Much has been studied about the human being and its evolution as an individual, autonomous being, passing from intrauterine life and birth through the well-known stages that lead to aging.
From many perspectives, whether from Jean Piaget‘s genetic psychology (expected changes in children’s cognition and adaptation to the environment) or from the fulfillment of identification evolutionary challenges (Erik Erikson), going through innumerable clinical, ecological and even existentialists.
But what has not been developed as much and is even less well known is how families go through different stages of development. The family, nowadays such an open concept that defies any rigid or traditional definition, is an organism with its own life that has its own challenges and implicit tasks to maintain a healthy connection between its members and, moreover, with the social environment.
Here we understand by family a unit of at least two related people who establish some kind of alliance and coexistence to face the daily tasks associated with life in society (and do not necessarily maintain ties of kinship or consanguinity).
First stage: the challenge of identity
The first thing that a couple of people must achieve, in their way of building a kind of “family”, is an identity as an autonomous structure. The early stage of the family, the first, is the one that goes from the union of two people (of either sex) to the entry of the eldest of the children in the school system. In the case of those without children, it may be possible to consider extending it until such time as the routines and foundations of family teamwork have been clearly established.
When two people come together (let’s take a traditional family), they set in motion a course of life that has a lot to do with their experiences in their family of origin lives. Therefore, an arduous negotiation process begins where each one will try (many times unconsciously) to transfer the patterns and models of coexistence of their own family to the new one. Which of the two spouses or people will influence the new family the most? What will be the prevailing customs and values? Will study and perseverance or enjoyment and sport, for example, be more important?
The challenge at this stage is to be able to reach mature explicit agreements that contribute to the creation of a truly new family, where the contributions of both members are integrated and everyone’s coexistence is enriched.
The danger is that the competition and egocentrism of the couple will prevail over a more balanced and tolerant model of coexistence. In this sense, the arrival of the first child is usually crucial, because statistics show a high percentage of separation of couples at this time.
Second stage: consolidate
In a second moment, when the first tasks have been ordered and little by little the family begins to enter into a regulated and predictable mode of behavior (which can take a few years and is usually established, in the case that there are children, at the entrance of the family). to the educational system of the elderly), we can speak of a second stage, the intermediate stage of family development. What’s going on here? Well, what was recently mentioned: routines are created based on regulatory mechanisms (approval or disapproval, reward/punishment, etc.) that tend to maintain a line of predictability in family lifestyle.
Steinglass mentions that, in addition to routines, there are rituals (food, trips, vacations, study, etc.) and also problem-solving strategies that are typical in each family. For example, when dad gets angry he becomes silent and isolates himself for a few days until balance is restored. When her teenage son gets bad grades, she tells her mom, who always mediates to prevent conflict with her husband. These are typical problem solving strategies.
The challenge at this stage is for the family to learn to generate routines and behaviors that enhance the well-being and abilities of its members, as well as an environment of flexibility and tolerance where each one’s differences are respected.
The danger is that rituals and routines are toxic or rigid and do not allow each member to express their own uniqueness, or that chaos prevails in the system and there is no clear organization for family members.
Late Stage: The Legacy We Left
When many years have passed and we reach our stage of maturity (it is difficult to establish an approximate age at present, but let’s say that it has to do with the emancipation of the children from the home, for example) two critical tasks are presented: on the one hand , the clarification of the unique and singular identity of the family, and on the other, the transmission of it to future generations, the legacy.
The couple has completed the cycle of their life, and the main purpose of these years seems to be to make explicit the benefits of internal culture (routines, rituals, codes, values) to those who leave space and set out to create new families. As Steinglass himself, an expert on the subject, says, it is a “summary” procedure, of passing on the value that this family group has to leave to humanity, however small it may be.
Remembering innumerable anecdotes, jokes, crucial family moments, becomes an imperative in every encounter with the elderly in the family, who try to safeguard the value of everything they have experienced.
The challenge is that this legacy remains in the memory of the new generations, with the learning of the successes and errors that the couple tried in their history.
The danger is that (and especially in these times) the intense amount of external stimuli, the rush and the lack of respect and dignity for family values, forget everything shared in the years of joint history.
As we can see, each stage has the exquisite aroma of new challenges and the possibility of living our potentialities to the full, while we support each other in this precious space that we have called family.