Practicing incest could be psychologically damaging

Dysfunctional family structures and processes

From: Martin R. Textor (Ed.): Help for families. A handbook for psychosocial professions. Frankfurt / Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 2nd edition 1992, pp. 65-90

Martin R. Textor

Most people are happy in the family, feel good in it, gain strength from it and find in it their purpose in life, a space for their own self-development and a place to satisfy important emotional needs (Institut für Demoskopie Allensbach 1985; Federal Statistical Office 1985). Many family members - children and adults - also suffer from personal and interpersonal problems, which are largely caused by disrupted family structures and processes.

Marital conflicts are a major burden for many families, and more than 20% of all married couples report this (Institut für Demoskopie Allensbach 1985; Krombholz 1987). According to some surveys, the number of controversial topics has been growing since 1953, with most differences of opinion relating to acquaintances and friends, raising children, finances, politics, home furnishings, religious questions and professional matters - in that order (Institut für Demoskopie Allensbach 1983; Weiß 1985). However, many conflicts also relate to the relationship with relatives, the personal habits or the temperament of the partner, the performance of housework, the organization of leisure time and the sexual relationship. Others are about affection, trust, freedom and jealousy. Often they remain unresolved, whereby they either repeatedly lead to new arguments or (somewhat less often) are suppressed and taboo (Krombholz 1987).

Many family members also suffer from psychosomatic and mental illnesses, behavior or personality disorders, sexual problems and addictions. Around every third German citizen (old federal states) has already suffered from a mental illness or is still suffering from it; every year around one million people urgently need psychiatric or psychotherapeutic treatment. Around 200,000 suffer from neuroses and personality disorders, 120,000 from psychoses, 95,000 from age-related disorders, 43,000 from addictions and 27,000 from cerebral seizure disorders (Federal Government 1975).

According to various studies, 20 to 25% of all children have behavioral problems (Federal Government 1975; Kluge and Hemmert-Halswick 1982), with abnormalities in the physical area (e.g. eating and sleeping disorders, nail biting) and in the psychological (anxiety, phobias, depression , lack of self-confidence, arrogance, etc.), in the social (e.g. aggressiveness, disobedience, contact problems) or in the work and performance area (learning and concentration disorders, low tolerance for frustration, poor performance, etc.). With older children, problems such as violence, crime, drug addiction, alcohol abuse, etc. are added.

Marital conflicts, mental illness, and behavioral problems can be caused by individual characteristics, familial factors, and negative impacts from larger systems. Pathology theories must always take into account all three system levels (Textor 1985). In the following, I will concentrate on pathogenic family structures and processes that play a particularly important role in marital problems and behavioral problems in children. Mattejat (1985), for example, demonstrated the close connection between family factors and psychological problems or behavioral disorders by evaluating the results of studies on 1,591 children and adolescents who were in the "Department of Psychiatry and Neurology of Children and Adolescents" between 1978 and 1980 of the Free University of Berlin and suffered from disorders similar to those of the clientele of educational counseling centers.

Mattejat (op. Cit.) Found that only about 30% of these children were wanted. About half of the mothers were employed in the first year of their children's lives; around 20% were separated from their mothers for more than a month this year. In two thirds of these children, abnormalities in early childhood development have already been identified. Around four fifths of the clients came from stressful family relationships: in around 15% the development conditions were poor due to a lack of stimulation, lack of housing and poverty, in around 20% people with mental disorders lived in the family, in 60% conspicuous communication and relationship patterns, found lack of emotional warmth, involvement, disharmony, etc. in the family. Over 30% of the patients also came from incomplete families.

Also interesting is the research result by Mattejat (loc. Cit.) That individual familial stress factors are differently pronounced in different diagnostic groups. Pure emotional disorders are overrepresented in children and adolescents who come from the upper classes of society, live in fused families with distorted communication, are overprotected and overly supported. Emotional disorders with relationship difficulties are particularly common in children and adolescents who grow up in stepfamilies whose parents have different attitudes towards bringing up children, which overstrain their children and are very strict with them.

According to Mattejat's (loc. Cit.) Study, behavioral disorders with emotional problems were found to be above average in children or adolescents who grow up in homes or with single mothers, whose parents are ill or not very resilient, whose families have marital conflicts and disharmonious relationships and whose parents reject them , indifferent, cold and uninterested. Pure behavior disorders occur particularly often when the children belong to one of the three lower classes, grow up under deficient developmental conditions, come from chaotic family relationships, are inconsistently brought up or are inconsistently or inadequately controlled. In general, clients from disintegrated and chaotic families (lack of control and care, neglect, etc.) have the highest symptom burden. It should also be noted that these research results are only trends; The family factors described in connection with a certain diagnostic group are particularly pronounced in this group, but can also be found in a weaker form in cases with other disorders.

Causes at the level of the individual

Marital and family conflicts are often caused by the individual characteristics of family members. Furthermore, pathological family structures and processes often arise due to the characteristics and reaction patterns of individuals. However, behavioral problems and psychological problems are also often caused by pathogenic factors that lie in the affected individual. It should therefore make sense at this point to briefly address characteristics of family members that can have negative effects on family life, one's own psychological well-being and the development of other people (children).

In many cases, somatic factors such as genetic makeup, dispositions, disabilities, hyperactivity, lack of drive, hypersensitivity, food intolerance, slight brain damage and protracted illnesses play a major role. Personality structure and psychodynamics are just as important. Affected family members often suffer from intrapsychic conflicts, which are caused by the clash of opposing action tendencies and motives or by the contradiction between such drives, values ​​and beliefs on the one hand and socio-cultural norms and role expectations on the other. It has a particularly negative effect if these intrapersonal conflicts remain unresolved or are suppressed, or if they are prevented from being overcome by strong defense mechanisms.

