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A Family Model

work has been drastically curtailed by modern technology, which has changed tasks necessary for the survival of the family unit to drudgery that a machine can do better. Conditions that allow or require both spouses to work outside the family create situations in which the extrafamilial network may heighten and exacerbate conflict between the spouses.

In the face of all these changes, modern man still adheres to a set of values that belong to a different society, one in which the boundaries between the family and the extrafamilial were clearly delineated. The adherence to an outmoded model leads to the labeling of many situations that are clearly transitional as pathological and pathogenic. The touchstone for family life is still the legendary "and so they were married and lived happily ever after." It is no wonder that any family falls short of this ideal.

The occidental world is in a state of transition, and the family, which must always accommodate to society, is changing with it. But because of transitional difficulties, the family's major psychosocial task—to support its members—has become more important than ever. Only the family, society's smallest unit, can change and yet maintain enough continuity to rear children who will not be "strangers in a strange land," who will be rooted firmly enough to grow and to adapt.


In all cultures, the family imprints its members with selfhood. Human experience of identity has two elements: a sense of belonging and a sense of being separate. The laboratory in which these ingredients are mixed and dispensed is the family, the matrix of identity.

In the early process of socialization, families mold and program the child's behavior and sense of identity. The sense of belonging comes with an accommodation on the child's part to the family groups and with his assumption of transactional patterns in the family structure that are consistent throughout different life events. Tommy Wagner is a Wagner, and throughout his life he will be the son of Emily and Mark. This will be an important factor in his existence. That Mark is the father of Tom is an important factor in Mark's life, as is the fact that he is the husband of Emily. Every member's sense of identity is influenced by his sense of belonging to a specific family.

The sense of separateness and individuation occurs through participation in different family subsystems in different family

Families and Family Therapy

contexts, as well as through participation in extrafamilial groups. As the child and the family grow together, the accommodation of the family to the child's needs delimits areas of autonomy that he experiences as separateness. A psychological and transactional territory is carved out for that particular child. Being Tom is different from being a Wagner.

But every individual's sense of identity is influenced by his sense of belonging to different groups. Part of Mark Wagner's identity is the fact that he is the father of Tom and the husband of Emily, as well as the child of his parents. The components of an individual's sense of identity change and remain constant. As Roger Barker put it, "the psychological person who writes essays, scores points, and crosses streets stands as an identifiable entity between unstable interior parts and exterior contexts, with both of which he is linked, yet from both of which he is profoundly separated."1 The psychological person who is a separate entity is linked with exterior contexts.

Although the family is the matrix of its members' psychosocial development, it must also accommodate to society and ensure some continuity to its culture. This societal function is the source of attacks on the family in modern America. American society is changing, and many groups within that society want to hurry the change. These groups see the family, quite correctly, as an element of conservatism and a source of stasis. Attacks on the family are typical of revolutionary periods. Christ told his disciples to leave their parents and families and to follow him. The French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions all undermined the traditional family structure in those countries in an attempt to speed the progress toward a new social order. The Israeli kibbutz is another example of the same social process.

Russian laws bearing on the family during and after their revolution illustrate this process. In the 1920s, laws regulating marriage, divorce, and abortion tended toward the dissolution of the family. But in the 1930s, when Russia was moving toward the crystallization of its newly established societal norms, laws were changed to support family continuity.2 Similarly, the Israeli kibbutzim are now tending to increase the functions of the nuclear family within the kibbutz. In many of them, infants now stay in their parents' room, and children live with their parents for a longer time before joining the children's home.

