Many of us can look at other people’s problems and see the solution very clearly, this is called “outsight” but we have trouble seeing the problems in our own families and lives, which is “insight.” One of the things that therapists will tell people in troubled intimate relationships is that we must own our own part in the family dynamics. Parents tend to “blame themselves” if their children become offenders and say “What did I do wrong? I tried to be a good parent and now my child is in prison for X. Why couldn’t I have prevented this? What can I do to fix it?” Sometimes spouses do the same.
The above “what did I do wrong?” and “self blame” is not what I am referring to, but to own our own responsibility for our part in the family dysfunction. Accepting responsibility is not the same as accepting “blame” or “shame.” It is acknowledging that we have contributed to the situation by any number of ways, enabling being only one.
If there is a “problem” in the “family” it is a problem for every member of that family. Sometimes it is an unconscious hold over of a script from previous generations, written for us by a combination of genetics and family customs. Looking back at my own family I can see the patterns from generation to generation. “family role theory” explains a lot of it, because it assigns us parts to play in the family script. If X happens then we must do Y or Z. We must behave in a manner that goes along with the family drama-rama script/plot and assume our assigned role in that play which we call life or family.
In my work with abused women, I have seen that they frequently marry or “hook up with” a man who is abusive, and then if and when they break free of him entirely, will find another man who is also abusive, rinse and repeat. Why do these women pick abuser after abuser? What is it about them that makes them vulnerable to this type of man? When I can look at the men they chose and almost immediately determine that this man could very likely be abusive in a relationship. This is called (on my part) “outsight” in other words, I can see a problem in someone else’s life and yet, I may have little “insight” into my own family dynamics.
In the case of the women who repeatedly find abusive men time after time, they lack “insight” into why they continue to find this type of partner. Until they find insight they will repeat this pattern. Unfortunately, many times the good advice of a therapist may not be enough for them to gain the insight they need because it goes counter to everything they know and believe and have been trained to do and think. They fall for the “pity ploy” and the lies of “I will change” that the offender gives them, and they go back, or they fail to realize that a man who has been in prison three times for multiple felonies is not a good relationship risk.
In my particular case in my family, my maternal grandmother had been assigned the role of “family peace maker” of “peace at any price. “ Protect the family bad boy at all costs”. Each generation had a male who was that family “bad boy” who acted irresponsibly or violently…my grandmother’s father was his family bad boy and a violent alcoholic, my grandmother’s brother was the family bad boy, acting irresponsibly, but a grave physical injury , that left him essentially a quadriplegic, cut shot his irresponsible behavior. When my grandmother’s mother, who was the family enabler/peace maker, died my grandmother assumed the role in that family, and had already assumed the role of enabler with her own son who was violent by the time he was six or seven. She protected him until her death, at which time my own mother assumed the role of family enabler/peace maker and protected her violent brother. My mother had already assumed the role of family protector when my son was about 15 and was committing crimes and becoming violent. She is still living that drama-Rama and I imagine will until her death.
When she was setting me up to become her successor in that role and I rebelled at taking on that role, she looked for another person to assume that role and chose my daughter-in-law (at the time) but that didn’t work out when the daughter-in-law was arrested and went to jail after stealing $24,000 from my mother and apparently being involved in an attempt on her husband’s life by her boy-friend who had a gun that she had bought for him, who was trying to push his way into my son’s home.
In looking back over my life, I can see that the pattern in generations of dysfunction in my family has extended on down to my two biological sons as well as myself. The woman my son Andrew married that I had the outsight to see from the start that she was “trouble,” but Andrew did not have the insight to see that meeting someone on the Internet and spending only a few dozen hours with them did not necessarily mean it was a good idea to get married under those circumstances before getting to know them. Though I was polite when I met her, the woman intuited that I was not a big fan of hers and she pressured him to get married “before your mother breaks us up.” Which they did, running away and not telling anyone, and the family found out when the license was published. The marriage was a disaster from the start to the end seven years later when she went to jail. We had walked on eggshells around her and tried to “help” them financially so we enabled the relationship in our misguided attempts at “helping.”
I realize that in spite of me thinking I was not enabling my son Patrick, in truth I was enabling him. I was pretending that there “was no elephant in the room” when I wrote and visited him in prison, knowing he had killed Jessica Witt, yet never speaking of his crime, never confronting him about the fact I knew he was guilty. It took me two decades to break free of my family dynamics and drama role and to realize the truth, to get out of denial, which was necessary for me to continue that role. I was part and parcel of that relationship. I conspired with my mother to protect Patrick, to “get him to go straight” when there was no way in Hades that he had any intention of letting go of his role as “family bad boy.” Now I also realize that there is the genetic aspect in psychopathy, as well as the assigned family roles, and also free will. Patrick was not destined by his DNA to be a psychopath, he had some free will as well as his genetics and his assigned role in the family.
I accept my part in playing my scripted role for most of my life, and things might have been different if I hadn’t played that role, but we can’t change the past and we can’t beat ourselves up over the past or the part we played in the family dynamics. What we do need to do is to develop some insight into our own part in the drama-Rama and then move on with our lives, not playing that role any longer, but forging new ways of acting and interacting.
Some families or family members are so dysfunctional and toxic that we may have to cut ties with this person or even the entire family completely in order to get our own lives together. Or we may set strict boundaries for how and when we will interact with these people in our lives. In forging new relationships we need to develop the insight to see if that person is trustworthy. We need to let people earn our trust, not give it away at first and then take it back when they abuse us. As for “regaining” trust, that must be done under long-term good behavior and strict boundaries. Giving people a hundred “second chances” is not going to foster an improved relationship.
The basic boundaries that I set are that I do not want to have a person who is dishonest in ANY way be a trusted person within my inner circle. If someone has committed serious crimes at any time in their lives, I will keep them at arm’s length from me and not give them the chance to hurt me. If the person treats others poorly, but me nicely, I still can not trust them or allow them close, as they will eventually treat me poorly as well. If a person is not responsible and doesn’t keep their word, always having some excuse why they didn’t do what they said they would do, then again, I can’t trust this person.
We are always going to be around some folks who are less than stellar people, but the “trick” is that those people should not be allowed into our “inner circle” of trusted loved ones. No matter what DNA we share or what our friends think of them, we must gain insight into ourselves and how we relate to others, or we will continue the dysfunctional relationships over and over.