Read Balswick, Fifth Edition, Part 7 (Post Modern Life, chapters 18-19) and answer the following questions. 

1. What is “modernity” and why is it challenging? What is the meaning of “post-modern?” Pages 318-319

2. Define and summarize the four dimensions of sociocultural life. Pages 320-323

3. Explain the dilemma and false hopes associated with fragmentation of consciousness.  Pages 324-325

4. Discuss whether and how a family might escape the bondage of commodities. Pages 328-330, 333-335

5. Explain the possible reconstruction of community in relationship to family life. Pages 335-336

6. Explain the importance of revitalized communication and consciousness? Pages 336-338 

7. What support structures are helpful to ensure solid family life? Describe and discuss. Pages 338-342.

8.  Traditionally, most churches have taken a very hard stand on the subject of divorce and remarriage, even forbidding remarriage and denying membership to people with “tainted” marital backgrounds. Discuss how churches as communities should respond to divorce, both among their members and those seeking membership. (This answer should be longer than the others)

Explain in 800words 

“Jack Balswick, Judith Balswick, and Thomas Frederick present a Christian perspective on the
significance and purpose of the contemporary family. Through a unique blend of biblical theology,
systems theory, and the social sciences, they address the many facets of the modern-day family relative
to marriage, parenting, sexuality, communication, and the social dynamics of family life. As a teaching
professor in the Christian academic setting, I have used the earlier editions of this extraordinary text for
both graduate and undergraduate classes in marriage and family studies. In addition, as a licensed
marriage and family therapist, I have found the biblical and theoretical concepts helpful and applicable. I
greatly recommend this book to instructors, students, counselors, or pastors who are seeking to develop
an overarching theological and sociological framework for the family.”

—Brad Overholser, chair of human development, Hope International University

“This updated edition of The Family presents recent research to continue the important contribution of
this book to our thinking about families from a distinctly Christian viewpoint. It’s based on a systemic
developmental perspective that captures the reality of our relationships in our families across the life
span, with a special focus on the attributes of grace, empowerment, and intimacy within Christian
covenantal love that can permeate those relationships and impact the larger social environment.”

—Mark Stanton, professor of psychology, Azusa Pacific University

“The reason for the longevity and influence of Balswick and Balswick’s The Familyis based in two
things: the clarity of their writing on topics of interest to the Christian community and their engagement
with recent scholarship. This fifth edition of what is now a standard text on family life continues this
pattern of thoughtful Christian scholarship. The result is a stimulating text whose relevance extends
beyond the classroom to the front lines of Christian engagement with families, whether it be in a clinical,
parachurch, or congregational setting.”

—Kelvin Mutter, associate professor of counselling and spiritual care, McMaster
Divinity College

“The Family is a unique resource in the study of marriage and family: it adeptly integrates theology with
sociological perspectives and proven family therapy models. I highly recommend this text for marriage
and family studies in Christian colleges and universities and can personally attest to how helpful it’s been
to both educators and students alike.”

—Yvonne Thai, chair of the Department of Behavioral Sciences and professor of
sociology, California Baptist University Online and Professional Studies

© 2021 by Jack O. Balswick, Judith K. Balswick, and Thomas V. Frederick
Previous editions © 1989, 1999, 2007, 2014 by Jack O. Balswick and Judith K. Balswick

Published by Baker Academic
a division of Baker Publishing Group
PO Box 6287, Grand Rapids, MI 49516-6287

Ebook edition created 2021

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or
transmitted in any form or by any means—for example, electronic, photocopy, recording—without the
prior written permission of the publisher. The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file at the Library of Congress, Washington,

ISBN 978-1-4934-3203-5

Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible,
copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by
permission. All rights reserved.

Scripture quotations labeled ESV are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®),
copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All
rights reserved. ESV Text Edition: 2016

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VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All
rights reserved worldwide.

Baker Publishing Group publications use paper produced from sustainable forestry practices and post-
consumer waste whenever possible.


Endorsements i
Half Title Page iii
Title Page v
Copyright Page vi
Detailed Contents ix
Illustrations xvii
Preface xix

Part 1: Theological and Social Perspectives on Family Life 1
1. A Theological Foundation for Family Relationships: Developing a

Theology of the Family 3
2. The Family as a Developing Biosocial System 24

Part 2: Marriage: The Foundation of Family Life 47
3. Mate Selection and Cohabitation: Romance and Reality 49
4. Establishing Marriage: Moving toward Differentiated Unity 78
5. A Model for Biblical Marriage 94

Part 3: The Expansion of Family Life: Parenting and Beyond 109
6. Parenting: The Process of Relationship Empowerment 111
7. Developing a Mature, Reciprocating Self 130
8. Family Spirituality: Nurturing Christian Beliefs, Morals, and

Values 154

9. Adolescence and Midlife: Challenging Changes 167
10. The Joys and Challenges of Family in Later Life 179

Part 4: Gender and Sexuality: Identity in Family Life 199
11. Changing Gender Roles and Relations: The Impact on Family

Life 201
12. Becoming an Authentic Sexual Self 217

Part 5: Communication: The Heart of Family Life 237
13. Intimate Communication: Expressing Love and Anger 239

Part 6: The Social Dynamics of Family Life 257
14. Work and the Family: Conflict or Collaboration? 259
15. Through the Stress and Pain of Family Life 270
16. Divorce and Single-Parent Families 282
17. Complex Families in Contemporary Society 298

Part 7: Family Life in Postmodern Society 315
18. Biblical Family Values in a Modern and Postmodern World 317
19. Creating a Family-Friendly Society 331

Bibliography 343
Index 379
Back Cover 390

Detailed Contents

Endorsements i
Half Title Page iii
Title Page v
Copyright Page vi
Illustrations xvii
Preface xix

Part 1: Theological and Social Perspectives on Family Life 1
1. A Theological Foundation for Family Relationships: Developing a

Theology of the Family 3
Trinitarian Relationality 4

God in Relationship 6

Elements in a Theology of Family Relationships 8

Covenant: To Love and Be Loved 10

Grace: To Forgive and Be Forgiven 13

Empowerment: To Serve and Be Served 15

Intimacy: To Know and Be Known 19

Applying the Theological Model: From Hurting to Healing Behaviors 20

2. The Family as a Developing Biosocial System 24
Family-Systems Theory 24

Simple Feedback
Cybernetic Control

Biological Influences on the Family 32

Genetic Factors
Neurological Factors

Family-Development Theory 35

An Integration of Systems and Development Theories 39

Role Structure

Part 2: Marriage: The Foundation of Family Life 47
3. Mate Selection and Cohabitation: Romance and Reality 49

Mate Selection in Traditional Cultures 50

Mate Selection and the Role of Romantic Love 52

Theories of Mate Selection 54

“Like Marries Like” Theory
Bowen Family Systems Theory
Personality Theory
Filter Theory
Marriage Markets Theory
Other Theories

A Christian Perspective on Mate Selection 57

Cohabitation: A Path toward or Alternative to Marriage? 60

Is Cohabitation a Step toward Marriage?
What Does Culture Have to Do with It?
Making the Decision to Cohabit


