The Broken Family

By Albert S. Rossi, Ph.D.

The broken, fractured family touches all of our lives and indeed is family life for some of us. The intact, happy American family could be placed on National Geographic’s list of endangered species. For a whole host of reasons, family life in the USA in 1983 is a tragic, shattered, disillusioned life for many or most Americans. The New York Times recently reported that one in two marriages in Westchester County ends in divorce.

We Orthodox know that we live in a fallen world riddled with deformity and that we don’t have a lasting city here, even in America, the land of unending promise. We also know that Christ’s resurrection permeates all creation, and the Kingdom has already begun here on earth through a life within the Church. But as we look at family life in America, Adam’s legacy is often more apparent than Christ’s transformation.

A quick glance at the statistics can be a sobering experience.

The question for us is, “What does this really mean to an Orthodox Christian?” We surely don’t want to underestimate its influence on our own family’s viability. We surely know that our own family is deeply influenced, very possibly weakened, because of the American cultural waters in which our family swims.

One Person’s Influence

In any family, one person may very well be decisively influential in the salvation of all the members. One person can and really does make a different, not only in the proverbial American election system but, more importantly, in the eternal destiny of the immediate family members. For that one person, the elevation of the cross in his or her life may be precisely the agony of seeing the family tattered and torn apart, with all the feelings of helplessness and pathos which accompany such a broken life.

Just one member of a family, taking the time and expressing the desire to follow Christ, can make the family a living temple of the cross and resurrection, at least partially. Indeed, one member of the family surely can be the way (person) through which (whom) salvation comes to all members of that family. This is what happened in the Acts of the Apostles: “Send to Joppa and bring Simon called Peter; he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household” (Acts 11:14). Peter brought the message to one member for the salvation of a family. The Church brings the message, sometimes to one member who is open, for the salvation of the family.

This insight can often be a powerful help to a person living in a broken, or intact but wounded, family. The person left to pick up the pieces of a broken home, Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike, sometimes wonders, “Why me, Lord, yes why me?” The answer to “Why me?” is clear and straightforward. Simply, the Lord loves me enough to choose me, and to partially entrust the salvation of my entire family into my hands. Dostoyevsky makes this point even more dramatically in The Brothers Karamazov, “Every one is really responsible to all men for all men and for everything.” It is, perhaps, easier for us to see that one person can really be entrusted with the responsibility of his or her immediate family. The answer to “Why me?” is that the Lord loves me enough to share his cross of salvation for the eternal destiny of me and all the members of my family.

The Grand Inquisitor of Dostoyevsky says, “For the secret of man’s being is not only to live but to have something to live for.” We all have a great need for meaning in our lives. For the person living in a broken family, the awareness that such a life affects the eternal salvation of the entire family can be meaningful and motivating. The pain has purpose and is transformed by a merciful and gracious Father.

The person left to love and suffer in a broken home, however, knows full well the evidence of affecting the salvation of other family members is not likely to be forthcoming. In the saga of family life, personalities often appear to harden rather than soften, splits become wider rather than narrower, positions become more polarized rather than closer. The spread of the flame of faith and personal caring from one family member to another may be impossible to detect. We do know God’s ways are not our ways. At times it is probably close to a supreme act of faith for a person to carry on in a broken family without getting bitter and to trust that through the endeavor God will indeed bless and sanctify the other family members in His own infinite and boundless love.

Saved from Insanity

An Orthodox theologian has elaborated the idea that the purpose of the Orthodox Church today is to “preserve people’s sanity.” So, too, the purpose of the family, a little Church, is to preserve people’s sanity. Insanity for us has two meanings. The first is a lack of wholeness or integrity. This means a deterioration of meaning and vision. The second meaning is psychosis, a break with reality, a failure of cause and effect, a loss of contact with common sense, a triumph of foolishness and irrationality.