Many members of problem families are misjudged, self-centered, or narcissistic. You deal a lot with yourself, your own difficulties, thoughts and feelings. Some are closed, suspicious and dismissive, do not allow other family members to get near them, feel alienated and unloved by them. Others are insecure and anxious, have poor self-esteem, and continually seek confirmation from partners, parents, or children on whom they can easily become dependent. These people find it difficult to solve the questions of an appropriate demarcation of the inner world from the outer world and a satisfactory relationship between closeness and distance - they therefore tend either too much to "over-individualization" (rigid demarcation) or to "under-individualization" (weak demarcation) ) (Stierlin et al. 1977). In these cases, the family members have often not yet separated from their parents or have separated too suddenly from their parents. They still live in old dependencies (even if they deny them or distance themselves greatly from their parents), have not yet differentiated an autonomous self. cannot enter into I-Thou relationships (Buber 1954) and are only partially capable of dialogue and real intimacy.

Adult family members may also be tied to their parents through delegations, internal assignments, or introjects. It is also problematic if they feel exploited by them or feel heavily indebted to them. On the one hand, they are chained to their parents in this way, on the other hand, the perceived injustice may lead to the fact that in one case (exploitation) they initially only take from their partners or children and in this way want to preserve what is their life so far, while in the other case (debt) they may shower other people with gifts, attentions and affection (Stierlin 1976; Boszormenyi-Nagy and Spark 1981). However, some people also continuously act at the expense of other family members when, for example, they strive for self-realization, the satisfaction of needs and the maximization of enjoyment - without consideration. Often the others are also made responsible for their own happiness.

Many members of families in which there are pathogenic marital conflicts or individual persons become mentally ill or have behavioral problems suffer from perceptual disorders. They only have a short attention span, do not register certain impressions, become unaware of certain sensations (e.g. sexual) and feelings (the latter is particularly common in men), suppress them or project them onto other people. In information processing, they may look at different events or experiences from the same point of view, use the same label for them (excessive generalization), or fail to link them, determine their causes or recognize patterns. Thought processes are often extremely abstract / concrete, random, erratic or emotional and are falsified by irrational attitudes (Ellis 1977), dogmatic values ​​or extreme world views. Decisions are often made from the perspective of whether they will meet other people's approval and lead to love, affection, and affirmation. In many cases, they do not meet the needs of the person. These family members also have difficulty planning their actions and setting priorities. It is obvious that under these circumstances they will fail because of many problems and conflicts; Complicating matters are often a lack of willingness to compromise, too high a level of aspiration and insufficient flexibility.

Many members of these families are aggressive or apathetic, depressed or paranoid, regressive or compulsive. Some find it difficult to control their own behavior. Many also lack social skills and feel like outsiders. Nonetheless, family members who are not considered to be mentally ill or conduct disordered often show symptoms that are tolerated by society, such as excessive alcohol or cigarette consumption, obesity or stomach ulcers. As in the case of patients "identified" by the public (neighbors, teachers, work colleagues, doctors, etc.), symptoms also point to intrapsychic problems and interpersonal conflicts. They signal their need for help and are associated with primary and secondary gain in illness. In addition, these are also behaviors for which society denies them a large part of the responsibility.

Many children learn dysfunctional behaviors in their families by unconsciously imitating other family members (model learning). Often times, they also respond to certain stimuli presented by their relatives. In many cases, especially when neglected, when positive behavior is ignored, or when praise is rarely given due to extremely high expectations, children may try to attract the attention of other family members through disruptive or abnormal behavior. Their reactions (anger, fear, pampering, appeasement, etc.) are interpreted as signs of sympathy, interest and concern or as self-affirmation. So they act as positive reinforcers and increase the likelihood of these behavioral problems occurring. Slight deviations in behavior become larger and stronger over time. Ultimately, they are generalized to situations outside of the family and also strengthened there in a positive way. For example, an aggressive youth may lead a group of peers, a depressed person may arouse the compassion of his fellow men, a "class clown" may gain the undivided attention of his teachers and classmates. Here it becomes clear that symptoms have a certain interpersonal function and are learned because the desired reactions of other people could not be achieved in a socially acceptable way.

Causes at the level of the family system

As a rule, all family members are damaged to varying degrees by pathogenic family structures and processes, so that some are more disturbed and some are less disturbed. Often they take turns taking on the role of the identified patient and the "sick" person. This also illustrates the great influence of the family system on the individual - and the importance of pathogenic factors on the interpersonal level. In this context, z. B. Communication disorders play an important role. Many family members often send fuzzy, vague, and unclear messages that may contain ambiguous terms, incomplete sentences, and improper generalizations. Often one's own thoughts, feelings and needs are only hinted at with one or two words because the sender believes that the recipient (e.g. out of love) knows what he wants. In many cases, the sender also tries to convey important messages in a non-verbal manner, whereby such signals are easy to misunderstand, but are well suited for monitoring the behavior of other family members. Verbal communication and non-verbal behavior are often in contradiction to one another and are therefore incongruent. In this way the sender may try to conceal his intentions, reveal internal conflicts, try to prevent criticism or rejection by the recipient, or weaken the content of the message. Often it also remains unclear to whom messages are addressed, people speak for one another or communicate through third parties.

