Family Life Cycle

book cover The Expanding Family Life Cycle 5th ed.The Expanding Family Life Cycle

5th edition

The Expanding Family Life Cycle has become a classic over 35 years. The 5th edition expands further and more comprehensively ways to think about human development and the life cycle. It reflects the rapidly changing life cycle in our society, away from an orientation toward nuclear families, toward a more diverse and inclusive definitions of our society’s family patterns: people are living longer than ever before, and the changing patterns of couples and child-rearing in the 21st Century. We explore the impact of issues at multiple levels of the human system: the individual, family households, the extended family, the community, the cultural group, and the larger society. The text features a ground-breaking integration of individual development in systemic context; discussion of our nation’s increasing racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity across the life cycle; life cycle perspectives on LGBT issues, alcohol, sexuality, migration, social class, violence in the family, and assessment of “home place” as fundamental to clinical work. The book includes new chapters on sexuality over the life course, mental health as well as physical health in life cycle perspective, and friendship through the life cycle.This book redefines Human Development, bridging the traditionally separate spheres of individual development and the family life cycle in a way that transforms the traditional categories and proposes a new, more comprehensive way to think about human development and the life cycle within the larger context of cultural and social perspectives. Our expanded view of family actively includes the reciprocal impact of stresses at multiple levels of the human system: the individual (the psyche, the spirit and the body), the immediate family households, the extended family, the community (wchool, work, healthcare systems, the legal system, community support systems, etc), the cultural group and the larger society.This book puts the Individual in Context. Although social scientists give lip service to the notion of the individual’s role in the system, there has been a tendency for mental health professionals to compartmentalize theorizing about families separately from theorizing about the individual. Theories of individual development that have evolved in the field of human development have espoused primarily psychodynamically oriented schemas, especial Erik Erikson’s modifications of Freudian theory, that ignore the gender, race, sexual orientation, and class norms of society that have produced deeply skewed models of “normal” child and adult development. Such schemas make those who don’t conform to dominant norms seem deficient.

This thinking has been reinforced by the entire enterprise of diagnosis focused on universalizing individual pathology and ignoring systemic assessments as they influence human health and illness, strengths and resilience. Such splitting is not compatible with systemic thinking. It leads to divergent and inconsistent definitions of problems and their locus. Murray Bowen’s family systems theory, like George Engel’s bio-psycho-social model in medicine, is a notable exception to this tendency to split individual and family systems thinking. Bowen’s theory places individual behavior and feelings squarely in the context of the family system, elaborating on the intricacies of the impact and the interaction between an individual and the family system of three or more generations. Bowen’s theory also holds each adult individual responsible for creating change in the system. We have made a continuing effort in this edition to spell out a more comprehensive framework for individual development in the context of relationships and society (Chapter 1). The importance of situating individual development in context of the larger system is brought home by Steve Lerner in his expanded chapter (27) on the intersection between the therapist’s life cycle issues and those of the family in treatment—a key dimension of the fit between therapist and family as the clinical process unfolds. As his chapter profoundly illustrates, this framework helps us locate the points at which the chronic background anxiety in a family is likely to coincide with the acute stress of navigating a current life cycle transition.


This edition celebrates the diversity of the twenty-first century. We refer not only to cultural diversity but also to the diversity of family forms. There are many ways to go through life in a caring, productive manner, and no specific family structure is ideal. Indeed, most life cycle theory has focused theoretical and research attention to the developmental stages of just one family form: the White, Anglo, middle class, nuclear families of a once-married heterosexual couple, their children, and (occasionally) their extended families. This book expands the definition of family in ways that attempt to include everyone in our society. We have widened our lens to deal more concretely in large and small ways with the fact that every family is a group of individuals embedded in communities and in the larger society whose impact is definitive and must be taken into account for interventions at the family level to succeed.

Our choice of language symbolizes our recognition of the vast changes in family structure that are taking place. We have replaced the limited term “nuclear family,” which has come to refer only to a father and mother and their children in intact first families, with the term “immediate family,” referring to all household members and other primary caretakers or siblings of children, whether in a heterosexual couple, single-parent, unmarried, remarried, gay, or lesbian household. We believe “commitment to each other” more than biological or legal status to be the basic bond that defines a family.

While family patterns are changing dramatically as we enter the twenty-first century, the importance of community and connection is no less important than ever, but we must shift our paradigm to understand people’s experiences of community as they move through life. We have added a chapter on friendship through the life cycle (Chapter 11) to convey the centrality of these connections throughout our life cycle. Our identity is bound up in our interrelatedness to others. This is the essence of community—relationships that bridge the gap between private, personal, and family relationships, and the impersonal public sphere. We have a need for a spiritual sense of belonging to something larger than our own small, separate concerns. With our ever-greater involvement in work, time for anything “unnecessary” has been disappearing, leaving little time for church or synagogue, friends, family Sunday dinners, supporting children’s school activities, political action, or advocacy. These activities often get lost in the scramble to survive, leaving little but the individual for power and money.

We look at the concept of home as a place of self-definition and belonging, a place where people find resilience to deal with the injustices of society or even of their families, a place where they can develop and express their values. Home reflects our need to acknowledge the forces in our history that have made us strong, but it is also a concept that we remake at every phase of life, with family, with friends, with work, with nature, with smells and sounds and tastes that nurture us, because they give us a sense of safety and connection. Clinical intervention needs to acknowledge the importance of these spiritual, psychological, and physical places of belonging and safety at each life cycle phase. We see the concept of home as at the core of a meaningful life cycle assessment. We must assess clients with regard to their sense of belonging and connection to what is familiar. Having a sense of belonging is essential to well-being. Grasping where this sense of home is for a client is an essential part of any assessment and clinicians and policy makers who do not consider our deep-seated need for continuity and belonging as we go through life, especially through traumatic transitions and disruptions, will increase the trauma of the original experience.


In addition to focusing on the individual in the context of the family, this text expands our lens to the community and larger societal levels as they impact families and individuals. Our aim is to facilitate readers including clinicians in their clinical evaluations and treatment of all the major forces that influence human beings as they move through life: race, class, sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity, spirituality, politics, work, time, community, values, beliefs, and dreams. We do not have separate chapters on culture, because we believe that consideration of culture, race, and ethnicity is so essential to every issue discussed in the book. All authors have worked to keep cultural considerations in the forefront of their clinical descriptions. As our awareness of societal patterns of domination and privilege has grown, we have expanded our analysis of the impact of social norms on families. We have also included throughout the book cases that reflect the social forces that impinge on individual and family functioning. It is our strong belief that this expanded family life cycle context is the best framework for clinical intervention because it deals with the development over time of individuals in their family relationships and within their communities as they struggle in this new millennium to define and implement life’s meanings within a larger society that helps some more than others. To be lasting, change must encompass every level of our lives.



Foreign language translations available for various editions of this book:
(the Korean edition
is not currently available
via our website)