. This can be a period of renewed closeness and/or struggle between husband and wife as they refocus their spousal relationship and develop meaning without children in the home. It may be an exciting time of searching for a job or pursuing a new career. Perhaps one is grappling with life after a divorce, the death of a spouse, or life as a single parent. If children were previously the major focus, it can be a period of disillusionment and loneliness (the empty-nest syndrome). Another complication involves caring for elderly parents and working through their deaths. Often there is time for sibling relationship connection or reconciliation. Then, just when it looks as if there is plenty of freedom to progress, spousal illness or financial responsibilities pose a problem. Dealing with boomerang kids who return home for one reason or another can become an unexpected focus. It is also a time to plan retirement, make decisions about where to live and travel, and prepare for a fixed-income lifestyle. A delightful aspect of this stage might involve developing relationships with grandchildren.
An Integration of Systems and Development Theories In this book, we use both the systems and the developmental perspective in discussing family life. The family is a developing system that embraces the arrival of new members and then releases them when they depart. It must be able to tolerate and respond to the changing needs of its individual members while providing a sense of belonging. At the same time, the family must be responsive to the environment. It must maintain a stability that can provide a firm foundation while remaining flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances. This is not an easy feat, especially with the enormous demands made on the family in our postmodern urban society. A multitude of extrafamilial systems (the work world, the educational system, the church, clubs, and organizations) all contend with the family for the time and devotion of family members. Only effective families can survive the intrusiveness of our contemporary society.
To understand how to build effective families, we must begin with a definition of what it takes to be an effective family. Table 3, which is based on clinical and sociological literature, presents a summary of various characteristics of strong and weak families. There are four major areas of analysis: cohesion, adaptability, communication, and role structure. In each area, two characteristics mark the resilient family.
TABLE 3 Characteristics of Effective and Ineffective Families
Effective Families Ineffective Families
Communication Clear perception
Role Structure Agreement on roles
Clear generational boundaries
Conflict over roles
Cohesion Cohesion refers to the degree of emotional closeness existing in a family.
In fact, family cohesion has been found to be related to a number of positive family outcomes, including child social competence (Leidy, Guerra, and Toro 2010). Additionally, young adult children transitioning to college tend to have less depressive symptoms provided they have adequate cohesion with their parents (Moreira and Telzer 2015). In effective families, the members are differentiated (have a healthy degree of separateness) and have a strong sense of belonging (a healthy degree of connection and interdependence). There is mutual respect for the unique qualities and personalities of the other family members. At the same time, there is family togetherness; members belong to one another and realize they are interdependent in their family unity. When family members are overly cohesive (fusion), family members lack a sense of separate identity or individuality; each member is overly dependent on the family or other members for identity, and individuals are discouraged from developing values and beliefs in disagreement with the family’s values. An example of fusion is when one member’s problem devastates an entire family. The family members are so overly involved and
concerned that they lose perspective. In the process, the problem worsens, and the chance of finding a solution lessens as they are pulled down together as a group.
The opposite extreme is a very low level of cohesion, which can be described as disengagement or emotional cutoff. In the disengaged family, the life of each member rarely touches the other members in a meaningful way. The members lack involvement, and they do not contribute to or cooperate with one another. In times of personal crisis, the members of a disengaged family are likely to be indifferent and uninvolved. In fact, they may not even be aware of the problem because it hasn’t been shared. Here the system cannot provide help or support for the hurting member. Each individual is too busy or is uninterested in what is happening with the others, sometimes refusing to acknowledge or even relate to one another.
Effective families, by contrast, have a degree of mutuality and involvement that is supportive but not intrusive. This cohesion is based on the identity of the family—its core meaning and values. Cohesion around this identity
allows each member to incorporate and expand the family identity while maintaining membership in the family. This quality is lacking in both fused and disengaged families, which are at the opposite ends of a continuum: fused families do not allow individuals to expand or even question the family’s identity, and disengaged families have no center around which members orbit. In the middle of this continuum are resilient families, which display an appropriate degree of cohesion and engagement.
For analytical purposes, individuation and mutuality can be discussed separately, but in actuality they overlap in what we refer to as differentiation. Figure 4 illustrates disengagement, differentiation, and fusion. The bold lines in the figure represent the boundaries around the family, and the light lines indicate the boundaries around each individual family member. In the disengaged family (A), the lives of the individual members very rarely touch one another. Cohesion is so low that each person lives in psychological isolation from the others.
In the differentiated family (B), daily lives overlap, but each individual is also involved in activities outside the family. Each member has a separate life and identity and, therefore, is actively and meaningfully engaged with others. Although a vital part of each member’s identity and support is found within the family, much is also found beyond the family boundary.
In the fused family (C), the lives of all members are hopelessly entwined. Each family member has little identity beyond the boundary of the family. Even within the family, there is little space for a given member to be independent of the others. A member of an enmeshed family who tries to separate is likely to be labeled disloyal and to experience pressure from the others to remain enmeshed.
Needless to say, the amount of cohesion varies from family to family and from one life stage to another. For example, the degree of cohesion is higher with young children when the emotional bonding between parent and child is a primary focus. When children become teenagers and are working toward self-identity, it is fitting that they separate emotionally in preparation for the independence necessary to eventually leave home. But even when they achieve suitable autonomy, they view themselves as part of—and keep close ties with—the family throughout life.
A second important criterion for judging family life is adaptability. Families that have too high a level of adaptability tend to be chaotic. They lack the needed structure and predictability that provide stability and security. At the opposite extreme, inflexible families have a very low degree of adaptability and can be equally unbalanced. These families have created such a tight, unbending system that they neither have nor give grace, a strength especially needed during periods of change and transition in the family life cycle.
A balanced level of adaptability characterizes strong family life. The two dimensions of flexibility and stability mark the orderly family. In resilient families, there is a sense of orderliness that entails both flexibility and structure. The difference between families in this particular area can be observed in the dinner patterns. In the chaotic family, dinner is at no set time, and family members come and go from the dining table whenever it is convenient. In the inflexible family, it is understood that dinner is at
6:00 p.m. sharp and that time will never be altered. In the stable yet flexible family, dinner is scheduled for a certain time because the members value family togetherness, but exceptions are made when needed and determined by the family as a whole.
David Olson (1988, 1998, 2011) has combined cohesion and adaptability in the Circumplex Model, in which he describes balanced and unbalanced family systems. The families at the center of figure 5 are balanced. They experience satisfying degrees of cohesion and adaptability. The four corners represent four types of unbalanced or extreme family systems, combinations of disconnectedness or inordinate connectedness with either inflexibility or excessive flexibility. Families that experience life in these extremes need better balance and more appropriate levels of cohesion and adaptability in their relationships. It is important to note that the balanced category includes a broad range of family styles. There is room for a variety of styles. The family needs to determine what is good for itself according to cultural values, input from all family members, age appropriateness, and what is best for the unique family members as well as the unique family system. Families at the extremes have the most difficulty satisfying both individual and family needs. Validation and suggested usefulness of the Circumplex Model can be found in an article by Olson (2011). When couples and family members are made aware of the disadvantages of the extreme categories of relating, they can make necessary changes that bring a more satisfying balance to their home.