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Making Healthy Families
Part 2: Family Style

By Gayle Peterson, Ph.D.

Please see the first article in this series.

By talking about the blueprints of our family of origins, we are able to more clearly decide the atmosphere or style we want to adopt for our own families.

As parents, we are now the leaders of our families, and it is our turn to set the style for growth and development.

When two people come together to create a family, they each bring their own unconscious version of how family members relate to one another. As children, we spend years growing up in our own families, observing and imprinting upon the ways that our families, as a particular group of people interact to solve problems, to express feelings, to make decisions and raise their young. Our own parents were largely responsible for the unique family culture we lived in, and for the inlay of automatic conditioning that naturally influences, (both positively and negatively), our patterns of interactions when a child comes on the scene in our adult lives.

When a child is born, old family styles of relating are stimulated to reassert themselves on the new family group. Marital partners who have basked in expressing their feelings to their partner and being able to successfully meet one another's needs, find themselves falling into automatic behaviors of old childhood patterns. Where they once spoke proudly of their open and direct communication, their equal and respectful relationship to one another, they may nevertheless find themselves falling back on old familiar, though unpleasant methods of interacting (blaming, withdrawing) reminiscent of what their parents did when dealing with conflict.

Family researchers, such as Robert Beavers, have defined family style as "the degree of centripetal and centrifugal qualities in the family" (see footnote for source.) In identifying elements of what contributes to healthy family relationships "centripetal" is analogous to petals on a flower, tightly formed and organized around a center. It is meant to describe a force of energy drawn inwards towards its' center. "Centrifugal" refers to the experience of centrifugal velocity, which forces us to drift further and further away from the center. Healthy family styles blend characteristics of both of these polarities at differing points on the life cycle. Young families with small children are naturally centripetal. While families with adolescents grow towards some incorporation of centrifugal forces. A flexible balance is considered necessary for healthy adjustment over time.

Let's take a closer look at what is meant by these two polarities, how to recognize their extremes in rigid, "dysfunctional" systems, and what style or place on this continuum our own childhood experience placed us.



Centripetal Families. In the extreme, rigidly centripetal families create a culture in which they bind together against the outside world. Outsiders are distrusted. Only the family is perceived as safe. Family members can express positive feelings towards one another, but repress negative or ambivalent feelings, resulting in warmth that can often feel false or superficial because the underlying conflict is never truly expressed or resolved. Leave-taking may be difficult in such a family and it is not uncommon to have an adult child return home or never leave home, and for somatization of feelings (headaches, aches and pains, fatigue) or scape-goating of one member to manifest as a release valve for the repressed negative feelings in the family. Positive feelings of love are acceptable, but anger is not tolerated. Members may feel that to be loved they must give up a large part of themselves. Dependency is encouraged. Individualism is punished.

Centrifugal Families. In the extreme, a rigidly centrifugal system trusts outsiders more than their own family members, dependency is perceived as weakness and so expressions of love and caring are repressed, while anger and even hostility are accepted modes of relating. There is a tendency to expel children before they reach adulthood, or for children to leave home prematurely. Independence is encouraged and precipitous, while dependency needs are sought elsewhere outside of the family.

Centripetal force relates to warmth in a family and centrifugal relates to freedom or autonomy. In a positive light, we need an integration of the polarities of being connected and being free in order to grow into a solid and satisfying sense of who we are. In healthy families, there is an adjustment over time to include the dependency needs of its' growing members, and to encourage the development of autonomy of the individual as she or he leaves home. In healthy families, there is also give and take. No one member of a family is overly compromised by the needs of the others consistently.

Families in which one member overly compromises for the needs of others, ignoring his or her own growth and development are termed "adequate" as opposed to "optimal" by Beavers. The sacrificial or "martyred mother" role model falls into this category. The atmosphere of the family is negatively influenced when other family members' growth comes at the expense of one member repeatedly. Now for a look at your own childhood family "culture" and its' impact on your current family relationships.



