The concept of family identity can be defined as a family’s subjective understanding of reality based on shared beliefs and experiences that determine how individual members interact and relate to each other and the world outside the family (Bennett, Wolin, McAvity, 1988). Throughout my childhood my family had two identities: a public identity that was shaped by societal expectations and norms, and a private identity that was governed by the unique needs and issues that plagued our family life. From a public perspective we were a traditional middle class family complete with a married couple, three children, and two dogs.
We lived in a modest but nice home in a suburban community, my sisters and I attended private schools, and we were financially secure. However, few people were aware of the conflict, chaos, and abuse that occurred behind closed doors within our home. Our private identity, characterized by dysfunctional behaviors and interactions that occurred between various members of the family, told a very different story.
The structure or organization of my family based on patterns of interactions, subsystems, and boundaries is important in understanding the dynamics within my family of origin (Minuchin, 1974; Nichols, 2011). The genogram, or family diagram, provided in the appendix illustrates a multigenerational view of structure and relationships within my extended family (Bowen, 1978; Nichols, 2011). However, for the purpose of this paper I will focus on the structure of my family of origin. My family consists of my father, Gerald, my mother, Alma, and three children: Michelle, the eldest, Jennifer, the middle child, and myself the youngest child. Our family structure was governed by familial roles, rules, and expectations (Nichols, 2011). My father held the role of financial provider within the family. His responsibility was to ensure that the family had financial security. My mother maintained the role of caregiver and leader. She was the matriarch of the family and was charged with the task of maintaining every aspect of the home and family. My oldest sister was the scapegoat and protector within the family. Family issues were often projected onto her forcing her to take responsibility and blame for family dysfunction (Shulman, 2006). She also held the role of protector within the sibling subsystem, and frequently shielded my middle sister and I from danger and harm within and outside the home. My middle sister was the quiet member and model child of the family. She is passive and rarely expressed opinions regarding family issues, and always made an attempt to satisfy familial expectations and demands (Shulman, 2006). As the youngest child, I played the role of gatekeeper within the family. My goal as the gatekeeper was to use my wit and humor to help the family return to a state of homeostasis by easing tension and restoring calm and peace within the family (Shulman, 2006). My family was also governed by a set of explicit and implicit rules and expectations (Nichols, 2011). Explicit rules and expectations consisted of good behavior, high academic achievement, and the completion of various chores and duties within the household. Implicit rules helped fortify family secrets and included keeping family issues private, and forbidding family members to discuss or acknowledge the dysfunction within the family. Additionally, my family operated as a closed system with rigid boundaries limiting input from outside sources (Minuchin, 1974; Nichols, 2011). We were not open or welcoming to outside influences and support; rather, we internalized familial issues and problems.
My mother’s mental illness complicated family dynamics and contributed to the pathology within the home. My mother has Borderline Personality Disorder which made her a polarizing presence within our home due to her frequent fits of rage and unstable mental health (Nichols, 2011). Thus, the family’s attention and energy was primarily focused on my mother and her needs (Nichols, 2011). My mother would frequently displace her anger and rage onto my sisters and I in the form of physical and emotional abuse. Her behavior affected relationships, boundaries, and attachment patterns within the family as illustrated in the family genogram. My mother exhibited an anxious-ambivalent attachment to my father due to her imminent fear of abandonment (Bowlby, 1988; Nichols, 2011). She desperately desired my father’s love and attention, but would behave in ways that created conflict and chaos within the marital subsystem (Bowlby, 1988; Nichols, 2011). As a result, my father developed an anxious-avoidant attachment to my mother, which resulted in him creating a rigid boundary within the marital subsystem in order to protect and distance himself from my mother’s anger and concomitant feelings of helpless and frustration (Bowlby, 1988; Minuchin, 1974; Nichols, 2011). My parents were involved in a cyclical pursuer-distancer pattern of interaction that resulted in my father’s disengagement within the marital subsystem (Minuchin, 1974; Nichols, 2011).
