to become any type of specialist I might select—doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations and race of his ancestors.” While few behavioral scientists accepted such a strong social deterministic position, they do include the influence of social and relational factors, along with biological and neurological factors, in order to understand the embodied nature of human existence.
A newer understanding of the biological and genetic influences on individual and family life concerns interpersonal neurobiology. Based on Dan Siegel’s (2020) work on it, aspects of interpersonal neurobiology include (1) the brain and neuron functioning and (2) neuroplasticity. The focus here is how both genetics and environments, especially parent-child relationships, collaborate to enhance individual functioning. This perspective also emphasizes how the brain and relationships are fluid or malleable (neuroplasticity), allowing individuals to adapt to trauma and negative experiences.
Considering biological influences on the family is important for at least two reasons. First, and most obvious, is to give a more complete and true understanding of the family. Second, on a more practical level, is to recognize that behavior by family members must be understood in terms of biological as well as social factors. This helps members of the family to be less self-blaming when certain difficulties arise. Parents of a child struggling with mental illness, addiction, or any one of a number of other developmental difficulties are empowered by knowing about the biological factors that contribute to any particular behavioral problem. This liberates parents from feeling overly responsible for their child’s difficulties. An oversocialized view of child development leads to an undue burden of guilt and shame for many parents or caregivers.
Because of the complex ways in which biological factors operate, assessing the relative importance of biological versus sociocultural factors is challenging. To begin with, it is necessary to move beyond a mere additive model in which one simply assesses the amount of separate influences of nature and nurture. Instead, what is needed is an interactive model that takes into account how biological and social factors impact and are being impacted by each other, and how the interactions impact family life. Although the role of biological factors will be included throughout the book, a few examples of genetic or neurological factors may be helpful at this point.
Genetic Factors A simplistic view of the role of heredity in human behavior can be heard
in such comments as, “He’s just like his grandfather,” or “She’s just like her aunt Betty.” In reality, the role of genes in human behavior is very complex. We now know that genes influence behavior by controlling very complex biological and developmental functions. D’Onofrio and Lahey (2010, 768) conclude, “It has become clear that genes and environments influence our behavior in a complex interplay that often involves the genetic moderation of environmental influence.” Further, it is not simply that genes and the environment interact, for as Adele (2009, 2) points out, “Experience affects which genes are turned on (or off) and when,” and “the environment participates in sculpting expression of” genes. Genetic disposition, therefore, might be thought of as necessary but not sufficient for the display of complex behaviors.
An example relevant to family life is the finding that the same gene has been linked with alcohol dependence, decreased probability of marrying, and an increased risk of divorce (Dick et al. 2006). Rendering these associations much more complex, however, are follow-up analyses that revealed that “personality characteristics, such as reward dependence, may partially explain how the gene is associated with both alcohol dependence and marital status” (D’Onofrio and Lahey 2010, 765). It should be noted, however, that the associations between these behaviors were small. That is, neither genetic nor personality factors completely explain the causes of alcohol dependence and marital status. Behavioral scientists emphasize the multidimensional nature of human problems like divorce and alcoholism, and addressing these human concerns requires incorporating both the medical and psychological aspects of human existence.
Another aspect in understanding the role of genetics is the idea that genes may also influence behavior differently according to the social context of behavior. For example, “Youth who are genetically predisposed to be aggressive who live in sparse rural environments may be less likely to engage in violence than youth living in urban environments because of the greater density of gangs in densely populated environments” (D’Onofrio and Lahey 2010, 768–69). Again, we must recognize the complexity of these matters as well as acknowledge that with more study there will be more clarity.
Neurological Factors Largely due to technological advances, including the use of brain imaging,
immunology, and endocrinology, much research has been done on how the neurological system influences human behavior. The areas in which research has shown neurological factors to be important in family life include the role of human stress (D’Onofrio and Lahey 2010).
