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
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
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
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:
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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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