Family Life Cycle Issues: Reflective Essay

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In looking at my family history there wasn’t an immediate familial issue that I identified. I then realized that the issue was so prominent in my life, it was a typical family dynamic, one I almost looked past. On my mother’s side of the family, every living child is divorced, including my mother. My father’s side of the family is large and has only had one divorce, which led me to choose this as an issue to frame through a theoretical lens.

Scope of the Issue

In determining how this issue has affected my family, it is critical to see how widespread the issue is. My mother and father divorced after twenty years of marriage and raising three children. My mother was married briefly before my father, lasting about a year and a half. My maternal aunt, Leah, was married for ten years and had five children during her marriage. My maternal aunt, Linda, was married for one year and had one child. My maternal uncle, Eric, was married for five years with no children in that marriage. My grandparents were married for eighteen years; they had four children, separated, reignited their marriage, had my mother, and then divorced. My brother and I are each in marriage, for four years and three years respectively. As someone who is considered relatively new to marriage, it is essential for me to understand why this pattern has persisted, so as to avoid some of these issues within my own marriage.

For this paper, I plan to look at my parents’ marriage specifically and some factors that led to the discourse and how the history of divorce has impacted my personal relationships, both in marriage and with siblings. My parent’s divorce occurred when I was 19 years old and I was not surprised by the news of the divorce, as my parents had fought verbally for most of the previous decade. In describing their relationship, my parents were very independent. My father and mother vacationed with the children separately often the family rarely had outings as one family unit. My parent’s relationship had changed through the years, and one factor that led to conflict within their marriage was my father’s diagnosis of brain cancer. Prior to the diagnosis, my father’s behaviors had changed dramatically, often becoming angry and forgetful, and generally difficult to be around. This impacted the family as a whole and when we learned he had been growing a brain tumor, his doctor explained how without a knowledge of how long it had been growing, they would say that it had some impact on his behaviors. He had surgery and began the recovery process. My mother and father decided together to end their marriage. They remained close friends; my mother was a support to my father financially and emotionally. My father was laid off following his return to work. My mother allowed my father to live in the home to recover and find his own housing. After three years, my father’s tumor had regrown, malignant. He had another surgery before a year of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Following this treatment, my father’s behaviors aligned with that of a traumatic brain injury, as his brain had suffered years of tumor growth, impacting his ability to function as he had in the past.

My mother was beginning to have difficulty with these behaviors. My father was beginning to make rude comments, and anger easily. She deemed this inappropriate for my youngest brother, Chase, to have to live with. She also stated that it was beginning to have an impact on her mental health, at which point she decided to stop all contact with my father unless it related to the children directly. My mother also has no contact with her father, stepmother, or sister.

Theories

Choosing what theories to use to identify needs and interventions for the presenting issue led me to ascertain the root cause of these original conflicts leading to divorce. As infidelity was not the cause of any of the divorces, I classified the leading factor as communication barriers and familial boundaries. As both Structural and Systems theories address communication and boundaries, I felt that it was best to use these interventions.

Systems

Murray Bowen analyzed families through five key concepts, differentiation of self, triangles, multigenerational emotional process, emotional cutoff, and societal emotional processes (as cited in Nichols and Davis, 2017). Using these five concepts to address the issues in my family, the main communication barrier has been a result of emotional cutoff. My maternal grandmother committed suicide when my mother was eleven years old. Following this loss, my mother’s relationship with her stepmother was strained. They maintained communication until my mother was approximately forty years old, at which time my mother, maternal grandfather, and maternal stepmother had a disagreement at which time they stopped talking and have not spoken since. This same pattern occurred between my mother and her sister, as well as my mother and father. In looking at the multigenerational process of my mother’s immediate family, it could be the traumatic and sudden death of her mother that led to a fusion between the members of the family, or an undifferentiated family ego mass (Nichols and Davis, 2017, pg. 72). In looking at this multigenerational process, this fusion may have directed my mother’s fusion in new relationships, with her children and husband. Seeing as this new fusion would be “unstable” it may have been a factor in her divorce as well as the emotional dysfunction between my mother and myself (Nichols and Davis, 2017, p. 72). My mother has acknowledged that her first marriage was an attempt to gain independence, leaving her father and stepmother. Bowen (1978) addressed this very issue:

“the more intense the cut-off with his parents the more he is vulnerable to repeating the same pattern in future relationships. He can have an intense relationship in a marriage which he sees as ideal and permanent at the time, but the physical distance pattern is part of him. When tension mounts in the marriage, he will use the same pattern of running away” (p. 535).

As Bowen (1978) uses the term “stuck togetherness” (p. 529) as a familial attribute that operates in the background of undifferentiated relationships, I have realized how this described my family as a coping mechanism to handle trauma. We are reactive in the opposite of ways. My father clings to the relationships he has, and my mother ends the relationships that cause her stress. This is evident in the ways both families were raised, seeing as there is no divorce or emotional cutoff on my paternal side and limited functioning relationships on my maternal side.

