My parents would have been married 70 years this past Monday. Unfortunately, my father died six years ago, but they still made it for 64. My mother, however, is still alive and well. We are blessed to have her and her great wisdom and wit still regularly available to us. I remember at their 50th anniversary celebration she joked that, “We have been happily married for 35 years and 35 out of 50 is not bad!” What did she mean by that? Well, anyone who’s been married, even for a little while, knows what she meant. Relationships are messy things. They have their ups and downs. Add to them children – they had six – and that she was an only child and he was the youngest of 10, and it’s doesn’t take much imagination to conjure up “issues” that they surely grappled with over the years. Dan and I have been married for 41 years. I can testify firsthand that there have certainly been and still are “issues” for us. Grappling is a required skill in any relationship and some days you’re better at it than others.
“I’ve heard people say, every family is dysfunctional at some level.” But in a recent conversation, it was pointed out to me that there is a BIG difference between dysfunctional issues that crop up now and then and being a dysfunctional family. The problem with not being clear about what we mean by dysfunctional is that it can easily become an excuse for leaving “issues” unaddressed or it demonstrably marginalizes the real tragedy of truly dysfunctional families.
Let’s be clear: there are no perfect families…not even yours. Every family is flawed because the people who make up that family are flawed. However, that does not mean that every family is dysfunctional. Healthy families do their best to recognize their issues, work on them, and bring to their family situations a safe environment to grow trust and skills and honesty and kindness and commitment to each other. Healthy parents model for their children an openness to keep growing themselves, a willingness to admit when they make mistakes and work on improvement, and an unmistakable commitment to promote what is best for each other and their children. Problems will arise. Mistakes will be made. Relational damage may be done, but no one sees it as normative behavior. The overriding goal is the emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being of every member of the family and a true belief that “when one suffers, we all suffer.”
The encyclopedia defines a dysfunctional family as: A family whose interrelationships serve to detract from, rather than promote, the emotional and physical health and well-being of its members and perceives those detractors as normative behavior (emphasis mine).
Our goal each and every day is to help families that are suffering from a dysfunctional understanding of a healthy family and may have been suffering for generations. We’re not out to make perfect families. We work hard to help families identify, clarify and rectify the “detractors” that are keeping their family from “a safe environment to grow trust and skills and honesty and kindness and commitment to each other.”
The best part of this time of year is reading the Reflections Papers from women who are about to graduate from the Strong Families Institute. Without exception…and there are now over 100 of them…they comment on how they have learned to identify the detractors that have hampered them over the years, clarify what they can and should do about it and make a plan to rectify the situation. They all refer to the transformation in themselves and in their families because they have done the work to move toward healthy. They humble me and remind me that NONE of us can ever be satisfied in our journey toward healthy families. There’s always something new to grapple with. My parents grappled for 64 years. I have no illusions about the depths of some of their issues, nor of the ones in my family, but I am so grateful and encouraged that they were committed to grappling with that goal of being healthy. Some days were better than others, and the journey took everything they had. Why should we think it will be different for the families we serve or our own families? Healthy families take all we’ve got for all our lives. Today I’m choosing to believe that is the definition of a “pathway to hope” and am so grateful to be part of a ministry that is committed to the journey.