In my work, I see a mix of couples, families, and individuals. It’s rare that a problem exists solely with an individual without any repercussions for the surrounding family. Problems that affect you will affect your family and problems that affect your family will affect you.
A bedrock of your family, your marriage serves as a motor for the family as a whole. If the marriage is healthy, your family usually shows signs of health but when marriage problems arise, they can affect the whole family as well, like a series of ripples in a pond.
The Social Ecology of the Family
Imagine a series of concentric circles. Somewhere near the middle is the circle that represents “you” in your wholeness and entirety. There are few more inside which represent your mind, your body, your body chemistry, and your soul.
Moving outward from the “you circle,” next, we might see your immediate family, your extended family and friends, your neighborhood, your city, your culture, and your country. Like rings of a tree or the ripples on a pond, these circles represent the multiple realms that affect who you are. This series of circles is sometimes called the “social ecology of the family.”
“Social ecology of the family” is a heavily loaded term, so let’s dissect it in reverse. The family is, in this model, the point around which everything else revolves. In Western culture, we tend to place importance on the individual and end up viewing families as a collection of individuals. This concept flips that structure on its head, and views families as a system made up of its members.
It’s not enough to look at any one member individually. In order to see a “whole” system, it is necessary to look at all the parts together. Further, the combination of the parts is greater than the sum of the individuals, because interwoven into this concept are a series of relationships between individuals and groups within the family.
A family is a large unit, but ultimately this is the “whole,” not the individuals. This is not to say we cannot look at individual members, as we will soon see, but rather it is to imply that a family focus is necessary when treating dysfunction.
Next, the “ecology” of the family is considered. Ecology in the natural world refers to “branch of biology that deals with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings” (Google Dictionary) and we usually think of in terms of plants, bugs, and the critters that make up the world in which larger organisms grow. It refers to the environment in which organisms not only grow but thrive.
The ecology of the family is everything that affects its ability to thrive, or causes it to whither. The ecology of the family consists of elements both within and outside of the family. Family therapists like to look at families and determine if they are open or closed systems, meaning looking to see if they are open to information outside their family or not.
(For some fun big-vocabulary, this sort of thinking is connected with “First Order Cybernetics,” but a later philosophical school, “Second Order Cybernetics” imply that no system can truly be closed but always responds to the outside environment. Feel free to use that in your next Scrabble game!).
Finally, the “social” in the social ecology of the family implies that the ground in which families grow is a series of relationships. These relationships go up, down, and between. A family functions in accordance with its relationship to its surrounding culture (have you had any tough discussions in your family about politics lately?), as well as the relationships between members.
Further, the relationships that members have with conflicting parts of themselves affect the family. One part of you might wish to preserve harmony while another part wishes to be heard, and depending on how those parts of you exist in relationship will dictate how you interact with your family, and ultimately affect the functioning of the entire family!
So taking a look at the social ecology of the family as a whole, it has large implications for how treatment plays out for individuals, families, and couples. Ultimately, they all affect each other and are affected by the larger society. When I work with individuals, I consider their families. When I work with couples and families, I pay attention to how the individuals are experiencing their dysfunction. It is all connected and very important to understand!
The Family Lifecycle
If the social ecology of the family locates dysfunction in a social space, the family lifecycle is a way to consider where families exist in time and development. As humans, we follow a fairly standard lifecycle, barring major injury or illness, that looks something like birth, childhood, adolescence, adulthood (early, middle, and late), and death. Likewise, we have a family lifecycle as well.
While the individual lifecycle is some sort of linear progression and a series of branch offs, the family lifecycle is sort of a series of looping branches that affect other branches over time.
The first stage of this cycle is the launching stage. This is an individual leaving their family of origin to start their own life. Next, the individual couples off and these two individuals merge and begin their own family (note, obviously not all couple off, but for our purposes here we will look at a more common route).
After this merging occurs, couples will have their own kids and begin the phase of growing their families. Next, they become parents of adolescents, a qualitatively different experience than being the parent of a child. After this comes launching again, but now we will look at it from the parents’ perspective. This phase leads to the final phase of older adulthood and grandparenting.
