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The Family Life Cycle

The idea of the family life cycle is based on the notion that families, like everything else, go through a process from birth through growth to decline and death. A useful way of conceptualizing the family life cycle is to look at ways that families must alter their attitudes and relationships in order to adapt to each of six stages:

  1. the young unattached adult;
  2. the newly married couple;
  3. the family with young children;
  4. the family at midlife: adolescents and aging parents;
  5. the stage of launching children and moving on; and
  6. the family in later life.

Both cyclical and linear changes of many kinds occur over these stages, including marital satisfaction, empathy, discussion, and regard.

Our experiences in passing through the family life cycle are affected by social changes. Some important changes in recent times are the lowered likelihood of experiencing the death of one’s parents or of a child, the increased likelihood of being a grandparent, and the increased likelihood of facing marital disruption because of divorce rather than death, which also means a greater likelihood of experiencing remarriage.

The newly married couple tends to have a high level of certain family strengths, including self-disclosure, loyalty, trust, and respect. One of the couple’s important tasks is forming its own marital system. In doing so, spouses have to follow or reject the models of their parents. In setting up their marital system, they must deal with the issue of closeness versus fusion, striving to build intimacy while retaining their individual identities.

The couple with young children faces the challenge of taking on the roles of mother and father as well as husband and wife and of enlarging the family system to include other people. Marital satisfaction is likely to be lower at this stage.

The family at midlife faces multiple challenges: the care of aging parents who become ill, disabled, or frail; illness or death of one of the spouses; allowing the children to form their own independent identities and establish a wider range of intimate relationships; and midlife concerns with regard to the marriage and the spouses’ careers. Adolescents are undergoing important physical, intellectual, and social definitional changes that lead to new expectations about responsibilities. They need increasing autonomy and independence, which can result in conflict with the parents. Communication, discipline problems, and financial struggles are common. Adolescents themselves see most of their stress arising from daily hassles with parents.

Those who care for aging parents as well as adolescent children constitute the “sandwich generation.” The great majority of the elderly are cared for by their children for all or most of their later years. But caregiving is stressful. Many caregivers need to call on community resources to help. For specialized or extensive care, institutionalization is necessary. The quality of care in nursing homes varies considerably, indicating the need for thorough investigation before institutionalizing a parent.

The midlife couple may be further stressed by personal concerns, including their own aging. They begin to change the way that they view life, thinking in terms of how much time is left and how many doors of opportunities are closed. Levinson and his associates have identified four fundamental concerns of men at midlife: mortality, destructive and creative possibilities, balancing masculine versus feminine qualities, and coming to terms with attachment to and separation from the social environment. Women usually reach the midlife crisis point earlier than men and may begin to focus more attention on their own needs and growth.

In spite of the strains, most adolescents report positive relationships with their parents. They see their parents as fair and relatively lenient with them. One way to minimize conflict is to institute rites of passage, which tend not to occur in our society.

In the launching and empty-nest stage, the couple must deal with the children moving out. They must come to terms again with their marital relationship and its future. Women are more likely than men to find the empty nest painful because they tend to invest themselves more in the child-rearing process. But the majority of people report the empty nest as a time of increased marital satisfaction and renewed family strength.

Grandparenthood is likely to occur in the fifth stage. There are different kinds of grandparents, including the formal, the fun seeker, the surrogate parent, the reservoir of family wisdom, and the distant figure. Grandchildren perceive their grandparents to play a variety of roles, including the historian, the mentor, the role model, the wizard, and the nurturer/great parent. The grandparent-grandchild relationship can be highly gratifying for both generations.

The aging family involves a shift of roles, with the middle generation taking on a more central place in the family. Retirement occurs at this stage. People may adjust well to, or even welcome, retirement when it is voluntary. Marital problems can arise if the new roles are not worked out satisfactorily.

Couples in the sixth stage tend to be maritally rather than parentally oriented. The marriage is likely to become more egalitarian. The couple may continue to have an active and meaningful sex life. And marital satisfaction is likely to be at its highest point since the couple’s early years together. Family relationships are still important. Contact with children tends to be frequent. Strains may result if adult children move back into the home, however.

Women are far more likely than men to experience the death of a spouse. Both men and women whose spouses die face a difficult period of adjustment. There is a loss of identity and a variety of physical and emotional consequences of bereavement. Those who talk over various matters with the dying spouse make a better adjustment to the death than do others. Many eventually remarry, although widows are less likely to do so than are widowers. Companionship is one of the most common reasons that both men and women remarry after the death of a spouse.

Lauer, Marriage and FamilyOnline Learning Center

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