Definition of a Family

What is, by definition, a family?

Technically, a "family" consists of a domestic group of people (or a number of domestic groups), typically affiliated by birth or marriage, or by analogous or comparable relationships - including domestic partnership, cohabitation, adoption, and last name. In many societies, family ties are only those recognized as such by law or a similar normative system. Although many people (including social scientists) have understood familial relationships in terms of "blood", many anthropologists have argued that one must understand the notion of "blood" metaphorically, and that many societies understand "family" through other concepts rather than through genetic distance. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says: "The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State".

Family arrangements in the United States have become more diverse with no particular household arrangement representing half of the United States population. The different types of families occur in a wide variety of settings, and their specific functions and meanings depend largely on their relationship to other social institutions. Sociologists have a special interest in the function and status of these forms in stratified (especially capitalist) societies.

What's a nuclear family and an extended family?

Most people, especially in the United States and Europe, use the term "nuclear family" to refer to conjugal families. Sociologists distinguish between conjugal families (relatively independent of the kindred of the parents and of other families in general) and nuclear families (which maintain relatively close ties with their kindred). Most people, especially in the United States and Europe, also use the term "extended family". This term has two distinct meanings. First, it serves as a synonym of "consanguinal family". Second, in societies dominated by the conjugal family, it refers to kindred (an egocentric network of relatives that extends beyond the domestic group) who do not belong to the conjugal family.

Anthropologists have often supposed that the family in a traditional society forms the primary economic unit. This economic role has gradually diminished in modern times, and in societies like the United States it has become much smaller - except in certain sectors such as agriculture and in a few upper class families. In China, for example, the family as an economic unit still plays a strong role in the countryside. However, the relations between the economic role of the family, its socio-economic mode of production and cultural values, remain highly complex.

If my family is having a problem, can a therapist help?

Absolutely, as long as there is a sense of willingness. Many who need counseling either will not seek it, or they come for therapy and are not willing to make any changes in their lives. They want others to change; they want their environment or circumstances to change, but they are resistant to doing anything different themselves.

You mean, willing to make some kind of change, right?

It is surprising how much emotional pain a person can endure because they have difficulty embracing the idea of change. Many individuals have difficulty with the process of change because it can create much anxiety getting outside one's comfort zone. For some, it's just being a creature of habit and the known is more preferable than the unknown. New habits, new methods of doing things, and changing thinking patterns or behaviors take a great deal of energy and time, as well as courage.

Courage can be defined as "the willingness to do something even if you are afraid."

What do you mean?

Given the choice of being with someone who is courageous or someone who is fearless, choose the courageous person. Anyone who is without fear can be a danger to you because they will take risks that could get you hurt. The person with courage is willing to do what it takes and will most likely be more careful about it because they do experience fear. They are not paralyzed by fear; they are empowered by it.

Seeking help and making changes in your life requires courage. If you are willing to be different you are about a quarter of the way to having a better life.

What about motivation - making great changes takes a lot of energy?

Some individuals will relate that they are willing to make changes in their life but lack the drive or energy to actually do so. They will begin the process by seeking therapy and they will express a desire for change, but will not make the effort necessary to actually carry out the process.

The initial reason they are in counseling is that their life may have deteriorated to the point of being in a state of crisis. They may have become entangled in the legal system; been threatened with loss of their marriage or family; or in danger of losing their jobs. In addition, they may also be in emotional pain over such a length time that their health has become an issue.

A crisis situation may be hurtful but it may also be helpful. In many situations things may have to get worse before it gets better for the change process to take place.

The Chinese have a written character - which means "crisis" - in their language that has two meanings. This character represents both the concept of danger and opportunity. Therefore, a crisis can be a life disaster or calamity but it can also be a means to making life better because it provides a motivation for personal growth and development. Without a strong drive for change, it is less likely to happen.

When an individual has both the willingness to improve and the motivation to do so, they have half of what it takes to succeed in the counseling process.

What about committing to such changes in the long-term?

The old adage "quitters never win and winners never quit" basically says it best.

Nevertheless, people tend to be impatient with the personal growth process. Many of us want things and we want them right now. At least those of us who lack the maturity to suffer delayed gratification will express this urgency, along with those who are experiencing enormous distress in their life. However, we who believe that "anything worth having is worth waiting for," will persist in the pursuit of change, and are the ones who will prevail over adversity.

