Family Life

The subject is vast and complex and generalizations are both necessary and dangerous. As a psychiatrist and and family psychotherapist , someone who deals with daily  problems and their solutions, I will in this panel focus on my experience with recent trends in western middle class family life, which I assume to be the family type of most who are here in the audience.

First I have  to mention that   the panorama of the western middle class family is very complex. In several countries, complex factors contribute to the divorce rate being at least 30% through the couple’s life cycle. For those who married in the USA since 1995 the rate goes up to 50%. Of those who divorce the majority remarriages and the divorce rate  of remarriage is 60%. Someone said ironically that remarriage is the triumph of hope over experience. The traditional nuclear family, that is, just the couple and its biological children, did not number more the 30% of the domiciles in a USA survey. In Porto Alegre study ,  only half of the adolescents lived at home exclusively with both parents.   So today, alongside  the nuclear family we find a  great diversity of family types: steparent families, grandparent families, three generation families, adoptive families, single mother families, homosexual couples raising children and so on.  We live therefore in a world of diversity,  where  traditional structures and  new ones coexist.  In Brazil for example due to the economic pressures and  post-graduate degrees,  youngsters are  both leaving their parents home quite late, but  at the same time many are living together with their partners premaritally,   something new culturally. So nowadays , we avoid talking about the ‘’normal family’’ and instead, when dealing with the commom problems of living, we pay attention to the singularities and resources of each situation.  We also can´t say  marriage is a failure or that it is a declining institution. We can say it is certainly becoming more complex as it seems human beings have not found yet another better alternative for  raising children with intimacy and emotional security.



Human beings have both individuation and socialization needs and throughout the life cycle  maintain a dynamic equilibrium between these two sets of complementary caracteristics. Individuation at times means initiative and autonomy. Socialization is often associated with cooperation, altruism and solidarity. At the moment of marriage we give priority to  our social needs -relative  the individual ones- seeking  for a new emotional equilibrium through the project of the couple.

The american psychiatrist Lewis,  supported by most practicing clinicians,  described the  well functioning couple:

·       The dialogue is franc and direct with space for different opinions.

·       There is room for individuality and at the same time the cohesion of the couple is big.

·       Power is well distributed with conflicts handled through negotiations and not through force or threats.

·       Partners can fully express their range of emotions.

·       The couple shows consistent discipline with the children, avoiding  envolving in the normal disagreements of the adults.

In the above description of the well couple there is  equality, tolerance,cooperation and equilibrium.

The  interesting question is : how is it possible inside the family to show equality,tolerance and colaboration when in the world outside the family the main values are individualism, competition,discrimination and survival of the fittest?

How to we get out of the jungle of the real world to get into the “Home sweet home”? The answer is simple.

It is not possible!

All of us arrive home  psychologically contaminated by the totality of our contextual problems –at work and in the social world at large. Both at home and in the social world we are all the time administering the conflict between one part of us who tries to be coherent with our  deeper values of solidarity and altruism and the part of us that wants to act according to our most egotistical short term interests . This can be an intense and permanent conflict.

We  are brainwired to treat our own blood  differently, which means  dealing  with these emotional contradictions as well as we can at home. There is the vision from the conservative right that says  we are by nature individualistic and competitive, therefore being doomed to create a world, both at home and outside, which reflects this basic reality fact. This view from the right is still at the base of the culture of ‘machismo’, with its rigidity of roles and unequal division of power in the family.

The leftist view is different. We know human beings are capable of the best and of the worst, still we believe human beings  can improve themselves,  not from ‘’tabula rasa’’, but starting from his own specific living conditions.

We believe  human beings are much more equal than different and that not only we can but  must create a different world  based on cooperation and solidarity. There is ample evidence in several ecological studies that the failure to do so  can mean the end of  civilization as we know it.

Now I am going to describe some commom situations in the phases of the family life cycle



When we select a partner there is a strong unconscious element, that is we choose someone largely influenced by our experiences in our own family of origin. This can be a matter for therapy, but we also have a lot of important information for young people , who are highly represented in this audience,  to help them  have more harmonious relationships. This spread of information is crucial because we know how slowly  information change ingrained habits.

Many young people get unwanted pregnancies and  still marry pressured by this fact. Although this is seen more now in the lower than in the middle classes, it continues to be a big problem. When people marry pregnant they jump from being  a new couple  straight into to family life. This is quite a difficult task, skipping the much needed phase where the two alone  begin to negotiate the many tasks of living together.

Many still marry too young. Marrying too young usually means psychologically trying to escape  from the family of origin. Although this can bring a sense of autonomy and freedom, it also means not paying enough attention to whether the partner is really the right person for you.  There is a phrase that says  “Love is blind but once you marry you recover your vision!”. Quite true! This is why most divorces occur during the first few years of living together.

Another problematic situation is when the couple has been together for many years , let´s say  four or  five, and in the absence of external obstacles, one of the partners still doesn´t feel emotionally ready for the committment. The partner rightly annoyed by this situation could do well in looking for therapy because after so many years one should really  be ready to decide as to whether the partner is a good choice or not.

