In this episode of Thanks for Sharing, Jackie Pack talks about the common characteristics of functional families. She also talks about dysfunctional families and how that can occur. In Leo Tolstoy’s novel, Anna Karenina, there is the famous line: “Happy Families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” What does this mean? And how can we learn to be happy, be relational, and have connection and vulnerability in our relationships?
Today on the podcast episode, I wanted to talk a little bit about something that I’ve been talking with a couple of clients about, and last week in our men’s group, we actually talked about this too, and it’s an interesting topic to me because anytime I talk about it with a client or like in the men’s group, it creates some really great dialogue, and there’s always an interesting or unique perspective that’s personal to the person who’s sharing about it. So it starts out with the beginning of Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, and the book Anna Karenina starts out with this quote. It says, “Happy families are all alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Now you may have heard this quote talked about over and over. I can’t remember if I was in high school, like my senior year of high school, or if it was actually in a college literature class that I took when I first had to read Anna Karenina and came across this quote: “Happy families are all alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” And it kind of stuck with me. Actually when I first read it, it really struck me, and I wanted to know what was Tolstoy talking about? What did he mean by writing that line because I found it to be a fascinating and intriguing and also kind of a heartbreaking line, and I didn’t even know what it meant for me. It struck me, and I remember that line, but I wasn’t even sure what it meant for me at that time. It can be ascribed to so many different things, but again, what exactly does it mean? If you’ve read Anna Karenina, then you will know that it’s difficult to test the validity of this assertion that all happy families are alike because we really don’t encounter any happy families in Anna Karenina. I don’t want to… I’m not going to do a spoiler alert or anything like that if you want to read the book. Also just a side note, it is considered to be one of the most challenging books to read amongst classic literature, but most of the families in Anna Karenina are not happy families, and so again, what exactly does that mean? Well, I think going back to that quote, “Happy families are all alike,” that to me seems to mean that happy families share this common set of attributes, which leads them to be happy. Now Tolstoy didn’t necessarily define what happiness means, and I think that could be different for different people in different families, and then that last part, “Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” kind of speaks to the fact that there can be a variety of attributes that can cause an unhappy family. Now it might be interesting to note that this concept, it’s called the Anna Karenina principle. This concept or the Anna Karenina principle has been generalized to apply to several fields of study. For example, in statistics, the term Anna Karenina principle is used to describe significant tests, so there’s any number of ways in which a data set may violate the null hypothesis, and only one in which all the assumptions are satisfied. It’s also used by ecologist Duane Moore. He described applications of the Anna Karenina principle in ecology. Much earlier, Aristotle states the same principle, different name, and talked about again it’s possible to fail in many ways, but it’s difficult to succeed. It’s used in the second law of thermodynamics. It’s used in the theory of maladaptation. Again there’s many ways that the Anna Karenina principle is used, which I find interesting, this idea that there’s a common attribute or common set of skills that make happy families happy. I will say when I was growing up, I was kind of on the lookout, I didn’t know about Anna Karenina, and I didn’t know about this quote when I was young, but I recall knowing, I knew from a fairly young age that my family wasn’t necessarily a happy family, and so I was on the lookout for happy families. I remember watching several families in my neighborhood that we went to church with, and sometimes thinking I would look at this particular family, and I would think, oh I think they are a happy family, and then over the years at some point I came to realize, oh no, they’re an unhappy family like my family’s unhappy. But again, I wouldn’t say they were unhappy in the same way my family was unhappy. Or I would find maybe a husband and wife, and I’d be like, oh I think they have a good marriage, only a few years later they divorced, and then I was like, oh well I guess that wasn’t a happy family. So again, it was this idea of like what I thought might be happy families or what I thought happy families looked like, I learned by the time I was like a mid-teenager or older that I really didn’t have an understanding about what happy families were and what happy families looked like. Now I will say as I’ve gotten older and had a family of my own, I do think that I would agree with Tolstoy that there are certain attributes of happy families that make them happy. Now if I were guessing at what some of those attributes are, I would say that there’s some connection that happens in the family. I would say that there is some collaboration that happens in the family, that they kind of are a team and there’s a feeling that we have each other’s back. I’ve known some families who are very musically gifted, other families who loved to play games, they may have some common traits that