Marriage Counselling for the Stages of Life

The cycles of family life & marriage

Outline of the family life cycle model

According to Ann Petty (2006:40) in the 1950’s, there was a widely used family life cycle proposed by Duvall that focused on eight stages; ranging from newly married to the death of a partner.
Although there were many theories about the adult life cycle, it was the work of Betty Carter and Monica McGoldrick (1989) that stood out. Their model for the family life cycle was influenced by the many theorists before them according to Petty (2006:40-41), but she states that it was different from the other theories. Instead of 8 stages they identified only 6, but also included 3 to 4 generations and described at least 2 generations simultaneously.
It was understood that the family life cycle was a process that revolved around change. Change from one stage to the next causes tension amongst family members and this tension and the problems and challenges that were associated with it, is what each stage is characterised by. However, before going on any further the following from Petty (2006:39) must be understood:
“It is extremely dangerous to believe that there is a “normal” family life cycle that should be applied when working in this field.”
Every family unit should be seen as different and unique. I believe Petty is trying to make it clear that the family life cycle should be used as a guide rather than a standard. Each family will be different according to its context, family members, health, etc. and no two families will be the same. Carter and McGoldrick seem to try and explain their reasoning for practitioners to use this model, Petty (2006:38) explains the usefulness of the family model in this regard:
“The family life cycle helps the practitioner to become attentive to the continual personal and interpersonal adjustment processes required by all family members. It views symptoms and relationship difficulties in relation to normal functioning over time.”
This is useful in understanding the assumptions on which the model rests. The model seems to identify that there are various stages that each generic family will go through (noting the differences of each unit), and the transitions of these stages are characterised by the tensions, problems and challenges as discussed earlier. The assumptions of these stages are that every family will face a certain type of conflict internally or externally or even within the family unit or outside of the unit. Conflict is assumed to be inevitable within the family stages, but a successful stage will be around how the family handles the conflict, the resolution of the conflict and the relationships with various members of the family.
As highlighted by Petty (2006:44), there are 6 stages which are identified as points of transition. These points of transitions or stages are:
  1. The unattached young adult
  2. The newly married system
  3. The family with young children
  4. The family with adolescent
  5. The launching and empty nest
  6. The family in later life
The next focus will be to provide a general overview of the different stages, key principles and second-order changes that families typically make. It is to be noted that the clinical considerations, local perspectives or issues in marital adjustment won’t be discussed.

1) The unattached young adult

This seems to be the in-between stage of adulthood, where the young adult has freedom from his/her origin family and tries to find their identity and focus on their development independently outside of this unit. It is the stage between the origin family and the new nuclear family defined by marriage.

The key principle of the emotion transition

According to Petty (2006:45), this stage revolves around the newfound independence caused by the origin family’s separation. There are two key responsibilities that need to be accepted within the self, developed in this stage; emotional and financial.

Second-Order changes

At this stage, the young adult must choose what they would take/leave behind from their origin family. This is where the young adult can create new forms or traditions going forward. The parents may at times find it difficult to let go of their young adult and may scrutinise the partner of their child.
There are three changes that can be expected according to Petty (2006:45):
  1. The relationship between the parent and the young adult changes into a more relatable and friendly bond. On this basis, the young adult can expect and experience themselves as a separate person from the family unit and thus establish their own identity.
  2. At this stage, the young adult seeks out intimacy through a partner that is outside of the family structure. These relationships tend to provide feelings of belonging and attachment.
  3. Financial reliance is sought out through a career or job and in the search for new interests, one becomes responsible for one’s own health.

2) The newly married system

At this stage, the two individual young adults come together and combine, negotiate and discuss values, issues and traditions taken from the stage of being a young adult and taken from the origin family. At this point, the couple is required to rearrange and adjust past issues and establish what Petty (2006:48) states as their new family blueprint. In this blueprint both partners need to take their differences and mutually agree on a new satisfying point that may not have been thought of before, this is done to avoid future conflicts within the newly constructed family system.

