What Makes a “Broken” Family Broken?

Published on November 12, 2015


The metaphor of an iceberg architecture has been widely used across both popular and academic literature, perhaps most dominantly in two areas: to represent the layers of culture (and hence “hidden” culture), as well as in Freudian terms, to describe the conscious and unconscious mind. Most conceptualizations of the iceberg metaphor include at least two parts, the first of these being the small portion visible above surface more familiarly known as the “tip of the iceberg”. The below-surface section, despite being far larger, remains unseen.

Albeit more sporadic in frequency, the iceberg framework has too been mounted onto family systems. It would be timely to draw a distinction between two facets of family here, namely between its structure and function. These in turn, aptly correspond to visible and hidden portions of an iceberg respectively.

Family structure, like the term implies, refers to how everything is “set up” - whether one or two parent(s) run the home, or the number of children and other family members living in it. This requires little to no explicating to persons outside the family. Family function, on the other hand, refers to how everything works.

Given that the two are clearly distinguishable, what then do we refer to when we speak of a “broken” home? Are we speaking of a structural and physical brokenness, or is a functional and psychological disintegration in question?

Traditionally, two-parent homes are considered quintessential for the upbringing of children. Indeed, the staying together of mom and dad is imperative to ease the financial weight of meeting a child’s needs. A single parent would doubtlessly struggle more extensively with time and monetary challenges than a family with dual income contributions, not to mention that the latter has two pairs of hands involved in caregiving.

A child however, has emotional needs too. A recent study suggests that the happiness of a child is in fact, not contingent on an intact family structure; the researchers found that in a population of nearly 13,000 children, children from single-parent homes were no less happy than their counterparts from two-parent families. Are these findings counterintuitive, given that much research has documented a relationship between “broken” homes and delinquency?

Perhaps not quite, if the conceptualization of a “broken” home is extended to include that of a structurally intact yet psychologically fragmented family. It would stand to reason that for a child’s emotional well-being, the composition of a family matters far less than the quality of the relationships within the home - even if parent-child relationships are compromised in quantity. That is, a child who has a loving relationship with just one parent is likely to fare better in happiness than one lacking that with both parents. Salvador Minuchin, the founder of Structural Family Therapy (SFT), though has argued for the important role of family structure in its function, is likewise convergent on that function is fostered by interactions within a family system.

In families where underlying dynamics are incongruent with its perfect structure, dysfunction is often masked to outside observers to whom only the tip of the iceberg is revealed. Importantly, not all homes with separated parents are “broken”, and contrarily can very much be filled with warmth. Likewise, structurally impeccable families do not unfailingly entail healthy functioning. What makes a home “broken” or a family “disrupted” goes deeper than the surface, and takes root in the unseen portion of the iceberg.


Photo credit
Photo 1 // Photo 2

Category(s):Blended Family Issues, Child and/or Adolescent Issues, Child Development, Family Problems, Parenting

Written by:

Maryann Wei

Maryann is commencing the 4th year (Hons) in her Bachelor`s degree in Psychology (University of Wollongong, Australia). Preceding this, she was blessed with an internship opportunity at Scott Psychology Centre, where the experience proved far more fulfilling than its duration may suggest.

In her free time, Maryann attempts to wax lyrical - but ends up being mostly dreary and melancholic - at http://safehideaway.blogspot.com.

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