they all kind of connect around or bond around, but I think even the connection goes further than that in that we care for each other and we talk to each other. Now some of this reminds me when we talk about family roles. So back in I think it was 1981, Sharon Wegscheider, she started to identify different roles in dysfunctional families, and she was the founding … I think she founded the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, and she’s got a couple of books, has some literature out there, but she really started to put her finger on the various roles in dysfunctional families. Now some of the main roles that she identified include the enabler, the hero, the scapegoat, the lost child, the mascot, the caretaker, and the peacemaker. Now when she was writing about this, she said that sometimes in family systems, there’s simply not enough people in the family system for each family member to only have one role, and so sometimes there’s multiple roles shared amongst family members, but they aren’t necessarily contraindicating for each other, like you’re not going to have the invisible child as well as the hero. The hero is pretty prominent in the family, and the invisible child isn’t, so a lot of times they’re going to pair in ways, like you may be both the peacemaker and the caretaker or the enabler and the caretaker, things like that where they kind of go together. Now I think another thing that we’ve learned about dysfunctional family roles is that they also tend to be set, so there’s not a lot of movement among family members. If you have a role in the dysfunctional family that isn’t necessarily one that’s nice to have, and just as a side note, really none of the roles are nice to have in dysfunctional family settings. Even the hero, which tends to be kind of the one that we would think about like oh that’s the nicest one to have in dysfunctional families, or at least that’s what I think. I wasn’t the hero in my dysfunctional family, so that one stands out to me at least, but I understand the pressure that’s put on the hero that can be debilitating in its own way, and even while the hero may be successful and high-achieving, it also comes with a cost. Each role in a dysfunctional family system has a cost associated with it. Now in functional family systems, these roles are much more pliable, and they’re much more fluid, so everybody in functional families gets to have successes. Everybody gets to make mistakes without being the black sheep of the family. Everybody gets to be funny or witty. Everybody gets to care for one another, and each person takes their turn being cared for. Also each member gets to be seen and known and cared-for in the family unit, whereas in dysfunctional families, those roles tend to be a little bit more set and less fluid. This past year, I don’t know if it’s just the weirdness of 2020 and the issues that have just seemed to come month after month as we’ve progressed through the year, but as I’ve talked with several of my siblings on the phone, or we do some Zoom family calls every once in a while, like once a month we’ll do a Zoom family get-together so that we can chat and talk, but more I would say as I’ve talked to some of my family members one-on-one, what I’ve heard some of them talk about is things from the past are starting to come up for them, or they’re starting to have memories that maybe they haven’t had up until this point. I was talking to one of my brothers a couple of weeks ago, and he was sharing with me just that he didn’t really feel like he had a lot of childhood memories, and he’s never felt like he had very many childhood memories, but that this year, whether he’s driving in his car or doing something around the house or in his yard, he’ll just kind of have a flash of something and just kind of know like this is a memory, this scene or this glimpse of something that I got right now, that happened, and this is connected to a memory. I’ve also talked with one of my sisters about some of our past family history, and her and I have kind of talked about and tried to put some pieces together from maybe what she knew or the role that she played versus the role that I played and the access to information that the two different roles played and kind of putting that together and starting to make sense or more sense. I will say I thought… and maybe this was me being a little bit naive, although I am 50 years old, so I kind of thought that most of the rocks having to do with my family of origin and the dysfunction in my family of origin, I kind of thought I had turned over all of the rocks and seen what was under there and kind of had memories. I’ve said before that I was kind of the memory keeper in my dysfunctional family for whatever reason. I don’t know what that goes along with, but I seemed to have the most memories out of any of my siblings, and so I really thought okay, I’ve excavated it all, I’ve turned over all the rocks, I have the information that is to be had, and surprisingly this year, there’s been several pieces of information that have come to me or rocks that I’ve overturned and been surprised at what I discovered, and a little bit surprised at what I hadn’t put together or what was missing from the knowledge that I had about my family. Now I will also say as I’ve talked with some of my siblings throughout this year, when I go back to that quote about unhappy families are unhappy in its own way, I also think that while in my family, there were six kids, we all pretty much lived in the same house, same parents, same kids, different birth orders, but we had our own unique or our own personal experiences with what happened in our family, and so I think just that we can all maybe come from the same place, we can have the same home story or family