Harvard university press, cambridge, massachusetts

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A Family in Formation

The interview with them was conducted to illustrate the stages and processes of family development. As the Wagners are a young family, the session was directed toward the exploration of family formation and of the changes that occur in a family with the arrival of the first child.

A number of tasks face a young couple at the beginning of marriage. The spouses must develop a mutual accommodation in a large number of small routines. For example, they must develop routines for going to bed and getting up at approximately the same time. There must be a routine for having meals together, and for setting and clearing the table. There must be a routine for being naked and for having sex, for sharing the bathroom and the Sunday paper, for watching the television and selecting the programs, and for going out together to places that both of them enjoy.

In this process of mutual accommodation, the couple develops a set of patterned transactions—ways in which each spouse triggers and monitors the behavior of the other and is in turn influenced by the previous behavioral sequence. These transactional patterns form an invisible web of complementary demands that regulate many family situations.

The couple also faces the task of separating from each family of origin and negotiating a different relationship with parents, siblings, and in-laws. Loyalties must shift, for the new spouses' primary commitments are to their marriage. The families of origin must accept and support this break.

In the same way, encounters with the extrafamilial—work, duties, and pleasures—must be reorganized and newly regulated. Decisions must be reached as to how the demands of the outside world will be allowed to intrude on the life of the new family. Each spouse must meet the other's friends and select those who are to become the couple's friends. Each spouse may gain new friends and lose touch with old ones.

The birth of a child marks a radical change in the family organization. The spouses' functions must differentiate to meet the infant's demands for care and nurturance and to handle the constraints thus imposed on the parents' time. The physical and emotional commitment to the child usually requires a change in the spouses' transactional patterns. A new set of subsystems appears in the family organization, with children and parents having different functions. This period also requires a renegotiation of boundaries with

Families and Family Therapy

the extended family and the extrafamilial. Grandparents, aunts, and uncles may enter to support, guide, or organize the new functions in the family. Or the boundary around the nuclear family may be strengthened.

Children become adolescents and then adults. New siblings join the family, or the parents become grandparents. At different periods of development, the family is thus required to adapt and restructure. Changes in the relative strength and productivity of family members require continual accommodation, as does the general change from the children's dependency on their parents to the parents' dependency on their children. As children leave the family, the original unit of husband and wife reappears, but in very different social circumstances. The family must meet the challenge of both internal and external change while maintaining its continuity, and must support and encourage all its members' growth while adapting to a society in transition. These tasks are not easy.

The couple in this interview illustrate some of the difficulties. Emily and Mark Wagner were married four years ago. They have one son, Tommy, aged three. A year ago they went to a marriage counselor for four sessions. Now they label themselves as a normal family that has struggled through difficulties. They are proud of having reached a level of development at which there is mutual support and growth.

They answered an advertisement in a local newspaper asking for a normal family to participate in an interview in return for a fee. The interview was conducted before a large audience of family therapists, who were sitting in the same room and responding to the interview as it unfolded. Tommy was in the room playing with a babysitter.

The interview is not a therapeutic interview. It is a developmental interview, designed to gather historical material and to elicit the participants' perceptions of their family's functioning. In an interview with a normal family, there is an implicit contract. The family, having labeled itself normal at the start, will be confirmed and supported in this belief by the interview. When it leaves, it will still consider itself to be a normal family.

Minuchin: The first thing that I want to know is why are you here? How did you resolve to do it? What was the process?

Mr. Wagner: Saturday, as far as I'm concerned, is our free day, so to speak. Whatever she would like to do, well then, we should do. I'm willing to go along with it. Sunday, then, is more or less my day.

A Family in Formation

Minuchin: That's an interesting thing; that means that you decide to divide the weekend in terms of days in which you make the major decisions and days in which your wife does?

Mr. Wagner: Not quite, it's sort of a—

Minuchin: It just happens. How did that happen? That's interesting historically; how did you come to this kind of division of decision making? Do you remember?

Mr. Wagner: I will hazard to venture a guess. I used to work Mondays through Saturdays, in the hospital business; Saturday was sort of bat-around. I felt Sunday was my day off, as far as I was concerned. So as soon as Saturday was available, she jumped at it, so to speak. I wouldn't let her have her preference on Sunday, because Sunday was sort of my day.

Minuchin: So, you evolved that kind of implicit rule without ever having it stated that this is the way you function.

