Cycle of Tears in Nature

In previous articles, we discussed briefly the cyclic nature of family life.  We will talk about it again. This promises to be a somewhat boring but necessary article, which will give a description and overview of the whole cycle.  Its goal is to be a framework for helping to illustrate with concrete examples every stage of the family life cycle and its development.

As in any system, the family is formed, developed, and then, when the original couple later ceases its material existence, continuously renews itself just as the living coral grows upon the petrified, dead coral ‘generations’ before it. The cycle of family development and the life of every generation have eight clearly delineated, interrelated stages. 

I

The first stage involves the separation and individuation of the young adult from the family of origin (the family in which he was raised and educated), and starts to live independently.  This step is the final act of a complicated, contradictory, long and sometimes painful process. It can work out amicably and either abruptly, or gradually. The child leaves to the dorm at the university, or to live with relatives and the like.

It can also work out through a conflict, with statements such as:  “As long as you live under my roof, you will follow my rules”.  Then, any placement seems to be better for the young adult than to stay at home.

 As discussed before, both - the parents and the child - want to make all the decisions but prefer the other to be responsible for them.  In other words, while the teenager wants the parents to supply him with possibly all of his needs, s/he simultaneously insists on complete independence.  Parents, of course, want the child to make independently ‘right’ decisions, but “for the good of the growing child” want to retain complete control over his behaviour. 

The desire of the parents for maximum control of their offspring is on the one hand a real necessity in order to protect the growing and quite inexperienced individual from the temptations of the world.  On the other hand, the parents want to hold on the object which encompasses an enormous genetic, emotional and financial investment.

 II

The second stage involves the formation of the couple. Two young people (who, hopefully, learned to live independently) enter into a union which, in time, develops and unfolds into a marriage unit. Then - the relationship between the families of origin.  What the relationship will be between the two young members of the marital couple and with their own and future relatives depends very much on and starts from the very first meetings with the future ‘in - laws’ and during the preparation for the wedding. How this develops will come into discussion a little later when we talk about the multi - generational family.

III

In the third stage we have the appearance of children.  As a rule the birth of a child drastically changes the life of the young couple. The infant in the house is the beginning of a new calendar, a new era.  “That was before the birth of the children”.  This sounds like BC, i.e., before children.  The new responsibilities, drastic change of lifestyle and the anxieties connected with the first childhood illnesses, all overshadow the main issue of who was the initiator of all of these changes.  Was it the couple or was it their parents?  Was it a mutual desire to have a child or did one of the members of the couple want a child more than the other?  All these circumstances will, in time, determine the dynamic of the development of the child and his relationship  with the parents, grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts and uncles.

IV

The fourth stage - the growing of the children and the gradual letting go by the family.  In the process of its maturation, the child needs less and less of the parents’ care.  If one looks at the development of the children from that point of view, we can see different stages of separation/individuation of the child from the parents. In the beginning, for about nine months, the child is in a complete symbiotic relationship with its mother, and then there is the delivery. This is the first separation.  Helpless in the first months of life, the infant completely depends on those who care for him.  In time he learns to differentiate those who surround him and he determines his central figure to be usually the mother.  In the next phase of separation the child stops to express anxiety when he does not see his mother.  The experience of this separation, which at first is for a few minutes, and then gradually becomes longer, is very important for the child and the mother. 

At an older age, the child learns to separate from the mother a little longer, spends a night at grandmother’s etc.  After the entrance into nursery school or kindergarten, the child finds itself for the first time, one to one with the world which lies outside of the limits of his family and he needs to learn how to build his relationships with peers and other adults without the immediate help from his relatives.  Next comes the sleep over: the first time in his life he leaves his parents’ home to be in a different surrounding.  For him it is a temporary escape from family control and an expression of an open preference of the company of his friends to the company of his parents and the anxious anticipation of something new. For his parents, it is a feeling of an uncustomary emptiness in the home.  Gradually the family allows longer and longer absences for the child, e.g., summer camps, etc. 

Finally, there is more or less complete independence and separation from the family.  That usually is realized only to a certain degree.  The higher the degree of independence the more healthy and self sufficient will be the relationship on all levels of the family process.  The cycle will be reflected in the child's relations with his own children in the future.   Each successive generation in turn repeats the first stage of separation which their parents went through at their first stage.   Like the spiral in a molecule of DNA the end of the parents’ fourth stage branches off into the first stage for their offspring. At the same time, the original couple passes into a part of their life which in North America is defined as "Empty Nest" stage.

V

The empty nest is the fifth stage.   Let us underline that every step of the child in the direction of independence results in a specific test of a family's sturdiness; more precisely, the relationship between the parents as spouses.  The exit of the children leaves the parents one to one with each other.  If during their common mutual lives they did not build a self sufficient type of relationship beside their relationship with and through the children, in other words, if they did not succeed in maintaining their couplehood, the family may fall apart.

VI

During the sixth stage, the parents are transformed into grandparents. If everything is fine in the process of their relationship and they learn to value each other, they will spend time together and will not be “in their children’s hair” but only to some degree to participate in the raising of the grandchildren.

If, however, the spouses are deficient in their mutuality, but manage to live through the crisis of the ‘empty nest’, they sooner or later will mostly become grandparents.  This is the stage of “golden autumn”. 

VII

The seventh stage arrives and with it old age.  After autumn comes winter.  The forces of life are weakening, and aches and pains come into play. The relational comfort at this stage depends on how successful the unfolding of the family cycle has been. In immigrant families this becomes more difficult because of the demise of the traditional structure and a greater distance between the generations. 

The question of what to do with the aged needs a specific discussion.

VIII

The eighth stage brings about the death of the original couple, when the exit of one of the spouses is often soon followed by the death of the other.  For the children this loss may be complicated by the problems connected with dividing the inheritance.  Oftentimes, the contradictions in this respect lead to conflicts and long term consequences.   

The above - described model of a family life cycle is a specific system of coordinates.  With the help of this model we can analyze the existing dynamics of a concrete family and the possible scenarios which it may follow throughout its evolution.  The experience of working with families shows that the more concrete and material the stages - the healthier and more functional the life of the family and the lives of its members. 

In conclusion, let us note that the process of separation of the young adult from the family is the most critical factor of its development.  It starts with the birth of the child and is supposed to gradually ‘shift gears’ allowing more independence. Around the age of 10 to 12 years, the child should be fully prepared to develop into an ‘independent contractor’ which, under intense and constant supervision of his parents, makes more and more complex social choices presented and configured by the parents/family.   It concludes basically by 18 to 20 years of age when the first stage of the family cycle begins.

 

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