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The Family Life Spiral

Combrinck-Graham (1985) constructed a nonlinear model of family development called the family life spiral. The spiral includes the developmental tasks of three generations that simultaneously affect one another. Each person's developmental issues can be seen in relation to those of the other family members. For example, midlife crisis involves the reconsideration of status, occupation, and marital state for adults in the middle years of their lives. This crisis may coincide with their adolescent children's identity struggles and the parents' plans for retirement. Similarly, when a family's childbearing experience is viewed in terms of grandparenthood, the birth of a child "pushes" the older generations along the timeline, whether or not the grandparents are prepared for their new roles.

The family life spiral looks like an upside-down tornado. This spiral is compact at the top to illustrate the family's closeness during centripetal periods, and it is spread out at the bottom to represent centrifugal periods of greater distance between family members. Centripetal and centrifugal periods are further discussed in the following sections.

Centripetal Periods

The close periods in family life are called centripetal to indicate the many forces in the family system that holds the family tightly together (Combrinck-Graham, 1985). Centripetal periods (CPs) are marked by an inner orientation requiring intense bonding and cohesion, such as early childhood, child rearing, and grandparenting. Both the individual's and the family's life structure emphasize internal family life during these periods. Consequently, the boundaries between members are more diffuse so as to enhance teamwork among the members. In contrast to diffuse internal boundaries, external boundaries may become tightened as if to create a nest within which the family can attend to itself.

Centrifugal Periods

By contrast, the distant or disengaged periods have been called centrifugal to indicate the predominance of forces that pull the family apart (Combrinck-Graham, 1988). Centrifugal periods (CFs) are marked by a family's outward orientation. Here the developmental focus is on tasks that emphasize personal identity and autonomy, such as adolescence, midlife, and retirement. As such, the external family boundary is loosened, old family structures are dismantled, and distance between family members typically increases.

The Family Merry-Go-Round

The terms centripetal and centrifugal are derived from physics and indicate the push and pull of forces on and within things – in this case, families. These forces might also be compared to the process of riding a merry-go-round. On a merry-go-round, the centripetal force is the push you will need to keep you on your horse. You push against the spinning ride toward the center of the rotation. The centrifugal force is what tries to pull you off and out into the world away from the spinning direchon. For example, if you let go of your horse's pole, this force will pull you away from the merry-go-round. In this case your seat belt will help!

It is important to recognize that families are also in a constant process of pushing and pulling to adapt to life's events. Families move between centripetal and centrifugal forces depending on the developmental tasks required of them at various stages of the family life cycle. A family will typically move through one cycle every 25 years. This period is the time required to produce a new generation. Within each family cycle, different members will experience:

1. One's own childhood (CP) and adolescence (CF).

2. The birth (CP) and adolescence (CF) of one's children.

3. The birth (CP) and development (CF) of one's grandchildren.

These developmental shifts have been called oscillations that provide opportunities for family members to practice intimacy and involvement in the CPs and individuation and independence in the CFs (Combrinck-Graham, 1985).

Implications for Practice

Neither direction – centripetal nor centrifugal – defines a pathological condition. These directions describe the relationship styles of the family at particular stages of the family life spiral. Symptom formation often occurs when the family is confronted with an event that is out of phase with the anticipated development of the family life spiral. Such events include, for example, untimely death, birth of a disabled child, chronic illness, or war. For some families, stress will develop around typical developmental demands, such as infants' needs for dependency or adolescents' demands for more autonomy. The intensity and duration of family anxiety will affect the family's ability to make the required transitions. The purpose of family therapy is to help the family past the transitional crisis so that they can continue toward the next stage of family life.

The Family Genogram

Genograms give family therapists another useful way to conceptualize family development. Typically, genograms are used to chart the progression of a particular family through the life cycle over at least three generations. It is like a family tree that includes information about birth order, family members, their communications, and issues of relationships. The work of Monica McGoldrick provides an excellent resource for clinicians unfamiliar with the use of genograms (see McGoldrick, Gerson, & Shellenberger, 1999). Genograms often provide the basis of clinical hypotheses in family work and offer a culturally sensitive method for understanding individual or family clients. For example, Magnuson, Norem, and Skinner (1995) recommended mapping the relationship dynamics in the families of gay or lesbian clients. They pointed out the importance of mapping the relationship markers of gay or lesbian couples that are not recognized by general society (e.g., marriage). Gibson (2005) provided excellent guidance on the effective use of genograms in school counseling settings. Lim and Nakamoto (2008) detailed an effective use of a genogram intervention with clients of color. A genogram is included as an organizing element in the case study presented later in this chapter.

Hartman (1995) developed a similar tool called an eco-map. The advantage of the eco-map is that it allows the client and therapist to diagram family and community interactions in tandem. The utility of genograms and eco-maps is such that they are increasingly being used in fields beyond family therapy, such as nursing (Clausson & Berg, 2008) and family medicine (Wattendorf & Hadley, 2005).

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