Mrs. Wagner: As a rule, on Sunday he goes fishing or something, and I go my way. It's always been that way; well, it's been that way for about a year.

Minuchin: He goes fishing Sunday. Saturday is the day on which both of you do things together, and you are the one that decides.

Mr. Wagner: It's not, it's not that hard and fast, really. I would say that on Saturday there is a better chance that my wife would decide what we are going to do.

Mrs. Wagner: I usually have something planned, you know, that I want to do, and we usually do it.

The Wagners are discussing a transactional pattern that has evolved in the course of their married life. Although they are able to recon­struct the development of this pattern and do not consider it "hard and fast," it is nevertheless a rule that has become part of the arrange­ment of their life in common. Emily Wagner "usually has something planned" for Saturday, and they "usually" do it. On Sundays, each spouse pursues his own activities. Both spouses would consider an unnecessary infringement of this pattern as a personal betrayal. Moral and emotional components accompany contractual transactional patterns, even those whose origins and reasons have been lost.

Minuchin: How did it happen in this situation? Your wanting to come here?

Families and Family Therapy

Mrs. Wagner: To come here? I saw an ad in the paper and called up about it. My mother saw an ad in the paper.

Minuchin: Your mother? What about your family? Do they live around you?

Mrs. Wagner: They live in the same community.

Mr. Wagner: We are going to my place tomorrow, to my parents' house.

Minuchin: Do your parents live nearby?

Mr. Wagner: An eighth of a mile.

Minuchin: And your parents?

Mrs. Wagner: Oh, I'd say about three or four miles.

Minuchin: How important are your mother and father?

Mr. Wagner: I would say that—

Mrs. Wagner: Not much, really.

Mr. Wagner: No, not to the extent that her parents are.

Mrs. Wagner: Both his parents are working, and as a rule we don't see his parents that much when they are working, and Sunday is their only day to do things that they have to do. We don't see them as often as we see mine, but then again, we don't see mine that often, either. He doesn't; I do more, during the week.

Minuchin: That means Emily's family is involved with your family more centrally than Mark's. Was that in the beginning before Tommy came?

Mr. Wagner: I would say so.

Mrs. Wagner: We lived with my parents before Tommy came, when we first got married.

Minuchin: When you married, you moved to your parents'?

Mrs. Wagner: He was still in college. He was at the university at the time, finishing out a semester there. And so we stayed there. We lived with them from April until August. And it was horrible.

Minuchin: Your family didn't want him?

Mrs. Wagner: They wanted him, but they thought that—we started dating each other when we were sixteen. I was sixteen, he was seven­teen, so when we first started dating each other there wasn't anything said until, oh, I think when we got pinned.

Minuchin: How old were you when you married?

Mrs. Wagner: Nineteen.

Minuchin: And your parents invited you to go with them? Mrs. Wagner: They just said come live with us, until we went to Kansas.

A Family in Formation

Minuchin: You just decided that this was the only solution that you had, you didn't have alternatives there?

Mr. Wagner: Well, we could have lived outside, but my still being in school, I didn't want to drop out of school; I wanted to continue full time, so the only way we could afford this would be to reduce our housing costs as much as possible, so we accepted. We could have moved outside, but under the circumstances, we did accept their offer, so that we could save—so that we were really not captive, it wasn't a matter of being forced to live there; it was a matter of economics. We just decided we would live with it until we could return.

Minuchin: What happened then? Here you are, coming from two families, joining together, and wanting to create your own thing, but go to live to your family—how did that work? You said you lived there for how long? Six months?

Mrs. Wagner: Four months. I think I resented more or less not being in my own apartment and everything; I just felt like I couldn't, I really couldn't be a wife.

Minuchin: Why couldn't you be a wife?

Mrs. Wagner: Oh, I can't explain it; it's just a woman's feeling I had.

Mr. Wagner: No, I think perhaps I can say a little bit about it. It was resentment of her father. Her father tends to be the type that likes to make very strong suggestions as to what course of action I take in just about anything. I found that I could easily accept or reject and he wouldn't become upset about it, so that as far as I was concerned, it didn't concern me. She, however, because of these emotional feelings that she built up towards her father, any suggestion he made, she just rejected it completely and resented the fact that he was forever making suggestions here, there, and everywhere.

Minuchin: Well, let me see if I understand what Mark said in a differ­ent way. It seems to me that you married and you (to wife) wanted a separation from the family. You wanted to create a boundary and he was supposed to help you create the boundary. Now you lived in your home and Mark was getting along with your parents. Did he support—did he help you to increase the boundaries around you being a wife, or did he become a son of your parents?

