4. Composition - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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4. Composition

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Roles Rigidity Repair in Relationships

Monique and Javier presented as a bi-cultural couple, with expressed desire for equity with difficulties following through, and as a two career couple.  These presentations may be sufficient cues for the therapist to consider structural principles for therapy.  In addition to various relationship, couple, or family characteristics that indicate the use of structural therapy or structural theory for access, there are some presenting issues that the therapist should be aware of.  Couples compositions that differ from culturally standard compositions or outside of personal and family-of-origin experiences often create inherent challenges for the couple's boundaries, roles, and structure.

Same-sex relationships: Societal hetero-normative standards for relationships can place implicit and explicit pressures on gay and lesbian couples.  Pressure may unify or disrupt the partners.  Culturally defined gender or relationship roles, including those defined by progressive gay or lesbian social or political groups may be incongruent with personal preferences of one or both individuals.  In evolving American society, the openly gay or lesbian couple is a new formulation that can and has drawn appropriately and inappropriately on traditional heterosexual models, historical closeted homosexual models, and is developing on the run.

Bi-racial relationships: Societal standards for racially demographically matched partners in relationships can place implicit and explicit pressures on bi-racial couples.  Pressure may unify or disrupt the partners.  Couples are additionally challenged with societal bias and pressures on their bi-racial children.  Partners can have disagreements on how culturally to raise their children- for example, "as white" or "as black."

Culturally mismatched partners: Partners may be culturally mismatched by religion, ethnicity, nationality, or class- among other issues.  Mismatch among rules, roles, structure, and so on may create conflicts between partners.  Individuals can have disagreements on how culturally to raise their children- for example, in terms of religious affiliation "as Jewish" or "as Catholic," or sub-consciously as "working class" or "middle class."

Partners with significant age differences:  In addition to societal pressures and judgments regarding age discrepancies, partners with significant age differences may also be in different developmental phases of their lives.  This can create significant tension between partners.  For example, one partner may be of childbearing age and want children, while the other may be beyond that era; or one may be still be in a highly social developmental stage while the other partner may be content to be a homebody.  Implicit and explicit role and contribution equity may be challenged by emotional, psychological, career, or physical mismatch.  

Open relationship, swinging, or polyamorous couples:  Societal boundaries sets standards for monogamy for committed partners that are overtly adjusted, altered, or denied by some couples.  However, the acceptance of sexual intimacy outside the relationship may not be as easily duplicated in the areas of emotional, spiritual, and other intimacies.  Such inconsistency may be important for the therapist to address.

Affairs: Affairs are violations of overtly expressed and mutually accepted monogamous boundaries for sexual, emotional, and spiritual relationships between partners in a couple.

Many of these models and their considered functionality are inherently fluid due to their relative newness and rarity prior to historical social limitations.  Some relationships may be highly stereotyped and/or stigmatized depending on social cultural acceptance, such as partners with significant age differences, polyamory, or affairs historically.  Partnerships with significant age differences for example, may be commonplace and desirable in some societies.  That often depends on social, financial, and class traditions and intended benefits.  Such age disparate partners however run counter to idealized romance based relationships between age peers in modern American culture.  Acceptance of culturally mismatched, bi-racial, and same-sex relationships are currently in transition in terms of social cultural acceptance.  The therapist needs to assess for the individual, couple, and family's attitudes and expectations regarding the composition of the relationship.

In addition to specific couple's presentations or cues, there are relevant cues in families that suggest structural issues.   These are often also relevant for individuals or couples since family concerns can be indicative of underlying relationship issues.  Family compositions that differ from culturally standard compositions or outside of personal and family-of-origin experiences often create inherent challenges for the family structure.  

Blended Families: Blended families created by the partnering of two parents each with his or her own biological children are often challenged to create effective executive dyads, healthy roles, alignments, and subsystems.  What had been two systems, structures, and sets of boundaries and rules has to be blended into one- a highly challenging task.  As there is not a need for two houses, the two families or systems cannot just be added together.  Different things have to stay, to go, and to change.  This is often a difficult negotiation and process.

Step-families: Step-children are often challenged and become challenging as they may have difficulty transition from the structure, roles, subsystems, and rules of one household to the other.  Step-parents often have difficulty developing and asserting parental authority with step-children.  They also can have difficulties coordinating parenting with their partners- the biological parents, and having to deal with issues between their partners and their partners' ex-partners.