Does Premarital Cohabitation Lead to Marital Adjustment?
Is There a Selective Factor?
How Does Cohabitation Impact Children?
A Christian Perspective on Cohabitation




Discerning God’s Will 75

4. Establishing Marriage: Moving toward Differentiated Unity 78
Factors That Predict Marital Quality 78

Resolving Issues Related to the Family of Origin 80

Parents as Role Models
Parental Support

The Dilemma of Modern Marriage 86

Differentiated Unity: Becoming One and Retaining Uniqueness 87

Learning New Roles in the Marital Dance 89

Adjustment in the Marital Dance 93

5. A Model for Biblical Marriage 94
Commitment 95

Adaptability 99

Leadership and Decision-Making 102

Communication 104

Dual-Earner Marriage 104

The Mindset at the Center of Christian Marriage 107

Part 3: The Expansion of Family Life: Parenting and Beyond 109
6. Parenting: The Process of Relationship Empowerment 111

The Basic Components of Parenting Styles 114

Approaches to Discipline
Types of Leadership

Alternative Parenting Styles 117

Instrumental Parenting

Socio-emotional Parenting

Other Impacts of Parenting Styles 123

Biological Factors in Parenting 124

A Biblical Model of Parenting 125

The Case for Coparenting 128

7. Developing a Mature, Reciprocating Self 130
Theories of Child Development 132

Psychoanalytic Theory: Internal Focus
Erikson’s Neopsychoanalytic or Psychosocial Theory: Infancy through Adulthood
Cognitive Structural Theories
Cognitive Development Theory: The Child as a Developing Scientist
Object Relations Theory: The Child as an Object Needing Love
Social Learning Theory: The Child as Learner
Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory: Parenting as Scaffolding
Social Ecology: Child Development in the Village

A Critique of Child Development Theories in Light of Biblical Assumptions 143

Internal Tension
Capacity to Make Choices
Created for Community

Parenting Young Children 146

Unconditional Love and Self-Validation
Acceptance of Differences Inherent in the Family Constellation

8. Family Spirituality: Nurturing Christian Beliefs, Morals, and
Values 154

Moral Development 155

Faith Development 157

A Trinitarian Model of Family Spirituality 159

Differentiation in Christ
Spiritual Differentiation in the Family
Family Spirituality and Sanctification

Dealing with Differences in Faith 162

Family Spirituality Embedded in Supportive Community 164

Family Spirituality as a Process 165

9. Adolescence and Midlife: Challenging Changes 167
Adolescence 168

The Origin of the Adolescent Stage
Adolescence as an Identity Crisis

Midlife 171

Parent-Adolescent Relationships 173

Parental Stimuli of Adolescent Rebellion

Empowering Adolescent Children

10. The Joys and Challenges of Family in Later Life 179
The Launching Stage 180

Transition Tasks
Contemporary Obstacles to Successful Launching

The Postlaunching Stage 183

Multigenerational Households

The Retirement Stage 190

Couple Satisfaction and Challenge
Caring for Aging Family Members

Part 4: Gender and Sexuality: Identity in Family Life 199
11. Changing Gender Roles and Relations: The Impact on Family

Life 201
Why Gender Roles and Relations Are Changing 202

Explanations of Gender Differences 203

Critical Theory

Biblical Feminism
A Radical Proposal for Reconciliation
Toward an Integrated View of Gender Differences

Changing Gender Relations and Family Life 211

Women in Family Life
Men in Family Life

Coparenting: The Need for Mothering and Fathering 213

A Concluding Comment 215

12. Becoming an Authentic Sexual Self 217
Societal Attitudes toward Sexuality 218

The Origin of Sexuality 220

The Meaning of Sexuality 222

A Biblical Perspective on Human Sexuality 223

Sexual Wholeness in a Broken World 225

Sex and Singleness
Sexual Identity
Marital Sexuality

Part 5: Communication: The Heart of Family Life 237
13. Intimate Communication: Expressing Love and Anger 239

The Effects of Expressing Love 240

Nonverbal Expressions of Love
Obstacles to Expressing Love
The Expression of Love in Family Relationships

Expressing Anger: Negotiating the Inevitable Conflicts 245

A Destructive Approach to Conflict: Denial
Constructive Approaches



A Biblical Perspective on Anger
Conflict Resolution
Conflict Management


Part 6: The Social Dynamics of Family Life 257
14. Work and the Family: Conflict or Collaboration? 259

The Separate Spheres of Work and Family 259

Work and Family Conflict Related to Burnout 262

Calling and Differentiation in Christ 264

Calling and Image Bearing 266

Conclusion 269

15. Through the Stress and Pain of Family Life 270
A Model for Understanding Family Stress 271

Stressful Events

Family Responses to Stress 273


Coping with Catastrophes and Ambiguous Loss 275

Families in Pain 277

Christian Belief and Response to Stress and Pain 278

16. Divorce and Single-Parent Families 282
Divorce 283

The Process

The Effects on Children
Long- and Short-Term Divorce Adjustment
Best-Case Scenarios

A Christian Approach to Divorce 291

Single-Parent Families 292

Not Enough Time
Noncustodial Parents
Not Enough Money: The Link between Single Parenthood and Poverty

Family Values and Valuing Families: A Christian Response 296

17. Complex Families in Contemporary Society 298
A View from Trinitarian Theology 299

Newly Formed Couple 300

Second-Marriage Dynamics 302

Newly Formed Family 303

Unrealistic Expectations 304

Parents Taking Leadership 306

Stepparents/Stepchildren 308

Stepfathers/Stepchildren 309

Marital Tension over Stepchildren 310

Summary 311

Part 7: Family Life in Postmodern Society 315
18. Biblical Family Values in a Modern and Postmodern World 317

Modernity Defined 318

The Crisis and Challenge of Modernity

The Impact of Modernity on the Family 323

Fragmentation of Consciousness

Complexity of Communication

Disintegration of Community

Dominance of Commodities

19. Creating a Family-Friendly Society 331
Inadequate Responses to Modernity 331

Toward a Radical Response to Modernity and Postmodernity 333

Release from Bondage to Commodities
Reconstruction of Community
Revitalization of Communication
Reintegration of Consciousness

Support Structures 338

Extended Families 338

Koinonia in Communities 339

The Church 339

Shalom in Society 340

Hope for the Family and Society 342

Bibliography 343
Index 379
Back Cover 390



1. Theological Characteristics of Family Relationships 8
2. Types of Commitment in Family Relationships 12
3. Family-Systems Theory 26
4. Disengagement, Differentiation, and Fusion 41
5. Adaptability and Cohesion within Families 43
6. Styles of Instrumental Parenting 118
7. Styles of Socio-emotional Parenting 120
8. An Interactive Developmental Model of Human Sexuality 221


1. From Hurting to Healing Behavior 22
2. Family Development 37
3. Characteristics of Effective and Ineffective Families 40
4. Traditional, Biblical, and Modern Views of Marriage 95
5. Major Stage-Specific Theories of Child Development 134
6. The Impact of Modernity on the Family: Dilemmas and False

Hopes 323
7. Creating a Positive Family Environment 334


We (Jack and Judy) initially wrote The Family: A Christian Perspective on
the Contemporary Home to present an integrated view of contemporary
family life based on current social-science research, clinical insights, and
biblical truth. The biblical integration reflects broad theological truths
woven throughout the Scriptures rather than specific proof texts. We chose to
present the social-scientific knowledge in an easy-to-read style rather than
one that was academic but more cumbersome. The positive response to the
previous four editions of our book has warranted this updated fifth edition.
And we brought on a coauthor, Tom, to partner with us in the task. Building
on the previous material, this new edition incorporates the most current
research to date—with over one hundred additional references incorporated
into the fifth edition—and our response to the continued changes that are
taking place in modern society and family life, the increasing role of
grandparents in parenting their grandchildren, and work and family life. And
in recognition of the importance of biosocial influence, we highlight the
interactive effect of bio-psycho-socio-cultural factors that help us understand
family dynamics.

