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Family Life Cycle Theory


The family life cycle theory was first developed around 1960. It is one of many tools that can be used in marriage and family counseling. It can be helpful for some families, but it doesn't apply to many others. There are newer versions of this theory, and there are other theories. Your marriage and family therapist can talk to you about their approach to counseling.

This theory uses the term "family life cycle" to describe the emotional and intellectual stages you pass through from childhood to your retirement years as a member of a family. In each stage, you face challenges in your family life that allow you to build or gain new skills. Learning the skills of each stage helps you to move from one stage of development to the next.

Not everyone passes through these stages smoothly. Issues such as severe illness, money problems, or the death of a loved one can affect how you pass through the stages. But if you miss skills in one stage, you can learn them in later stages.

Stages in the family life cycle theory

The stages of the family life cycle are:

  • Independence.
  • Coupling.
  • Parenting.
  • Launching adult children.
  • Retirement or senior years.

Your experiences through the family life cycle will affect who you are and who you become. The more you understand about the challenges of each stage of the cycle, the more likely you are to be able to move on.

Independence stage

Independence is the most critical stage of the family life cycle. As you enter young adulthood, you start to separate emotionally from your family. During this stage, you strive to become fully able to support yourself emotionally, physically, socially, and financially. You start to form unique qualities and characteristics that define your own identity.

The goals of this stage are to:

  • Learn to see yourself as a separate person in relation to your parents, siblings, and extended family members.
  • Form intimate peer relationships outside the family.
  • Establish yourself in your work or career.

Coupling stage

The next stage may be coupling. Using qualities gained in the independence stage, you can see if you can commit to a new family and a new way of life. The main goal at this stage is to learn interdependence. This occurs when you are able to fully enter into a relationship with another person. It also requires that you share goals. And you'll need to sometimes place the needs of another above your own.

The goals of this stage are to:

  • Form a new family with your partner.
  • Realign your relationships with your family of origin and your friends to include your partner.

Parenting stage

Parenting is one of the most challenging phases of the family life cycle. During this stage, you'll need to communicate well, maintain your relationships, and solve problems. Some couples explore other ways to become parents, such as surrogacy or adoption. Some couples know that they don't want children.

This stage includes parenting young children and parenting adolescents.

Parenting young children

Adapting children into other relationships is a key emotional process of this stage. You transition from being a member of a couple to being a parent. While still evolving as individuals, you and your partner are also becoming decision-makers for your family. Being able to express your own identity while working well together as a couple builds a strong bond.

Goals when children join your family are to:

  • Adjust your relationship to make space for children.
  • Take on parenting roles.
  • Realign your relationships with your extended family to include parenting and grandparenting roles.

Parenting adolescents

Parenting teens can be a rough time for a family. It can test your relationship skills. It's also a time for positive growth and exploring for your entire family. Families that function best during this time have strong relationships. They focus on family activities together. These are formed through good communication, problem solving, mutual caring, support, and trust. You'll need to be flexible as you encourage your child to become independent and creative. Flexibility in the roles each person plays in the family is also valuable.

Goals during the stage of parenting teens are to:

  • Shift parent-child relationships to allow the child to become more independent.
  • Begin a shift toward concern for older generations in your extended family.

Launching adult children stage

This stage starts when your first child leaves home and ends with the "empty nest."

Forming adult relationships with your children is a key skill in this stage. You may be challenged to accept new members into your family through your children's relationships. Self-examination, education, and counseling can enhance your life. And they can help ensure a healthy transition to the next phase.

Goals during this stage are to:

  • Refocus on other relationships.
  • Form adult relationships with your grown children.
  • Realign relationships to include in-laws and grandchildren if your children start their own families.

Retirement or senior years

Retirement can be a fulfilling and happy time. Welcoming new family members or seeing others leave your family is often a large part of this stage as your children have relationships or you become a grandparent. Challenges may include being a support to other family members while still exploring your own interests or focusing on your relationships.

Goals of this stage are to:

  • Maintain your own interests and physical function as your body ages.
  • Give emotional support to your adult children and grandchildren as well as other family members.
  • Deal with the loss of peers and prepare for your own death.
  • Review your life and reflect on all you have learned and experienced during your life.


Current as of: October 24, 2023

Author: Healthwise Staff
Clinical Review Board
All Healthwise education is reviewed by a team that includes physicians, nurses, advanced practitioners, registered dieticians, and other healthcare professionals.

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated, disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. Learn how we develop our content.

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated, disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. Learn how we develop our content.

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