Non-biological household members: Non-biological household members may have different functional and moral status in the household in comparison to biological members.  They also may have different investment in the family as a whole and in the well-being of other members.  They are simultaneously part of and not a part of the family or system.  As such, their roles may be confusing or erratic if not addressed overtly.

Transitory household members and members in transition:  Transitory household members who are temporarily in the household, guests for example can still have significant influence on the family system, structure, roles, and boundaries.  They would tend to have lesser investment in the family well-being.  They may become part of family subsystems temporarily and unbalance equilibrium.  Family members in transition, in particular adolescents about to launch, readying to go to college, or emotionally and spiritually absent while physically present can unbalance previously stable family systems.

Foster children:  Foster children are a unique form of transitory household members because of their youth and dependency.  In addition, they may bring significant emotional, psychological, medical, and physical issues into the family system.  In other words, they may bring highly problematic experiences with boundaries, roles, coalitions, and structure.  The ambiguity of their length of placement including the possibility of being ejected from the family system creates instability for foster children and foster families.

Adopted children/families:  Adopted children may have implicitly or explicitly different status than biological children within the family.  They may hold a sense of difference although other family members may not necessarily see them as different.  Or, they may be held and seen differently by people outside of the family.  There may be issues if adopted children show obvious physical differences, including hair color or body type to racial differences from biological family members.  Normal age spacing between siblings in biological families may be absent- for example two or more non-twin children of the same age rather than separated by a year or more.

Extended family homes (3+ generation home):  Extended family homes are the norm in many societies but not necessarily in American communities.  Information, support, and understanding from the greater community may be lacking.  The structure of the multi-generational family system may be very complicated as models for roles, boundaries, and so forth from the greater community may cause conflict with the household models.  There would inherently be more potential subsystems and alignments of members.  The hierarchy of the family may be more complex for example.  What may be the role of an uncle or aunt, an older cousin, the unmarried partner of an older family member?  A partner entering or marrying into the family may not be familiar with how to function in the multi-generational household.  The individual who has brought a partner from the outside into the family may experience pressure to meet expectations from both the partner and the family.  The therapist needs to avoid assumptions and check the family system.  Nuclear and extended family systems may be in transition in a society or household.  For example, Simadi et al. (2003) notes how the dominance of the extended family in Arab society may be lessening as there is significant evolution towards the nuclear family.   

Some studies have reported that the nuclear family has become the dominant type in the Arab society, (Barakat, 1992).  This is due to various factors such as immigration from rural to urban regions and other economic factors (Khairi, 1985).  The relationship between the extended and the nuclear family has remained strong and has contributed to the emergence of new characteristics of the Arabian family.   Such relationships between nuclear and extended are expected to create some difficulties relevant to family goals and family autonomy.  Some of these difficulties are reflected in the life of new couples.  For example, most of the norms and values of the new family collide with the values of the extended family.  These collisions give the extended family a chance to interfere in the affairs of the new family, such as the selection of friends, brides, even home style.  Because of these interferences it is expected that new couples will face some conflict with the society's dominant values and norms (Lederer & Jackson, 1968) (Simadi et al., 2003, page 468-69).

Returning adult children:  The nuclear family model anticipates launching children sometime after adolescence or young adulthood to form their own family units.  Families may be unprepared structurally and in terms of roles for adult children who return or have never left the household.  It may be arguable that American society is reverting to or evolving a new model of the extended family as young adult children, their spouses or partners, and their children.

Roommates: Non-biological and non-romantic co-habitation may occur between or among friends or relative strangers.  The degree, depth, and breadth of interaction, collaboration, and intimacy can vary substantially.  Some roommates if not already close friends may become very close and share activities, interests, and resources.  They can take on qualities similar to that of a family with implicit to overt emotional intimacy, interactions, and expectations.  Or, starting as friends there can be rupture because of problematic interactions.  Other roommates may have little or nothing to do with one another and function comparably to apartment house neighbors who rarely see or interact with each other.  The fluidity of the roommate relationship may require more specific definition to be functional.

In all these and any other relationship, couple, or family composition, there are assumed, implicit, agreed upon, and overt standards for the structure and dynamics.  The therapist is charged to uncover and identify these standards first, and then to determine their functionality.  Repair or restoration versus creating or developing a new set of behaviors comes afterwards.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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