Did you know that family life is a career too? This is not merely a reference to “the second shift,” whereby a father or mother puts in a full day at the office and arrives home for yet another full-time job, this time of being a parent (although that certainly counts too!). In the field of Family Development Psychology, the sum total of all the events and stages a family goes through is called the FAMILY CAREER (aka Family Life Cycle, Family Life Course).

Family careers actually begin long before the birth of the first child to a couple, when individuals are launched from out of their families of origin into the world. As they enter into committed relationships and marry, the families they eventually form go through periods of time with clear-cut structure and role relationships. These stages are determined by the changes in the family, whether by way of membership or organization.

In each stage, there are challenges or tasks which call for the development of new skills that will help family members work through them. How well these stages are traversed requires the effective learning of those skills. Moving from one stage to another is not easy to do. In the midst of a stage within a family’s life cycle, ways of behaving and relating become comfortable and everyone has figured out what is expected of them. Then, there is a changeover and new adjustments are needed. A new territory is entered and new rules and skills have to be learned. It can be very stressful.

There is also no accounting for situations like severe illness, financial problems, accidents or the death of a loved one, any of which can certainly affect individual functioning and the family’s movement through whatever stage. Tasks or skills missed in one stage, although they can be learned in later stages, may cause difficulty with relationships and future passages. However, it’s worth the work, as successful transitioning can bring about peaceful and joyful family living. They may also help to prevent disease and emotional or stress-related disorders later in life.

Surely, each family approaches these stages and transitions differently. Nonetheless, it helps to know that despite differences between families, generations and cultures, these stages flow through all families. Seeing as the family is the most intimate social group of all, we can be certain that regardless of one’s position in the family, one’s experiences through the family career will affect one’s development. Thus, it’s a good idea to “hedge our bets” by learning about these stages, the better to improve our chances of successful passage through them.

I have compiled, from both formal and popular family studies, a summary of the different family career stages, along with the challenges/tasks/goals inherent in each.

Independence Stage

Beginning in young adulthood, this is the most critical stage. The young adult emotionally separates from the original family and decides whether or not to accept one’s parents’ values as one’s own. Emotionally, physically, socially, and financially, there is a shift in reliance, from the family as always before, towards the self now.

This is the period for the development of many unique qualities and characteristics that define individual identity: establishing intimacy and sharing emotions within non-familial relationships; learning about commitment, commonality, compatibility, attachment and dependence on another person outside of family; exploring interests and career goals; and developing a work ethic.

It is interesting to note that a person’s ability to develop an intimate relationship at this stage depends on how successfully the individual identity was developed earlier in life.

The goals for the young adult are to see the self as a separate person in relation to one’s original family, to develop intimate peer relationships outside the family and to establish oneself in work or career

Coupling Stage

After the wedding, the brand new husband and wife set about the task of combining their family systems: the personal ideas, expectations, and values shaped by the relationships and experiences each one had with their original families. In functional marriages, the partners are able to take their separate and different points of view and create a new one. This differs from a compromise in that it is not giving up something. Rather, it is creating a third, better option.

New couples explore their ability to commit to a new family and a new way of life. Some common areas of adjustment include: money, lifestyle, leisure activities, in-laws, sex, friends and personal priorities.

As part of a committed twosome now, they need to learn advanced interpersonal communication, problem-solving skills, develop common spiritual and emotional goals, form relationship boundaries and discern when to place the needs or importance of the other above one’s own. The relationship skills learned in this stage will serve as a foundation for many other relationships, including those outside the family circle.

Among the tasks during this phase are: creating a new family system together; including the other in each one’s relationships with friends and family members; committing to the marriage; putting the needs of another ahead of one’s own; and balancing individuality with working together as a couple.

The ultimate goal at this stage is to achieve interdependence, which occurs when each is able to fully enter into a relationship with another person. Again, an interesting point: before one can achieve interdependence with another individual, one must have first acquired a high degree of personal independence.

(to be continued)

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