Carter and McGoldrick identified six stages of the family life cycle:
1) the unattached adult;
2) joining of families through marriage and the newly married couple without children;
3) the family with young children;
4) the family with adolescents;
5) launching children and moving on, and
6) the family in later life.
Each one of these stages provides a key emotional process that the family needs to work through. For example, during certain development shifts problems may arise when children or adolescents inadvertently trigger unresolved issues in one or both parents – a parent who has difficulty with his/her sexuality may project this difficulty onto the adolescent child and become overly involved or concerned with the adolescent sexuality, the parents may overly restrict the child and begin questioning her or him intensely about dating life.
Becvar (1996) said it quite nicely. The spouse subsystem is formed when two people marry and thus create a new family, the process involved in forming the spouse subsystem is known as accommodation, which implies adjustment, and negotiation of roles between spouses. Such accommodation can best be accomplished when the spouses have attained a certain degree of independence from their families of origin. Each brings the basic rules for being a spouse and parent from the families in which they were raised, but spouses who remain enmeshed with their families of origin after the marriage will have difficulty accommodating and negotiating their roles relative to each other. In the adjustment process each must learn to accommodate and adapt to help meet the needs of others and to allow the family to be functional as it adapts throughout its life.
The birth of a child instantly transforms the system, and if accommodation and negotiation have been successfully developed in the spouse subsystem, these skills will be very useful in the evolution of the parent subsystem. With children, new issues arise and if the functions of the family are to be performed successfully – differences in parenting styles and preferences may appear and need to be negotiated. Further with the formation of the parental subsystem, the spouse subsystem must continue to exist as a system distinct from the roles of the participants as parents. Spouses must continue to spend time together. The children must get the message from the parental subsystem that the parents are in charge – a family is not a democracy, and children are not equals or peers to the parents. It is from this base of authority that children learn to deal with authority and to interact in situations in which authority is unequal. Just the same, the sibling subsystem allows children to be children and to experiment with peer relationships, and it is important for parents to respect the ability of the siblings to negotiate, to compete, to work out differences and to support one another.
Let us read the following story to see how important it is that spouses attain a certain degree of independence from their families of origin. Anne tells the story of her husband’s mother.
Ben’s mother calls us at least once a day, sometimes three or four times. She expects us over at her house every Sunday, and one way or another she gets to know everything that is going on in our lives and Ben never tells her to butt off!! I have reached the point that Ben needs to choose between his mother or me!!
Another story about Steve and Anne on the impact a new child can have on the spouse subsystem:
Melissa, our new baby girl, was a real joy to me. I knew our lives would change tremendously with this new responsibility, but I had no idea that I would lose Anne in the process. All she cared about was Melissa, Melissa this, Melissa that. She did not even notice when I came home from work at night. I suggested that we get a babysitter and go out alone, but she would never let anyone but family watch the baby. As time passed, things got worse. Being home was a drag for me, Ann was not fun anymore, and my buddies asked me to play football twice a week. Occasionally, Ann would make some nasty comments about my playing ball, but I think she was just jealous, her life was dull and mine was not. Gradually we became like roommates. The harder I tried to get connected, the further she pushed me away. I figured the next move was up to her, but the next move never happened. Instead, out of the blue, she told me to move out, she said that she wanted some time to think, that it was only a separation. I know I haven’t been easy to live with and I probably have not spent as much time with the family as I should. I am willing to make changes for our marriage and our family. But she has to let go of the past and tell me what she wants from me rather than holding everything in. (Weiner-Davies 1993).
To round up – one can say that people are their healthiest and best when they can feel both independence and attachment, taking joy in themselves, while also being able to idealize others. Mature adults feel a basic security grounded in a sense of freedom, self-sufficiency, and self-esteem; they are not compulsively dependent on others, but also do not have to fear closeness.
Becvar, DS & Becvar, RJ 1996. Family therapy: A systematic integration. Massachusetts: Allyn and Bacon
Forward, S1986. Men who hate women and the women who love them. New York: Bantam Books.
Olsen, DC 1993. Integrated family therapy. Augsburg: Fortress Press