An understanding of the role of stress has been found to be important in the following family processes: (1) during times of rapid change in the family, such as pregnancy, early childhood, and puberty; (2) during parent-child relationships, where stressful relationships can shape a child’s stress neurobiology; (3) during conflict encounters where stress reactivity or the lack of it can either escalate or dampen conflict and correspondingly the stress levels of family members; and (4) in documenting how stress impacts each individual family member in different ways (D’Onofrio and Lahey 2010).
Accumulated research shows that hormone levels influence and are influenced by social environments. The implications for family life are many, beginning with a better understanding of adolescent behavior when hormones are raging, to showing how hormonal changes affect women during menopause, to explaining changes in sexual relationships among elderly couples as hormone levels diminish.
The use of MRI and other brain-imaging techniques has brought forth new information on how the brain and neurological system impact human behavior. For instance, we now know that the brain “is still undergoing normative developmental changes during late adolescence and early adulthood” (Casey et al. 2005, 45). The brain simply is not engaging in higher-order brain processing until the mid-twenties. This knowledge may not stop the parent-teen battles about teen behaviors, but it does give reason to have dialogue about the concern.
Interpersonal neurobiology focuses on how the brain and relationships mutually influence one another. For example, early positive interactions fostering secure attachment between a caregiver and child support neurological development. Further, this neurological development— increasing neurons and connections in various parts of the brain—feeds back into the parent-child relationship, enhancing the attachment bond (Cozolino 2014).
So, taking into account recent advances in knowledge about the influence of biology on family life, we offer several guarded conclusions. First, the influence of biological factors is very complex and interactive with sociocultural factors. Second, the relative importance or amount of biological influence is difficult to detect. Third, the amount of influence, although important, is often quite small. For all of these reasons, the number of citations given in this book for biological factors will be limited in comparison to the evidence cited regarding the impact of sociocultural factors on family life. We encourage readers to maintain an awareness of the possible implications of biological factors for a more balanced and comprehensive understanding of family life in the twenty-first century.
Family-Development Theory Imagine that we had access to a time machine and could view the Lee family at different points in its development. Let us suppose that we could view Mr. and Mrs. Lee during their first month of marriage, the year their first child was born, the year their youngest child was born, the year their youngest child became a teenager, the last year that child lived at home, and the year their youngest grandchild was born. Altogether, we would have six slices from the life of this family. They would look quite different at each of those points, but there would also be certain elements of continuity: the basic organization of the family, the siblings’ birth order (family constellation), the family’s history and traditions, the presence of extended family, and so on. It should be noted that each stage of family life has predictable times of tension, and certain stages require more family structure than do others.
The developmental perspective allows us to view the typical family’s progression through various stages of life. The family is not only responding to its current environment and trying to adapt to inputs (family-systems theory), but the family is also embedded in time (sequences) producing inputs and responding to global challenges throughout history. Within each stage, the family must accomplish certain key developmental tasks (notice that changes in family development primarily focus on membership changes like engagement or birth). Likewise, each individual family member must master developmental tasks at a particular stage. A degree of variation and oscillation is normal in this process, since both the family as a unit and individual family members must accomplish their respective tasks before the
family can move on to the next stage of development. To the extent that the developmental tasks are not accomplished, the family will be less prepared to move on. It is helpful to think about developmental tasks in terms of age appropriateness for each unique family member and determine when an individual is over- or underdeveloped in a particular area. While one is working toward a balance in many areas of development, it is always important to recognize the natural ebb and flow that occurs as an individual family member proceeds through the life stages.
Some developmental tasks are stage specific, while other tasks are accomplished throughout the phases of family life. For example, in the first year of marriage it is important for a couple to make joint decisions about finances and household chores, but this becomes less important once a pattern is established. However, interpersonal communication is a skill that will be important throughout married life.
Table 2 lists the basic developmental stages of a family, the major task associated with each stage, and the event that initiates it. It should be noted that all families are unique and that these stages do not happen as precisely as the chart indicates.