Another commom situation in the reality of the market place today is that  many couples marry and continue to receive financial help from the parents. This is   problematic, because it makes more difficult the task of psychological separation from the family of origin. I recently followed a young couple who divorced because the husband could not tolerate that the allowance the wife received from her father was more than he earned in his job (although some people dream about finding a partner like that…).

Another commom problem for young people is the romantic coupling called ‘’the attraction of the opposites”. This happens when for example a quiet man marries a talkative woman, a strong willed woman marries a more passive man, etc.. We call this the complementary couple. It is as if two emotionally imature people add up their qualities and deficiencies to form one single viable psychological human being.

This clearly leaves them  too dependent on each other.  If one tries to change, which is usually the rule, the other may oppose it. We know today that the couple who fares better is the one who combines complementary and simmetrical caracteristics. That is, beyond the complementarities or differences that can enrich the couple, the spouses need to thave more similar tastes, interests and projects , the ingredients of what we can call  a  friendship. Throughout the life cycle most well married couples say this  friendship aspect  gains in   importance over sexuality and romantic love.

When asked, most couples simplify their difficulties saying their major  problem is they can´t communicate. This is in agreement with recent studies that show most couples have ‘’insoluble’’ problems .Gottman has shown that those problems accompany them  throughout their lives. For example the husband will complain the wife spends too much, she will say he is too quiet , etc…  The difference between  couples who will divorce from the ones who will not lies in the ability of the latter to create many positive areas free of conflict.  So therapists know now that it is not productive to dwell  too much in past problems but rather help the couple create more partnership and enjoyment.



After marriage there is an expectation that in the long run the partners will become for each other the more psychologically important person,  where before marriage this person is found in the family of origin.  The   other basic tasks in this phase is the establishment of the domestic  routine and the negotiation of  questions like sharing friends, family visits, money, space and  domestic work.

Today there is no doubt women are getting much more equality with men. But they often still  carry the major burden of caring for the kids, the elders and domestic work. So today modern independent women when choosing  a partner are not  seeking any longer for the good looking provider but search  instead for a partner who will  also be a  participative parent and active in household chores.



The transformation from couple to family is a very radical one. Both members develop new identities as father and mother. In these new important roles is where they develop the commom problems about how to raise their children. Withaker used to say marriage is the form through which two families send representatives to reproduce themselves.  Although roles today are more flexible, spouses  frequently accuse each other of being too permissive or too authoritarian. The most common problem children have still is associated with being involved in their parents inability to be consistent with discipline. When they develop behavioral problems, often one of the parents, overtly or covertly , is supporting them.

Another commom problem is overinvolment of parents with the children , to the detriment of the romantic relationship. As part of this  phase it is common the appearance of extra-marital affairs.

In our consumer society parents at this stage are pressed  to work very hard to foster their careers, to also take good care of the children and last but not least ,  can´t forget to exercize  and have lots of fun! The important thing is to enjoy life! When you take all this into account you can understand Erich Fromm when he used to say that the question for our time is not why some people go crazy but how some are able to remain sane. 

Parents of young kids can only manage this if they have  lots of free time but in our present society the only group that has lots of free time are the unemployed. And they are not very happy about it. A survey among mental health professionals about whom they thought were ‘’models’’ of mental held showed that the group chosen as models consisted of persons who  worked but  were family people , had hobbies and leasure activities. So it seems clear that we need a new society that will provide ample free time for everybody.  It happens that this is a traditional goal in socialism.



Adolescents who are well have commom arguments with their parents about appearance, allowance,curfew and the like. When the adolescent has more serious problems, like school failure , drug addiction or anti-social activity,this pattern usually started before adolescence.In this case it is commom to find one of the spouses overinvolved with the adolescent. During adolescence, the parents are going thru the midlife crisis and the grandparents are showing declining health. The midlife crisis means that the mature adults with older children make an evaluation of their lives. They have  more free time, can  renew the romantic relationship, and redirect their lives towards desired goals, for example more travel, study or hobbies. When for many reasons this doesn´t happen,  it is commom to find depressed parents who distract themselves from their frustrations becoming too involved with the problematic youngster. This excessive proximity of the parents is part of the vicious circle where the adolescent continues to act out  to show he needs more independence from the parents but in fact is psychologically paralized and unable to go ahead with the tasks of adolescence.

Another interesting group of older adolescents, still living at home in Brazil,  is building together with their parents new sexual mores. They  bring their boyfriends and girlfriends to spend at least the week-end in their room in their parent´s home. The parents were part of the sixties sex revolution. They support their children in avoiding motels potentially dangerous or expensive. But both groups in fact would prefer different living arrangements if it were possible economically, where the privacy of both would be more protected.  In a future society we will need a different housing arquitecture. The present seems  designed specially for families with young kids.

Another important point in this phase is the need for the parents to take care of the sick grandparents. Ideally this provides a last chance for them to come close together, before the death of the older generation. . Many take advantage of it and it is very rewarding. For others the failure in the endeavor leaves the old people without the much needed assistance.