Any study of the family must include its complementarity to

A Family Model

society. The nuclear family, which in theory at least is the American middle class norm, is a recent historical development. Even today, it is largely confined to urban industrialized societies. Concepts of family functions also change as society changes. Up to four hundred years ago, the family was not seen as a child-rearing unit, and not until much later were children recognized as individuals in their own right.3

Today the American family, like American society, is in a transitional period. And like the society it transmits, the family is under attack. For example, a twelve-hour public educational television program, "An American Family," followed the Loud family through the routines of their life and their relationships with jobs, schools, in-laws, and friends. Some people hailed this presentation as a breakthrough in mass media communication, with significant anthropological value. Others criticized the dullness of the presentation of family life. One significant critical group was the Loud family itself. On independent television shows they tried to communicate to an audience of millions that they did not like themselves as they were portrayed. They pointed out that there was much more to them than was shown. What the American audience saw was in fact the producer's point of view. Influenced by current views of the family, he had selected and highlighted excerpts that exemplified these views. Similar distortions were made by the cameramen and crew, who framed the shots, selected closeups, and pinpointed what they considered to be the relevant aspects of the family. Americans saw an American family presented according to cultural views of the family that are currently fashionable.

Attacks on the family are coming from many sources. Joining in are the intellectual leaders of the counterculture movement and groups of young people who have been experimenting with communal forms of family organization and child rearing. In the mental health field, R.D. Laing and his followers have been influential in portraying the family as the malevolent programmer of psychosis and, even worse, of the "normal" adults that populate our world.4 The new feminist movement has also attacked the family, describing it as an entrenchment of male chauvinism. They see the nuclear family as an organization that cannot help but produce little girls reared to be wives in the doll house, and little boys who will be just as trapped in outmoded patterns.

The family will change as society changes. Probably in complementary fashion, society will develop extrafamilial structures

Families and Family Therapy

to adapt to new currents of thought and new social and economic realities. The 1970s seem to be an interim period of struggle, during which changes are creating a need for structures that have not yet appeared. The large number of families in which both parents work outside the home, for example, has created a need for day care services on a large scale, which are not yet available.

The generation gap is another example of unmet needs. The family is relinquishing the socialization of children earlier and earlier. The school, mass media, and the peer group are taking over the guidance and education of older children. But society has not developed adequate extrafamilial sources of socialization and support.

The Masai society had an adolescent peer group culture that was largely independent but was assigned certain specific tasks for the group to perform under the laissez-faire supervision of the tribe's warriors. The youths could thus carry out the age-appropriate processes of separating from the family and becoming independent without becoming alienated from society at large. The youth groups of the Israeli kibbutzim perform a similar function. Western society does not have clearly differentiated functions for adolescents. When the family releases its children, it releases them to inadequate supporting systems. It is not surprising that adolescent crises of identity have resulted in a number of antinomian social phenomena.5

Change always moves from society to the family, never from the smaller unit to the larger. The family will change, but it will also remain, because it is the best human unit for rapidly changing societies. The more flexibility and adaptiveness society requires from its members, the more significant the family will become as the matrix of psychosocial development.

As the family, in a generic sense, changes and adapts to historical circumstances, so the individual family constantly adapts. The family is an open system in transformation; that is, it constantly receives and sends inputs to and from the extrafamilial, and it adapts to the different demands of the developmental stages it faces.

Its tasks are not easy. The Wagners, with all the difficulties they describe in family formation and the birth of their child, typify the stresses that any normal family encounters. But somehow, the prevailing idealized view of the normal family is that it is nonstressful. In spite of sociological and anthropological studies of the family, the myth of placid normality endures, supported by hours of two-dimensional television characters. This picture of people living in

A Family Model

harmony, coping with social inputs without getting ruffled, and always cooperating with each other, crumbles whenever one looks at any family with its ordinary problems. It is therefore alarming that this standard is sometimes maintained unchallenged by therapists, who measure the functioning of client families against the idealized image. Freud pointed out that therapy changes neurotic patterns into the normal miseries of life. His comment is just as true for family therapy.