In general, a family can be said to have moved from one stage to the next when a major transition takes place. We begin our list with the premarital stage because of the importance of differentiation from one’s family of origin (the family into which a person was born). The goal of differentiation is to develop a clear sense of self that enables one to relate to and interact with others in interdependent ways. This sense of self is based on one’s identity. That is, one’s true self is based on values and beliefs that ground human action. DoS entails authentically living out one’s core beliefs while engaging in meaningful relationships. Such a capacity for self-sufficiency leads to deeper levels of connection. Note that differentiation does not negate intimacy in favor of autonomy. It allows for intimacy and autonomy, for both are intriguingly dependent on each other. The process of differentiation begins in childhood, intensifies during late adolescence, and continues throughout the life stages. Success in differentiation gives one the best chances for achieving mature marital intimacy and forming an interdependent union.
TABLE 2 Family Development
Stage Major Task Initiating EventStage Major Task Initiating Event
Premarital Differentiating from family of origin Engagement
Marital dyad Adjusting to marital roles (establishing a household)
Triad Adjusting to new child Birth/adoption of first child
Adjusting to new family members Birth/adoption of youngest child
Family with adolescents
Increasing flexibility in family system Children’s differentiation from the family
Launching Accepting departure of family members
Children initiating a move for college, career, or marriage
Postlaunching Establishing new patterns and embracing new members
Departure of last child from home
Retirement Accepting aging process and regenerating meaning
End of employment
The most obvious and important transition in the family life cycle is marriage. When two people marry, a new family begins in the form of a dyad. The major developmental task involves the husband’s and the wife’s adjustment to each other in their new roles as married rather than single people. This interaction brings a differentiated marital unity. That is, each spouse forms a meaningful, values-driven family based on their shared beliefs. Each partner maintains this relationship while living authentically according to their values. This unity forms the basis for engaging in other social contexts, especially with in-laws.
There is an incredible agenda to be accomplished during this stage: setting up a new household, dividing up household chores, creating a budget, establishing work and career roles, meshing together sexually, developing friendships and planning social events, making decisions about church involvement and spiritual growth, and so on. On top of this, values and meaning-making are also crucial. Partners need to identify the core beliefs that will inform how the family engages with the social world. This is an important time of establishing a sound foundation for future stages. The couple will face questions about whether or when to have children, and some will face infertility questions and decisions.
In view of the amount of energy and cooperation needed to accomplish the items on this agenda, it is vital that the newly formed couple follow the
biblical mandate to “leave and cleave.” If they are to make these many decisions, the couple must clearly define their united relationship. They need encouragement and support from their respective families in this process, but if the families interfere, the foundation will be weakened.
The third family stage, the triad, begins with the birth, adoption, or fostering of the first child. Many couples benefit from having at least a few years together to form the spousal union and accomplish the tasks required of newlyweds before having children. The early arrival of a child can prematurely shift the focus of attention from the tasks of the marriage relationship to those of the parent-child relationship. When a child is born, adopted, or fostered into a family, the existing system must make necessary changes to welcome the new member. New boundaries will need to be defined and established between members and subsystems; physical space must be made to accommodate the new member.
When children reach adolescence, increased pressure is placed on the family system to accommodate itself to greater demands for flexibility. At this time, differentiation is especially pronounced because of the emotional and physical separation taking place. The drive toward adulthood for the adolescent generates internal pressure for the family to incorporate another adult into the family. This pressure toward differentiation on behalf of the adolescent encourages the family to expand its membership to include the values and beliefs of the developing adolescent. It is also the time when parents approach midlife, which often involves stress. Many challenges arise when the stressful stages of adolescence and midlife occur simultaneously. This may also be the time when a person builds a new family, made up of a new spouse with the spouse’s children and/or one’s own.
The launching stage begins when children are hankering to make it on their own. The parents must allow their children to leave the family of origin while supporting this rather shaky interim period. It is crucial for parents to be open to their adult child’s decisions, such as finding a place to live, entering the military, choosing a college or training for a career, entering the workforce, choosing a mate, taking a trip, and so on. In some cases, the adult children are not ready to launch, and new rules for household living must be instituted.
The postlaunch stage brings new challenges, depending on one’s life circumstances. Due to the expanded life expectancy in our society, the postlaunch stage accounts for nearly half the lifespan of the typical family