The counseling process requires such commitment and patience. Without these two characteristics, many will rush into what they think is a viable solution but eventually find the problem has not really been resolved at all.

What is the true purpose of time?

The answer is "so that everything doesn't have to happen all at once." Therefore, we must remind ourselves to stay the course and allow the sequence of events to occur so that we can make positive changes over the course of time. A formula for success used in clinical practice is also the definition of "learning" as used in therapy. That formula is: L= c/t x E, or learning is any change that occurs over time as a result of experience. The "over time" part of this formula is crucial to the learning process and is required because real and lasting change rarely occurs instantaneously.

The key to success in counseling, or in any task in life, aside from having the willingness and the motivation to change is to stay the course of therapy and realize that interpersonal problems develop over many years and it will take time to resolve them. If you possess or develop these attributes in the initial phase of counseling you will be three quarters on the way to success.

What about faith?

Faith is the final and most critical step in creating success.

If a person does not believe in themselves, or in what they are doing, it becomes almost impossible to accomplish any project or task. In other words, the more you believe in something, the more you increase your chances of being successful at it.

The concept of belief in oneself or belief in a process seems simple and we can usually agree about the necessity of it, but there are still those who fail because they do not possess the strength of faith to accomplish their goals.

One of the reasons people will suffer great and enduring emotional distress is that they do not believe counseling or psychotherapy can help them. They have seen TV or movies that disparage individuals who seek counseling, or portray counselors and psychotherapists in an unflattering manner. Some may view counseling as for the weak and cowardly. Each person fails when they have little or no faith in the healing process of change. The successful individual understands that it takes believing in yourself and in others to accomplish a goal or task. They realize that a certain amount of trust needs to be placed in a well-trained, well-educated health care provider, or at least explore their lack of trust issues with the therapist in the beginning phase of counseling.

This lack of trust in others may stem from early childhood issues and be a primary source of a person's pain. Those who are believers and possess a faith in God often have a means outside themselves to succeed. Harvard University and the National Institute of Mental Health both undertook a research project to disprove the power of prayer and both studies resulted in seeing a significant influence that prayer has in healing. It is encouraging that two secular institutions could inadvertently support the power of faith.

Overcoming adversity and gaining achievement is a culmination of all four attributes of willingness, motivation, commitment, and faith, and with them you can have a complete opportunity of success in therapy as well as any reasonable goals you set in life.

What about couples counseling? Does it work?

Couple's counseling is based on the premise that individuals and their problems are best handled within the context of the couple's relationship. Typically, both partners in the relationship attend the counseling session to discuss the couple's specific issues. The aim of couple's counseling is to help a couple deal appropriately with their immediate problems and to learn better ways of relating in general.

Couples therapy or couple's counseling is a useful modality of help for couples who are experiencing difficulties such as repetitive arguments, feelings of distance or emptiness in the relationship, pervasive feelings of anger, resentment or dissatisfaction, or lack of interest in affection or in a physical relationship with one another.

According to the 2000 Census, the majority of American society chose to reside or live with a partner. 52% of US households are maintained by married couples, and there is an increase in the number of couples living together from 3.3 million in 1990 to 5.5 million in 2000. Nationwide in 2000, there were 21,000 marriage and family therapists helping couples work through and deal with their relationship issues.

In a review of the literature through mid-1996, Pinsof, Wynne, and Hambright (1996: Pinsof & Wynne, 1995) concluded that significant data exists to support the efficacy of family and couples therapy, and that there is no evidence indicating that couples are harmed when they undergo treatment.

Research outcomes on couples counseling suggest the following: At the end of couple's therapy, 75% of couples receiving therapy are better off than similar couples who did not receive therapy. Sixty five percent of couples report "significant" improvement based on averaged scores of marital "satisfaction." Most couples will benefit from therapy, but both spouses will not necessarily experience the same outcomes or benefits. Therapies that produce the greatest gain and are able to maintain that gain over the long amount of time, tend to affect the couple's emotional bonds and help the spouses work together to achieve a greater level of "differentiation" or emotional maturity.

In determining as a couple what type of therapist that you wish to receive treatment from keep in mind that according to a large-scale survey of over 4,000 Consumer Reports readers showed in 1995, people in therapy generally rated psychologists, clinical social workers, and psychiatrists about as equally effective in helping their patients.

Has the concept of "couples" or "family" changed in the last generation?