Because of the unclear, incomplete or incongruent messages, it is difficult for the recipient to grasp the actual message and to understand the sender. It is pathological if he does not ask back or if he is not allowed to ask for feedback. Then he tries to determine the content of the messages by interpreting them according to his experiences and his image of the sender, putting himself in the position of the sender or trying to read his thoughts - which can easily lead to misunderstandings and wrong reactions. In other cases he interrupts the broadcaster, disqualifies his statements or criticizes him. If, on the other hand, he asks back, the sender may experience this behavior as frightening, fail to meet the request for feedback, evade, flare up, change the subject, repeat the message in the same wording or deny parts of it. It is also problematic when family members do not listen to one another because they only have a short attention span or are too busy with themselves. In many cases, they also do not understand each other because they use different communication channels.


It is clear that such disruptions in communication make it difficult to manage marital and family conflicts. These can be caused by normative life events (transitions in the life and family cycle) or non-normative (illness, death, illegitimate pregnancy, termination). They can take on crisis-like proportions, especially if several burdens occur at the same time or if options are missing (e.g. if there area young wife has to decide either for the profession and against a child or for the same and against the profession). Then interaction patterns and relationship definitions break, roles and rules are called into question, tensions arise and old conflicts are revived, and homeostasis in the family system is destroyed. The crisis is at the center of the interaction. It is problematic when the family members do not recognize the need for major changes, but only want to restore the old state of equilibrium.

Conflicts between the spouses are e.g. B. caused by different expectations, attitudes, wishes and needs, by excessive demands, rivalry, hidden power struggles or jealousy. Conflicts in the parent-child relationship can be caused by separation problems, unequal life experiences, different systems of meaning and values, different role models, defiant reactions, poor school performance and a variety of other reasons. Often the conflicts are also based on unresolved problems that can arise in different functional areas of the family. Everyday or greater difficulties are often ignored, denied or overlooked, and any reference to them is disqualified. In other cases, too much attention, time, and energy is devoted to an everyday difficulty, or an attempt is made to solve a problem that does not exist at all. Often, family members are also looking for an ideal and over-perfect solution, approaching a problem on the wrong level, or trying to overcome an unsolvable difficulty. Often they proceed too unsystematically and ineffectively, discuss more about their feelings and relationships than about the problem, cannot agree on an attempt at a solution and a plan for its realization, want to enforce their own suggestions by force, sabotage each other's efforts or are hardly involved. It is obvious that such behavior can only result in new problems and interpersonal conflicts. Family members also experience themselves as failures and develop negative feelings (hostility, aggressiveness, depression, etc.).

Conflicts usually proceed according to very specific interaction patterns. So take z. For example, family members repeatedly occupy the same positions in them as those of "accuser", "appeasers", "rationalizer" or "distractor" (Satir 1975; Bandler, Grinder and Satir 1978). Through this behavior, they force the others to react in a predictable manner, so that firmly established communication cycles arise. In addition, the positions mentioned are retained, as they often lead to "success". For example, the accuser may behave in a certain way by making them fearful, while the appeasers may do so through helplessness. In many cases, however, such roles are also changed regularly.

Marital and family conflicts above all have negative consequences and have a pathogenic effect,

  • if they are fought out between two established coalitions (e.g. men versus women, father and daughter versus mother and son) and thus lead to a division of the family. Intergenerational alliances or those with outsiders (grandparents) are particularly problematic, as the boundaries necessary for undisturbed development are dissolved, certain people (children, grandparents) are given a disproportionate amount of power, and family leadership is no longer guaranteed by the parents and is often important Decisions can no longer be brought about.
  • when two powerful family members (parents) join forces against a weaker individual (child), making them an outsider and hindering their further development.
  • when family members cannot agree on the content of the conflict, i.e. see different causes, resolve behavioral sequences differently or insist on their view of reality - without realizing that they only perceive aspects of it.
  • if the problem definition and problem do not match.
  • if family members z. B. due to a lack of information, insufficient intelligence, insufficient creativity or inadequate problem-solving techniques are unable to solve conflicts or are too inflexible in the case of dead ends to switch to alternative solutions. Then the conflict comes to a standstill.
  • when homeostasis, interaction patterns, relationship definitions, rules and roles in the family are so rigid that the changes necessary to resolve the conflict cannot be made. Here the members cling to the old and the familiar, do not adapt the family structures and processes to new requirements and circumstances.
  • when the equilibrium is generally unstable, so that attempts to resolve conflicts never lead to a new homeostasis, but only repeatedly produce positive feedback processes.
  • when the family members are not willing to compromise, but fight until one of them is victorious. Often times, a person asserts himself through blackmail ("If you don't love me, then ..."), helplessness ("I can no longer"), depression or showing symptoms.
  • when family members postpone the negotiation or deny, avoid, fend off, suppress or cover up conflicts. Then these remain unresolved and lead to constant tension and often to new difficulties.

Frequently occurring, unresolved or avoided conflicts have a negative impact on the feelings of family members. They feel unloved, chronically dissatisfied and alienated from one another, develop a bad self-image and consider themselves the victim of others. Often they also dismiss any responsibility for the problems, blame other family members and make a negative image of them. They show their hostility and aggressiveness in an open or covert way, which can lead to destructive cycles of behavior: More and more often they get into increasingly intense arguments, use threats, violence and other negative reinforcements more and more quickly and are less and less willing to compromise. In other cases, they distance each other and avoid each other. New conflicts are also denied or averted. Relationships become more and more relaxed and unsatisfactory. Interpersonal conflicts are often internalized and manifest themselves through symptoms (depression, anxiety, alcoholism, etc.), which also affects many children. A representative survey of Bavarian families showed that there is a close relationship between (stated) unresolved conflicts in the relationship between partners and behavioral problems in their own children (Krombholz 1987).