Our book is divided into seven parts. In part 1, “Theological and Social
Perspectives on Family Life,” we put forward a basic theology of
relationships and theoretical perspectives on the family as a developing
biosocial system. Part 2, “Marriage: The Foundation of Family Life,” is
devoted to the topics of mate selection, cohabitation, and the establishment of
a strong Christian marriage. In part 3, “The Expansion of Family Life:
Parenting and Beyond,” we focus on the development and rearing of young
children, the particular challenges of midlife parents and their adolescent
children, and the joys and challenges of the later-life family. In part 4,
“Gender and Sexuality: Identity in Family Life,” we consider the changing
definitions of masculinity and femininity and the implications they have for
family relationships, and we discuss the complex dimensions of becoming an
authentic sexual self as part of God’s design and intention. Part 5,
“Communication: The Heart of Family Life,” describes the expression of

love and intimacy as well as the expression of anger and normal conflicts
that inevitably occur between family members. In part 6, “The Social
Dynamics of Family Life,” we attend to the critical aspects of family life
such as work-family dynamics, life stressors, divorce, single parenthood,
remarriage, and building new family forms. Part 7, “Family Life in
Postmodern Society,” deals with the effects that modern industrialized
society and postmodern thinking have had on family life. Suggestions are
made for changing social structures to create a more family-friendly

Rather than taking a piecemeal approach, devoting each chapter to a
specific topic, we have attempted to make every chapter an integral part of
the overarching theme of the book. The foundation for this theme is the
theology of family relationships expounded in parts 1 and 2. Therefore, we
have aspired to weave into the content of each chapter our theological basis
for family relationships from the perspective of the family as a developing

Coauthorship and teamwork make this book a collaborative project. A
marriage and family therapist for over forty years, Judy is senior professor at
Fuller Theological Seminary in the Marriage and Family Therapy
Department. Jack, a professional sociologist with forty-five years of
teaching, research, and writing experience at the university and seminary
level, is also a senior professor at Fuller. They have each had postdoctoral
seminary training in theology and biblical studies and they speak throughout
the United States and abroad on marriage and family life. Tom Frederick has
known Jack and Judy since 1997, when he came to Fuller Theological
Seminary as a marriage and family therapy student. It was there that he was
introduced to the Balswick’s theology of family relationships and witnessed
their authentic Christian commitment to personal and spiritual growth as
mentors and scholars. Tom is currently a professor of psychology and the
program director for the online Master of Science in Counseling Psychology
program at California Baptist University.

Although we have attempted to blend academic, clinical, and theological
understandings of the family, our interest in family life is not merely as
scholars. The core of our lives has been experienced in the context of family,
and our joint calling is to minister to families. We feel most fortunate to have
been reared and nurtured in loving Christian homes. Our parents modeled

unconditional love and grace that provided secure foundations and brought
profound spiritual meaning to our lives.

Being married for sixty years has taught us (Jack and Judy) much about
what it takes to live out the principles we propose in this book. Our adult
children, Jacque and Joel, have challenged and continue to challenge us to
grow throughout every life stage. We have tried to maintain balance through
the joys and pains, ups and downs, ebb and flow, stress and elation of family
living. Forty years ago our beloved ten-year-old son, Jeff, died of bone
cancer. Working through that loss as well as remembering the delight of his
life has changed us all. We spent three years living in an extended-family
arrangement with our daughter Jacque, her first husband, and our two- and
three-year-old grandsons, Curtis and Jacob, who have now graduated from
college and are working full time. We have two additional grandsons, Taylor
and Liam, from our daughter’s marriage to Dana Kirk. Our adopted Korean
son Joel is married to Uyen Mai, a Chinese Vietnamese woman, who has
enriched our multicultural perspective. In addition they have gifted us with
our first granddaughter, Elizabeth, and their adopted Korean son, Benjamin.
We’ve been through the agonizing illnesses and deaths of all four parents and
had the privilege and challenge of living with Judy’s aging mother for nine
months prior to her death at age ninety-two.

I (Tom) have been married to Gail Frederick for twenty-three years, which
has taught me much about the transformative nature of marriage. Gail’s
Taiwanese background has added a crucial multicultural dimension to family
life. We have had to practice careful listening and other communication
strategies. Further, it has been enriching to see both sets of in-laws accept us
as part of the family. We have enjoyed the hospitality of our Taiwanese
family while making our lives in California. Raising two children, Nathaniel
and Zoe, has provided many opportunities to practice empowerment, grace,
and intimacy. Being a teenager is challenging under normal circumstances;
however, there are no manuals for parenting or being a teen during a global

All in all, the three of us have learned a lot and continue to learn as we
encounter the blessings and struggles of each unique stage of family life.
Having preached on the fragility of the isolated nuclear family, we are
constantly reminded of our need for God as our strength as well as for those
who have walked alongside us on the journey. Our friends, family, and
communities of faith add a wealth of wisdom and perspective. We want to

offer a warm and heartfelt thanks to Nathaniel Frederick, who assisted in
compiling and updating the bibliography. Robert Hosack at Baker Academic
provided needed encouragement for us tackling this revision. We would be
remiss without thanking editor James Korsmo and copyeditor Stephanie
Juliot. Their thorough review, attention to detail, and helpful suggestions
have greatly improved this fifth edition. Finally, we would like to thank
Paula Gibson from the visual communication department whose work on the
front cover captured beautifully the content of the book. We trust that what we
have learned will benefit our readers.

Visit to access study

and instructor materials for this textbook.


Theological and Social
Perspectives on Family


Some observe a crisis in the Christian family in the United States today.
There are challenges to how Christians define the nature and function of the
family, and many are confused with how to incorporate the best sociology
research into understanding this bedrock of society. Our approach is to
consider the biblical, theological, cultural, and sociological perspectives on
family life in an attempt to integrate secular knowledge with the truth of
Scripture. In chapter 1 we present a theology of family relationships based
on what the Bible says about relationality through the Holy Trinity: God as
parent in relationship to the children of Israel, Christ as groom in
relationship to the church as bride, and the Holy Spirit in relationship to all
believers who are empowered to live in rightful relationships as brothers
and sisters in Christ. The emergent theology of family relationships highlights
the elements of covenant, grace, empowerment, and intimacy as family
members strive to maintain their unique individuality within family unity.