The Orthodox family, even if it is shattered or broken, is called to be a haven for sanity. A family is first and foremost a place where persons can be themselves, their true selves, where they can “let their hair down” as the saying goes. This means, fundamentally, to be a person (temple) where Christ dwells. In the family we are free, free to live and love as we can no place else. This freedom, as an Orthodox writer says, “consists in the joyful acceptance of one’s earthly conditions provided by a gracious, wise, and loving God who has given each person his being and life as the best possible circumstances for fulfilling one’s earthly vocation in the service of God and man.”

The intact, nuclear family is a living icon of the Trinity. The broken family is an incomplete icon. Something is missing, deficient, tragically absent. The remaining person may, with extraordinary virtue, do a marvelous job compensating and making up for the missing spouse. But, still, the family is never quite the same. Naming, identifying, and defining this reality can be the first step toward fully accepting the consequences of such a life. It’s not totally unlike naming and owning a physical deficiency, for example, cerebral palsied legs. The human body with inactive legs is indeed incomplete and malformed. But great deeds can be accomplished despite and because of the handicap. For example, Linda Down completed the twenty-six-mile New York City Marathon last year in eleven hours on Canadian crutches. Her cerebral palsied legs did not stop her from a heroic accomplishment. The broken family, in its own way, is malformed. But it is also allowed by a good, gracious, and loving God and, therefore, is the very place where the members of the family are being redeemed and saved. The family members will not be saved in the family-that-might-have-been. Rather, peace and joy will occur only within and through the messy and real family interactions as they unfold day by day.

Harmful Psychological Baggage

Persons living in a broken family often carry a great deal of harmful psychological baggage. Often the remaining spouse will be furious at the departing spouse. This may last years after a final resolution of death, divorce, or legal separation. This fury fixates the person in the past, providing a false sense of delight by reliving past hurts. The rage and fury can be emotionally debilitating, blocking a person from energetically caring for the household and living the beatitudes.

Another piece of dysfunctional baggage is neurotic guilt, a self-indulgent claim that the current split is completely self-caused, resulting in appropriate punishment from God, and better endured without an expectation of peace and joy. This simply leads to depression. It’s a narcissistic centering of the cause and effect on one’s own self. It also can, and usually does, distort one’s view of God, changing the loving Father and redeeming Christ of the New Testament into an avenging, dispenser of justice who operates primarily through family retribution.

Another piece of baggage takes the form of temporary, borderline agnosticism. The person, in effect, says, “I don’t know if I can accept the idea that a good God would allow this to happen to my family” or “I don’t know if God really has a living plan for this hurting family. I just don’t know.”

All the unnecessary psychological baggage and authentic life struggle of the person living in a broken home, are put in perspective through the vision of Orthodoxy. As an Orthodox theologian says, “Belief in divine providence and in the fact that each person has a unique vocation from God, in the place where he is called, to sanctify, transfigure, and redeem the specific conditions of his life in ways provided and revealed by God, is fundamental to the Christian view of human liberation.”

Sometimes persons living with broken families, or the seriously hurting intact family, are already loving and sacrificing in admirable ways. Sometimes the strength to love is built upon the sheer need to do double duty. Sometimes persons in broken families, rather than being an object for pity, can easily provide a model and example of virtue-in-action for the rest of us.

Within the Church in America, the broken family, the wounded but intact family, and the struggling whole family each contributes something unique to the entire fabric of parish and diocesan church life. The Church in all its multiplicity is Christ on earth.

“Questions For Discussion:

  1. Are you surprised by the statistics quoted in this article? What do you think has contributed to the problems they represent?
  2. How do you think the broken family can represent the cross—and the resurrection—which Christ told us would be present in every Christian life?

Reprinted from Jacob’s Well (the newsletter of the OCA Diocese of New York & New Jersey), November 1983.

Dr Albert Rossi is a tenured Associate Professor of Psychology, Pace University, Pleasantville, NY (since 1976) and has a private practice in family counseling. He is a member of the Department of Lay Ministries.

He is Lecturer in Pastoral Theology & Director of the Doctor of Ministry Program at St. Vladimir’s Seminary.