Exploring familial life cycles • Jennifer Smith Marriage & Family Therapist
As members of families, we all are a part of life cycle stages within that family. These are spelled out in The Changing Family Life Cycle by Betty Carter and Monica McGoldrick and include the following:
• Leaving home: Single young adult
• The joining of families through marriage: New couple
• Families with young children
• Families with adolescents
• Launching children and moving on
• Families in later life
For each of these stages there are particular tasks and emotional challenges that arise. There are important changes in family status that are required for families to proceed in a healthy developmental manner. My next few articles will address each stage and the challenges and tasks particular to that stage.
Most family life cycle transitions produce stress and disrupt the family system in some way. The six stages above are called horizontal stressors because they are part of the movement of time in a family. Other horizontal stressors could include unpredictable stressors such as an untimely death, a chronic illness or even an accident.
Even though most of these stages are positive and “good times” for families, they can also be the times when family dysfunction rears its ugly head. Many families experience conflicts during these important stages because of vertical stressors.
The vertical stressors in a system may include patterns of relating and functioning that are transmitted down the generations of a family. These could include family attitudes, taboos, expectations, labels and loaded issues with which one grows up.
The degree of anxiety produced by the stress of the vertical and horizontal axes at the points where they converge is the key determining factor of how well the family will manage its transition through life.
Many factors determine smooth or rough transitions through the stages in a family life cycle. Some are resistant to change and can get stuck trying to resist the natural flow of life. McGoldrick points out that, “families characteristically lack time perspective when they are going through problems. They tend generally to magnify the present moment, overwhelmed and immobilized by their immediate feelings; or they become fixed on a moment in the future that they dread or long for. They lose awareness that life means continual motion from the past and into the future with a continual transformation of family relationships.”
Managing appropriately and intentionally through the motion of the life of a family can enable an appreciation for the flow of life and all the blessings, heartaches and joy it can bring. Our families are ever-changing and we have a choice to get immobilized by the stress of the changes or learn and grow from the richness of what the changes can bring.
The flow of our families are what produce our history. As family members we have the ability to create positive family patterns around family life cycle events.
Printed in the June 28, 2012 edition