Role attribution

In conflict-ridden marriages, children are often assigned certain roles by their parents. They are used as arbitrators or mediators in disputes or serve as allies. In the latter case, the children often have difficulty assuming the gender role when the allied parent is of the opposite sex and demands that the children not become like the spouse. After an argument, communication is often only carried out through the children. They are used as ambassadors who have to convey information about feelings, negative remarks about the partner or peace offers. In all of these cases the boundaries of the marriage dyad are broken, the children are given an inappropriate position of power. They often think of themselves as older, smarter and stronger than they are. They believe that they hold the family together.

In many cases, children also experience behavioral problems in order to save their parents' marriage. For example, they use their symptoms during a marital conflict to attract adults' attention and distract them from the conflict. Their disruptions force their parents to focus on them, thereby distracting them from their marital problems. In addition, both parents are forced to work together, as this is the only way they can control the children's behavior, help them and cope with the difficulties they cause outside the family. In many cases, the only topic of conversation between the spouses is the symptoms and the reactions of the children. In these cases, the children consciously or unconsciously sacrifice themselves to stabilize their parents' marriage. Believing that the family's existence depends on them, they consider themselves very important. In addition, they soon notice that their parents are becoming more and more anxious, that they strive more and more for them (gain from illness) and that they are more and more easily induced to behave in certain ways by manipulating feelings of guilt. They can also act out their aggression or that of their parents. The children take up more and more time and worry, so that the parents can hardly address their marital problems. Ultimately, this creates a relationship of mutual dependence and exploitation.

In the case of frequent marital conflicts, children are often assigned the role of substitute partner. They are intended to satisfy the affective needs of a parent and serve as confidants and interlocutors - tasks that the spouse no longer fulfills. Sometimes the parent behaves seductively towards them, accommodates their oedipal desires or flirts with them, which can lead to sexual abuse. Often, however, the fears of incest, castration and punishment become so great that physical contact and expressions of affection are no longer permitted, which can lead to sexual inhibitions. In any case, the children become tied to one parent and lose the other, who either sees them as a rival, agrees to this situation (because it frees them from marital and sexual obligations) or withdraws from the family (and goes to work , Hobbies or friends). If the spouses can no longer lead the family due to their conflicts and neglect their children, an older child may also take on the role of parent and lead the family or the upbringing of his siblings. Parentification can also occur if the parents regress.

In many families one member is made a scapegoat and is made responsible for all conflicts and crises. However, the others may also take revenge on him for deprivations from which they suffered in their family of origin. B. stand at their workplace, or can project their aggressions, fears, depression, etc. into it. Often they make it a scapegoat when they feel threatened by their self-differentiation efforts or individual characteristics. Sometimes it has to act out a suppressed conflict and is then punished for it. In all of these cases, the other family members avoid dealing with their problems and conflicts. Instead, they use the scapegoat as an outlet for tension, thereby stabilizing their personality and relationships. In doing so, however, they also prevent conflict resolution, their own further development and the adaptation of the family system to new circumstances. Above all, however, the development and self-differentiation of the scapegoat suffers. He feels unloved, rejected and treated unfairly, experiences himself as a troublemaker or villain and develops negative feelings of self-worth. He often becomes mentally ill or has behavioral disorders. But the scapegoat also gains power as it can evoke feelings of guilt and fears. In addition, his behavior is rewarded indirectly, as z. B. other people care for him intensely, sacrifice themselves for him or release him from certain duties. Especially when family members are criticized by outsiders for the problems of the scapegoat, they may even intensify their symptom-aggravating reactions.

Children are often assigned certain roles even before they are born. They are expected to later become a priest, doctor or actress, to look up a particularly beloved parent or sibling, to resemble themselves or particularly positive or negative aspects of their own self or roles like those of the fool, the genius, of the "ugly duckling", the "black sheep" or the hero. So very soon these children are under hidden pressure to meet the more or less unconscious expectations of their parents and to take on a certain function. Your idiosyncrasies, needs and desires are ignored. Problematic developments arise above all when children resist the expectations of their parents, cannot meet them or have to sacrifice parts of themselves to the assigned role.

"Delegations" (Stierlin 1976, 1977) can also have a negative effect. Here, children are entrusted with a special mission: they are supposed to perform certain tasks for their parents on the id level (e.g. vicarious satisfaction of frowned upon impulses, stimulating the imagination), the ego level (maintaining the defense organization or coping with problems that the Parents could not solve) and super-ego level (atonement for "bad" acts of the parents, reaching unfulfilled ideals or professional wishes, supplying a counter-image). These assignments are usually conveyed covertly and unconsciously at an early stage. The children are only sent out much later as "bound" or "expelled" delegates (op. Cit.), Whereby they remain bound to their parents by a bond of loyalty, obligation and debt. Mission gives them a sense of purpose and importance and leads to a willingness to make sacrifices, but also lets them gain power over their parents and exploit them. The delegation prevents or complicates an individuation and self-differentiation like the role ascription. Above all, it has a pathogenic effect when orders overstrain a person, contradict one another (order conflict) or are directed against a parent (loyalty conflict).