The dynamics, boundaries, and attachments between the parental and child subsystems were equally complicated. The relationship between my mother and my oldest sister was filled with conflict and tension. My mother was exceptionally abusive to my oldest sister which resulted in the establishment of disorganized attachment (Bowlby, 1988; Nichols, 2011). My oldest sister perceived my mother as frightening; yet, she desperately desired nurturance from my mother and fluctuated between distancing herself from my mother and desperately seeking comfort and security (Bowlby, 1988; Nichols, 2011). My oldest sister and my mother were psychologically and emotionally entwined or fused with one another despite years of abuse (Bowen, 1978; Nichols, 2011). My middle sister established an anxious-avoidant attachment with my mother (Bowlby, 1988; Nichols, 2011). As a child, my middle sister rarely sought help, guidance, or comfort from my mother as a result of the abuse she endured and my mother’s inability to adequately address her needs for safety and comfort (Bowlby, 1988; Nichols, 2011). I established an anxious-ambivalent attachment to my mother in which I desperately depended on her for emotional support and encouragement despite her abuse, but rarely received adequate comfort and nurturance (Bowlby, 1988; Nichols, 2011). My sisters and I have an anxious-avoidant attachment with my father as a result of his inability to consistently provide us with comfort and safety in response to my mother’s abuse (Bowlby, 1988; Nichols, 2011). The family dynamics, however, strengthened the sibling subsystem. My sisters and I have a secure attachment and are able to rely on each other for support, comfort, and nurturance in the face of adversity (Bowlby, 1988; Nichols, 2011).
Culture and ethnicity also played an integral role in my family identity and dynamics. My parents are first generation Mexican-Americans and were raised in families that emphasized traditional Mexican cultural values and beliefs including a strong commitment to family, respect, trust, and religion (Rothman, Gant, Hnat, 1985). However, my parents raised my sisters and I in a bi-cultural environment that incorporated various aspects of American and Mexican culture and traditions. My parents emphasized trust, respect, and commitment within the family, but they also introduced American language, food, celebrations, and values including a focus on individuality, privacy, and achievement (Rothman et al., 1985; Beane, 2011). Additionally, contrary to traditional Mexican culture, there was a stronger emphasis on immediate rather than extended family (Rothman et al., 1985). Religion was also an important cultural aspect of our lives. My family is Catholic and placed a strong emphasis on religious beliefs and rituals such as praying before meals and attending church together every Sunday.
In June of 1992 my family, as we knew it, changed forever. My father left our home without any prior notice or discussion and filed for divorce from my mother. His abrupt and unanticipated departure from our home left every family member struggling with feelings of shock, confusion, disdain, anger, and anxiety. The initial phase of the divorce process is identified as the most stressful time for a family due to the changes in family structure as a result of the absence of a parent, and subsequent pressures and demands for family members to take on new roles and responsibilities (Cooper, McLanahan, Meadows, Brooks-Gunn, 2009; Kelly & Emery, 2003). Additionally, families often experience significant changes in “socioeconomic, social, and health resources” as the result of a divorce that often increases the level of stress within a family and complicates the coping and adaptation process (Cooper et al., 2009, p. 559; Kelly & Emery, 2003). According to the ABC-X Model of Family Crisis, a family’s ability to adjust and cope with transitions and crises is based on the interaction of the following variables: A-the situation or stressor event, B-available resources, C-the family’s perception of the event, and X-the degree of stress or crisis experienced by a family (McKenry & Price, 1994). Let us now apply the ABC-X Model of Family Crisis to analyze my family’s initial response to the stressful transition of my parents’ divorce.
The stressor facing my family was the separation, and subsequent divorce, of my parents which left the family in a state of distress and significantly altered our family identity, structure, dynamics, and functioning. My father’s absence resulted in significant financial hardship for the family, which forced my mother to enter the workforce and take on the new and unfamiliar role of financial provider. The responsibility and demands of this new role affected my mother’s ability to maintain her caregiver role within the family. As a result, my sisters and I had to take on many of her responsibilities within the home. Initially, my oldest sister took on the role of caregiver in my mother’s absence. However, my oldest sister left for college shortly after my father’s departure which resulted in significant changes to the sibling subsystem and further complicated our family’s ability to adapt and cope. My middle sister was forced to abandon her usual role as the quiet member, and assume the role of protector and caregiver. This new role placed a great deal of pressure on my middle sister and changed the dynamic within the new sibling dyad by increasing tension. Additionally, I was no longer able to successfully ease family tension and chaos as the gatekeeper, and assumed the new role of helping my middle sister maintain the household.