In chapter 2 we introduce two sociological perspectives. The systemic
perspective, which views the family as a unit of interrelated parts,
concentrates on the relationships between family members. The
developmental perspective focuses on the bio-psycho-socio-cultural impact
and various stages of individual and family life. By integrating these
sociological perspectives, we will discover some of the basic marks of a
resilient family.


A Theological Foundation for
Family Relationships

Developing a Theology of the Family

How can we best use Scripture to learn God’s intention for family life during
the new millennium? A common approach is to pick out the key verses from
the various scriptural passages dealing with the family. These verses are then
arranged as one would arrange a variety of flowers to form a pleasing
bouquet. However, such use of Scripture presents problems when Christians
come up with different bouquets of verses and then disagree as to what the
Bible says about family life. This method of selecting certain verses about
the family can be compared to strip mining. Ignoring the historical and
cultural context, the strip miner tears into the veins of Scripture, throws the
unwanted elements aside, and emerges with selected golden nuggets of truth.
Too often, this type of search for God’s truth about the family produces a
truth that conforms to the preconceived ideas of the miner doing the stripping.

Prominent among the golden nuggets that are typically mined are New
Testament regulations regarding family and household relationships (e.g.,
Eph. 5:22–6:9; Col. 3:18–4:1; 1 Tim. 2:8–15; 6:1–2; Titus 2:1–10; and 1 Pet.
2:18–3:7). These passages indicate early Christianity’s concern for order in
three basic household relationships: between husband and wife, between
parent and child, and between master and slave. New Testament scholar
James Dunn (1996), however, emphasizes the importance of considering the
total context of scriptural passages about family life. Dunn notes the problem
when scriptural texts are read without considering the social, historical, and
cultural context of the time of writing. Although the motive of discovering
hard-and-fast rules for household life is understandable, a “problem arises

here when we try to make the household codes into timeless rules which can
be simply transposed across time to the present day without addition or
subtraction” (62). Doing so would mean that we accept slaves as part of
God’s intention for family households. Dunn concludes that such an approach
is an abuse of Scripture.

In contrast to a strip-mining mentality, we take a broad view by
considering relevant biblical references as well as a theology that offers
deeper meaning and concrete principles of living in our complex,
postmodern world. By way of analogy, we base our theology of family
relationships on relationality within the Holy Trinity and throughout the Old
and New Testament descriptions of God in relationship. The use of analogy
is crucial to understanding the correspondence between God and humanity.
Relying on analogy to build our theological model is based on a more
theological interpretation of Scripture (TIP). One of the main ways to engage
in TIP is using typological approaches that identify types or prototypes in one
passage of Scripture that are developed in later passages. Further, these
typological approaches allow us to develop a biblical theology associated
with the type or prototype by connecting passages across the Scriptures. This
is very different from citing one or two passages as proof texts for one’s
position. There are two main dimensions of typology in interpreting Scripture
(Parker 2018). The primary type in this kind of reading is horizontal
typology, which occurs when an Old Testament figure or institution
corresponds to or is an adumbration for a New Testament figure or
institution. The initial analogy is between God and Adam. That is, God
makes Adam as an image bearer and covenant partner, which foreshadows
Christ as the Covenant Keeper on humanity’s behalf.

Trinitarian Relationality
The first humans were created to be covenant partners with God, entailing
stewardship of God’s creation. What we read in Genesis 1 and 2 reflects the
formation of covenants between lords and vassals (Horton 2006). God as the
Lord declares his works; he speaks, and his empowering Word accomplishes
his will. Then, God creates and appoints humans—Adam and Eve—to
represent him in his covenant relationship to the creation. “With God’s act of
creation, the relations between the persons of the Trinity finds its analogy
between God’s relations with his people and the relations between the

people themselves and the covenant community” (Horton 2012, 124). As
with all covenants, there are blessings, responsibilities, and consequences
for violation.

We believe humans are created by a relational, triune God to be in
meaningful and edifying relationships. The good news is that Scripture
presents a model of relational life in the Trinity—God is one yet composed
of three distinct persons. Stanley Grenz puts it this way: “The same principle
of mutuality that forms the genius for the human social dynamic is present in a
prior way in the divine being” (2001, 48). Building on this truth, our starting
point in developing a theology of family relationships is to recognize that, by
way of analogy, relationships between family members reflect the
relationality within the Holy Trinity.

Relationality is the primary vehicle for humans to carry out their covenant
responsibilities. Image bearing does not connote ontology; in other words,
the imago Dei describes our status in covenant relationship with God (Grenz
2001; Horton 2012; Strachan 2019), not necessarily humanity’s
psychological makeup. Genesis 1:26–27 states, “Then God said, ‘Let us
make humankind in our image, according to our likeness. . . . So God created
humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and
female he created them.” The us connotes the triune Godhead (Father, Son,
and Holy Spirit), who in unity created humankind in the image of God (imago
Dei). Throughout the Bible, unity and uniqueness are simultaneously
described as the relational aspects of the Godhead.

The task of image bearing entails a threefold commission from the Creator
(Fowler 1987). First, Adam and Eve—and then all people—are to govern or
be responsible stewards of the creation. Second, image bearers engage in
developing or liberating creation. In other words, humans function as image
bearers in developing the potential of the created order. Finally, image
bearing entails redemption of the aspects of creation that have been marred
due to human fallenness and sin (Gen. 3). Humans do this redemptive work
when they remove or ameliorate the effects of sin (e.g., when teachers
support at-risk students to achieve academically). Middleton summarizes the
threefold commission this way: “The imago Dei designates the royal office
or calling of human beings as God’s representatives and agents in the world,
granting authorized power to share God’s rule or administration of earth’s
resources and creatures” (2005, 27). Unity with God as image bearers means
exercising one’s unique ability to govern, liberate, and redeem creation.

Applying image bearing to family relationships, Gary Deddo (1999)
draws on Karl Barth, when he states that “the nature of the covenantal
relationship between God and humanity revealed and actualized in Jesus
Christ . . . [is] grounded in the Trinitarian relations of Father, Son, and
Spirit” (2). As distinction and unity coexist in the Godhead, so are they to
exist among family members. Deddo states, “In the revelation by the Son of
the Father through the Spirit we come to recognize the activity of the one God
apportioned to each person of the Trinity. The Father is the Creator, the Lord
of life; the Son is the Reconciler, the re-newer of life; the Spirit is the
Redeemer, the giver, the conveyor of this life which is given, sustained and
renewed” (36). Family relationships are analogous in human form to this
divine model. As the three distinct persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—
mutually indwell a trinitarian fellowship, so are family members to mutually
indwell a family fellowship in similar ways.