Couples today feel increasingly isolated and are expected to manage their lives and families without the community supports that in the past were a primary resource in raising children and meeting family needs. Couples in our present culture are less bound by family traditions and are freer than ever before to develop relationships unlike those of the families that they were raised in. This is a large part of the reason why more couples are not married, are living in same-sex relationships, or are part of blended families.

With the aid of a qualified clinician, couples can bring peace, stability and communication back into their relationship thus affecting their lives and the lives of those most impacted by them and their relationship.

How can a couple be happier?

If writer and researcher David H. Olson, Ph.D., is correct, there are seven basic types of marriage. In three of them, where happiness abounds, couples are held together by the smooth working of most or all factors intrinsic to relationships - personality compatibility, communication, conflict resolution, and sexuality. In the other four, the marriage hinges more on external elements; leisure activities, religious attitudes, financial management, children, family and friends, and distress predominates. Unfortunately, Olson finds, most people today live in distressed marriages. But his studies of over 15,000 couples point the way to happier futures for many.

Head of family social science at the University of Minnesota, Olson evaluated marital partners - both as individuals and the consensus between them - along the nine dimensions that previous studies had shown to be areas of trouble and conflict. He also looked at their global assessment of satisfaction, and their cohesion and adaptability. When he compiled all the data, families naturally clustered into seven distinct profiles:

Type 1 - Devitalized marriage: 40 percent of couples. There is pervasive unhappiness with all relationship dimensions and considerable instability. Both partners have considered divorce. They are critical of each other's personality. Their marriage is strictly utilitarian. They tend to be younger, married a shorter time, and have a lower income than other couples. Many are minorities. More of them come from divorced homes, and more of them were previously divorced themselves. They stay together for lack of alternatives.

Type 2 - Financially focused: 11 percent of couples. These couples have conflict and are unhappy in their communication and the way conflicts are resolved. They are dissatisfied with the personal characteristics of their partner, and there may be bitter personal attacks. Their careers come before the relationship, and money or financial rewards hold them together. Their single relationship strength is financial management. A high number of husbands and wives in such utilitarian relationships have considered divorce.

Type 3 - Conflicted: 14 percent. They are dissatisfied in many facets of the relationship - personality issues, communication, conflict resolution, and sexuality - and they may avoid or fail to settle issues between them. Instead, they focus on and gain satisfaction from outside experiences such as leisure, the children, religious life. But a high percentage of both partners have considered divorce.

Type 4 Traditional: 10 percent. They are moderately satisfied with many relationship elements, while their sexual relationship and the way they communicate are sources of distress. They are not as critical of each other's personality as Types 1, 2 and 3. Their strength lies in a satisfying religious life and good interaction with extended family and friends. The marriages are relatively stable. These couples tend to be older, married longer, white, and Protestant.

Type 5 - Balanced: 8 percent. They are moderately satisfied with most relationship areas, with real strengths in communication and problem-solving. The biggest problem is financial management. They have higher than average agreement on leisure, child-rearing, and sexuality. They place a high value on the nuclear family. Still, over a quarter have considered divorce.

Type 6 - Harmonious: 8 percent. They are highly satisfied with each other, the expression of affection, and their sexual life. But they are self-centered, viewing children as a burden and parenting as a source of distress. It may be that, when a problem develops in this family, it shows up in the child.

Type 7 - Vitalized: 9 percent. They are highly satisfied with almost every dimension of their relationship and get along well. They are personally integrated, have strong internal resources, and agree in most external areas. They develop difficulties but resolve them well. They are economically better off than most others, and tend to be older, married longer, white, and Protestant. They tend to be in their first marriage and come from intact families.

What does this information show?

There were a few surprises in the study. Even the best-adjusted couples are not immune to marital shakiness; nearly one in four wives in Type 7 marriages had at some point considered divorce. In fact, wives were generally less satisfied than husbands in all seven marriage types.

While recognizing the complexity of marriage relationships, the typology points to the specific strengths families can build upon in times of crisis. And it indicates weaknesses that need to be addressed if and when couples seek therapy.

Is Ward Halverson a marriage and family therapist?

No - Ward is a clinical social worker specializing in work with children and their families. He is, definitely, a family therapist, who organizes and assesses the family as a whole, dynamic unit made of specific individual personalities, people with needs and skills all "together in the same picture" for better or for worse. His job is to determine ways to help the family improve functioning. This is process that usually starts with a few minor changes and consequent improvements, as Ward begins to understand the more-complex family dynamics and help members of the family begin the sometimes-challenging process of successful change.