Problematic relationship definitions

In many cases, problematic relationship definitions have a pathogenic effect. The spouses often try to shape each other and their relationship according to certain expectations, ideas and models. Difficulties can arise if these are very idealistic, too high, unrealistic or unconscious, are not verbalized or only expressed indirectly and overwhelm the partner. This may then refuse - or the other is frustrated, angry and bitter because he could not shape him according to his ideas. In these cases, wrong reasons and motives for choosing a partner often have a negative effect: The spouses may look for "happiness on earth", total devotion and unity in their relationship. Often they see their partner initially as an ideal figure who will satisfy all needs and will always be there for you. A positive definition of a relationship is also made more difficult or even prevented if the marriage was unwanted (premarital pregnancy), was concluded for problematic reasons (e.g. flight from the family of origin) or is viewed with ideological reservations (marriage as a "compulsory institution"). Sometimes large differences between the partners in intelligence, schooling, attitudes, values ​​and personality characteristics also have a negative effect. In many cases, they cannot enter into an intensive relationship either because they are afraid of bonds, require a lot of freedom for their own self-realization or have not yet separated from their parents.

Problematic relationship definitions also arise on the basis of projections in which a person unconsciously shifts personality segments, drive impulses or aspects of intrapsychic conflicts to another family member. For example For example, a father can project his sexual needs into his pubescent son, covertly stimulate him to engage in sexual activities and experience vicarious need satisfaction when the latter reports on his "successes". Often times, relationships are also created around a symptom. For example, one person unconsciously takes on the role of the "sick person" and another that of the "carer"; both become dependent on each other. Symptoms are also used as a maneuver to urge other family members to behave in a certain way or to achieve a desired degree of closeness or distance.

Symbiotic relationships are also pathogenic. B. due to dependency needs, fears, lack of self-differentiation or feelings of incompleteness. Here family members take possession of each other, give up their individuality, feel, think and act similarly. They do not allow each other any space or privacy. So the self of one merges with that of the other. In other cases, the symbiotic relationship is less balanced: one person takes a stronger position, making the other dependent and suppressing it. In this context, intensive bonds should also be mentioned, which, however, not only characterize symbiotic relationships. They can take place on the id (e.g. pampering), ego (mystification) and super-ego level (loyalty, obligation) (Stierlin et al. 1977).

But relationships in which family members distance themselves from one another, withdraw, show little interest in one another and invest little in one another can also have a pathogenic effect. They go their own way, spend a lot of time outside the family and live together almost entirely out of habit. With regard to the marriage dyad, one can also speak of an "emotional divorce" (Bowen 1978). In other cases, family members continually alternate between phases of involvement and symbiosis on the one hand and phases of detachment and withdrawal on the other. Often two or more people join forces and make a family member an outsider (often the father) or expel them (often a child).

Another problem is when family members cannot agree on rules for their coexistence (and the behavior of the children) or undermine agreements. In many cases, rules are also unclear, contradictory or too rigid. They are not adapted to new circumstances, handled too rigidly or not enforced. Extreme rules - that e.g. B. should all family members feel the same way or the expression of certain feelings (affection, warmth, etc.) is forbidden - are often kept secret or justified with absolutized and exaggerated values. Often there are also value conflicts, especially when young people live in the family and have acquired a different worldview. Difficulties can also be caused by myths and secrets - the latter (e.g. that father has a lover) may also be "open" but may not be addressed.

Roles and functions not fulfilled

In families in which conflicts occur frequently or members are mentally ill or have behavioral problems, family roles are often not taken on. For example For example, a man would consider care and upbringing tasks to be below his dignity and thus reject the role of father. Or a woman may absolutize the role of mother, so that she neglects her husband and does not fulfill her partner role. Often certain role segments are suppressed or restricted by prohibitions. So z. B. may not bring a woman into the role of a partner as a sexual being or, as a mother, may perfectly satisfy the physical needs of her children, but neglect the emotional ones. In other cases, roles are only partially fulfilled because family members concentrate on other tasks (e.g. job) or because they lack the necessary competencies and skills. They often feel overwhelmed by certain roles because they or other people (e.g. grandparents) place too high demands on them. Difficulties can also arise when roles are unclearly delimited or are constantly changing, so family members are not clear about their tasks, rights and obligations. Problems can also result from a rigid, rigid distribution of roles that is regulated down to the last detail. The same applies in the event that the role models are very stereotypical and not appropriate to the family situation, that roles are not complementary or the age (e.g. minor mother), gender (negative environmental reactions to "househusband") or personality structures (extreme inhibitions) of the persons concerned do not correspond.

Accordingly, in pathogenic families all functions are seldom fulfilled, some are overemphasized and others neglected. Family members are often unable to run a household. Then it is untidy and unclean in their apartment, there is malnutrition and malnutrition, if there is a lack of household money at the end of the month, the family takes excessive credit. Furthermore, many conflicts result from the struggle for a fair division of labor in the household based on partnership. Especially in conflicted and distant families, the leisure function is not fulfilled either. The members spend little time together, rarely go out, rarely play with each other and experience little fun and joy in the family. You cannot relax together and you cannot regenerate at home. But in other families too, members are often bored and dissatisfied when common leisure activities are limited to watching television.

Problems with the reproductive function can arise if the spouse, for example, has sexual problems and dysfunction (up to infertility), repeatedly postponing the conception of a child (until it is fraught with too great a risk) or fathering more children than they financially and be able to cope with it emotionally. Pathogen can also have an impact when children are conceived, e.g. B. to neutralize fears of infertility, to fulfill the wishes of the spouse, to save the marriage, to be allowed to give up an unpopular job or to assign the children a certain role (see above). Often parents want to prove themselves through a desired educational success and compensate for their failure in other areas.

