At birth we are designated the “baby” role and as we grow, mature and change, our role changes with in our own family change. When a new baby is born we assume or are assigned the “older sibling” role, and if our mother and father both work we may be assigned the role of “caregiver to little sibling” in which we are expected to care for the younger child/ren in the family.
When we go to school we are assigned other roles, maybe the role of “good student” who studies hard, or we may be assigned the “could care less about an education” and when we graduate from High School or quit school we are assigned another role of being an “adult.”
Within the family various roles are also assigned usually by the parents. Maybe you are assigned or take on the role of “family bad boy” and you seem to be always in trouble. Your parents may assume a complementary role of “enabler” when they continually bail you out of trouble.
If you are an abused spouse you may take on the role of victim to your abusive spouse’s role of controlling abuser. One child in the family may be assigned the “cat bird seat” of the “golden child” in which they can do no wrong, to your “family scapegoat” in which you can do no right and all family dysfunction is assigned to you.
In many of these roles, if a person within the family group dies or leaves the family and the role is not “filled” there is a vacuum and a previously “good” child will assume the role of “family bad kid” and start acting out. Thus the family resumes equilibrium and is no longer “off balance.”
· Family Beliefs: These are beliefs that are shared (or believed to be shared) among family members.
Family Myths: beliefs that serve the same function as individual defense mechanisms (Cook & Oltjenbruns, 1989; Simon, Stierlin & Wynne, 1985). They are accepted and adhered to by family members that defend against disturbances or changes in existing family relationships (Cook & Oltjenbruns, 1989). These can be myths of harmony, myths of forgiveness and atonement or rescue myths (Stierlin, 1973).
Family Secrets: this refers to topics that carry negative emotional weight . They are not discussed, and treated as if they do not exist, even though the entire family, or members of the family know about them. Family secrets may be maintained in the service of family myths (Simon, Stierlin & Wynne, 1985). A suicide that is not discussed, or the refusal to allow anyone to discuss a death are examples.
· Roles: Social expectations and norms held regarding an individual’s position and behavior within a group (Simon, Stierlin & Wynne, 1985). Following the death of a family member, roles may need to be reassigned or roles shared, with role behavior apportioned to various family members (Walsh & McGoldrick, 1991).
· Rules are prescriptions for and proscriptions against certain behaviors of all or some family members and are related to appropriate role performance (Krauss & Jacobs, 1990). They may be implicit (i.e., hidden) or explicit (i.e., known). Implicit rules are believed to be more powerful in affecting family behavior; the fact that they are hidden makes them powerful. With the loss, many implicit rules become explicit, causing stress to the family. New rules must be created or existing rules must be modified to adapt to the altered family system (Satir, 1988). A death results in disequilibrium in family rule systems and rules may need to be changed to meet the needs of individual family members (Cook & Oltjenbruns, 1989).
· Family Rituals: Rituals are composed by metaphors, symbols and actions that are “packaged” in a highly condensed, time-bounded and space-bounced, dramatic form to establish and maintain family identity (Burr, Day & Bahr, 1993). Family rituals are built around common symbols and symbolic actions that are familiar to family members, providing an emotional anchor. They provide a sense of safety and acceptance to members. Rituals serve five functions within families: relating, changing, healing, believing and celebrating (Imber-Black & Roberts, 1992). Imber-Black and Roberts (pp. 28-56) indicate that the relating function addresses issues of expressing and maintaining relationships; changing addresses transitions for self and others; healing is concerned with recovery from relationship betrayal, trauma or loss; believing functions are focused on voicing beliefs and making meaning; and celebrating is concerned with affirming deep joy and honoring life with festivity. Rituals serve a powerful function when families deal with loss and can facilitate the necessary reorganization of families when a family member has been lost.
In years past when there were usually large numbers of children in a family, and little or no social services for the elderly, one child, many times the youngest or oldest female child in the , would be assigned the “old maid” role and would never marry, but stay home and take care of her parents until they died. This was the expectation of the family and of society for that “role” to be filled by one of the children.