Miroslav Volf expands on this concept by examining the Greek word
perichoresis, which “connotes mutual interpenetration without any
coalescence or commixture” (1998, 208–13, 19). Perichoresis (from peri,
meaning “around,” and chorea, meaning “dance”) pictures the “divine
dance” or union of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which has gone on from the
beginning and continues forever. This fellowship of three coequal persons
perfectly embraced in love and harmony is the ultimate intimate union. This
is affirmed in passages such as John 10:38, “so that you may know and
understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father,” along with John
16:13–15, when Jesus refers to God’s glory as the Spirit reveals the truth that
the Son is of the Father. Divine unity is expressed as the distinct persons
mutually indwell the Godhead.

The trinitarian model reflects the nature of covenantal relationality
(distinction and unity) and becomes a core ideal and a central theme of
understanding family relationships. However, we acknowledge that, unlike
God, we are not perfect, and therefore in applying these principles, we will
have to struggle with our human imperfections. We must look to God for
grace and strength to attain personal distinction in relationships. The
relational process—be it the initial forming of the marital relationship,
nurturing and guiding in the child-rearing years, building new family
structures, or dealing with the end of life—involves the fundamental issues of
forming unity while embracing each person’s distinctiveness. We use the
biblical analogy in terms of how the members of the Godhead act in unity

through distinctiveness with the themes of covenant, grace, empowerment,
and intimacy.

God in Relationship
The Old and New Testaments use familial language by way of analogy to
describe the relationship between the creator God and the created ones,
including God as parent relating to the children of Israel, Christ as groom in
relation to the church as bride, and the Holy Spirit indwelling and
empowering believers to be brothers and sisters in the Lord. God’s actions
toward Israel are characterized by compassionate love, discipline, guidance,
pursuit, generosity, nurture, respect, knowledge, and forgiveness. Jesus
welcomes little children, women, the disenfranchised, and his disciples into
close, intimate connection. The Spirit prays in and through us when we
cannot find the words to speak. In other words, familial relationships are
analogies for describing the covenant relationship between God and his

A covenant is a type of relationship, usually between a king or queen and
vassals. The covenant intends to bind the lord to a particular group of
people, where protection would be offered for loyalty. Covenants entail
stipulations and consequences for violation of the terms by either side.
Michael Horton (2006) describes covenants as containing six components:
(1) a preamble describing the one great king making the treaty; (2) a
historical prologue describing the events and reasons (and justification) for
the covenant; (3) stipulations between the king and the vassal; (4) sanctions
or consequences for failing to uphold the treaty; and the final two aspects of
covenant making, are (5) depositing the covenant on tablets and (6)
periodically celebrating or reviewing them publicly. Genesis 1 and 2 should
be read with this formulation in mind. God announces his covenant with
Adam and Eve. This covenant is based on the Creator’s word of power in
establishing the universe, and it culminates with a blessing. In this way,
Genesis 1:26–28, partially quoted above, describes the covenant
representative being a differentiated humanity with covenant expectations—
stewardship, fruitfulness, and multiplication (Gen. 1:28).

Ray Anderson (1982) uses the concept of cohumanity to build a
theological anthropology. Beginning with the theological truth that “humanity
is determined as existence in covenant relation with God” (37), Anderson

applies the concept of covenant to all human relationships. He considers
covenantal relationships in the family as a “secondary order, made possible
by the primary order of differentiation as male or female” (52).
Differentiation achieves the godly purpose of interdependence and
cooperative interaction between people. In other words, unity and uniqueness
become the primary vehicles for embodying the image of God.

In applying covenant as a paradigm for the family, Anderson and Guernsey
(1985) highlight the unconditional quality of covenant: “It is covenant love
that provides the basis for family. For this reason, family means much more
than consanguinity, where blood ties provide the only basis for belonging.
Family is where you are loved unconditionally, and where you can count on
that love even when you least deserve it” (40).

Similarly, Stuart McLean (1984, 4–32) suggests the following ways that
covenant can be used as a metaphor for marriage and family relationships:
(1) people are social and live in community; (2) the basic unit of family and
of covenant is the dyad; (3) people living in community experience struggle
and conflict as well as harmony; (4) people living in covenant must be
willing to forgive and be forgiven by one another; (5) people living in
covenant must accept their strong bond to one another; (6) people living in
covenant accept law in the form of patterns and order in relationships; and
(7) people living in covenant have a temporal awareness as they carry a
memory of the past, live in the present, and anticipate the future.

Covenant forms the foundation of our theology of family relationships.
Covenant results in image bearing, and image bearing entails fulfilling the
covenant stipulations of dominion or stewardship—that is, ruling over the
birds of the air and fish of the sea—and fecundity regarding offspring and
culture development (Wolters 2005). Finally, image bearing results in
blessings for fulfilling the covenant—provision and blessing from God.

Elements in a Theology of Family Relationships
We propose a theology of family relationships that involves four dimensions
or characteristics of Christian relating: covenant, grace, empowerment, and
intimacy. Covenant is the core or meta-virtue of relating which grounds and
supports the others. We further suggest that family relationships will be either
dynamic and maturing or stagnant and dying. Family relationships, and all
relationships for that matter, are oriented toward God’s intended telos (or

goal) or away from that goal, and any trajectory away from God’s intended
ideal is an outcome of sin (Wolters 2005). A model of this process of family
relationships is presented in figure 1.

The logical beginning point of any family relationship is a covenant
commitment, which has unconditional love at its core. Unconditional love as
the bedrock love of one’s relationship to the other creates responsiveness
and accessibility to the other. Grace emerges from this covenantal
foundation. Mercy and forgiveness, aspects of grace, are extended in relating
with others—a result of the loving forgiveness received from God. In this
atmosphere of grace, family members have the freedom to empower one
another. Empowerment leads to the possibility of intimacy among family
members. Grace, empowerment, and intimacy deepen as the foundation of
covenant is solidified.

Covenants form the basis for grace, empowerment, and intimacy. As the
three secondary relationship virtues are experienced, the covenant is
increasingly solidified. For example, the relationship between a parent and
an infant child begins as a unilateral (one-way) love commitment, but as the
parent lives out that commitment, the relationship grows into a bilateral
(mutual) love commitment. Grace, empowerment, and intimacy are expressed
in this relationship. The covenant motivates the parents to offer grace to their
offspring (food, housing, daily needs, interaction). Empowerment is
expressed in the covenant as children learn the stipulations (household rules)
that are embedded in the family. Finally, intimacy develops as partners learn
more and more about one another. These three virtues feed back into the
covenant, making it grow and bear fruit.

For such growth to take place in any relationship, there must be mutual
involvement. Growth in family relationships can be blocked or hampered
when one person in the relationship is unable or unwilling to reciprocate
covenant love, grace, empowerment, or intimacy. Thus, growth in a
relationship can come to a standstill at any point in this cycle. Because
relationships are dynamic and ever changing, if a relationship does not move
to deeper levels of commitment, grace, empowerment, and intimacy, it will
stagnate and fixate on contract rather than covenant, law rather than grace,
possessive power rather than empowerment, and distance rather than

These theological relationship characteristics are derived from an
examination of biblical writings that show how God enters into and sustains
relationships (covenants) with humanity. The Bible teaches that God desires
to be in relationship with humankind and also longs for humans to engage in a
reciprocal relationship. We recognize, however, that although we are created
in the image of God, we are fallen creatures who will fail in all aspects of
relationship with God and others. In a sense, no person can ever make a
covenant commitment in the way that God covenants with us, nor can anyone
foster an atmosphere of grace in the same way God gives grace. Our
empowerment attempts often resemble possessive power, and our attempts at
intimacy pale in comparison to God’s knowing and caring. Yet we are
hopeful because God has been revealed perfectly in Jesus Christ. He is our
model and enabler as we live out our lives and relationships according to
God’s purpose.

