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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

dysfunctional family

(early 1990’s | therapese | “messed-up family,” “bad home environment”)

No prizes for guessing the origins of this popular phrase. Could there be a more typical example of therapese? I ought to investigate the uses of the word “dysfunction” and its derivatives in psychology; it occurs everywhere. (I’ve covered one instance already.) From Google Books, I deduce that “dysfunctional family” arose in the literature around 1970, at first primarily as a compound adjective. It was not unusual to see phrases like “dysfunctional family structure or pattern or system.” But the temptation to use it on its own soon grew irresistible. Psychotherapy became more widespread as the passionate sixties dwindled into the neurotic seventies, and it became fashionable to blame transgressions on one’s upbringing, as if the whole country were singing along with the Jets in “Officer Krupke.” By the end of the eighties, “dysfunctional family” was sprouting through all the usual therapese conduits: art critics, advice columnists, clergy, lawyers concocting a defense, and so forth. By 1995 it was paralyzingly common.

What is a dysfunctional family? One headed by a person or persons unable to hold a home together, of course, or more generally one that runs on dishonesty or intimidation or otherwise instills bad relationship habits into hapless children and dooms them to do the same damn things when they grow up. Therapist Barbara Cottman Becnel in 1989: “In a dysfunctional family, you’re generally taught don’t talk, don’t feel and don’t trust.” But these noble core values may effloresce in so many different ways. As Tolstoy would have said, had he thought of it, functional families are all alike; every dysfunctional family is dysfunctional in its own way.

The dysfunctional family is, after all, the root of all evil — a handy, ever-present villain that works for all non-orphans (i.e., nearly everybody). We are all more or less damaged by our upbringers. Whatever’s wrong with you, chances are your parents are to blame somehow. This became a popular sentiment, except among parents, who felt compelled to point out that lots of people could claim credit for messing up the new crop of kids. Homes, after all, are not impermeable fortresses. In an earlier century, we noticed that larger social trends and tendencies contributed to individual tribulations, and we took measures at the federal and state levels to discourage cultural forces that increased hardship and misery. Now we insist furiously that adults who haven’t turned out well are responsible for their own individual moral choices. Since blame the individual took precedence over blame society, families have become a natural target, even though, implicitly, this explanation has the effect of once again displacing blame from individuals to their environment. The contradiction between blaming the families and holding the products of their failures absolutely responsible for their own misdeeds never seemed to bother anyone. Actually, it was a nice two-for-one, having another set of people to find guilty of every single example of anti-social behavior. Plenty of upstanding Americans wanted to see any and all kinds of crime severely punished, even though they might concede, if cornered, that maybe it wasn’t entirely the individual’s fault. Blaming society was never satisfying because it was too big and abstract, but particular individuals and families are small enough targets to allow respectable types to reap some reward from reviling them.

The phrase probably would have begun to diffuse during the 1980’s no matter what. But several eighties trends (and I don’t mean Madonna or leg warmers or Brat Pack movies) gave us lots of reasons by the end of the decade to reflect on the causes of what you might call anti-social behavior. We had AIDS, we had crack, we had high murder rates, even a stock market crash. We needed an explanation for all the messed-up people out there, and pundits and bloviators lost no time in declaring that dysfunctional families had done the damage. There go those larger social forces again, hijacking the discussion. The concept of the dysfunctional family is convenient because it helps us focus on the individual wrongdoer and ignore what’s going on in the greater world. Words can be very useful that way.


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