The Compulsive / Dependent Family System | Center for Growth Therapy

The Compulsive / Dependent Family System

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Center for Growth / Compulsive and Dependence Recovery in Philadelphia: The Compulsive / Dependent Family System

Growing up a part of a family, it’s easy to believe that how you are raised and what you see in your family is a normal way to live, because as a child you have little to compare it to. Often, with time, and a lot of maturity, you begin to see that all families function differently; from setting family rules, to family vacations, to celebrating holidays, or practicing religion (if at all). When growing up in a dysfunctional family system (full of compulsions, obsessions or dependence), it is even more difficult to detect what is healthy and “normal,” versus what is not. When there is a compulsive / dependent person, or a person who also suffers from depression in the family system, the other family members within the system are heavily affected. When the identified family member is active in their compulsions or dependency or depression, there is a lot of work that goes on for the system in order to just tread water and stay afloat in terms of functioning.

In this specific area, when we we include depression when discussing compulsions and dependency, we specifically mean an individual who experiences minor depression on occasion due to various triggers: unresolved trauma, unemployment, financial struggles, etc. This type of depression involves poor coping skills often leading to coping with abuse of substances, or sex. Often people with compulsions or dependence also struggle with depression, which came first, it’s hard to say.

It can take years for family members to learn that holding and hiding family secrets is not okay. Being afraid to share true emotions with family is not normal, and not having your needs met is unacceptable. In order to be a fully functioning individual outside of your family, it is important to learn healthy functioning in order to re-correct your patterns for your own future.

To give you an idea of the type of dysfunction in a compulsive / dependent family system, below is comparison list of a functional and dysfunctional family system.

In a dysfunctional system:

  • The system isolates, it is inflexible, and secretive, in order to protect the person with the problematic behaviors..
  • There is no empathy, limited emotions are accepted.
  • The focus and energy is on managing the system.
  • Mistakes are shamed and criticized.
  • The system is boundary-less, Meaning: “If I’m not happy, nobody is happy.”
  • Family roles are determined upon the system, not the individual
  • Patterns repeat with each generation .
  • Family cohesion is one of two extremes: either disengaged or enmeshed

Functional Family system:

  • The system is flexible and open to change
  • There is empathy for all members of the system, all emotions are accepted and shared.
  • Mistakes are disciplined appropriately and forgiven.
  • The family contains boundaries and respect for member’s boundaries.
  • Family roles are determined by the individuals in the system.
  • New generation, new pattern.
  • More balanced family cohesion. Space and togetherness is allowed.


Which behaviors can you identify with from this list? Can you relate to more behaviors from the functional or dysfunctional list? If you find yourself identifying with the dysfunctional family system, ask yourself “at what cost am I helping my family function in this way?” Have you found that your efforts and energy spent towards your family has effected your life and relationships (romantic, work friends, platonic, etc.) outside of the family system? Do you think there could be a connection between the two? Think of it this way, when were you planning to start your own life? You need to let people in to have intimacy, and in order to let people in, you will have to step out of your family system sooner than later.

Repeating the compulsive or dependent family system pattern:

Individuals raised with compulsions or dependency in the family often end up marrying someone with a compulsion or dependency, or carry out compulsive or dependent behaviors of their own. It can be difficult to identify the pattern repeating itself when the behaviors or thought processes are different from what you have typically seen in the past. Even when the compulsions and dependency is not yet known, we can still be drawn to the familiarity of the behaviors or overall dynamic. We are used to surviving in our compulsive / dependent family system, so we tell ourselves we can handle our partner’s problem. Or we can carry it out ourselves.

Awareness of the compulsive / dependent family system is the biggest key in breaking the dysfunctional compulsive / dependent patterns you once came from. Even if the primary person struggling with the problematic behaviors and/or depression is not ready for treatment, or the system as a whole is not ready for therapy, one member of the system can still greatly benefit from a codependency support group, Al-ANON or individual therapy. When we make a change within ourselves for ourselves, those around us are forced to respond to it, either in a positive or negative way. Help is available in Philadelphia. To speak to a therapist call 267 324 9564. Center for Growth / Therapy in Philadelphia., Mechanicsville, Santa Fe, Ocean City.

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