Mrs. Wagner: I don't know if I can answer that.

Minuchin: Were you angry at him sometimes when he palled with your father, when you were angry with your father? When he palled with your mother when you were angry with your mother?

Mrs. Wagner: No, he never took sides, as far as—

Families and Family Therapy

Minuchin: It's impossible.

Mr. Wagner: I didn't really take sides—

Minuchin: It's impossible.

Mrs. Wagner: He didn't—he never came out and said, "You're wrong." And it usually—it was me. It was not my family. It was me.

Minuchin: Look, if he didn't take sides, he was taking sides.

Mrs. Wagner: He kept his mouth shut, though.

Minuchin: That was taking sides. You know, because, didn't you expect him to take your side?

Mrs. Wagner: Oh yes, but—

Minuchin: So, if he didn't take it, he was taking the opposite side.

Mrs. Wagner: But if he had opened his mouth, there would have been more trouble.

Minuchin: If he did not attack your mother when you attacked her, then he was siding with your mother, even if he didn't do anything.

Mr. Wagner: Umm hum.

When two partners join with the intention of forming a family, this is the formal beginning of a new family unit. But there are many steps between the formal initiation of a family and the creation of a viable unit. One of the tasks a new couple faces is the negotiation of their relationship with each spouse's family of origin. In addition, each family of origin must adjust to the separation or partial separation of one of its members, the inclusion of a new member, and the assimila­tion of the spouse subsystem within the family system's functioning. If the long-established structures of the families of origin do not change, they may threaten the processes of forming the new unit.

Minuchin: How did it work, really? With whom did you have the arguments? With your father or with your mother?

Mrs. Wagner: My mother—no! I don't know. I can't remember.

Mr. Wagner: Your father through your mother.

Mrs. Wagner: Was it that way? I can't remember, it's been so long.

Minuchin: He said, "Your father through your mother." That's a nice way of putting it. Is that the way in which it works?

Mr. Wagner: It's not completely related to her mother and her father; part of the problems were me. I always felt that my mother-in-law and I were in a sense a buffer zone between them. I always felt that if I thought my wife was wrong, I could tell her, and if she was completely wrong, I would say, "You're wrong," but if I didn't feel

A Family in Formation

she was entirely wrong, I—I might have felt that she was wrong in what she did, but that there might have been some kind of a reason for it, at least as far as she was concerned.

Minuchin: Is Mark always logical?

Mrs. Wagner: Ummm hummm.

Minuchin: Well, that must be very painful.

Mrs. Wagner: At times. He's very logical and I'm completely illogical. We're as different as night and day.

Minuchin: So that during this period you wanted to be a wife and you were still a daughter.

Mrs. Wagner: Right.

Minuchin: And they didn't grow up. Your parents didn't grow up.

Mrs. Wagner: Not my—no, I wouldn't say it was my parents; I would say it was me.

Minuchin: No, they didn't grow up either.

Mrs. Wagner: Oh, I think I disagree with you.

Minuchin: They continued treating you as a daughter at a point at which you were a wife.

Mrs. Wagner: Maybe they did. Yeah, I guess that's it.

Minuchin: You know? That means that they didn't grow up. In terms of you, in terms of this new situation, they continued treating you as a daughter when you were now somebody different. You were a daughter, but you were a wife.

Mrs. Wagner's parents were unable to change to adapt to changed circumstances. Instead of learning to treat her as a wife, involved in the formation of a new social unit, they continued to treat her chiefly as their daughter, leaving her new husband in the difficult position of having to choose between his wife and his mother-in-law. The situa­tion the Wagners are describing is a "boundary" problem—a problem of negotiating appropriate rules for the formation of new subsystems. It is also a problem of inappropriately maintaining transactional patterns.

Minuchin: What's your first name? Mrs. Wagner: Emily.

Minuchin: Emily. Okay, my name is Sal. What kind of family is your family? Maybe you can describe your family. And Mark can help you, but only if you need it. Okay? You start first, and maybe if she needs you, Mark, she will call.

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Harvard university press, cambridge, massachusetts iconReferences Lothaire, M. (1983), Combinatorics on Words. Addison-Wesley, Reading, ma. Lothaire, M. (2002), Algebraic Combinatorics of Words. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. Regular grammars

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