Covenant: To Love and Be Loved
Covenant—God’s steadfast commitment to creation—forms the basis for the
other relationship virtues. As the trunk of the proverbial tree, covenant is the
core feature of relationship virtues from which grace, empowerment, and
intimacy branch out. The central point of covenant is that it is an
unconditional commitment, demonstrated supremely by God to the creation.

Although the concept of covenant has a rich heritage in Christian theology,
the biblical meaning has been eroded by the modern notion that commitment
is no more than a contract. Covenant is basic to the structure of the first two
chapters of Genesis (Horton 2006), even though the first biblical mention of
a covenant is found in Genesis 6:18, where God says to Noah, “But I will

establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark.” God tells
Noah to take his wife and sons and daughters-in-law, along with all living
creatures, and Noah does everything that God commands. In Genesis 9:9–10,
God repeats this promise of covenant: “As for me, I am establishing my
covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living
creature that is with you.” The covenant is even extended to nonhuman
creatures. Next, God makes a covenant with Abram: “I am God Almighty;
walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me
and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous” (Gen. 17:1–2). Upon
hearing this, Abram falls down on his face. God continues in verse 7, “I will
establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you
throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you
and to your offspring after you.” Then in verse 9, the role of Abram (whose
name is now changed to “Abraham”) in the covenant is specified: “God said
to Abraham, ‘As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring
after you throughout their generations.’”

What can we learn from these two accounts of God’s establishing a
covenant with Noah and with Abraham? First, we see that God is not offering
either of them any choice in the matter. That is, God is by no means saying,
“Now I am going to commit myself to you if this is your desire.” Instead, the
establishment of the covenant is based entirely on God’s action. Second,
God’s offer is in no way contractual; that is, it is not based on Noah or
Abraham keeping their end of the bargain. God’s commitment stands firm and
solid (immutable would be the theological descriptor) no matter what their
response. However, God desires and even commands a response—covenants
come with expectations. Does this make God’s covenantal offer conditional?
Is God free to retract the offer if it is not reciprocated? The answer is a
resounding no! The covenant God offers is steadfast and true, “an everlasting
covenant,” regardless of the response to it. Third, although the covenant itself
is not conditional, the benefits or blessings are determined by the response.
Both Noah and Abraham are given a choice to respond. If they are to benefit
from the covenant, they need to make a freely determined response of
obedience. Although the continuation of God’s love is not conditioned on
their response, the blessings of the covenant are conditional. Now that they
receive and respond to God’s covenant, they also receive the fulfillment of
the promise. Fourth, we notice that God extends the covenant to their families
from generation to generation. Neither Noah nor Abraham can anticipate

obedience on the part of their descendants, further evidence of the
unconditional nature of the covenant. In the same way, the blessings of the
covenant are conditional, depending on whether the descendants decide to
respond to and follow God.

Indeed, the Old Testament account in the book of Hosea conveys the
central theme of the covenant relationship between God and the children of
Israel. The cycle is as follows: The children of Israel turn away from God
and get into all kinds of difficulty. God pursues them with a love that will not
let them go, offering reconciliation and restitution when they respond. And
then comes the incredible blessing of being in relationship with the Almighty
God, who mothers like a hen and leads with cords of human kindness. The
children of Israel reap the satisfaction of basking in the intimate presence and
profound connection with their loving God.

The life of Jesus is the supreme expression of unconditional love. It is
noteworthy that Jesus tells the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15) in response
to the Pharisees’ and the scribes’ criticism of his sitting with sinners. Just as
the father in the story welcomes his wayward son home with open arms,
Jesus demonstrates unconditional love to a people who have rejected his
Father. The unconditional nature of God’s love is perhaps most clearly
expressed in 1 John 4:19, “We love because he first loved us,” and 1 John
4:10–13, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent
his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us
so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we
love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. By this we
know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his
Spirit.” Here is the promise of the mutual indwelling of God’s unconditional
love in us as we dwell in God’s love through the sacrifice of Christ and the
presence of the Spirit. And as we have received that unconditional love
represented in the unity of the Godhead, we offer that unconditional love to
others as God’s image bearers.

Having discussed the unconditional quality of God’s covenant
commitments, we now turn to a related consideration—the issue of
reciprocity. Whereas the unconditional nature of covenant love is
unquestionable, in a familial context the concept of covenant can be used to
refer to both unilateral and bilateral relationships. Figure 2 depicts the
different types of commitment found in family relationships.

Any covenantal relationship is based on an unconditional commitment.
However, covenantal relationships can be either unilateral (one-way) or
bilateral (two-way). We have labeled a unilateral unconditional relationship
an initial covenant and a bilateral unconditional relationship a mature
covenant. All biblical references to the covenant God initiates are examples
of initial covenants. It would be erroneous to think of an unconditional
unilateral relationship as partial, dependent, or even immature because, from
the individual’s perspective, a personal covenant without restrictions is
given. From a relational perspective, unilateral unconditional commitment
entails the attractive possibility of someday becoming a two-way street. The
desire of God in each initiated covenant is that the unconditional commitment
will eventually be reciprocal and mutual—that one day, humanity will be
able to ultimately consummate and fulfill the covenant stipulations.

When a child is born, the parents make an unconditional commitment of
love to that child. The infant or young child is unable to make such a
commitment in return. However, as the child matures, the relationship that
began as an initial (unilateral) covenant can develop into a mature (bilateral)
relationship. True reciprocity occurs as parents themselves age and become
socially, emotionally, and physically more dependent on their adult child.
Here, in a mature bilateral commitment, reciprocal and unconditional love is
especially rewarding.

Our ideal for marital and mature parent-child relationships is an
unconditional bilateral commitment. As shown in figure 2, there are two

types of conditional family relationships. One type we call the modern open
arrangement, which is symptomatic of a society in which people are hesitant
to make commitments that do not inherently offer benefits. A typical example
is a person who begins a marriage with the unspoken understanding that as
long as his or her needs are being met, all is well, but as soon as those needs
are no longer met, the relationship will end. When both spouses adopt this
conditional stance, the marriage amounts to a contract, a quid pro quo
arrangement. In modern open arrangements, the couple believes they have
fulfilled the marital contract when they get from the relationship a little more
than they give to the relationship. That is, modern open arrangements are
viewed as successful if one gives slightly less than one receives.