In many cases, the development of children is also damaged by the inadequate fulfillment of the family educational function. Small children are often separated from their caregivers for a long time or experience a constant change of carer (e.g. if both parents are gainfully employed), so that they only develop weak bonds and suffer from symptoms of deprivation. Also, young mothers today mostly have little experience in dealing with children, feel insecure about them and easily make mistakes in upbringing. Often they are dissatisfied with their new lifestyle and declare the child to be responsible for it. They may wean their children too early, start their cleanliness education prematurely, carry it out too strictly, too demanding and impatiently, try to break the children's will in the defiant phase or set them no limits. While parents usually have an infinite amount of patience in promoting physical and linguistic skills, they teach their children much less often how to communicate and listen properly, solve problems constructively and enter into I-you relationships. Their upbringing can be deficient in certain areas. But it is just as problematic when they block the further development of their children, e.g. B. not positively reinforcing new skills and abilities, limiting learning opportunities or retaining the children. But too little or too much demand on the children can have negative effects.

In many cases, children are constantly being corrected and punished. The latter is particularly harmful if the rules that have been violated and the reasons for the punishment are not explained or if the punishment is wordless. Corporal punishment is still practiced in all social classes - especially if the parents have very strict attitudes towards bringing up children, feel powerless towards their children, suffer from marital problems or are very exhausted (e.g. because of an illness).

In many cases, the development of children is damaged by incorrect parenting styles. This includes:

  1. Neglect: In this case the parents are indifferent and disinterested in their children, hardly care for them and leave them to their own devices. They offer them little attention, warmth and tenderness, do not satisfy their needs and are not available as confidants. This makes the children feel abandoned, isolated, rejected, unloved and frustrated. In these cases they are seen as troublemakers, as obstacles to their own self-realization or as competitors for the love of their partner. Often parents are so busy because of their employment, their leisure activities and their social obligations that there is hardly any time for their children.
  2. Pampering: In other cases, the children's every wish is granted. The parents try to spare them all frustration and mostly under-challenge them. They often see new status symbols in the exclusive clothing, expensive toys and expensive leisure activities of their children. Under such circumstances, however, they cannot develop the awareness that such goods have to be acquired. They become effeminate, are not very performance-oriented, cannot test their abilities and strength, have no opportunity to prove themselves and hardly develop self-confidence.
  3. Overprotection: Here parents take possession of their children, leave them no space or privacy, bind them to themselves and overwhelm them with their excessive love. They are overly concerned and very caring, entangling the children in symbiotic relationships and sacrificing themselves for them. In these cases the children remain dependent on their parents and cannot develop or regress. They cannot differentiate themselves, do not become independent and do not detach themselves from their parents.
  4. Authoritarian upbringing: In this case, too, the curiosity and the urge to research, the self-will, the individuation and the independence of the children are suppressed. The parents guide them through do's and don'ts, as well as commands and instructions, with the help of which they want to shape the children according to certain models. They constantly control their behavior and may enforce their obedience through severity and harsh punishments. Deviant reactions are particularly severely punished if they are understood as an attempt to break out or a threat. In general, these parents show little understanding and empathy, and rarely make use of confirmation, encouragement, and praise.
  5. Anti-authoritarian education: In many cases, parents consciously forego rules and punishments, do not set any limits on the behavior of their children and in this way want to offer them unrestricted development opportunities. In such cases the children often take advantage of their parents' indulgence, manipulate them, insist on their rights and want total freedom with regard to bedtime, the volume of the music, etc. They overestimate their own power, cannot place themselves, have little motivation to achieve and become egocentric.
  6. Upbringing without norms: Especially in conflict-ridden marriages, the parents often cannot agree on rules of conduct and educational goals or covertly incite the children to rebel against the norms set by the partner. Sometimes, however, the regulations are so unclear that the children do not register them. In these cases, behavior is continuously monitored by means of cues, requests, orders and penalties.
  7. Inconsistent parenting: If the parents have different educational goals and use different educational practices, their upbringing appears changeable, inconsistent or even chaotic. Some parents also keep switching between an authoritarian and a permissive parenting style.

Sex education, which may be either too open or too strict, often creates particular problems. For example, some parents suppress their children's curiosity about gender differences, punish doctor games or playing with their own genitals and reject physical tenderness and caresses. Others, however, shower their children with information about sexuality, show them explicit videos, let them watch intercourse or encourage sexual adventures. If children have little contact with their father (due to his strong professional commitment or for other reasons), they often lack a male gender role model and a role model for the relationship between the sexes. However, they also have difficulties developing their gender identity if their parents have extreme models or have an abnormal partner relationship.

If individuals are exposed to such pathogenic family structures and processes as described here, they often become mentally ill or have behavioral disorders. The formation of symptoms is therefore in all of these cases an appropriate and meaningful response to a pathological situation. In addition, the symptoms of other family members are aggravated by attention, care, support, exemption from certain tasks, etc. Furthermore, the identified patients gain a position of power through their behavior, since they can frighten the others, burden them with shame and guilt, or force them to react in a certain way. Through their symptoms, they also signal that their family is disturbed, that all family members are suffering, are inhibited in their further development and are in need of help. Their behavior can lead to crises in which pathogenic family structures and processes are finally modified or which lead to the intervention of outsiders (who then initiate psychosocial interventions, for example). Symptoms are often a function of interpersonal relationships and can only be understood in the context of family life.