Since a normal family cannot be distinguished from an abnormal family by the absence of problems, a therapist must have a conceptual schema of family functioning to help him analyze a family. A schema based on viewing the family as a system, operating within specific social contexts, has three components. First, the structure of the family is that of an open sociocultural system in transformation. Second, the family undergoes development, moving through a number of stages that require restructuring. Third, the family adapts to changed circumstances so as to maintain continuity and enhance the psychosocial growth of each member. The interview with the Wagners was designed to uncover the second component of this schema, their developmental stages, with the commentary presenting more generic aspects of family development. Family structure and family adaptation require further discussion.


Family structure is the invisible set of functional demands that organizes the ways in which family members interact. A family is a system that operates through transactional patterns. Repeated transactions establish patterns of how, when, and to whom to relate, and these patterns underpin the system. When a mother tells her child to drink his juice and he obeys, this interaction defines who she is in relation to him and who he is in relation to her, in that context and at that time. Repeated operations in these terms constitute a transactional pattern.

In their interview the Wagners described many such patterns. Emily generally plans the family's Saturday activities, but only an event of major importance would make her interfere with her husband's Sunday fishing trip. In her family of origin, Emily was involved in a coalition with her mother against her father: the mother encouraged the daughter to disobey the father, who complemented this by attacking the daughter when he was angry at the mother.

Transactional patterns regulate family members' behavior. They are

Families and Family Therapy

maintained by two systems of constraint. The first is generic, involving the universal rules governing family organization. For instance, there must be a power hierarchy, in which parents and children have different levels of authority. There must also be a complementarity of functions, with the husband and wife accepting interdependency and operating as a team.

The second system of constraint is idiosyncratic, involving the mutual expectations of particular family members. The origin of these expectations is buried in years of explicit and implicit negotiations among family members, often around small daily events. Frequently the nature of the original contracts has been forgotten, and they may never have even been explicit. But the patterns remain—on automatic pilot, as it were—as a matter of mutual accommodation and functional effectiveness.

Thus the system maintains itself. It offers resistance to change beyond a certain range, and maintains preferred patterns as long as possible. Alternative patterns are available within the system. But any deviation that goes beyond the system's threshold of tolerance elicits mechanisms which re-establish the accustomed range. When situations of system disequilibrium arise, it is common for family members to feel that other members are not fulfilling their obligations. Calls for family loyalty and guilt-inducing maneuvers then appear.6

But the family structure must be able to adapt when circumstances change. The continued existence of the family as a system depends on a sufficient range of patterns, the availability of alternative transactional patterns, and the flexibility to mobilize them when necessary. Since the family must respond to internal and external changes, it must be able to transform itself in ways that meet new circumstances without losing the continuity that provides a frame of reference for its members.

The family system differentiates and carries out its functions through subsystems. Individuals are subsystems within a family. Dyads such as husband-wife or mother-child can be subsystems. Subsystems can be formed by generation, by sex, by interest, or by function.

Each individual belongs to different subsystems, in which he has different levels of power and where he learns differentiated skills. A man can be a son, nephew, older brother, younger brother, husband, father, and so on. In different subsystems, he enters into different complementary relationships. People accommodate kaleidoscopically to attain the mutuality that makes human intercourse possible. The

A Family Model

child has to act like a son as his father acts like a father; and when the child does so, he may have to cede the kind of power that he enjoys when interacting with his younger brother. The subsystem organization of a family provides valuable training in the process of maintaining the differentiated "I am" while exercising interpersonal skills at different levels.

Boundaries. The boundaries of a subsystem are the rules defining who participates, and how. For example, the boundary of a parental subsystem is defined when a mother (M) tells her older child, "You aren't your brother's parent. If he is riding his bike in the street, tell me, and I will stop him" (Fig. 2). If the parental subsystem includes a
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Harvard university press, cambridge, massachusetts iconEducation massachusetts institute of technology, cambridge, massachusetts

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

Harvard university press, cambridge, massachusetts iconEdited by D. Olson & N. Torrance (pp. 123- 140) New York: Cambridge University Press

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