In an ideal situation, children have the freedom to move some distance from home for schooling or employment, and their parents remain available to them for emotional and even financial support. This involves both appropriate differentiation (no strings attached) and support (we want to empower you). Some parents make their support conditional on the new couple reciprocating in some way. For support (financial or emotional) to be empowering, it must be unconditional and freely given. For example, financial arrangements should be clearly negotiated in an attitude of mutual respect and agreement. If there are expectations such as paying back a loan later, these conditions must be specified up front so that responsibility becomes part of empowerment.
Some parents are threatened by their children’s independence and want to keep control. The demands they make can undermine the newly established unit, forcing the couple to concentrate on meeting the expectations of the family of origin rather than on building the newly formed marital dyad. The couple that continually needs parental financial or emotional help has failed to accomplish the important task of establishing autonomy, which includes the ability to manage financially and to become functionally independent of parents. The manner in which supportive arrangements are made and the
accompanying attitudes and expectations of both parents and married children determine whether such help will have positive or negative effects.
The principle of empowerment can be demonstrated by asking the following question: Does the support lead to responsible action and mutual respect or to indebtedness, dependency, and obligation? If parents use their resources to control, the result is emotional distance and resentment. If parents use their resources to empower, they help the couple establish a strong marital bond along with a desire to maintain solid ties and connection with extended family.
A person’s identity is formed in the family of origin. In fact, until puberty it is hard to think of ourselves apart from our family. In our families, we acquire the majority of our attitudes, beliefs, and values. What we believe our parents think of us shapes our self-concept. One’s identity is connected with being from a particular family, and this identity forms the main psychological vehicle for living. Identity is so important psychologically that Dan McAdams (1997) describes identity achievement as the crux of human development.
At puberty, however, differentiation begins to intensify. Through this process, teenagers establish an identity separate from the family. Differentiated individuals are both connected to their families and, at the same time, sufficiently separated socially and psychologically. On the one hand, differentiated individuals have a strong sense of belonging or togetherness with their families. On the other hand, differentiated individuals know themselves—their beliefs, values, and desires—and are able to live out those aspects of their self-concept, or what we would call core self (Bowen 2004), while maintaining relationships with others. This core self takes personal responsibility and is able to respond to experiences and relationships in a manner consistent with its values while maintaining those relationships. It takes a great deal of emotional, intellectual, and spiritual energy to accomplish this extremely important task of sorting out and determining one’s own values and beliefs rather than indiscriminately taking on the values and beliefs of one’s parents. We describe the process of adolescent differentiation in greater detail in chapter 9. At this point, it is sufficient to say that people are not ready for marriage until they have clearly differentiated themselves from their parents.
There are two types of undifferentiated individuals: those who are overly close and dependent on their family of origin and those who are disengaged
or emotionally severed from it. In overly close (fused) relationships, people are so tightly involved with their families that there is no healthy separateness. People who are emotionally cut off, however, are so emotionally removed from their families that there is no healthy connectedness. Notice how these two types are utilizing similar relationship strategies: both fused and cutoff people are using their relationships alone to define their identities. The fused individual often modifies or disavows aspects of the core self so that membership with the family is maintained. On the other side, those who are cut off emotionally are trying to define themselves in contrast to the FOO.
Genesis 2:24 describes differentiation for the marital couple: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” A person cannot leave mother and father if he or she clings to or is fused with them. People overly connected with their parents have difficulty creating a new marital dyad. Yet leaving mother and father is equally impossible if there has never been a sufficient connectedness with them. In cutoff families, children lack the skills to make close emotional connections with others, even a new spouse. In both extremes, it is highly difficult to establish a meaningful “one flesh” union.
The concepts of fusion and cutoff are illustrated in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32). The younger son cuts himself off from his family, demanding his full inheritance and severing all connections. In the process, he cuts off all cultural, social, economic, and psychological ties by moving to a far country and working among swine (which are unclean for Jewish people). On the surface, this may appear to be a sign of independence, but it proves to be premature.
One might also wonder if the elder son who stays home is somehow fused with his family. As the story unfolds, he appears to be undifferentiated. We see this fusion when he complains to his father about his obedience not being rewarded. The older brother is not willingly doing his father’s will; he is biding his time until he receives the reward of his inheritance and is obedient to his father only on the surface. His reaction to his father’s acceptance of his lost brother is indicative of fusion. A differentiated son would have established a solid connection with a clearly defined self and thus would have celebrated his brother’s return. Additionally, his service to the father and family would not be intrinsically based in identity and motivated by the expectation of reward. His jealous and angry reaction suggests that he is
threatened by his erroneous belief that his father has only so much love to give and that giving love to the younger brother means that the father loves him less. He is not sufficiently separated from his family of origin, and his dependency leads to possessiveness and jealousy.