As Bowen writes in Toward the Differentiation of Self in One’s Family of Origin (1978) it is clear that looking at relationships past the immediate marriage and into the family of origin can lead to more successful therapeutic intervention and longer-term solutions. One therapeutic intervention is empowering clients to establish their own identity within the family system; differentiation. Allowing clients to observe their families provides them the opportunity to see certain patterns, triangles, and processes they may not have seen from within the system directly. One way Bowen accomplishes this is through “displacement stories” which give the client the opportunity to remove themselves and look at a parallel family to ascertain these patterns. This allows the client(s) to distance themselves and objectively identify issues without emotional reactivity (Semerod, 2019). Bowen also uses genograms to show patterns of family dynamics. Eva Lim (2008) includes that genograms may show patterns of personal characteristics, physical issues, diseases, and talents, as well as relational patterns (p. 112). As Nichols and Davis (2017) explain, the process of completing a genogram can be therapeutic as families often recognize patterns they had not observed before. This was true in my own experience as I had not seen the very evident pattern and issue of divorce and emotional cutoff.

Structural

Developing a sense of identity through recognizing systems, subsystems, and boundaries is the crux of Salvador Minuchin’s structural model of family therapy. Minuchin relies heavily on the family being assessed through the organization of these systems (Nichols and Davis, 2017, p. 113). As Bowen stresses the differentiation of self outside the family, Minuchin looks at the family structure as a whole to address issues. Minuchin also focuses on the ability to be flexible in the identification of the structure, boundaries, and family roles and rules.

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In looking at my family, a lot of the stressors developed from underlying expectations, and relational patterns developed over time. Traditional roles, such as my mother cooking dinner nightly, to larger expectations as to how the children interact with each other and the parents. In looking at my own family, I and my husband, developing “complementary patterns of support” (Nichols and Davis, 2017, p. 114) was crucial as we began our relationship. I worked part-time and finished my undergraduate studies as my husband worked full-time. I then began working full-time and attending graduate school as my husband worked two jobs to ensure financial stability. This was a learned pattern as both of our parents had similar arrangements throughout our childhoods. Both of our mothers were “stay-at-home moms” while our fathers worked full-time. This paved the way for a smooth transition into this complementary pattern of support. The flexibility of these patterns has allowed for this to continue to work well as there is no expectation of each other, but rather an understanding of the support the other person needs. In my parent’s relationship, this pattern remained rigid, so when my father lost his job there was a large disruption in the pattern causing a large issue.

Boundaries, my parents had rigid boundaries, as they both had very independent lives. This was my normal view of relationships as a child until I began dating and observed other relationships. I was the first in my immediate family to complete a bachelor’s degree and the only person in my direct maternal lineage to pursue a graduate degree. I feel that this was one rigid boundary that I subconsciously set myself to remain independent from my husband.

I am continuing to develop boundaries with my family now as a married person. My husband has established boundaries, now considering myself as his primary family, always coming first. This was difficult for us after our one-year marriage anniversary, my youngest brother died suddenly from an unexpected overdose, as he was not in active addiction, but rather a casual user. We were not prepared for the trauma of this loss and my mother leaned heavily on me for support. I believe that this is where the flexibility of systems and boundaries and the ability to adjust in facing adversity is imperative. The subsystem shifted from parents and children to grieving immediate family and in-laws, which was what we all needed at the time. I would identify the boundaries of the parental subsystem to be rigid, although looking at the whole family structure and the boundaries between the subsystems to be clear, which allowed for all “members [to be] able to grow, be nurtured, and be supported” Menendez et al., 2014, p. 170).

Assessing my own family, the issue at hand to be addressed could be the communication issues between myself and my brother, Cole. We do not talk often and when we do, it is usually a disagreement around fundamental differences in the boundaries we set within our own families. Cole believes that his only dedication is to his wife and children, ignoring the needs of his siblings and parents, even in facing trauma. While I do not feel that there would be immediate buy-in with the tool of enactment, I believe it would be helpful when led by a therapist who has joined the family professionally, as is a tenant of Minuchin’s therapy (Nichols and Davis, 2017, p. 121). In focusing on the process rather than the content (Semerod, 2019), there may be an insight into the boundaries and structure of the relationship between myself and my brother me. The main concept I think would be beneficial to the whole family structure would be challenging unproductive assumptions in an effort to change how we view our situations to change our interactions (Nichols and Davis, 2017, p. 127). A lot of the communication barriers in the family stem from the subsystems having their own ideas and assumptions about overall family processes. I personally allow my brother's actions to define how I interpret his motives and beliefs, which is unhelpful and damaging. As Nichols and Davis state, “In order for family members to hear what is being pointed out they must not feel attacked” (2017). Addressing familial issues, especially surrounding structures that have often been implemented through generational patterns can cause many to become defensive. My family would be able to address issues if they had trust in the clinician, which I believe would happen through a respectful, developed rapport.

