Patterns of family interaction

Patterns of family interaction


Family Matters

Thomas Kulanjiyil, PsyD, PhD, is a founding member of PARIVAR International. He currently serves on the faculty of College of DuPage. He is co-editor of the book, “Caring for the South Asians-Counseling South Asians in the West.” Dr. Kulanjiyil can be reached at For any personal or family issues contact Parivar Family Helpline:(877)-743-5711.

By Thomas Kulanjiyil

In family interactions certain predictable, consistent patterns of behavior occur, that could be either healthy or unhealthy.  For example, in a household the parents make major decisions affecting all members of the family, the couple support each other in their decisions, and children are invited to share their opinion on matters, when needed. This manner of a family interaction that promotes mutual respect, responsibility and growth for each member of the family, is healthy. Think of another scenario; the husband makes all the family decisions with the exclusion of his wife, the wife complaints against her husband, and the husband becomes defensive and unapologetic; the wife pulls her teenage daughter into the problem to support her, and the husband gets frustrated at this coalition between the mother and the daughter; and the marital conflict escalates. This interactive pattern is unhealthy and dysfunctional.

Psychologists call it triangulation when, within the marital relationship, one partner forms an allegiance with a third member of the family, usually one of the children, to battle against the other partner.  This sort of a relational dynamic is detrimental to the family. Mark Worden, a family therapy psychologist, clearly explains why marital conflict managed by triangling in a child is harmful. First, the marital conflict is never fully addressed and continues to leave a “lump underneath the carpet.” Second, the child is inundated with stress messages that he or she can do little about. Third, the child is torn by loyalty to each parent and is subtly asked to choose one side against the other. Lastly, the family avoids developing effective problem-solving skills.

Another interactive pattern in families has to do with boundaries. Boundaries are unwritten rules that characterize family interactions.  While healthy boundary helps protect the family system and its operations, enmeshed boundary inhibits personal autonomy among members of the family. Boundaries between different family subsystems, such as the spousal system, the parent-child system, and the sibling system are either weak or diffuse under this type of boundary. Characteristics of enmeshed boundary are that the family members speak for one another, and parents tell children what they should think and feel. Guilt is used as a means of controlling others.  Another type of boundary is disengaged boundary, where overly strict boundary exists between members of the family. Because open and honest communication between members is restricted here, there is practically very little room for healthy sharing of feelings, thoughts, and needs. Members are deprived of mutual support in this environment. These individuals are forced to seek help from outside the family, in friends, activities, alcohol, or drugs. Such individuals remain disconnected from each other even into their adult years and beyond.

If not recognized, families can easily get trapped into these negative patterns of behavior and they can cause considerable damage to everyone in the family. Some of the effects include emotional distancing, emotional guardedness, emotional vulnerability, low self-esteem, lack of personal agency, difficulty achieving individuality, difficulty forming stable and healthy interpersonal relationships, self-doubt, blame, anger and hostility.  The responsibility to recognize and take steps to correct these problems is vested with the parents.

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