The key principle of the emotion transition

It must be noted that according to Wilcoxon and Hovestadt mentioned by Petty (2006:48), couples who come from a similar family background are less likely to have conflict when creating their new blueprints and have been found to have more joyful and satisfying relationships.
Moving forward, at this stage, the couple needs to find their own ways of dealing with the new aspects of family life. Petty (2006:49) highlights the overall task for the couple nicely when she says:
“The central task appears to be “how to form an intimate union without each person losing their personal identity.”

Second-Order changes

There seem to be two Second-order changes that the new family will encounter.
  1. The formation of the marital system seems to be romanticised at the beginning leading to a more positive outlook at first. It must be mentioned that the couple will eventually come out of this euphoria and must face new conflicts and establish new blueprints when moving towards a new stage. This romanticised state could lead to an overlooking of certain problems and issues that will inevitably be addressed later in the relationship.
  2. Due to the establishment of the new family unit, boundaries will need to be put in place to ensure the security of the new entity. These boundaries will be put in place for both sides of the individual’s families to avoid aggravation and overstepping from both newly adjoined families. This will be vital at this stage especially when trying to form one’s own blueprint for the benefit of the new family unit. The boundaries will prevent any involvement from outside entities that may negatively influence the relationship currently or in the future.

3) The family with young children

This stage is defined by the inclusion of new members into the family system; children. Children tend to play the main reason for the change in this stage. Change occurs in many areas and parents must adjust their system and lifestyle accordingly; family, friends, work, finances, etc. Petty (2006:54) states that in this phase the divorce rate is the highest due to having to find ways to balance parenthood and being a spouse. At this stage the children require love and attention, they need care and constant support, and this may cause the family system to stress if not handled well between the two partners.

The key principle of the emotion transition

This stage is all about accepting the new members, the children, into the system. This inclusion and acceptance come with some challenges that will change various areas such as; family, friends, work, etc.

Second-Order changes

There are 3 points that Petty (2006:55) highlights in this area:
  1. The adjustment of the marital system to accommodate the children. In this area, the development of the nuclear-family triangle” appears, and this is where one of the parents tends to grow closer to the child than the other parent; this usually ends up being the mother. The couple may find that their relationship and closeness are reared around the child, and this may cause issues later when the child leaves the home.
  2. Assisting in various tasks and areas. At this stage, communication tends to decrease between the couple as tasks increase within the family system. Communication is detrimental to a healthy and supportive relationship; it leads to intimacy between the two parents and a lack of communication may cause further tension and aggravation.
  3. Realigning family structures to include parenting and grandparenting roles. The inclusion of the extended family means that everyone moves up to a new generational title (parent to grandparent, sister to aunt, etc.), the problem may come when boundaries are crossed and the parent’s rules for the children are undermined or even ignored by the extended member/s.

4) The family with adolescents

This stage is highlighted by the child entering adolescents through puberty. It seems that stress is an inevitable factor due to the multifaceted changes that occur in all the generations; from the needs of the adolescents to the parents moving into middle age and finally, the grandparent’s health seems to start deteriorating (Petty 2006:60).

The key principle of the emotion transition

Due to the many changes, the boundaries of the family system have become more flexible to accommodate these factors. The Parents of the family system face stresses of these extended boundaries due to the inclusion of new friends, ideas and values from the adolescents and the needs of their parents from their diminishing health.

Second-Order changes

Petty (2006:61) suggests 3 areas of changes that parents will face:
  1. The shifting of the relationship between the parent and adolescent. At this point in the life cycle, the common complaint of the parent and teenager is that neither of them understands them. At this stage, the parent stresses also seem to rise with the increase of cost for the needs of the adolescent.
  2. Refocusing on various issues such as marital and career. At this point in the parent’s life they become aware of their own mortality (ageing and health), they realise the unlikelihood of change within their life structure.
  3. Petty (2006:62) cites Lauer and Lauer on the four challenges and concerns faced by middle-aged adults:
    1. Parents are now concerned with their mortality.
    2. The concern of destructive and creative tendencies increases.
    3. A shift occurs in the role of the parent’s sex.
  4. The parent’s need for attachment and separation from the social environment is questioned by themselves.
  5. The launching and empty nest
This stage is initiated by the first child leaving the home and ends with the retirement of the parents of the children. In this stage, there are positives and negatives. The positive side is that the couple can review their life cycle and mend relationships with their friends or family members. It is a time for the couple to prepare for grandparenthood and establish a system without their child/children. The negative obviously comes in when the parents’ relationship has been purely focused on being a parent to their children, the couple may find that there are no longer commonalities between them and may part ways.

