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The Good Enough Family

The Good Enough Family

By J. Bailey Molineux, Ph.D.

What's the fact that your grandfather was an alcoholic when your father was growing up have to do with you, your marriage and your children today? Or that your mother was depressed when you were a child? Or even the secret that your great Aunt Tilly had to be institutionalized?

To a family therapist like me, plenty.

The family is the crucible in which are personalities are formed. A tremendous amount of learning takes place from birth through our childhood years, much of which is now unconscious. We learn about love, self-esteem, emotions, conflict, sex, marriage and everything else that is important in human relations. By examining our family experiences, we can learn more about ourselves and so become better spouses and parents.

This will be a new column on families. I want to call it The Good Enough Family from a phrase coined by the British psychiatrist, Donald Winicott, who wrote about the good enough parent.

You've probably heard or read about dysfunctional families lately and may have wondered what this is about. John Friel, author of several books on dysfunction in families, gave a talk in Helena a few years ago in which he argued that only five percent of families are optimally healthy. That leaves ninety-five percent of the rest of us, myself included, as coming from dysfunctional families!

But this still doesn't tell you what the term means.

I'm a multi-generational, family systems therapist. That's a long description but it simply means two things:

To understand a person, and to help her understand herself better, I examine the family system of which she is a member. To do this, I look at three generations and possibly four, if there is enough information.
When we're not aware of them, or don't deal with them, psychological patterns and problems pass from generation to generation. As I told one patient, "I suspect your mistrust of men which is affecting your marriage today bean with your great grandmother."

This doesn't mean I'm in the parent-bashing business or in the business of absolving people from responsibility for their present behavior because of childhood experiences. Most parents tried their best and all adults are responsible for their behavior regardless of what happened to them as children.

Most families have some emotional pain in their histories - depression, alcoholism, untimely deaths, divorce, shame, secrets, business failures, etc. It's built into the fabric of life. To live is to suffer at times.

If dysfunction is the same as emotional suffering, I can easily accept that ninety-five percent of us came from dysfunctional families. In my own family, the death of my grandfather in 1912 when my mother was eight had a profound impact on her and, through her, on me. Similarly, the fact that my great Uncle Roland was convicted but later acquitted of murder was a major source of secret shame in my father's family.

So the good enough family has dysfunction in its background. Most families do. But it is a family that cares. The parents make mistakes but keep trying. They're not perfect, and never will be, but they're good enough.

In the years ahead, I want to write about many topics - marriage, parenting, codependence, shame, the wounded inner child, depression, anxiety, spirituality and joy - but the column will mostly be about love. That's because my profession is about love, or more exactly its lack. People hurt when they didn't receive enough unconditional love growing up, don't now give it sufficiently to themselves and struggle in their present relationships with love. Through this column, I hope you can first learn to be more loving with yourself, and then learn to improve your marriage and relations with your children.


About the Author: J. Bailey Molineux, a psychologist with Adult and Child Counseling, has incorporated many of his articles in a book, Loving Isn't Easy, Isbn 1587410419, sold through bookstores everywhere or available directly from Selfhelpbooks.com. Copyright 2002, J. Bailey Molineux and Selfhelpbooks.com, all rights reserved. This article may be reprinted but must include authors copyright and website hyperlinks.

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