The divorce also affected family attachment needs, boundaries, and relationships. After the divorce, my father was physically and emotionally cut-off from my mother and the rest of the family (Bowen, 1978; Nichols, 2011). My sisters and I had no contact with my father for a year following the divorce, which created a rigid boundary between him and the child subsystem and contributed to our inability to reconcile our grief and heal (Minuchin, 1974; Nichols, 2011). Additionally, boundaries between the parental and child subsystems, and within the sibling subsystem, became more diffuse as a result of the new roles and responsibilities of each family member (Minuchin, 1974; Nichols, 2011). The changes in family structure forced my middle sister to take on more of a parental role within the sibling subsystem. Additionally, my mother was unable to spend as much time within the home due to the demands of her new role as financial provider, which created a distance and disengagement between the parent and child subsystems (Minuchin, 1974; Nichols, 2011). My mother’s relationship with my oldest sister was equally affected as a result of the transition. After she left home, my oldest sister was able to emotionally separate or cut-off my mother and the chaos within the home (Bowen, 1978; Nichols, 2011). However, my oldest sister continued to provide emotional support within the sibling subsystem.
My mother’s mental illness complicated her ability to cope with the transition and adequately address the attachment needs of my sisters and I (Minuchin, 1974; Nichols, 2011). Despite the complicated and chaotic relationship we each had with my mother we desperately needed and wanted her comfort, guidance, and nurturance in response to the pain, confusion, and anguish we were feeling. However, my mother’s own emotional instability rendered her unable to adequately address our needs for attachment. My mother was preoccupied with her own needs for emotional comfort and responded in a cold and rejecting manner to our need for comfort and security. Rather, my middle sister and I were forced to provide comfort and solace to my mother and put our own needs aside. This role reversal further complicated the interactions and boundaries between the parent and child subsystems.
Culture also influenced my family’s perception of the divorce and ability to cope with the transition. The dissolution of a marriage and family is not well accepted within the Mexican culture due to the strong emphasis on family connection and commitment. In fact, families that experience divorce are often shamed and ostracized by extended family as was the case in our family system. My maternal grandparents expressed disdain and disappointment in my mother’s inability to salvage her marriage and family, which created more tension within our family. Additionally, divorce was uncommon within our suburban community. We were the first family in our community to experience a divorce and this contributed to my family’s feelings of embarrassment and shame. The divorce also altered our family’s public identity of the ideal middle class family, and revealed some of the conflict and chaos within our home. Our family identity now reflected marital discord and a broken home. Our religious beliefs also complicated our ability to adapt after the divorce. Divorce is not supported or condoned within Catholicism which increased our feelings of embarrassment and shame in the Catholic community.
My family had limited access to resources following the divorce. As previously mentioned, our family operated as a closed system which complicated our ability to attain adequate financial, social, and emotional support and assistance from external systems (Minuchin, 1974; Nichols, 2011). Our socioeconomic status, financial resources, and standard of living were significantly minimized. We transitioned from being a financially secure middle class family to living below the poverty line in a matter of months. Our access to social support was also limited as a result of the rigid boundaries separating my family from external systems of support such as family friends and mental health professionals (Minuchin, 1974; Nichols, 2011). Rather, each member of the family sought individual resources within and outside the family to help alleviate emotional distress and attain support. For example, my sisters and I sought support from external systems including friends and teachers (Nichols, 2011). We also relied on the secure attachment we had with each other for emotional support and guidance (Bowlby, 1988; Nichols, 2011). My mother sought emotional support from extended family, the child subsystem, and her new co-workers.
My parents’ divorce was an unexpected event that significantly increased the level of stress within my family and contributed to changes in family identity, structure, roles, relationships, and resources. My family’s resistance to seek and accept external resources and support further complicated our ability as a system to recover from our loss and adaptively cope with the transition. Cultural influences also contributed to a negative appraisal of the situation. My family’s negative perception of the divorce resulted in feelings of hopelessness and despair rather than an emphasis on problem-solving and growth (McKenry & Price, 1994). This negative perception significantly inhibited our ability to adaptively cope with the transition and associated stressors. My family was able to readjust structure and roles, but lacked cohesion and stability. The culmination of the event, the lack of sufficient resources, and the negative perception of the transition resulted in my family’s appraisal of the event as a crisis that disrupted equilibrium, increased pressure and stress within the family system, and negatively affected family functioning (McKenry & Price, 1994).