The key principle of the emotion transition

At this point in the family life cycle, the family unit now must prepare itself for the comings and goings of current family members and potentially new members. At this stage the parents now are encouraging adult children to seek out their independence which will include leaving home. After which, the young adult seeks out a partner and will introduce them to the origin family unit; this may also be followed by marriage and grandchildren, which the current family unit needs to begin to prepare for.

Second-Order changes

Petty (2006:67) mentions four areas of changes that may occur during this stage:
  1. Renegotiating the family system to be a two-person relationship. There is a time for the couple to now relook and potentially establish a new blueprint for their marriage. Due to the children leaving the household the couple has a higher rate of relationship satisfaction, because of the decrease in the financial strain on their children.
  2. The relationship between the adult child and parent begins to change. If parents have more than one child, it can be expected the parents to “hold on” to their last child which may prevent them from finding their independence. For young adults to successfully achieve independence, they should be relatively self-sufficient.
  3. Changing of relationships to include new members such as in-laws and grandchildren. The parents of the child now are faced with having to accept their child’s partner and with it their parents. The parents on both sides of the young adults may at times intrude too much due to parental concern and this may cause tension between the parent and child.
  4. Having to deal with the death of the parent’s parents. As the parents get older so do their own, and health becomes a problem for the older generations. The middle generation is now expected to help their parents during their frailty. The death of a parent can lead to a personal reflection on one’s own life and may also provide the needed push to deal with family conflicts as the appearance of their own mortality is presented to them through the death of their parent. Currently, for a family to be able to cope with this stage they need to have openness, maturity and flexibility.

6) The family in later life

At this stage Petty (2006:70) puts it well when she explains what is to be expected from this stage:
“They have to deal with retirement, widowhood, becoming grandparents, illness resulting in loss of their independence, their dependence on their children for support, many losses, and a reorientation of themselves and their living arrangements.”
There is a lot for the couple to have to deal with at this stage and another part of this is their health and frailty, the idea of their mortality becomes prominent.

The key principle of the emotion transition

During this phase, the family members are able to accept the shifting roles of various members and now no longer feel as though they are the primary caretakers.

Second-Order changes

This is the final stage of the family life cycle and it has both positive and negative attributes to it. The couple that has moved into this stage will normally find their relationship to be more focused on their marriage rather than on being parents to their children. Retirement is a reality at this stage and Petty (2006:71) states that there are positives and negatives to this change. Retirement can be positive in the sense that it provides more time for the individuals of the relationship to build on their relationships and even start new ones. It may also allow for more leisure time for them to explore their hobbies and interests. The negative side of it comes in when their identity may be linked to a vocation or a job that provides a purpose, retirement then becomes more of a stressor as the person may feel purposeless.
At this point during the retirement stage, the couple needs to relook and establish new boundaries within the relationship otherwise the couple may experience tension due to roles overlapping or even intrusion into personal life-giving activities separate from the partner. It must also be noted that health is the main concern for the elderly couple.
When it comes to the death of a partner, Petty (2006:71) says that women are four times more likely to be widowed than men. It is at this part in the stage that one partner must deal with the death of another and bereavement can have physical and emotional consequences. However, even though the partner has passed the partner left behind has the option to remarry, this may cause tension and even confusion among the younger generations.
There is a relationship built between the grandchildren and the grandparents which are free from all the constraints of the parent-child relationship. The only issue may arise between the grandparent and parent when the grandparent tries to challenge some of the parent’s rules or ideas, this may cause tension.


“Theme One: Understanding Couples.” In Marriage Guidance, by Mrs Ann Petty, 1 – 30. Pretoria: University of South Africa, 2006.
“Theme Two: Changes that couples go through: psychological tasks and family life cycle developmental stages.” In Marriage Guidance, by Mrs Ann Petty, 31 – 81. Pretoria: University of South Africa, 2006.
– This article was written by Dimitri. You can book him for family or marriage counselling here.