Causes at the level of larger systems

Many family conflicts, psychological problems or behavioral problems are also caused by events outside the family, stresses and demands as well as social structures and processes. Here the relationship between the individual or family and the environment is disturbed. Many pathogenic influences result from a problematic relationship between procreation and families of origin. Often this is characterized by a lack of separation, symbiotic relationships, and entanglement. The partners allow their parents to interfere in their marital relationship and family life, are often treated by them like dependent children and receive material goods from them, but also a lot of love and affection. Sometimes such a close relationship is created by instilling guilt or an emphasis on loyalty and obligation. Occasionally, it should also ensure that an adult child continues to be available to the family of origin as a mediator, scapegoat, substitute partner, etc.

In other cases, the spouses have abruptly separated from their families of origin and broken off all contact with them, often developing a symbiotic marriage relationship at the same time. They distance themselves from their grandparents with regret, bitterness or hostility, may use them as scapegoats and deny any emotional attachment, obligation or indebtedness towards them. Often they only isolate themselves from their original families and build rigid boundaries to them, so that close relationships and intensive contacts are no longer possible. Only mandatory visits are carried out, during which the relatives are treated in a pseudo-friendly manner or even like troublemakers. Letters and telephone contacts are superficial and unemotional.

In many cases, the relationship between the families of procreation and families of origin is also characterized by open or covert conflicts, into which even the children may be drawn. Conflicts are z. B. caused by the interference of parents-in-law in family life or by projections, role assignments and repressed problems from childhood. It is particularly problematic when there is a split in the procreative family and the spouses and their parents enter into opposing coalitions. This happens when z. B. Bringing grandparents into a marital conflict (after possibly causing it beforehand) and inciting their child against their partner or when a spouse asks their parents for support because they feel neglected, treated unfairly, or betrayed. Sometimes problems also result from the argument about which of the two families of origin should serve as a model for the procreative family, or from legacies, unconscious assignments, conflicts of loyalty, etc.

In many pathological families, the network is very small or even absent. With regard to mentally ill individuals, z. B. Pattison (1976) found that neurotics only have about 10 and psychotics only about 5 people in their network - if you include family members, only a few people remain with whom they are in closer contact. These families receive little help and support from outside; if they lack resources, they do not feel integrated in their place of residence. It is often particularly stressful for children and adolescents when they have no friends, e.g. B. be entangled in symbiotic relationships by their parents or unable to acquire social skills. Sometimes in this situation they also try to attract the attention of their peers or to use violence to gain a leading position in a group through conspicuous behavior. Women often suffer from a loss of social contacts if they give up their job after the birth of a child and are not compensated by increased attention from their partner.

However, network contacts can also become too intense and alienate an individual from their family. It is particularly problematic when a member gets into groups or subcultures (sects, extreme political organizations, youth gangs, etc.) whose values ​​and norms contradict those of the family or society or which prevent self-differentiation. If spouses have many separate friends with whom they spend a large part of their free time, the partner relationship may become more and more emotionless, weaker and less important. In these, but also in other cases, extramarital relationships often arise.Problems can also result from coalitions and symbiotic relationships between family and network members as well as from communication disorders, exploitation, attempts at expulsion or crises.

Institutions in which family members work or who intervene in their lives can also emit negative influences. Children may suffer from school stress, school failure or conflicts with teachers or classmates and carry these problems into the family, which often leads to great strains on the parent-child relationship. In other cases, however, they act out family problems at school. If the children do not find understanding and help from parents or teachers, or if the adults do not communicate with one another in this situation, blame one another for the difficulties, argue with one another, and work against one another, the children's problems may increase and lead to behavioral problems. A more general negative influence arises from the fact that many teachers do not, only inadequately or inadequately fulfill their educational function. So they do z. B. Mistakes in the treatment of individual students (role attribution, labeling, etc.), aggravated behavioral disorders (through attention, punishments, etc.), intervening too late in the educational process or failing to inform parents, counseling teachers and school psychologists about the children's difficulties. It can also be problematic that educational institutions exclude children from society and often give them a negative image of the same. The adult world often appears strange, nasty, rough and frightening, and entry into professional life is experienced as a shock. Many young people suffer from the contradiction between the high ideals and demands conveyed in school on the one hand and their own possibilities and abilities on the other.

Some workers are very success-oriented and enjoy their job. They work overtime or take work home with them so that they have little time for their partners and children, they become estranged and only occupy a peripheral position in their family. Conflicts often arise when they occupy a leading position and assume that their authority will not be questioned in their families either. In addition, they may react too cognitively to other family members, treat their children like subordinates, or place extremely high demands on them. Then they often experience that they cannot assert themselves in their families, are not recognized by their children as role models and encounter rejection, detachment and resistance. If both parents are at work, they often have little time for mutual discussions and activities, so that they can easily become estranged from each other due to their different experiences. Often they have only limited devotion to raising their children.

If family members have behavioral problems, are mentally ill or criminal, the family comes into contact with social services, courts or hospitals. This can lead to negative developments that maintain or even intensify the disorders and problems if the pathogenic family structures and processes are not recognized and modified. Then the disturbed member alone is made responsible for his behavior, labeled as "mentally ill" or "behavioral problem" and treated alone. In this way, the other family members are denied any responsibility for the behavior of the symptom carrier; they can continue to use it for their pathogenic purposes. If this person is then successfully treated or dismissed by the respective institution as having been rehabilitated, he will return to the same disturbed family situation and will often very quickly again become behaviorally abnormal or mentally ill. Difficulties can also arise if he has changed significantly during institutionalization or hospitalization, if he is no longer accepted into his family (expulsion) or if it has changed a lot in the meantime.