In reality, much of the daily routine in family life is carried out according
to informal contractual agreements. When we advocate relationships based
on covenant, we must recognize the importance of mutuality, fairness, and
reciprocal processes that lead to interdependence. Yet there are
extraordinary dimensions of loving unconditionally, such as sacrificing
oneself for the other and going the second mile even when things aren’t
equal. It is a matter of being willing to be unselfish rather than thinking only
of self (selfish) or only of others (selfless), as Stephen Post (1994) defines
the terms. Any mature relationship based on contract alone will forgo the
incredible acts of love that far exceed any contract made by two individuals
and ultimately reflect the fulfillment of God’s covenant in the saving work of
Christ on the cross.

Grace: To Forgive and Be Forgiven
By its very nature, covenant is grace—unmerited favor. From a human
perspective, the unconditional love of God makes no sense except as it is
offered in grace. Grace is truly a relational word. One is called to share in a
gracious relationship with God. Due to God’s unshakable covenant, grace is
extended. God condescends to the creature and the creature is elevated (see
Ps. 8).

John Rogerson (1996) takes the understanding of grace as a natural
extension of covenant love and applies it to family life. He cites Old
Testament texts suggesting that God desires the establishment of structures of
grace to strengthen family life. These structures of grace are defined as
“social arrangement[s] designed to mitigate hardship and misfortune, and

grounded in God’s mercy.” The following example is from Exodus 22:25–
27: “If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not
deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them. If you
take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes
down; for it may be your neighbor’s only clothing to use as cover; in what
else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will
listen, for I am compassionate.” From his analysis of Old Testament
teachings about the family, Rogerson concludes, “What is really important is
that theologically-driven efforts were made to counteract the forces that
undermined the family” (41).

Family relationships, as designed by God, are meant to be lived out in an
atmosphere of grace, not law. Family life based on contract leads to an
atmosphere of law and is a discredit to Christianity. Law keeps a tally of
credits and debits. Family members take an account of how much they give
and how much they receive from the family. Fairness in this sense is based on
balancing this ledger (Boszormenyi-Nagy and Krasner 1986; Boszormenyi-
Nagy and Spark 1984). On the contrary, family life based on covenant leads
to an atmosphere of grace and forgiveness. There must be a willingness to
forgive if right relationships are going to develop in family life (Borrowdale
1996). Just as the meaning and joy of being a Christian would be deadened if
we conceived of our relationship with God in terms of law and not grace, so
would meaning and joy be constrained in family relationships. On both the
individual and the family level, law leads to legalism, whereas grace offers
freedom. In an atmosphere of grace, family members learn to act responsibly
out of love and consideration for one another.

The incarnation is the supreme act of God’s grace to humankind. Christ
came in human form to reconcile the world to God. This act of divine love
and forgiveness is the basis for human love and forgiveness. Forgiveness
bridges grace offered horizontally and vertically (Shults and Sandage 2003),
meaning that Christians are able to extend grace, mercy, and forgiveness as
they have received them. We can forgive others as we have been forgiven,
and the love of God within makes it possible for us to love others in the same
unconditional way.

One may ask if there is any place for law in family relationships. Are we
to believe that when grace is present in the family there is no need for law at
all? Our answer must be the same as that given by the apostle Paul: “For
Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone

who believes” (Rom. 10:4). It is not that the law itself is bad, for it points the
way to God. But because humans are limited and fallen, we can never fulfill
the law. Christ is the end of the law because he is the perfect fulfillment of
the law. We are righteous by faith alone! No one can keep the law perfectly.
We are free from the law because of Christ’s perfection and righteousness,
which leads to our salvation.

The same can be said concerning family relationships. Through Scripture
we can know something of God’s ideal for family relationships, but none of
us can expect to measure up perfectly to that ideal. In a family based on law,
the members demand perfection of one another. Rules and regulations are
rigidly set to govern relationships. This kind of pressure for flawlessness
adds guilt to the failure that is inevitable in such a situation.

The application of the concept of grace in family relationships is a
challenge when we are working out family structures, roles, and rules.
Although the covenant of grace rules out law as a basis for family
relationships, family members living in grace accept structure, forms,
patterns, order, and responsibility in relationships. In reality, much of the
daily routine of family life must be performed according to agreed-upon
rules, regularity, and order. Grace means having consistently applied,
developmentally appropriate rules and expectations for each family member.
Grace is also the ability to be reflective about those rules and make changes
as necessary. Grace does not repress needs or limit lives, but offers order
and regularity so that family members’ needs are met and their lives

Empowerment: To Serve and Be Served
The most common and conventional definition of power is the ability to
influence another person. In such a definition, the emphasis is placed on
one’s ability to influence and not the actual exercise of the authority. Most
research on the use of power in the family has focused on a person’s attempt
to influence or control the behavior of another. An underlying assumption in
such analyses is that people using power try to decrease rather than increase
the power of those they are trying to influence. They tend to use power in a
way that assures the maintenance of their own more powerful position. In this
sense of power, a suitable synonym may be control.

Empowerment, however, is a biblical model for the use of power that is
completely contrary to its common use in the family or in society at large.
Empowerment can be defined as the attempt to establish power in another
person. Empowerment does not necessarily involve yielding to the wishes of
another person or ceding one’s own power to someone else. Rather,
empowerment is the active, intentional process of helping another person to
become empowered. The person who is empowered has been equipped,
strengthened, built up, matured, and has gained skill because of the
encouraging support of the other. Empowerment flows out of the covenant
between partners because covenant relationships seek the best of the other.
Empowerment as an offshoot of the covenant encourages the other to develop
into the person God intends. Empowerment facilitates the development of
authentic, Christlike individuals.

In a nutshell, empowerment is the process of helping another person
recognize his or her potential and then reach that potential through one’s
encouragement and guidance. It involves coming alongside a person to affirm
their gifts and build their confidence to become all that they can be.
Sometimes the empowerer must be willing to step back and allow the one
being empowered to learn through experience and not through
overdependence. An empowerer respects the uniqueness of each person and
equips that person according to his or her individual ways of learning.
Empowerment never involves control, coercion, or force. Rather, it is a
respectful, reciprocal process that takes place between people in mutually
enhancing ways.

A great example of this in the Scriptures is the story of the prodigal son in
Luke 15. In this familiar story, a wealthy father has two sons. The younger
son asks for his share of the family estate before the father passes away. The
father assents to this request, and the younger son takes his money and moves
to a faraway country. In the meantime, the older son remains steadfast at his
father’s side, engaged in the family business. After his inheritance runs out
and he is forced to perform tasks unthinkable for an Israelite, the younger son
returns home. The father welcomes him with open arms, throwing a lavish
party. The older son, who was working out in the fields, did not know his
younger brother had returned. The older son confronts his father when he
finds out the party was for the younger son—the one that wished his father
was dead! Empowerment, as the lens for this story, indicates that the father
empowers the younger son by giving him the inheritance. He allows him to

make a decision as an adult and experience the consequences of that
decision. Luke even records the younger son’s development while feeding the
pigs: “He came to his senses” (Luke 15:17 NIV).

