating deep within our own shameful history.

To defuse this destructive shadow energy, we have to accept our entire selves—our entire family—including our faults, shortcomings, and sins. But it is a difficult process. We’ll encounter much resistance from ourselves and from our family system as both will fight desperately to maintain their façade of rightness. If we give in to their resistance and lock our shadow selves back in the cellar, our children will pay the price over and over again.




HAVING A LIFE of their own, family systems will fight to protect themselves. They crave balance and homeostasis and will lash out at anything and anyone who attempts to disrupt or alter it. Members who try to change the family system, whether consciously or unconsciously, are often labeled troublemakers and then distanced, discredited, or rejected by the family.

When I first confronted the dysfunction in my family of origin, I tried talking with my siblings and my parents about the things I was learning. I hoped that I could help create a healthier and more open family. But instead, my sister distanced herself from me, saying that my ideas distressed her too much. My older brother understood what I was trying to share, but since the family had already ostracized him as the black sheep, he was unable to help. My father eventually wrote letters to each of my siblings warning them to not listen to me, especially when I tried to talk about the family. I was shocked by this reaction. Being the family hero (at least, up until that point), I had assumed that my efforts to help would be welcomed. But systems of any kind do not appreciate being disturbed. Usually, they will not change unless forced to do so by powers stronger than they. Obviously, I wasn’t powerful enough.

We can start building a healthier, more open family system by using family therapist Virginia Satir’s list of family freedoms, which she applied specifically to children:

• The freedom to see and hear.

• The freedom to think what one thinks.

• The freedom to feel what one feels.

• The freedom to want what one wants.

• The freedom to imagine.

• The freedom to make mistakes.

The last item is one I added to address my perfectionist mentality.

When my oldest children were pre-adolescent, our family tried to live by these rules. We framed the list and hung it up. The family system put up a fight against the changes these ideals were promoting, but through a lot of work on all our parts (especially mine), we did change the quality of our family system, and thus our relationships, for the better.

We supplemented Satir’s freedoms list with a list of our own which focused on family rules:

• No family abuse of self or others: emotional, physical, sexual, or spiritual.

• No family violence toward self or others: we do not hurt people or destroy things in our family.

• No family violations of privacy or territory: respect of self and others is what boundaries are all about.

I am living testament to the fact you can pray, have family home evening, read the scriptures, and go to the temple and still be a controlling, dysfunctional, self-righteous parent. And in my case, the more self-righteous I became, the more dangerous I was. It was essential that I acknowledge my shadow self, break out of the childhood roles I had become trapped in, and come to understand the dynamics of my own family system in order to begin the long process of change.

The next column will explore the nature of first- and second-order changes within the family system.

One comment

  1. Roy Wells says:

    Growing up in a dysfunctional can be tough. It is even tougher when you have two dysfunctional families with stepparents. I had an evil stepmom and a parade of clowns for stepdads. I always tried to think of ways to get rid of my stepmom but I never acted on any of my plans. I found that it was therapeutic to write stories that would lampoon them. I have a new story called My Psycho Family! It is free if you have a Kindle and Amazon Prime. I hope you enjoy it.

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