Some problems are also caused or perpetuated by socio-economic, socio-cultural and political developments. Families are still not given enough support by the state - especially in phases or situations of increased stress ("young families", looking after grandparents in need of care, unemployment, etc.). Lower-class and marginalized families in particular often suffer from disadvantage, a lack of educational opportunities, a lack of advancement opportunities and discrimination. They live in cramped and inadequate living conditions, which offer few opportunities for play or isolation, lead to a strongly controlling upbringing ("socialization to silence") and encourage aggression. For children, lack of stimulation and the acquisition of attitudes, behaviors and thought structures that do not correspond to those of the dominant culture have a negative effect. An urban environment also offers children few opportunities for self-testing and self-testing, for physical activity and helping, for exploring the (work) world of adults and for learning through observation and imitation. However, many adults also suffer from the cold anonymity of cities. This is how z. B. Housewives cut off from "real" life and isolated in suburbs or high-rise buildings.

In addition, many people experience the economy, the state and society as inhumane. They feel powerless, unimportant and dispensable, alienated from themselves and others, and restricted in their freedom and self-realization. They experience that in a technological, rational and materialistic world, feelings and values ​​are no longer in demand, and dialogic relationships and the introduction of subjectivity and individuality are no longer possible. Community awareness, helpfulness and social commitment are hardly in demand in a service society with a well-developed state support system. There is often a conflict between material orientations (performance principle, striving for a high standard of living, etc.) and post-material values ​​(e.g. self-realization, partnership, quality of life and leisure), people look for meaning, belonging and security in subcultures, sects , Self-help groups, citizens' initiatives, etc. or rebel against the state and society.

Many problems also arise from pluralism and change in values. Many people are unsettled because traditional ideals and church teachings are criticized, values ​​and role expectations contradict one another, and norms and rules are unclear. They feel confused because there are no clear models for marriage and parenting and because they are confronted with different advice from scientists, therapists and pastors. So many flee into the security of their family, create their own world there with certain rules and isolate themselves from the outside world. Others experience themselves as divided because they act in different situations according to the rules that apply there, that is, they behave differently and lose their identity. Some also suffer from the contradiction between socially dominant values ​​(competitiveness, materialism, etc.) and their individual needs. Furthermore, conflicts arise in many families because the members represent different moral concepts, values ​​and ideologies - with great stress on living together. For example, a representative survey for Baden-Württemberg (Institut für Demoskopie Allensbach 1985) found that 46% of people who shared their ideology with their partner described their family life as very happy. In the other case it is only 30%.

It is obvious that generation conflicts are also often caused by different value decisions. Many young people suffer from the contradiction between social phenomena (e.g. hypocrisy, manipulation, discrimination against the weak, war) and their ideals, take a critical stance towards the state and institutions, integrate into society with difficulty and experiment with them new lifestyles and ways of living together. The old and middle generations often show little understanding for one another and live in isolation from one another.

However, there is not only a generation gap, but also between the sexes. Many women feel disadvantaged, oppressed, dependent and subordinate to men. They rebel against the multiple burden of work, household and child-rearing. They are also dissatisfied with the traditional division of labor, since they experience the job as a great loss, are not rewarded for family work, experience little satisfaction from it and lose contacts, independence and self-confidence. After the children have been replaced, they often no longer see any meaning in their lives. In many cases, the sexes also compete with each other. B. can lead to detachment, distrust and power struggles in the family.


In conclusion, most of the knowledge about the causes of marital and family conflicts, mental illnesses and behavioral disorders has been gained through observation and clinical experience; empirical research results are only available for partial aspects. The problem is that individual findings are often made absolute and lead to different theories of pathology such as B. the disease, constitutional, stress, psychodynamic, developmental, learning theory, cognitive, humanistic, phenomenological-existentialist, micro- and macrosocial model (Weckowicz 1984). Due to different starting points and perspectives, whole groups of other causes are overlooked, the models are one-sided, incomplete and simplistic and do not correspond to the complexity of reality and the multi-causality of phenomena. Biological, psychological, interactional and sociocultural variables are not taken into account equally, and humans are not seen as body-soul-spirit beings in the context of larger systems. It is therefore important to follow a holistic and integrative approach when dealing with pathogenic family structures and processes (Textor 1985), which includes as many of the aspects recognized by the individual pathology models as possible.

It should also have become clear that a large number of very different measures are necessary in order to be able to properly treat marital conflicts, mental illnesses and behavioral disorders. Interventions at the level of the individual, the family and larger systems are necessary, which must either be combined according to the circumstances of the individual case or generally directed against frequently occurring pathogenic structures and processes. Measures must therefore be implemented (or developed) that encompass the entire range of psychosocial, medical, legal and political possibilities - from parent and family education to individual counseling, marriage and family therapy, socio-educational family help, community and network work, financial benefits, etc. . up to targeted social changes.


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Dr. Martin R. Textor studied education, counseling and social work at the Universities of Würzburg, Albany, N.Y., and Cape Town. He worked for 20 years as a research assistant at the State Institute for Early Education in Munich. From 2006 to 2018 he and his wife headed the Institute for Education and Future Research (IPZF) in Würzburg. He is the author or editor of 45 books and has published 770 specialist articles in magazines and on the Internet.
Autobiography at