At each of these transitions, families often experience some stress. How they move through the transitions often dictates how they will experience the following stages. For example, if parents of adolescents have difficulty launching their children, animosity between them might exist that lasts into the children’s adulthood.
It’s no surprise that divorces often happen as kids near adolescence, and then again as they leave the house. These transition times are some the most stressful periods of life for literally everyone, yet as a society, we don’t do a great job of talking about it so almost everyone is surprised when they are faced with such oppression at these stages.
Lately, something I have found incredibly common is the distance that develops between husband and wife as their kids begin to leave the house. Rather, the distance has developed for a long time but it is the realization of this distance that occurs when kids are starting to leave.
For the last 18-30+ years, depending on how long it takes the youngest child to leave, couples often have gradually “grown apart” as their focus was downward, towards the kids. Note, this is not any indication of the quality of their parenting. In fact, some of the best parents can fall victim to this.
As society has progressed in the last 20 years or so in terms of the advent of technology especially, it has become so much easier for parents to be involved with their kids lives. In many ways, this is a blessing. However, in some cases, it can be smothering for the kids or even a socially acceptable distraction from addressing the conflicts arising in marriage.
No one will tell you (besides me) that you should be spending less time on your kids! However, when the focus on the children becomes so all consuming, it can be detrimental to your marriage, which will be detrimental to your children. For many, the attempts to create a functionally thriving life for their kids cause a backfiring affect of emotional turbulence throughout the entire family!
Marriage and Family Counseling: Focus on the Marriage, then the Family
Taking the concepts from above and merging them together, when the social ecology of the family is running up against transitions in the family lifecycle, that ecology is fertile ground for dysfunction to grow. Often, this dysfunction “comes out” in kids, in ways such as behavioral issues and acting out. But this “acting out” can serve the function of being a very good distraction for the parents rather than facing the fact that they haven’t been on a date in the last three years!
I have a concept that I made up that I personally like, and I call it “Trickle Down Family Economics,” and it states that if the marriage in the family is healthy, it will allow emotional and relational health to trickle down to the kids. The healthy structure of the family necessitates a healthy functioning couple at the top.
Often, I see families come into my office identifying a person with “the problem.” Rather than seeing this as “the problem child,” I think of it as the child who is holding the problem. Usually, when this happens, I can ask the parents about the child’s mental and physical health histories, but I will ask about the parents’ as well.
Many times, there will be some coded language that essentially says, “Well, yeah, we’ve got some problems here, but we’re here to deal with our child so don’t poke that bear.” What do I want to do as a therapist here? I want to poke that bear!
There is a great benefit to doing couples work in conjunction with family therapy. Let’s say that the child’s problem is entirely medical; this will still stress the marriage. By working on your marriage, you will be able to better support each other and then, in turn, support your child! Attending to your marriage is always important in maintaining the emotional health of your children.
Vice versa, working on your family can definitely help your marriage! Managing children is stressful and if problems arise with them it can help to give your marriage breathing room if all you are doing together isn’t just getting your child to all their appointments or managing their behavioral blowups!
This is how I would recommend entering into a healing process for your family: first, reach out to a marriage and family counseling professional, such as myself. During your marriage and family counseling sessions, talk about all your stressors and come into the process open-minded about what change might look like.
Often, families have a good idea of what the problem is, so maybe they can imagine what it looks like when the problem is gone. However, the process to get there might be uncomfortable! This is where the open mind comes in. Be open to trying things differently and be open to owning your role in the process.
If the therapist suggests couples counseling first, go that route. If it’s family counseling first, that is okay, too! Try to hear and understand each other and know that relating to each other in a new way can be messy, hard, and discouraging. There will be pain – pain from removing the emotional gunk, as well as the growing pains of finding new roles for everyone. Ultimately, though, things will settle and your family will be healthier for it.
Don’t wait for things to get bad, start your marriage and family counseling today! Most couples that I see can say that they wish they had started about two years sooner. Usually, at that time, it wasn’t “that bad,” so they just grinned and bared it through the struggle. But know this! Struggles at those family lifecycle transitions are normal!
So don’t be ashamed or embarrassed by where you are at. Know that it is a natural growing pain and that healing can come when you put the work in. Reach out today to a marriage and family counseling professional and begin your journey towards family health and healing.