What Makes A Family Tick? Part IV

Happy Family with LifelineThis is the fourth of a multi-part series that examines the workings of a healthy family. It’s meant to be a sort of how-to guide that can help you create the family you always dreamed of.

We Are Family!

People marry and have children for all sorts of reasons. Some believe it’s just the natural order of things while others are looking for security and companionship. And then there are those who want to create the family they never had growing up. Regardless of the reasons for how and why people come together, that they do has huge implications for everyone.

Social scientists describe families as the building blocks of society—strong family units combine to create a strong society. If the family as an institution starts to unravel, so, too, does the society.

Families are counted on to take at least some responsibility for each other’s safety and well being and in the best cases, to love, support, nurture and respect one another. The most important aspect of a family revolves around the relationships within it, which are irreplaceable and deeply influence each member’s journey through life. One of the main purposes of this “institution” is to nurture the next generation into adulthood. For this to happen there must be a certain amount of organization and a clearly defined hierarchy.

Before you can start to get organized, you have to know who belongs. Then you can start to figure out what you’re tying to accomplish and how to reach your goals. So what gives a particular group of people the right to be called a family? The philosophers could have a field day with this one but the bottom line is that the people in a family are related to each other by blood or by law. There are only three ways to get in—birth, adoption or marriage—and only one way to get out—death.

But even that doesn’t always work because long after our loved ones have died we continue to hear their voices. We imagine what they might say, for example, when we get a raise or our child scores the winning goal. We wonder what advice a dearly loved parent might give when we are faced with a scary diagnosis or the loss of a job. And we also find ourselves acting or talking just like them (or the exact opposite of them) with our own children, even if we were not crazy about the way we were raised. You’d be amazed how many people are still rebelling against their critical or overbearing parents even though they have been dead and gone for years.

Leaving the family is not really an option, although many have tried. You can’t quit and you can’t get fired. You might be the “black sheep” or “the deadbeat dad” but you are still “The Sherman’s” black sheep or “Sandra’s” deadbeat dad. And even if you have flat-out disowned the bad-news-brother who crashed your car and stole the money in your cookie jar, you’ve got to admit that in some subtle ways he is still influencing you—even if that influence involves nothing more than your conscious effort not to be like him. Your family is your family, but improvements can always be made.

The term “nuclear family,” refers to a mother, a father, and their children whereas “extended family” includes all those other folks like cousins and grandparents who are related and tend to show up on holidays and birthdays. Family therapists also use terms like “family of origin” to describe the family we grew up in and “family of procreation” to describe the one we raised or are raising.

Family membership changes over time as children marry and have their own children, parents and grandparents pass on, or divorces and remarriages occur. If the family is to remain strong they must adjust to these changes. They have to figure out how to welcome and accept new members and how to say goodbye to those who have gone.

Betty Carter, one of the giants in the family therapy profession, says that the active emotional field of any family includes at least three generations at any given time. She means that Grandma Toni, for example, may start an exercise program to get strong and fit enough to take care of her little twin grandsons whether they live next-door or 500 miles away.

Her 5:30 spinning class on Tuesdays and Thursdays may push her husband Steve to step up and cook dinner on those nights even though that has been Toni’s job in the past. Toni may spend hours on the phone each week advising her daughter Michelle on feeding, sleep schedules and toilet training. Her daughter may spend hours more sifting through her mother’s advice and deciding what to accept and what to reject.

The lives of Toni and Steve are being very much affected by the presence of those twins in the world and they are willing to make personal changes because of them. And the lives of Michelle and her new family are being affected by their relationships with Michelle’s parents even if they only get together a few times a year.

Next Week Part V: The Four Foundation Stones

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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.


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