Real Talk

Complete But Dysfunctional: How Family Image Isn’t Always Worth It

To stay or not to stay together as a family — that is the question of most parents who are stuck in a dysfunctional or difficult marriage.

Some TV shows like Family Guy or The Simpsons became popular because of the strange or dysfunctional characters. Homer strangles Bart in almost every episode. Peter Griffin seems to get involved in a ton of problems. But those are TV shows. And there’s a lot more to it in real life, especially when parents stay together for “their children’s sake” despite their marriage being dysfunctional.

Dysfunctional Family

What does a dysfunctional family look like?

Studies say that dysfunctional families usually include cases of beatings and drug abuse. But in the Philippines, there is an extra layer of emotional abuse. While it’s mostly from parent to child, it can also be from one parent to another. Especially when frustration builds up, parents can start fighting in front of the kids. It doesn’t always have to be yelling; there are a variety of tactics that hint at a family being dysfunctional.

  • Cold Wars – When parents in a dysfunctional marriage fight, it’s not always yelling or screaming. Cold War tactics include ignoring their partner, disregarding their thoughts, and willingly defending other parties against their partner. It’s not a shouting match, but kids eventually detect what’s going on.
  • Bribing the kids – While Philippine culture’s love language is gift-giving, there are some cases parents will use gifts to win the child over to their side. In Tagalog, it’s the act of “naghahanap ng kakampi” or forming an alliance.
  • Backstabbing the parent to the child – Although ranting about a partner’s quirks to someone is a debatable practice, it’s considered taboo to do so to the child especially when it’s behind their back. Backstabbing the other parent does nothing to solve the problem. How do they solve what’s wrong with them if we say what’s wrong with them to someone else?
  • Using the child as a judge and jury – How does a child, who has only lived a few years on Earth, properly judge who’s right in a marriage or not? Yet, this role often falls in the hands of the eldest. Somehow, they have to figure out who’s right and who’s wrong but at the same time, maintain family harmony.

If any of these things are happening in the family, it’s time to re-evaluate what’s going on.

Dysfunctional Family

The main reason for not splitting: “For the sake of the child.”

“I don’t want my kids to grow up in a broken family.”

That’s the common reason Filipino parents don’t separate despite everything heading south despite 40% of the Philippines’ population agreeing that divorce is a better solution (Abalos, 2017). Although this doesn’t mean splitting over petty things like who left the toilet seat up, it’s a lot to reflect on when parents start using the former tactics over those petty things. Especially when there’s no processing or apologies, the tactics leave a poisonous aftermath. It affects how we parent our children.

We snap at them for the slightest things, and use the other parent as an insult (i.e. “You’re just like your father!”, or “Stop being like your mother!”), among many other things. But the worst one is becoming emotionally unavailable. It’s not always in the form of a raging, hot temper. It can also be through stonewalling — being unresponsive and mindful of the kids, especially when they have “big feelings.”

How does a family become dysfunctional?

Parents are the ones who set the mood and tone of the family. When there are a lot of unresolved issues, even during the courtship and throughout the relationship, it spills out onto the family’s life. And when boundaries are not negotiated and talked about, the parents may subconsciously try to find an individual to whom they feel safe to express their boundaries.

That individual, unfortunately, is usually the child.

Developmental psychologists have a term for this: Parentification or Role Reversal wherein the child takes on the role of the parent in creating a safe space for the parent to express their big feelings. Even if the parent didn’t show how to do so in a healthy way. And if the child fails to do so, parents may find themselves guilt-tripping the child.

This does not mean disregarding incompatibility!

There are some people who can’t work together. Conflicting personalities, beliefs, work habits, and more — all these can make a person unbearable. But no two people are the same. In a marriage, it’s knowing which quirks you’re willing to live with for the rest of your life. While staying in a marriage and making it look like it’s working is admirable, is our child’s mental health worth the image? Especially when they believe that all those toxic behaviors are normal?

Only we can decide.


Abalos, J. B. (2017). Divorce and separation in the Philippines: Trends and correlates. Demographic Research36, 1515-1548.

Constable, N. (2003). A transnational perspective on divorce and marriage: Filipina wives and workers. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power10(2), 163-180.


Sasan, J. M., & Ymas, S. (2022). Filipinos’ approval of the institution of absolute divorce in the Philippines. Science and Education3(7), 404-407.

More Real Talk:

Michelle Madrigal Reflects on the Meaning of Divorce
Dina Bonnevie on Extramarital Affairs: “It’s Never The Child’s Fault.”
Guilt Trip: A Common Toxic Tactic in Filipino Families

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