In order to explore where your family of origin was on the continuum, take 30 minutes to explore the past with your partner. Each of us comes from a uniquely different family "culture." Ask one another the following questions:

  1. What was the quality of your parents' relationship? Was love expressed? Was anger expressed?

      Rate from 1-10, with 1 representing only positive feelings expressed and 10 being only negative feelings expressed. 5 would represent an equal ability to express anger without denying love.


  2. How did your parents' resolve conflict with one another? How was conflict resolved in your family in general?

      Rate from 1-10 with 1 representing that conflict was never overtly expressed, and so left unresolved and 10 representing that conflict was repeatedly expressed in anger and disrespect, but without mutual resolution. 5 would represent an atmosphere in which differences could be expressed and explored without attacking character, and mutually acceptable solutions would be found.


  3. Was communication open, direct and clear? Or was it ambiguous, nonverbal, coercive?

      Rate from 1-10 with 1 representing pressure to mind-read people's needs (saying "yes" when they really mean "no") to 10 representing repeated and consistent misinterpretations/accusations of others' behavior. ("If you loved me you would have------"). 5 would represent non-blaming clarification of feelings and differing points of view, and safety in the family system for anything to be discussed. There would be room for feelings to be expressed and explored. Feelings are not seen as actions, and so can be validated as such.


  4. What was your family's relationship to the outside community as you grew up? What was your relationship to your parents and to the outside community as you grew up? Where did you go for help as a youngster, a teenager?

      Rate from 1-10 with 1 representing complete dependence on family to answer all needs to 10 representing complete dependence on others outside the family for help, guidance and nurturing. 5 would represent a balance of both, changing according to age.


  5. How did you leave home? With adequate support or not? Easily, or with difficulty? Connected to family or not?

      Rate from 1-10 with 1 representing much difficulty and feeling pressure not to leave home in young adulthood to 10 representing leaving home before you felt ready to be in the world, and with little or no emotional or financial support to do so. 5 would represent feeling challenged to leave as a young adult, but supported emotionally to continue to find your place in the world as an adult.



Get a sense of where your childhood experience put you on the spectrum, (1 is rigidly centripetal, 10 rigidly centrifugal,etc.). Many times, you will find that your family culture tended towards one end, and your partner's towards the other. By learning this, you can consciously choose to adopt new guidelines that solicit your strengths, and correct for your weaknesses. Or you will discover one area (resolving conflict, expression of feelings) that tends towards the extreme.

For example, if your family culture easily and openly criticized, expressed negative feelings, and your partner's tended more towards positive expressions but shied away from letting you know when something bothered them, you can adopt one another's tendencies, and even remind your partner by asking him or her if something bothered them today, because you are aware their tendency is not to tell you; or for an expression of love and affection, because you are aware they hide their dependency needs from you automatically. By talking about the blueprints of our family of origins, we are able to more clearly decide the atmosphere or style we want to adopt for our own families.

Recognizing our unique strengths and weaknesses also makes it possible to feel connection and intimacy as a couple. To develop ourselves as individuals and yet be able to depend upon our partners as loving critics develops a sense of trust and pleasure. We often choose our partners for the very qualities we subliminally recognize as undeveloped or missing in ourselves. Too often, we as partners do not take responsibility to develop the qualities we were attracted to in our loved one, and end up polarizing instead of learning from or appreciating the balance of the other. These patterns of non-appreciation are learned and can be unlearned. Remember that as parents, we are now the leaders of our families, and it is our turn to set the style for growth and development.

Observing the five areas discussed with an eye towards flexibility and balance that is appropriate to the age level of your children as they develop can be a shared journey. And appreciating yourself and your partner for taking the time and effort to consider your family's style, is by itself a healthy start. For any system that can look at itself, is one capable of adapting to the ever present changes of family life!

Footnote: Beavers, Robert, The Beavers System Model Iin Walsh, Froma ,Ed. Normal Family Processes, 2nd edition Guilford Press, N.Y. 1993.

Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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