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The Four Dysfunctional Family Roles We Play

In a family that isn’t dealing with an issue (someone’s drug or alcoholism, a parent or child’s mental health issue, infidelity, or other issues) the members of the dysfunctional family will often take on one of four family roles.

  1. The Savior
  2. The Bystander.
  3. The Victim
  4. The Perpetrator.

What do these roles look like and how do they affect you when you are trying to address your own mental health needs?

The Perpetrator

The perpetrator is the person who is acting out. Maybe the father is excessively drinking or the wife is having an affair. Perhaps a child is throwing temper tantrums so that the whole family needs to focus on that person ALL THE TIME. The perpetrators were always victims at one point who are trying to unconsciously heal an issue that wasn’t healed previously and now they at least feel powerful enough to ACT OUT (unlike the victim they once were). The perpetrator is often in denial about their behavior and how it affects others.

Examples of Perpetrator roles: Substance abuse, affairs, acting out/anger/mood problems, being demanding, having a sense of entitlement, refusing to be cooperative, working all the time, excessive spending, being unkind, throwing fits, refusing to help/work/bring in an income, making life miserable for everyone else (walking on eggshells). The Perpetrator roles vary in scope and scale.

The Victim

The Victim role is the one where instead of confronting the perpetrator directly or setting a real limit with them, the victim will call their friends and family and complain. They will stay stuck in a sad, low energy mode. They will feel sorry for themselves (understandably) and they may continually bring up the issue to the perpetrator but they either don’t know what to do next or they are too afraid to do the next step. A victim may have grown up in a dysfunctional family structure where nothing ever got solved or if they attempted to solve the problem things got worse. Their task is to move into an assertive role but they are often too afraid because it may mean the family will fall apart or there will be huge uncomfortable confrontations. The victim doesn’t want the family to fall apart and is in denial about how awful the situation with the perpetrator can be for them and the rest of the dysfunctional family members. Victims enable the perpetrator to keep perpetrating, therefore they are complicit in holding the pain/abuse in place.

Examples of Victim behavior: Being sad all the time, giving up too soon, complaining, making a lot of excuses, becoming depressed or anxious, staying in bed all day, not trying, diverting attention from the solutions, saying “it’s not going to work no matter what”. Staying put when action is needed.

The Bystander

The Bystander role is somewhat similar to the victim but involves a sort of rationalizing that says “It’s not really that bad”. Bystanders may deny there is a problem if someone asks them about it. Bystanders don’t confront, they paint things rosy, they go into their own world, they may be very imaginative and independent. Being a Bystander has a certain dissociative feel to it like the person mentally takes their energy somewhere else. Bystanders may insist that others are being dramatic or too sensitive or they need to “get over it”. Bystanders are often similar to the role of the “lost child”, the one people forget about because they just don’t make any waves or demands. Bystanders are also complicit in holding abusive patterns in place by not taking a stand about their own needs and the needs of others.

Examples of Bystander behavior: Not being physically or mentally there, spacing out, turning a blind eye, denying their own needs, distracting with church, sports, work, rationalizing, philosophizing, intellectualizing, denying.

The Savior

The Savior role is the one that does use a little more assertive energy. The Savior will try to get all As or be a therapist to the affected parent or family member. The Savior will keep the kids quiet when dad is in a bad mood. The Savior may read all about alcoholism and try to fix the parent who is struggling. Another role the Savior may play is the Truth Teller, Wake Everyone Up role. The Savior may feel that the way to gain love in the family is by being good and doing a heavy amount of the work. The Savior’s good behavior makes the family look functional when they aren’t. But the Savior is often in denial about the fact that the parent doesn’t want to change therefore they suffer in trying to get them to do so. The Savior is also in denial about how much they are affected by having to be SO GOOD ALL THE TIME. The Savior also keeps the family from experiencing the consequences of their behavior that might help provide motivation for them to change. Saviors also, sadly, marry people that need fixing ensuring they play this role into their adult life. The other roles may do the same.

Examples of Savior Behavior: Being a great listener, being a fantastic sports player, getting great grades or advanced degrees, taking care of the children for the parents, calling the parent’s boss and smoothing things over, calling a child’s teacher and smoothing things over, parenting the step-children of an emotionally unavailable father, having a perfect house or body or income, being upbeat all the time, singing songs and being a phenomenal mother (in contrast to a crappy father).

Each of these roles can help be a springboard to help the dysfunctional family move forward but you have to see the role you are playing first! Are you the savior, keeping others from pulling their own weight? Are you the victim who complains to the perpetrator but never puts your actual foot down? Are you pretending everything is okay and insisting others do as well? Be willing to see what happens if you stop playing your role and let the chips fall where they may. Can you play a variation of all of the roles? Absolutely and we all do switch roles in each moment but there may be one role that stands out to you – your “go to” role.

Stay tuned as I go into more detail about each of the roles in future blogs and thanks for reading!

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Free Clear Mind Therapy provides in-person therapy in Fishers & Indianapolis and online therapy across Indiana. Specializing in anxiety therapy for teens, adults, and kids.

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