In families where there was alcoholism, many times the wife or some or all of the daughters would be assigned the “role” of “peace keeper” at any price to keep the children from making noise and “upsetting daddy” and to keep the “family secrets” secret inside the family. I am most familiar with this family dynamic because in my family it was passed on for generations on my mother’s side. Her mother, my grandmother, grew up in a family of abusive males that traced back to before 1800, and the wives and daughters were expected to “keep the peace” at any price and to protect the alcoholic or abuser. To keep the family secret as much as possible.
When I was growing up, my granny provided this service for my mother’s brother, my “uncle Monster” who was a physically and psychologically abusive drunk who beat and terrorized his wife and children, later his girl-friends when his wife finally left him. I was unaware until I was an adult about his drinking and abuse, up to and including beating his wife when she was nine months pregnant with their son, in an attempt to kill the child.
For years after the divorce from his wife, he would come to her house, drunk, take her and the kids at gun point, make her drive them around while he screamed and raged at her, telling her she had to obey him or he would kill the children, or telling the children to obey him or he would kill their mother. But she never called the police and reported him.
Only when I was a little over 30 and my grandfather was in the hospital did I find out the extent of his abuse. My uncle drove my grandmother back to her house to pick up some clothes as she had ridden the ambulance to the hospital 60 miles away from her home when her husband had been in a bad accident. At the time Uncle Monster was sober, but after they left, we did not hear from my grandmother for three days, when she called my mother and told mom that she had been held at gun point for three days while he was on a “spree.”
I parked my kids with my mother and drove the 70 miles to her house, stopping off at the local sheriff’s office and telling him what was going on and that I was going to my grandmother’s house to get her, that I was armed, and asked him if he wanted to send a deputy with me. He told me (and yea, I can laugh about this now) “Nah, you go on, if you have to kill him, he’s paid for.” LOL
Fortunately for us both, by the time I got there he had woken up and was gone from my grandparent’s house. At that time, my mother was not a big time enabler like her mother. That role was still filled by my grandmother. Later, when my grandmother died, the role of “family protector” of the family bad boy fell to my mother and she changed her behavior 180 degrees and defended her brother from any criticism at all. She was quite punitive about it as well.
When my mother’s aging led her to believe that she was not too many years from leaving this world, she started trying to groom me to take her place as the protector of the family bad boy…in this case now, since her brother had died, the family bad boy was my son Patrick. When I refused to do this, she became irate and tried to recruit my son Andrew’s wife to that role, and started buying her things to cement her being “beholden” to my mother. That seemed to work for a while until my DIL started having an affair with the man my son Patrick sent to kill me and when her husband discovered it, she and her boy friend decided to steal money from mom and kill my son Andrew. That didn’t work, and so my mother again lost her apprentice enabler.
Keeping the family “status quo” is very important to maintaining the equilibrium so that the family members remain “secure” and know what to expect from other family members. If a family member “breaks the rules” they are punished until they toe the family line, or leave. Sometimes they will leave instead of toe the line, sometimes they are cast out for not toeing it.
In families where there is grave dysfunction, if a family member tries to “get healthy,” by say, stopping drinking, the family will band together to actually covertly encourage them to resume the drinking.
In looking at your roles within your family you can start to see the dysfunctional parts of those relationships and work on getting “healthy.” In so doing though, be aware that those family members who are sent “off balance” by your changes in the way you relate to them may become very uncomfortable.
In order to be healthy, and to have a healthy family, we need to stop enabling if we are playing that role, we need to stop being the family “bad boy” if we are playing that role. Whatever our unhealthy roles are, we must stop them, even if it means that we are cast from or must leave the family unit as we know it. Changing the roles we play is difficult as it is ingrained in our thinking by the time we are adults. Living a different and more healthy life is problematic when all those closest to us try to drag us back down into the abyss, but it isn’t impossible.
Just as the drug addict or alcoholic must take life one day at a time to make changes, so must we when we are redefining the roles we choose.
Here are a couple of more links that you may find interesting in learning about roles we play in life and how stress in the family affects those roles.