The Adventure of Couple-hood (The impact of Family Life Cycle on the Couple Relationship)
by: Eric Bailey, MMFT, Counsellor and Supervisor
A large part of my work is counselling couples. Often when I meet with a couple for the first time, they are in the midst of crisis. There is the question of "Can we make it?" or "Is there any hope for our relationship?" While the immediate problem is important and a crisis needs to be addressed, most couples need to remember the bigger picture. Couple relationships, like a tree, grow and develop over time. Couples are impacted by certain common factors that are experienced at various points in their development. These common factors have been consolidated into what is called the Family Life Cycle.
The development of the couple relationshipis a long process, a lifelong adventure shared with a partner. The Family Life Cycle has six basic stages. The following chart is a nice way to show the movement from stage to stage (and is easy to find in an internet search).
This chart reminds us is that we experience certain stresses on our relationship at specific times. Each stage has specific lessons to learn or growth to occur. When that growth does not occur it becomes a factor at other stages. To build a house we first build a foundation. Each part of the house depends on the important work that happened before. We build the foundation, then the frame. If these are not finished or done poorly they create issues later on for the house. When we transition to a new stage, the struggles that we have had and the problems that we have not addressed become more evident and impact upon us as we are faced with new problems, and new struggles.
The family life cycle can be explained with more or less stages and additional permeations such as the following flow chart. Various family structures, such as couples with no children, single parents, blended families, grandparents raising their grandchildren, and many other additions, create situations where you are experiencing multiple stages at the same time, increasing the growth required for the couple.
[FLC] Whether your family follows the traditional model or a variance from the second diagram, the lesson from the family life cycle is that this is a long process. The problems you are facing today may not seem so big or so important in the future. As we look at the different parts of the family life cycle, pay attention to the goals and how those goals can complicate later stages if they are not completed.
Each stage of the family life cycle is its own adventure. There are goals that need to be accomplished and lessons to be learned that prepare you for moving on in life. The first stage is as an individual leaving your parents’ house (or moving into their basement suite). The goal of this first stage is self discovery, learning about who you are and what you want out of life. Who you are and what you want may change over time but the process of self discovery is a process that will help you understand what you want in a relationship.
The second stage I have called "Couplehood" because it is the beginning of sharing your life with another. As you spend time together as a couple you learn about each other. You learn about each other’s hopes and dreams. You discover what your partner likes and dislikes. You begin to build shared experiences and shared stories that help you grow together. And it shapes you as an individual in a relationship. The goal is to learn how to be a couple together and that plays out in how you make decisions, cope with conflict and shape your relationship. If you have not come to understand yourself and feel confident in what you want, it becomes much harder to be able to safely express your own opinions ideas in the couple relationship.
Couple with children
Some counsellors divide this stage into other stages but I'd rather keep it simple. Many couples add children to the family. The goal at this stage is to work together as a couple to raise children. Some of the issues that come up are around parenting styles, communication, and expectations. If, as a couple, you have not learned how to talk about your different experiences and different expectations, this adds stress as your values and priorities clash around the children. As babies join the family, there is stress from a lack of sleep and need to communicate around shared responsibilities. As babies become children there is a variety of activities added and the time dedicated to being with the children. As children become teens the relationship changes. If you have struggled with change in your couple relationship, handling the changes as the child seeks more independence is even more complicated. Children bring great joy and chaos to your relationship, making the couple experience an exciting roller coaster, an adventure with fantastic views and dangerous cliffs.
The goal of this stage is to raise children together to become individuals. The problems come in the unresolved issues of the previous stages, creating problems for helping the children grow and learn and discover who they are.
Launching the children
As the couple enters into the launching stages, the child is at the start of their own family life cycle as an individual. In the launching stage the couple provides support and safety as the children come and go in their early adult years. The goal during this time is helping your children establish themselves as individuals. As a couple, the goal is about rediscovering each other and re-establishing shared dreams.
In the Empty Nest stage the focus is mostly on the couple. There are shared activities as well as personal interests and activities that are a part of self discovery. As a couple you are establishing how you will relate for the next while. The other major change that happens during this time is that the family is often growing as children get married and have their own children. There are new relationships to navigate and the needs of these other families to balance with the needs of the couple. Sometimes aging parents also need to be cared for in this stage.
Family in later life
Family in later life is a sensitive topic and it varies for each couple depending on the health of the individuals and financial situations. Couples make plans, they downsize the living situations and they often need to have other supports around.
For couples as you look at the family life cycle, it is there to remind you that you are at a certain point in life. It shows some of the strains or stresses that you may be experiencing that are common to others. It also reminds you of how much you have gone through as a couple together and that the relationship is not going to be the same in the future as it is right now.
The Family Life Cycle is a way of looking at your own journey through life and noticing the similarities we face at certain times in our lives. It allows us to look at some of the stresses we are facing and remind ourselves that these are time specific problems and they will pass. With my children being older and starting the leaving home process I see some of the stresses we used to have that are no longer there. In thinking about the journey of life and the different ups and downs that we experience I am reminded of a story.
"This farmer had only one horse, and one day the horse ran away. The neighbours came to console over his terrible loss. The farmer said, "What makes you think it is so terrible?"
A month later, the horse came home--this time bringing with her two beautiful wild horses. The neighbours became excited at the farmer's good fortune. Such lovely strong horses! The farmer said, "What makes you think this is good fortune?"
The farmer's son was thrown from one of the wild horses and broke his leg. All the neighbours were very distressed. Such bad luck! The farmer said, "What makes you think it is bad?"
A war came, and every able-bodied man was conscripted and sent into battle. Only the farmer's son, because he had a broken leg, remained. The neighbours congratulated the farmer. "What makes you think this is good?" said the farmer."
As told by Executive editor, Elise Hancock, in the Johns Hopkins Magazine, November 1993, page 2, in section entitled Editor's Note. (http://www.noogenesis.com/pineapple/Taoist_Farmer.html
The story reminds me that we often interpret our success or failure, based on the immediate circumstances. Life takes a lot longer to understand and it is filled with ups and downs. Is this terrible? Is this wonderful? It is all an adventure. No matter what stage you are in, or what issues you are finding, life is an adventure. Enjoy the adventure!
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