All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. —Leo Tolstoy
All happy families are more or less dissimilar; all unhappy ones are more or less alike. —Vladimir Nabokov
Long before these Russian writers made their observations, people have divided families into categories, such as happy and unhappy, successful and unsuccessful, average and not average. Marriage and family therapists use a variety of terms to determine the level of stability or dysfunction in a family. When looking at a particular family, perhaps yours, they might say your family is “normal” based on one classification system but not on another.
However, if there is a lot of stress in your family for some reason and more arguments and lack of communication than you would like, the people in your family are hurting and you may not care how anyone else labels you. When you’re in pain, you can feel very isolated, as though everyone else has figured out how to create better family dynamics than you have.
That is why it’s helpful to realize that every family, now and then, goes through a rough spot and most come through in the end. In fact, I believe that all families are “normal” in the sense that we all struggle to figure out how best to get through each day, even when we fail miserably.
If you’re interested in how those who study families, including families like yours, classify them, here are four categories of families.
“Asymptomatic” families vs. families with “symptoms of dysfunction or psychopathology”
This conservative approach views the absence of symptoms as an indication of health. The advantage of applying this criteria is that it allows for easier classification of families into two categories, that is, a family either has problems that are noticeable or it doesn’t. The difficulty with this approach is not unlike saying that a person is “healthy” who hasn’t yet had a stroke but who, unknowingly, has high blood pressure. Since problems can lurk under the surface, simply looking for absence of symptoms can allow members of the family to believe they don’t need to view their situation differently because everything is “normal.”
Here successful families are viewed in terms of positive or ideal characteristics. There is a continuum with the absolutely ideal family at the top, average or families without symptoms in the midrange, and severely dysfunctional families at the low end. There is merit in this view if one agrees on what is the “ideal,” and it’s never a bad idea to try to always do better. Also, there’s a universality in this approach because the definition of what is ideal changes from culture to culture and from decade to decade. So if you’re examining one family in some century with another family in another culture and another time, both might be optimal, although their outward appearance and philosophy toward life would be very different.
This perspective, commonly used in sociological and behavioral studies, focuses on the statistical norm, or average, based on the normal distribution, or bell-shaped curve, with the middle range as normal and both extremes as deviant. However, while talking about what is “average” is similar to the way we use the term “normal,” meaning most people do or think some particular way, it doesn’t give a way to evaluate whether the people involved are doing well or poorly in a particular area, for example, such as whether their parenting skills are effective in the long run. If your right arm is in a pan of scalding water and your left arm is in an ice bucket, on average you should be comfortable.
Here families are viewed as being part of the universal process that characterizes all systems, both individuals and social systems. In other words, all families are, at any given time, in the process of creating, integrating, maintaining, and growing a family unit. What is “normal,” therefore, and what is “typical or optimal,” is defined in terms of a temporary context. Where a family is at a given moment will vary with different demands that are made both within the family and outside of it as the family adapts over the course of the family life cycle.