of origin story, and yet each one of us experienced that very personally and in a way that kind of isolated us, so we’re experiencing dysfunction and we’re experiencing the trauma, but we’re experiencing it on our own or experiencing it in its own way, and also that’s going to interfere with our ability to connect with members of our family or to have a connection through the trauma or through the dysfunction. So if we talk a little bit more about happy families are all alike, I was just thinking of even in my family, which I have said multiple times I would not say my family was a happy family, but we had moments. I can look back and I can think of moments where we were happy, moments, however fleeting, and maybe I would say because I was the second-oldest, so probably my older sister and me have more of those where maybe the dysfunction was just beginning or it was at the starting stages of the dysfunction, whereas I think maybe some of my siblings who came after me, the dysfunction had grown and escalated to the point where they don’t necessarily have those memories of it being good or being happy. But if I step back, you could substitute any noun for the word “family”. You could say happy couples are all alike; every unhappy couple is unhappy in its own way. You could use the word “relationship”. You could use the word “friendship.” You could put in a lot of different nouns in place of “family”, and I think the statement would still be true. Sometimes when things are right, they’re just right. Now I don’t know that that’s chance or serendipitous. There might be an element of chance or serendipity to something just being right, but I think sometimes that feeling of everything’s right also comes with alignment, and I would also say that there are moments, whether it’s a holiday or a moment within a holiday, whether it’s just a certain day that we kind of reflect back on and all of the conditions were perfect, and it brought about this memory that when we look back on it, it still brings those same feelings of happiness for us. I would also say that happy families or happy relationships or happy couples also tend to have more of those moments that make up the happiness in their family. Now I’ve heard it said that one of the most important beliefs that we can have is the belief that the world is a friendly place. Obviously whether or not we hold that belief starts in our childhood, and it starts in the family that we come from, but I don’t think that we come to this belief that the world is a friendly place because life is easy or just because we live in this magical land where everything goes the way it’s supposed to go. But I do believe it’s one of the most important beliefs we can have because it is a belief that we come to often despite the evidence that we have to the contrary. A client that I worked with years ago wrote this down and it’s always stuck with me about what she said, and what she wrote is this: “Each life is a collection of stories, our stories. The meaning of these stories will often be unclear. The cowboy standing on the dusty trail may wonder to himself, did I find a rope or lose a horse? Often we will wonder what the meaning to our own stories is. The great part about this, though, is that each of us has the opportunity to interpret our own story. One of the things that I’ve learned is that in every lesson and every experience are the seeds of inspiration or exasperation. We get to choose. We can add up our experiences to create a story of injustice and pain, which we will have plenty of data on, or we can take the very same experiences and organize them to create meaning, to inspire gratitude, and to develop our character and our integrity.” Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You can gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.” I think it does take courage to live a good life, and I think that’s even more true for people who grew up in unhappy families and experienced the unhappiness in their own way. It takes courage to make meaningful connections, especially when those meaningful connections don’t seem to be in your nature because that’s not the family you grew up in. Now I’m not talking heroic acts of courage that it takes to live a good life, although those heroic acts of courage are inspiring, and they’re often performed by just regular people, but I’m talking about the courage that it takes to say “I’m sorry,” the courage that it takes to say “You were right,” to admit we made a mistake and that we’re imperfect, the courage to say, “I don’t know” or “I’ve been there. I’ve done that.” I think it takes courage to be the first one to say “I love you,” to look another in the eye and express what we are feeling, the courage to let others see our vulnerability and the courage to believe that despite our failings, despite our imperfections, we are worthwhile individuals worthy of love and belonging. Now they also say “It takes a village”, and I totally believe that it does. I also think it’s important to believe that the village isn’t an angry mob out to get us. If somewhere along the line we learned that we cannot rely on other people or that other people will take us out, we’re going to have to work on that belief so that when the village comes for us, or when the support reaches out, we see it as a bid for connection; we see it as a helping hand instead of the angry mob. I think it’s also important to believe that there are people out there who have been bruised and broken in their own journey through life, and maybe it’s been in their own way, but they can be supporters to us, and likewise, we can be supporters to them. They can be part of our team that cheers us along, supports us in our difficulty, and sometimes drags us along in our own journey. I