The joining, formation of families
We are all part of a family life cycle. My last article identified six stages of this cycle. A few weeks ago I addressed the first stage pinpointing the tasks of the single young adult leaving home. Summer seems to be a time of weddings so it is appropriate to address the next stage in the Family Life Cycle which is the joining of families through marriage and the formation of the new couple. “Becoming a couple is one of the most complex and difficult transitions of the family life cycle.” McGoldrick
Marriage tends to be understood as two individuals joining their lives together. In reality, marriage represents the joining of two entire family systems, and an overlapping to develop a third system in the couple. People marry each other, but they also marry families. Marriage requires that two people renegotiate a variety of issues that they previously defined individually, or were determined by their family of origin, such as when and how to eat, sleep, talk, fight, work, or relax. They must decide about vacations, how to use space, time and money. They also make decisions about which family traditions to keep and which ones they will develop for themselves. These decisions can no longer be determined individually. The couple will have to renegotiate relationships with parents, siblings, friends, extended families and co-workers in view of the new partnership. It is stressful for a family to open itself up to an outsider who is now a member of its inner circle. Often, no new member has been added for many years. The challenge of this change can affect a family significantly.
The emotional task of the new couple is a commitment to the new system they have formed. Boundaries will need to be set that maintain the integrity of the union without alienating the families from which they originated. Sometimes this is tricky. Often couples are surprised by the emotional intensity of the first year of marriage, and the work involved in forming a healthy couple.
Healthy couples begin with healthy individuals. When we teach our children emotional and financial independence as we launch them as young adults, they learn self-esteem. When they enter a marriage with a healthy self-esteem, they have more ability to appreciate and allow for the differences in the other person. They also have less tendency to put the other person in charge of their self-esteem. God created us as individuals and never intended for us to give up our uniqueness when we couple.
We marry to become a witness to another’s life. We marry another to say we love them, we notice them and that they matter. Hopefully our marriages enhance us as individuals, and then as couples we can work together for a greater good in this world. On July 11, I will have been married to one of the kindest people I know for 25 years. The work of marriage is the work of love. (Thank you Charles for working so hard and for loving me so well.)
Printed in the July 26, 2012 edition.