Empowerment facilitates personal responsibility and empathy for the other. Each brother would take ownership of his choices, both appropriate and inappropriate. They would be able to allow others to experience the consequences of their behavior while maintaining a relationship with them. The father exemplifies this, understanding the sons’ choices and avoiding interference when the consequences of those choices affect his sons. This is not a cold, detached, unfeeling attitude on the part of the father. This is a father empowering his adult sons by allowing them to experience the effects of their choices.
The way God parented the children of Israel afforded them the possibility of achieving differentiation. God offered covenantal love, which is the basis of identity, and the building blocks of grace, empowerment, and intimacy. On the one hand, when the children of Israel went their own way (cut off), he held them accountable and responsible for their actions. On the other hand, God continually offered grace in the form of reconciliation and restoration. This balance of both offering emotional support and affirming differentiation leads to interdependence in relationships.
We have seen that a very important factor in establishing a solid foundation in marriage is the differentiation of both spouses from their families of origin. There can be no cleaving without leaving. When two individuals are differentiated and secure in their own identities, they can give themselves to each other and make room in their selves for the distinct other that contributes toward forming a differentiated unity. Their close and stable relationships with their families of origin promote a loyalty to the old while creating a new and distinct system.
Adaptability In general, people need order in their lives. Scripture teaches that a human
community should be an orderly one. One of Paul’s qualifications for church leaders is that they should have orderly home relationships (1 Tim. 3:1–7). Effective families function well with a certain amount of routine and structure. Yet the desired degree of order varies greatly among families and cultures. Some families demand an excessive amount of order; others have
almost no structure at all. For example, children’s bedtimes may be observed so precisely in some families that if the youngsters are not in bed with the lights out at the prescribed minute, punishment is sure to follow. Other families have such little regard for order that bedtimes are not even prescribed, let alone enforced. These two extremes are examples of very low and very high degrees of adaptability. Degree of adaptability is an important dimension that marriage partners bring with them from their family of origin (see chap. 2).
Most often, effective families have a healthy degree of structure and flexibility (i.e., they are neither overly rigid nor chaotic). Marriages with a capacity for adaptability endure well over time because they are more open to and can adapt better to the changes that continually occur in family life. This ability is especially important because change is inevitable, whether it occurs in the development of individual members, in relationship dynamics, throughout the family life stages, or because of an unexpected internal or external stressor.
But what happens when a person from a rigid home marries a person from a chaotic home? Both spouses will naturally attempt to implement their own family style, and this presents interesting clashes, to say the least. Spouses who come from more balanced and similar backgrounds will undoubtedly have an easier time of it. All couples need to develop a system that works best for them. Even such matters as how to celebrate particular holidays or how to implement daily family routines such as eating, sleeping, and playing, or rituals such as manners or prayers at the table or reading stories at bedtime will need to be negotiated. The couple will begin to establish their own routines, household rules, roles, and rituals. Once again, they may take certain things from each of their family traditions to enrich their homes and mutually create new ways of organizing their family life.
The Dilemma of Modern Marriage The high rate of divorce in most Western cultures supports the notion that it is difficult to establish a strong marriage in a postmodern society. Although a variety of explanations can be proposed, such as urbanization, industrialization, changing gender roles, and high social and geographical mobility, surely a key factor is high expectations that marriage will fulfill personal needs. One expectation that Tim and Kathy Keller (2013) describe
is the belief that personal happiness and fulfillment is the most important aspect of one’s life. Marriage is unable to guarantee personal happiness because it is inherently a give-and-take between relational partners. Personal happiness takes a back seat to maintaining the marriage. This is an affront to the postmodern belief that individual fulfillment and happiness is the most important aspect of life. Up to one hundred years ago, marriage was primarily a social institution designed to meet economic needs and provide a place for rearing children. This view of marriage as an institution has been replaced by the concept that marriage is a companionship grounded on romantic attraction, self-fulfillment, and ego-need gratification (Coontz 2004; Frederick and Dunbar 2019). As the marriage expectation bar continues to be raised, fewer marriages are capable of delivering what they promise in the way of personal fulfillment and satisfaction.
The tremendous expectations placed on marriage today are further exacerbated by the notion that each spouse must compete for power and a separate identity while in the marriage. In the past, wives simply yielded their individual identity and rights to their husbands. As late as the mid- 1800s, ownership of any property contributed by the bride’s family transferred to the husband. In the traditional marriage, the goal of two becoming one was met by the bride giving up her own identity and taking on a new identity as the husband’s wife. While few would want to return to this kind of arrangement, the “challenge in modern marriage is to build a relationship that is mutual, reciprocal, and balanced by equal regard for each spouse and mutual sacrifice for the good of the relationship” (Balswick and Balswick 2006).
One response to the contemporary marriage crisis is to abandon the ideal that marriage is a lifelong commitment. When marriage is defined as a business contract between two partners, the focus becomes maximizing one’s benefits and minimizing expenditures. This implies that marriages are primarily for the individual’s benefit and that the marriage should be ended when costs exceed benefits. Famil