know I’m grateful for those people who make up my village and who are part of my tribe. I know I couldn’t do it without them, and I know, or I can remember what it felt like when it was just me, and I felt alone, and I felt isolated, and I didn’t know if there were other people who could feel what I felt and know what I know. I think this year has been one of those years where because of social distancing, because of the care and the cautions that we need to take in order to stay healthy and to stay safe, we started to recognize the lack of social connection, and maybe that’s a good thing. I know I’ve talked to a couple of clients who have said maybe we were moving too far in the direction of screen time and being on screens and taking for granted the people in our lives and the people around us and the relationships that we were a part of, so we go out to dinner with friends but we keep looking at our phone or checking. We might be at dinner with out family sitting at the table, but everybody’s looking at their phone or checking messages or watching videos. So I think we can take this year of 2020, whatever it’s been, it’s been a hodgepodge of many things that people have experienced both collectively and very personally, and I think it’s a reminder that we need each other, that there is happiness that comes when we can be with each other and when we can connect, and I think that’s not just what makes happy families. I think that’s what makes happy people. Happy people are alike. We connect. We care. We’re vulnerable. We’re authentic. And we invite others to do the same. And in this year of 2020 when those things have been harder to do, I think we’ve started to be reminded that that’s what makes us unhappy—the isolation, the disconnection, the feeling of being on my own is unhappy in a very personal way. So that’s some of the meaning that I’ve gathered over the years that I’ve thought about that line from Anna Karenina that I’ve mulled over the words that Leo Tolstoy wrote, and it’s one that this year of 2020 surprises have reminded me of. I’ve thought about it a lot this year as I’ve experienced the ups and downs and in many ways felt the experiences just in my home, apart from other people in my life. Last year at the Christmas holiday, my extended family was all together, my siblings, our kids, and it was Christmas Eve, and we were playing a game called Vertellis. Now Vertellis, I think I believe it’s Dutch, and it’s a Dutch word for “tell me more”, so the game’s really simple. You draw questions. These questions, you share with the group. It asks you a question. Some of the questions each person answers individually, others it’s a group question and the whole group answers. So that was something that we had done at the end of 2019 and we had shared, and it was nice for us to be together and to be sharing kind of as we reflected on the end of a decade, wrapping up of a year, and the beginning of a new decade and the hope and the potential that 2020 seemed to hold. I recall several of us, in fact, my youngest brother has pointed this out a couple of months ago in one of our Zoom calls, and he was reminding us, remember how when we were playing that game on Christmas Eve, several of us had talked about how difficult 2019 had been? And I was one of those who had talked about that I was kind of okay to see 2019 come to a close and that I had hope going into 2020 and wondering what this next decade would hold for me, for my kids, for my husband, for my siblings, for my nieces and nephews, for my friends, just kind of standing at the beginning of a new decade and looking forward, and I wasn’t alone in that. Several of my siblings kind of shared that 2019 had been a hard year, and that we weren’t sorry to see it come to an end. And then came 2020, and none of us on Christmas Eve of 2019 could predict what was coming just months later, and how difficult actually that 2020 could be. Now I think sometimes being able to sit with my family members and hear them share challenges and struggles that they faced, also successes and achievements they were able to have in the previous year. Several of my nieces and nephews that were a little bit older, even some of the 10y-ear-olds wanted to play the game and sit with us. Some of the younger kids were just off doing their own thing, playing with their Christmas Eve gifts, but it was nice because from a varied age of my siblings down to some of my younger nieces and nephews were all able to listen and to share and to ask questions and to hear what was going on for people, and I think that connection at that time helped us when the challenges and the struggles of 2020 started, and it’s one of the things that I look forward to. I don’t know what the holidays are going to look like this year. We may not be able to gather in a large group. There’s around 30 of us when we all get together, and we may not be able to really gather in a large group for the holidays, but I would like to think that we’ll find a way to share and to connect and to hear what was going on for each other and to hear what the struggles were, as well as what the successes and achievements were, and that we can all celebrate with each other the successes and the achievements, and that we can all hold the pain of what the struggles and the challenges were. That’s what courage looks like, and I think we have opportunities to show that courage every day, especially now when things are heating up in our world and things are getting chaotic and discouraging. How do we show up and have courage? How do we show up and say vulnerable things that lead to connection? That’s what I’m going to be working on as I head into the last quarter of 2020 and the beginning of a new year. That’s what I hope you’ll work on as well.