Sociocultural Factors

While I had difficulty identifying any societal or cultural factors that caused the high numbers of divorces maternally, I believe there were cultural factors that led to the lack of divorce paternally. My father’s family identifies strongly as Irish Catholic and when asked about divorce, they disagree doctrinally. My father has expressed numerous times that he does not believe in divorce, even after his own. My paternal grandmother has been a widow for 30 years and has never dated since the death of her husband, as she believes in her marriage to her late husband.

My mother’s family has many independent women with rigid boundaries in their relationships. Most of the women on my mother’s side of the family make their money independently, as they had even when married. This may have been a factor in a smoother transition out of a marriage and into single motherhood and life. There is also a pattern of mental health diagnoses maternally with my maternal grandmother having been diagnosed with schizophrenia, my maternal aunt with bipolar disorder, my mother with anxiety and depression, and multiple suicides. While mental health diagnoses in themselves are not a societal factor, the stigmatization of mental health is and may have caused the women to feel as though they were alone and become unable to explain the extent.

These factors continue to impact my life currently as I have struggled with depression and anxiety since a teenager. I was open with my husband about my diagnosis and his support has been a factor I am unsure my maternal relative had.

Strengths

Strengths are often overlooked when not looking through the lens of strengths-based models. Entering therapy, families may feel that they have no strengths, and as social workers, our goal is to help the family identify their own strengths, rather than point them out to the family. As a social worker and a family member, that in itself is a strength. Many of my family’s strengths did not make themselves known until faced with my brother’s death and my parent’s divorce. I am a good communicator and help to define boundaries as they became unclear when my parents were first divorced. I continue to help facilitate discussions defining family roles as they relate to each person. I believe that my family’s biggest strength is resilience. Both of my parents lost their parents at a young age and have lost a child. I cannot imagine the pain of losing a child and continuing to be a support to the living children, but they prove their strength daily. We have all been supportive of each other, even when emotional reactivity is high, and we face stress. In continuing to acknowledge this resilience, I hope the members of my family are able to identify this as also a personal strength in themselves.

Life Cycle

All through Nichols and Davis’ (2017) lens of Stages of the Family Life Cycle, I looked at my relationship with my husband as well as the stage my parents are in. In my relationship with my husband, we are currently in the joining stage (p.xiii). We are still new in our marriage and are in the process of continuing to develop expectations and boundaries. This often feels uncomfortable as we are very committed to our relationship and feel established, but without children, I feel stagnant in the life stages cycle. We are currently facing our own struggles with infertility which challenge us to continue committing to the relationship as a family even without children.

My mother and father are currently in the adult stage of later life (p. xiii), although earlier than they expected. My brother and I left home in our early twenties and my mother expected to have many more years with my youngest brother in the home. When he died, my parents were faced with having no one else in their homes and beginning to live alone, no longer having anyone to care for. While they are grandparents, my mother has expressed the difficulty she is having with passing traditions to my brother and me as she does not feel ready to pass those traditions down. This is also a challenge as my parents do not have a relational dyad as they cannot rely on each other for support.

Conclusion

Assessing and examining our own families can be a challenge. This can be triggering, even unintentionally when we are met with unknown history or trauma. Identifying issues within a family can lead individuals to want to address these issues, even without the appropriate framework. Through this task, remembering to reflect on the impact our families have on us, as well as the impact our understanding of our families should be addressed through self-care and counseling when necessary.

References

  1. Bowen, M. (1978). Towards the differentiation of self in one’s family of origin. Family Therapy in Clinical Practice. New York, NY: Aronson, Chapter 22, 529-547.
  2. Lim, E. S. (2008). Videography and Genograms as Tools of Social Work Intervention. International Journal of the Humanities, 6(2), 111–121. https://doi.org/10.18848/1447-9508/CGP/v06i02/42370
  3. Mendez, N., Quereshi, M.E., Carneiro, R., & Hort, F. (2014). The Intersection of Facebook and structural family therapy volume 1. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 42, 167–174.
  4. Nichols, M., & Davis, S. (2017). Family Therapy Concepts and Methods. (11th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
  5. Semerod, M. (2018). Bowen model [Class handout]. SW633 Center for Social Work Education, Widener University, Chester, PA.
  6. Semerod, M. (2018). Structural Family Therapy Notes [Class handout]. SW633 Center for Social Work Education, Widener University, Chester, PA.
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Family Life Cycle Issues: Reflective Essay. (2023, July 20). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 25, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/family-life-cycle-issues-reflective-essay/
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