Unhappy Families are All the Same
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
I’ve been working with families since I was 20 years old. The one definite thing I’ve learned is that Tolstoy was wrong. In his famous opening line to Anna Karenina, he claimed that “All happy families are the same,” while “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I’ve learned that the truth is exactly the opposite.
Every unhappy family is the same; they are all characterized by emotional reactivity. Around here, we call that “screaming,” in one form or another. Every unhappy family, because of this reactivity, is stuck in the resentment of the past, paralyzed by the fear of the future, and driven crazy by the anxiety of the moment. This plays itself out in wild extremes that can make every unhappy family look different, but it doesn’t take much to see that it’s just all screaming. Whether it’s being glued together in anxious fusion (“we all have to be on the same page”), or being torn apart in angry cutoff (“until she apologizes, I’ve got nothing to say to her”), it’s just all screaming.
Happy families, on the other hand, are all different. Happy families exist between the extremes, dancing both together and apart in a fluidity that can perhaps best be described as balanced. Some happy families are more structured, others are more spontaneous. Some happy families are filled with passion, other more laid back. Often such variety exists within the same families, but even that diversity is tolerated and appreciated. The only thing that unites all happy families is the absence of emotional reactivity; that’s why we call these families “screamfree.”
Happy families exist between the white heat of open screaming and the black cold of cutoff and shut down. But contrary to popular conversation, what lies between black and white is not just grey—a cloudy place of discomfort and uncertainty. No, for those who’ve discovered the joy of being screamfree, what lies between black & white are all the various colors of the spectrum.
What colors are in your family?