Excerpted from "Making Healthy Families" Copyright © by Shadow and Light Publications (2000) and used with permission.
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. How our parents raised us resulted in a unique family culture. We are conditioned to imprint these same influences (both positively and negatively), onto the next generation.
When a child is born, old family styles of relating are awakened. The couple's relationship undergoes tremendous stress. Marital partners who have basked in positive feelings in their partnership can find themselves falling into negative automatic behaviors. 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 forces in a family." "Centripetal" is analogous to petals on a flower, tightly formed and organized around a center. It is meant to describe a quality of interactions that draws people closer together. "Centrifugal" refers to the quality of centrifugal velocity, which forces us to drift at an increasing rate, away from one another.
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. Parents must be accountable to each other for coordinating childcare and their young children require close proximity to them. But families with adolescents grow towards some incorporation of centrifugal forces, as greater independence is not only necessary but desirable for healthy growth. A successful balance must be achieved to ensure family health and well-being throughout the family life cycle. Let's take a closer look at what is meant by these two polarities, how to recognize their extreme or "dysfunctional" forms, and where our own childhood experience placed us on this continuum.