Recognizing Subtle Dysfunction in Families and Relationships

By Rachel Puryear

For most of us, when we think of “dysfunctional families,” certain images come to mind, such as: Physical abuse, including beatings. Drug addiction and alcoholism so severe that one cannot function. Divorce and/or abandonment, or a family member who is absent due to incarceration or institutionalization. Sexual abuse. Witnessing violence between parents, or against other children, or being the subject of violence. Poverty. If we think of emotional abuse as part of the dysfunction; we think of things like lots of cursing, name-calling, insults, humiliation, and screaming.

All of these above problems are examples of overt dysfunction.

But what about behavior that falls short of that degree of dysfunction, but still doesn’t seem quite right? And still causes pain? Where family life looks great on paper, and maybe members are trying the best they know how, but…there’s something that feels off. Or things seem clearly painful and certain needs aren’t getting met, but there’s nothing going on that quite rises to the level of the overt dysfunction levels. Is there any kind of dysfunction that can create problems, but also not meet the criteria for overt dysfunction, and the kind of experiences everyone already recognizes as problematic?

A family, with a mother and father and two young children, sitting in the living room talking, and everyone seems rather stressed.

Yes, actually, there is. There are more subtle forms of dysfunction.

Here are some examples of subtle dysfunction, in contrast with overt dysfunction, in a family:

  • A family member has addictions but is still functional (going to work and seeming normal to others outside the household), or abuses alcohol or drugs but does not have a full blown addiction.
  • A family member struggles with chronic depression or anxiety and is therefore emotionally unavailable at home, but again may be largely functional outside the home in spite of that.
  • A couple’s relationship is intact, but there’s an unhealthy dynamic – perhaps they are regularly cold and distant with each other; or at the other extreme, they have frequent and intense conflict.
  • A parent is highly self-absorbed, manipulative, authoritarian, has fundamentalist beliefs and maybe follows abusive religious communities, or has a poorly controlled temper.
  • Children receive corporal punishment that’s unnecessary and scary, but it may fall short of legal or community definitions of child abuse.
  • Children may be taught unhealthy or unrealistic sexual attitudes – such as pressuring them to remain virgins until marriage, or preventing them from learning reasonable age-appropriate sexual education – but it may again fall short of legal or community definitions of sexual abuse.
  • Family members use excessive or unnecessary guilt and shame to control each other, and lack healthy boundaries.
  • A child’s concerns and problems are glossed over, dismissed, and they are told not to worry about it – but there’s a lack of serious efforts to solve it – for example: telling a child to ignore bullying from others rather than teaching them to stand up for themselves or report it, and/or telling the child that it must be their fault for doing something wrong when there’s no evidence for that.
  • A family struggles with serious or chronic financial problems, although they are not in poverty. This can include financial instability, poor financial habits, financial abuse, too much debt, adults are solvent but have to work too much to maintain that, or a family is not usually poor but goes through a very difficult financial period because of problems like an illness or accident or disaster. Or maybe they have enough to get by, but can’t save or get ahead, yet don’t qualify for any assistance.

Interestingly, people from overtly dysfunctional families and people from subtly dysfunctional families both tend to have trouble with their personal relationships later on in life. They both even have more health problems throughout their lives, compared with people who had neither kind of dysfunction during their childhoods.

Most of us would think – and reasonably so – that they people from overtly dysfunctional families would have a lot more of such troubles later on in life that the people from “only” subtly dysfunctional families; and that people coming from subtle dysfunction would, at the most, only experience such troubles a little bit more than those from non-dysfunctional families. But that’s not necessarily the case.

However, both people from overtly dysfunctional backgrounds and people from more subtly dysfunctional backgrounds can have a lot of trouble later on in life with personal relationships, how they view themselves, problems like depression and anxiety and substance abuse, and more.

One factor behind this is that people from overt dysfunction usually know that something went wrong early in their lives – so they have an answer for themselves as to why things have gone so wrong for them, even if they don’t know how to fix the problems.

People from more subtle dysfunction, though, often don’t connect what happened earlier in their lives with their current problems. They may not realize that there even was any dysfunction, and assume that their childhood was “normal”. They may feel guilt and shame – thinking that if they had such a normal childhood, why weren’t they doing better in life now? Shouldn’t they be? They may wonder what is wrong with themselves, and why they’re not doing better, given the (assumed) lack of hardship in their early lives.

However, there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging past difficulties which create problems and challenges today; even if it was not as bad as what someone else went through, or not as bad as it could have been. Nor does acknowledging the dysfunction you experienced make you ungrateful for what you did have, and ways in which you were better off than others.

Furthermore, know that you’re not alone in struggling to make sense of your past, regardless. To what extent you might choose to explore or even get help with that is up to you – but hopefully, knowing that you are normal, and that plenty of other people have dealt with the same kinds of problems as you are now also helps you. Sometimes, knowing that you’re not crazy, and that you’re not the only one in your situation is tremendously helpful, in and of itself.


Thank you, dear readers, for reading, following, and sharing. Here’s to better understanding the past, in order to help better navigate the present. If you enjoyed this content and want to see more of it, please hit “like” and subscribe, if you have not done so already. xoxo

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: