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Nuclear Family Emotional System

The concept of a nuclear family emotional system can be broken down into two basic areas: the nuclear family itself and the emotional system that governs how they interact with each other.

The emotional system is mainly associated with the anxiety reactions of humans and how they interact with one another within the system. In most cases the issues and problems within this system are exaggerated: for example, the same problem with a family member will probably have more significance than if it were with a stranger and not someone within the system.

The nuclear family is traditionally made up of a husband, wife and children although in many cases this type of family is beginning to dwindle. For psychology, the interactive and relationships in the nuclear family are based on the differentiation level: when it is higher the family can resolve issues quicker whereas the lower differentiation level will cause them to be drawn out and there will be less chance of them resolved quickly.

Within this there are four basic relationship patterns that can be explored:

Marital Conflict:

the conflict emerging from spouses. As this starts to deteriorate, spouses don’t look towards resolving the issues but rather trying to control one another and resist others efforts to bring the conflict to a positive conclusion.

One Spouse Dysfunction

 this comes from one partner trying to control the other into a certain behavioral pattern. It is characterized by one spouse giving into the other and accommodating this control in order to preserve harmony within the relationship. As conflicts arise, the anxiety levels of the subordinate partner may become dysfunctional leading to social, mental or medical problems.

Child Impairment

this can be applied to one or more children within the family. It arises from one the parents heightening their anxieties towards the child, for example, worry excessively, having an idealized view of them; this causes several problems. For one, the child may have difficulty outside of the nuclear family and become internalized and this can lead to a drop in school performance, normal social interactions and even result in medical issues in some extreme cases.

Distance or Isolation

 essentially the opposite of above. Rather than parents doting on their children or maintain a close relationship with their partner, they can become emotionally distance which can lead to a breakdown in normal relations within the family system.

The four patterns mentioned above dictate in what area problems within the system will develop. While the attitudes and beliefs of individual members can play a role as well, the emotional system is the basis for this kind of theory. When clinical problems arise it is generally when family tensions are at their highest and have been ongoing for some time. The tension can increase the implementation of one or more of the four above mentioned patterns.


Example 1

 two parents who have significant tension in their relationship develop an emotional distance between each other and instead focus this anxiety and emotion on their only child. The child responds to this developing over involvement and anxiety by making immature demands which she would not have done so in the past.

Analysis: because the parents have distanced themselves from each other and are now focusing that emotion on the child, the child responds by sending this emotion back and becomes as equally emotionally focused on the parents.

Example 2

 the mother has become pregnant again and while it was welcomed, the parents begin to wonder if they can emotionally cope with having two children. Will the new child cause more or less emphasis to be placed on their first born? Will their first child feel left out or abandoned by the arrival of a new member to the family system? The father secretly worried that his wife would not be able to cope with two children even though he was publically supportive of here and the parents both put off telling their first child about the new arrival.

Analysis: rather than internalizing her emotions, the mother instead turns them on her daughter. The father tries to avoid conflict even though he disagrees with the decision making within the family and thus he is ignoring his own anxieties on the issues which can become an issue on his ability to cope.

Example 3

 when a second daughter was born, the father spent more time helping out around the home as he noticed that his wife seemed ‘on edge’ or increasingly anxious. She began to worry excessively that she was not spending enough time with her first child and that she was feeling left out of the family so gave into more of her demands as time went on. Furthermore, the father began to feel neglected within the family as most of the time was spent by parents on their new child and ensuring that their first child was looked after and felt part of the family.

The mother began to drink excessively. Even though she had drunk wine in moderation before the she was pregnant, she began to drink more frequently and in larger amounts. In fact, she went as far as to cover up her drinking feeling that it would have a negative impact on the family if her husband found out about it. Over time, it was impossible to cover this up and she became more dependent on her husband to keep the household running. Her husband began to call her an alcoholic and was critical of her in ability to make decisions and take on a maternal role.

Analysis: this should the one spouse dysfunction. The mother is changing her behavioral patterns to keep harmony within the family and within her marriage. She sees it as easier to be the problem as opposed to working towards solving it and her husband’s adversity to conflict allows this situation to develop until it reaches a critical point that has major negative repercussions on the family.

Example 4

 when the children reach school the family relationship has reached rock bottom. The mother was increasingly withdrawn from any duties within the household which were taken on by the father and he began to encourage his wife to get help in order to bring her drinking under control and return to her maternal duties. She did go to AA and she found it a liberating experience in that she could tell her story without fear of judgment or repercussions and, with her sponsor, she stopped her drinking. As a direct result of this, she began to interact more within her family and also returned to work in a part time capacity. However, whereas the husband had complained before about her drinking he now resented her relying on AA to function and his wife spent more time with her AA friends that she did with him. This returned to a conflict period where they began to fight on a regular basis.

Analysis: while the wife’s decision to go to AA and her subsequent involvement in the program curtailed her drinking, it did not do much to solve the problems in the long term. On the one hand it stopped her drinking and for a short time she was able to play a more pivotal role in the family, it created a high level of tension between her and her husband. They now fight more frequently than they did before and while the pattern has moved from the one spouse dysfunctional relationship it now rests on marital conflict between the two which could become irreparable. That being said, the family has not fundamentally changed in that there is still a high level of conflict and tension even if the wife’s functionality has improved within the familial system.