During this phase the couple needs to  readjust to live alone with  each other. With people living longer,  this phase can go from the 60’s to the 80’s, becoming the longest one in the life cycle. The retirement crisis belongs here. We need more flexibility with retirement. Some people fare very well, others get very depressed. The woman from an older generation who was a spouse and mother may have a hard time with widowhood. In the USA 10 percent of grandmothers are the primary caretaker of the grandchildren. When things don´t go well, psychosomatic symptoms are a commom way for older people to try to get attention. Another important burden of the older generation is when they have to continue to support their grown-up children.



Divorce came to be expected as almost ‘’normal’’ event in the life cycle. Today we talk about good and bad divorces.  One third  are good, one third  bad, one third  with moderate conflict. The good divorce is the one where the adults protect the children from their own resentment with each other. They both continue to see the kids a lot. Today we think that the custodial parent should be the one who will provide the most access to the other parent. In the USA ten percent of the fathers  is the custodial parent. On the other hand, ten percent of the fathers eventually disappears from their children’s lives. Especially the ones who are not paying alimony. When the separation is good the problems of the children usually don’t go beyond minor academic problems. On the other hand if the parents continue badmouthing each other. more serious situations can be found.



Most men remarry before two years but remarriage is even more unstable than first remarriages. Most , sixty percent, end in divorce with the adults saying they didn’t expect so many problems with the stepchildren and former spouses. So an important point is for people not to remarry too soon. They first need to consolidate the couple’s bond and work out the numerous difficulties in the task of putting together two usually different educational sub-cultures. One simple reason people rush into living together is that is is too expensive to support two households. Again in a different society we could do differently. Remarriage needs a lot of dialogue and looking for therapy is not a bad idea. It may take from 4 to 7 years for a remarriage family find its point of equilibrium – in the past we thought 2 years could be enough- but there is no reason not to expect remarriage families to live fully satisfactory lives. They must see their challenges as part of the normal difficulties of  living.

Two quick orientation for steparents:

Don´t  get discouraged if you get an initial rejection form stepchildren.This is to be expected,  stemming from loyalty conflicts with the non custodial parent.

Leave major issues of discipline initially in charge of the natural parent.




Our general topic is the challenge of another  family. I hope we have glimpsed there is today already a new family, alongside the tradional one.We  already have many new indications about how people can live better. We are living  side by side with the new and the old. But we know this  new family will only blossom if the society around it changes simultaneously. What are the signs of this  new family?

Let me  introduce this topic with three words that are very special for people of the left.



Regarding equality we have seen that in the new generations, the well couple is dealing much better with gender equality.

Regarding freedom and liberty we can´t forget that freedom to marry for love and stay married just for love is an accomplishment of the 20th century, and only in some countries.

Regarding fraternity  I want to say that this idea is associated with sacrifice and renounciation, words which are not very popular today, not in the right, not in the left. It is not enough to say that the capitalistic neoliberal society encourages selfishness and competition at all levels, and that this affects marriage and life in general.

It is not enough. As a psychotherapist I certainly find that people need to develop more tolerance frustration if  we are  to build a new social movement. To build this new ‘’movement of movements’’ we need to develop compromises  and harmony doesn’come without renunciation and a collective spirit of sacrifice. We unfortunately still see too many companheros displaying terrible competion, egotism and political fundamentalism, all leading to  treating colleagues more like enemies than comrades.

It may help to remember that the teachings of all the great spiritual traditions can be summarized in one sentence:

Treat the other like you would like to be treated!

In the left we need to look at each other with more empathy, searching for what connects us, not looking for what separates us. This is a leftist lens!  A lens  in which the precondition for the well being of one is the well being of the other. We are slowly building the conscience that to improve our lives at all levels, in the long run we will have to improve the lives of all those around us. This is why we fight for a new globalization, one that is build from bottom up, based on solidarity and democracy. We are already building a new society with a new attitude, but this new attitude needs to become more widespread. And we have to help. And it has to start now, with each of us.

This change of attitude is worth telling a story.

A low middle class father went to the end of the year meeting at the public school his son attended. The school principal congratulated all the parents who were present, saying that kids who don´t do well in school don´t have participatory parents, which obviously was not the case with those who were there. She went on elaborating on how important is to give a lot of attention to the children. When the meeting opened for questions and answers this father asked to speak and said:

‘’ You mentioned that the children who pass are the ones who receive a lot of attention from their parents. Well , it happens that I am a widow and have a single 13 year old son. I work at night so when I arrive home he is asleep and when I wake up he already left for school. Every night when I get home I go to his room , give him a kiss and tie a knot at the blanket at the farthest end of his bed. When he wakes up in the morning he sees the knot, showing him I was there and how much I care for him. But now you left me worried thinking I have to give him much more attention and I don’t know how!”

The principal asked for the name of the son , and when the father said the principal realized it was one the best students in the school.


Think about that!


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