In chapter 7 we noted Erik Erikson’s thesis that identity and intimacy are key developmental goals to be achieved by young adults on their way to maturity. Subsequent research has shown that while this sequence (identity then intimacy) holds true for males, the reverse (intimacy then identity) holds true for females. During adolescence, males are more likely to be members of an identifiable peer group, while females are more likely to have made a few close friends. For males, one’s rank in the peer group helps to form personal identity; while for females, the emotional bonding and communication between close friends develop intimacy. As a result of these differences during adolescence, the average male enters young adulthood with a firmer sense of identity, while the female has more fully developed intimacy skills. This difference explains why, among those who marry young, husbands struggle more with achieving intimacy and wives with identity. Working on those areas in which one is deficient is essential for young adults at the launching stage.
Adulthood is defined in most cultures as the time when people are held accountable for their behavior in society. It must be remembered that each culture, with its particular beliefs, traditions, and values, determines the pace of the launching period. We must not judge all families by the Western ideal but respect how each unique culture helps its young adults reach the point of
accountability. Many circumstances influence the launching of each individual young adult, so we must pay attention to cultural diversity as well as individual differences and oscillations throughout the process from dependence to independence and eventually to mature interdependence.
In chapter 9 we identified some of the normal tensions that arise when parents are grappling with midlife issues just as their children enter adolescence. How well the launching goes is in large measure determined by how well parents and adolescents have addressed and resolved these tensions. We might speak of a smooth launch when the adult child who has left home orbits around the family at a safe distance; good connections are maintained, and there are mutually gratifying touchdowns. In a recalled launch, everyone seems prepared and ready for the big day, yet complex family circumstances prevent the adolescent from actually getting off the ground. More time is needed to make necessary repairs or to right wrongs before a successful launch can be accomplished. Sometimes there is clearly a blastoff, fueled by anger and dissension, which propels the young adult to a distance beyond the gravitational pull of the family. In such cases, the premature cutoff leaves young adults floundering without support, and it is not surprising that they come crashing back, often having an impact on everyone in their path. Thus, there are sad and incomplete leavings, just as there are happy and satisfying leavings. Perhaps one of the most reliable predictors of the chances for a successful launch is the level of differentiation a youth has achieved while in the home.
There may also be times of renesting, when adult children return home to cohabit with parents due to educational circumstances, financial hardship, or partner breakup (such as death or divorce). Renesting requires that adult children and parents renegotiate their relationship and the accompanying rules of cohabitation. This renegotiation should be based on adult, reciprocal relationships, and not based on parent-child relationships. Some specific aspects of this negotiation should be (1) rent or other renumeration for living in the parents’ home, (2) dealing with grandchildren regarding rules and expectations for behavior, (3) the adult child having intimate partners visit, and (4) a plan for relaunching. None of these suggestions should be considered final, but the negotiations should be ongoing, as the reasons for renesting are often complex and multifaceted.
Differentiation is the process whereby an individual assumes his or her unique identity as separate from while remaining connected to the family.
Those who approach the launching stage without a clear self-definition can be overly dependent or too cut off and disengaged from their parents. Without a solid, sufficient sense of self, they either pretend that they don’t need anybody or they lack the confidence that they can succeed on their own. In contrast, differentiated young adults can assume interdependence in their relationships because they are both separate from yet stay meaningfully connected to their parents.
Transition Tasks Successful transition through the launching stage is accomplished through
four tasks. First, married parents must refocus on their marriage relationship. When the marriage is doing well, an adult child’s leaving home unites rather than divides the parents. However, if unresolved issues have caused ongoing tension and disagreements, the marriage may be on shaky ground. If the couple has focused solely on the parenting role, whether through trials or delights, the loss of that role puts them at jeopardy. They may need to face each other and their relationship in new ways. This can lead to growth and a stronger marriage if the couple is able to refocus on their partnership. If not, there is little to keep the marriage vital, and it may disintegrate. Adult children feel the freedom to go forward with their own lives when they are assured their parents have a substantial marriage.
The second task is related to the first: parents and children need to learn to relate to each other as adults. Part of the letting go involves allowing the child to take on a new adult role. Respecting young adults and acknowledging their adult status can be a challenging task for parents. It is especially problematic for parent-child relationships based on authoritarian practices; affirmation of the child’s adulthood is more difficult for controlling parents. Easing into an adult-adult relationship is more natural for those working from an empowerment model, since there has been continual affirmation as the child developed toward maturity.
A third task for successful launching is for parents to develop good relationships with their adult child’s mate. Often the daughter-in-law/mother- in-law relationship is the most conflicted. One reason may be that mothers tend to be more heavily involved in the lives of their married children. This may be exacerbated when the husband compares his wife to his mother on such matters as cooking, cleaning, and parenting. These comparisons put the daughter-in-law in a no-win situation, since the husband defines “good” in
terms of his family of origin. The new wife naturally operates according to her family’s traditions and tastes.
Also prone to conflict is the relationship between the son-in-law and the mother-in-law. The popular stereotype of a mother-in-law interfering may serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy. The expectation that she will interfere serves to increase the son-in-law’s reaction to her involvement with her daughter. The conflict in the son-in-law/father-in-law relationship seems to be centered in the father-in-law’s view that the son-in-law is inadequate to provide for his daughter. Indeed, when the son-in-law is perceived by the father-in-law as a good provider, the chances are good that this will be a positive relationship. The least conflictive relationship seems to be between the daughter-in-law and the father-in-law. This relationship is often characterized by mutual acceptance and well-intended humor. Perhaps the relational skills of the daughter-in-law give her an ability to get along with her father-in-law.
The fourth task for successful launching is to resolve issues pertaining to the older generation. When the emotional and economic needs of their adult children have consumed and drained parents, the problems presented by their own aging parents may come as a disturbing reality. Having fewer resources to give may fuel resentment about the needs of aging parents. Taking time to anticipate and prepare for the needs of the elder generation can alleviate some of the frustration.
Contemporary Obstacles to Successful Launching Clearly, the process of leaving home is not as easy as it once was. In a
highly technological society, the majority of well-paying jobs demand a high degree of education, training, and skill. Even adequate entry-level jobs may require a college degree at a minimum. Given the high cost of education and training, the adult child today often needs additional economic help. The pattern of adult children leaving home only to return a few months or years later has given rise to the term boomerang children.
The cost of housing also makes it difficult for newly married couples to move into their own homes. This means that adult children frequently ask for financial help from their parents even after they have established themselves in careers and significant relationships. Given this trend of continued financial need on the part of children who have already launched, the
contemporary family may be returning to the more traditional extended- family structure.
The Postlaunching Stage Whenever we (Jack and Judy) visited Jack’s parents, a predictable ritual would take place. Dad Balswick would gleefully announce, “I think it’s time we washed your car!” Clean cars were a priority for Dad, and our car was sure to need a good washing after traveling three hundred miles. The car- washing ritual dated back to when Jack was a little boy. Dad would hold the hose and give the instructions as Jack did the grunt work of soaping down and scrubbing the car. Now, as an adult, Jack moved back into his little-boy position, while Dad assumed his “father knows best” position. Although this was an innocent ritual, one that Judy thoroughly enjoyed because her father- in-law winked at her as he bragged about how he got Jack to wash the car, it points to an area of struggle during the postlaunching phase. Old patterns of relating can sometimes be hard to take and even more difficult to break during family reunions, especially if the parents fail to relate to their children as adults to adults.