If covenant is the basis of grace, and grace is the underlying atmosphere of
acceptance and forgiveness, then empowerment is the action of God in
people’s lives. We see it supremely in the work of Jesus Christ. The
celebrated message of Jesus is that he has come to empower: “I came that
they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). The apostle John
puts it this way: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he
gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of
the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12–13). Ray
Anderson (1985) insightfully exegetes this text by noting that power “of
blood” is power in the natural order, and “the will of the flesh” refers to
tradition, duty, honor, obedience, and everything that is part of conventional
power. In this passage, then, it is clear that the power is given by God and
not by either physical or conventional means.

The power given by Jesus is of a personal order—power that is mediated
to the powerless. To us in our sinful and powerless condition, God gives the
ability to become children of God. This is the supreme example of human
empowerment. Jesus redefined power by his teaching and by relating to
others as a servant. Jesus rejected the use of power to control others and
instead affirmed the use of power to serve others, to lift up the fallen, to
forgive the guilty, to encourage responsibility and maturity in the weak, and
to enable the unable. His empowerment was directed to those who occupied
the margins.

In a very real sense, empowerment is love in action. It is the mark of Jesus
Christ that family members need to emulate most. The practice of
empowerment in families will revolutionize the view of authority in
Christian homes. Sadly, authority in marriage continues to be a controversial
issue today because of a widely accepted secular view that power is a
commodity in limited supply; therefore, a person must grab as much power as
possible in relationships. Whether through coercion or manipulation, striving
for power leads to antagonizing competition rather than to the cooperative
building up of people. Power becomes a distortion that distances, in contrast
to mutual empowerment, which leads to unity.

But the good news for Christians is that the power of God is available to
all persons in unlimited supply! Ephesians 4 reminds us that unique spiritual

gifts are given to everyone for the building up of the body of Christ, “until all
of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to
maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (v. 13). In a similar vein,
Galatians 5:22–23 contrasts the works of the flesh against the fruit of the
Spirit, which is freely given and defined as love, joy, peace, patience,
kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. In verses 25
and 26, we are encouraged and admonished: “If we live by the Spirit, let us
also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against
one another, envying one another.” This is the character of God, and it is
available to all family members who draw on the inexhaustible resources in
Christ Jesus!

Empowerment is born out of God’s covenant love, and it thrives in the
gracious relational context experienced in Christ Jesus. The Spirit of God
empowers us to empower others. And when mutual empowerment occurs
among family members, each will be stretched in the extraordinary ways of
servant love and humility. Family members will grow in the stature of Christ
as they mature into the character of Christ in their daily interactions. When
they use their areas of strength to build up one another, they are placing unity
and interdependency at the heart of their relationships. It has nothing to do
with having power over others but rather involves taking great delight in
building up one another to become all God wants us to be. This is the
essence of what we read in 1 Corinthians 8:1: “Knowledge puffs up, but
loves builds up.”

Traditional thinking about parent-child relationships is also based on the
false assumption that power is in limited supply. Thus, parents often fear that
as children grow older and gain more power, their parental power will
automatically be reduced. In contrast, a relationship-empowering approach
to parenting begins by reconsidering the nature of power and authority. In the
biblical sense, parental authority is an ascribed power. The Greek word for
authority, exousia, literally means “out of being.” It refers to a type of
influence that is not dependent on any personal strength, achievement, or skill
but that comes forth “out of the being” of a person. The Greek word for
power, dynamis, is the word from which dynamo is derived. The authority of
Jesus flowed from his personhood. It was dynamic.

Dynamic parents have authority that flows from their personhood as they
earnestly and responsibly care for their children’s physical, social,
psychological, and spiritual development. The process of empowering

children certainly does not mean giving up a position of authority, nor does it
mean that parents will be depleted or drained of power as they parent.
Rather, parents and children will both achieve a sense of personal power,
self-esteem, and wholeness. Successful parenting involves building a
relationship in which children gain personal power and parents retain
personal power throughout the process.

Once again, human fears and personal or cultural needs may stand in the
way of parental empowerment of children and adolescents. In the frailty of
human insecurity, parents may be tempted to keep their offspring dependent
on them. In the attempt to use their power over their children, they may
inadvertently have a false sense of security in their parental position. When
children obey out of fear and under coercion, it is likely to backfire. An
emotional barrier develops when children are loyal out of obligation rather
than by choice. The parental demand for unreasonable obedience and loyalty
may be culturally motivated, but it is often related to selfish needs as well. In
contrast, covenant love and empowerment lead to a mature interdependency
in which there is both freedom and a continued sense of belonging for adult
children. This kind of love remains faithful, honorable, and predictable even
when differences threaten to endanger the relationship.

All parents have experienced the temptation to keep a child dependent,
which is often rationalized as something we do for the child’s own good.
Many times, however, the child is kept in a dependent position for the
parents’ own convenience. Empowerment is the ultimate goal, where parents
release the child to self-control. Of course, mistakes will be made, and
failure will be the occasional consequence of trying out new wings. Parents
have a hard time letting their children make mistakes (especially the same
mistakes they themselves made when young), so this transition to self-
reliance is difficult for parents and children alike. It is important for parents
to remember that the key to their authority lies not in external control but in
internal control that their children can integrate into their own personhood.
When this integration occurs, it is a rewarding and mutually satisfying

On the community level as well, Christians are called to live according to
extraordinary social patterns. Even though we are sinners, God provides us
with the ability to follow the empowerment principle in our relationships.
God empowers us, by the Holy Spirit, to empower others. The biblical ideal
for all our relationships, then, is that we be Christian realists in regard to our

own sinfulness and tendency to fail, but Christian optimists in light of the
grace and power available to live according to God’s intended purposes.

Intimacy: To Know and Be Known
Humans are unique among living creatures in our ability to communicate
through language, a capacity that makes it possible for us to know one
another intimately. Our Christian faith is distinct from Eastern religions in its
teaching that God has broken into human history to be personally related to
us. A major theme that runs through the Bible is that God wants to know us
and to be known by us. We are encouraged to share our deepest thoughts and
feelings through prayer. We are told that the Holy Spirit dwells within us and
that God understands the very groaning within that cannot be uttered (Rom.

Adam and Eve stood completely open and transparent before God, “naked,
and . . . not ashamed” (Gen. 2:25). The intimacy that Adam and Eve felt
enabled them to be themselves without any pretense. They had no need to
play deceptive games. Only after their disobedience did they try to hide from
God out of a feeling of nakedness and shame—to which God responded with
care and gracious provision of animal skins. Shame is often born out of a fear
of unworthiness or rejection. Shame entails the experience of personal
wrongness—I am wrong or broken. When shame is present, family members
put on masks and begin to play deceptive roles before one another. By
contrast, as we examine the nature of the pre-fall human family (which is the
only social institution that belongs to the order of creation), we find an
emphasis on intimacy—on knowing and being known. This is what it means
to be a servant, to empty oneself as Jesus did when he took the form of a
servant. This is how one is to be submissive and loving in relationships. It is
also true that to have any union or partnership or interdependence with
another person, one must always be willing to give up some of one’s own
needs and desires. When family members come to one another with this kind
of attitude and perspective, they will find a common ground of joy,
satisfaction, and mutual benefit.

When family members experience grace and empowerment flowing out of
covenant love, they will be able to communicate confidently and express
themselves freely without fear. Family members will want what is best for
one another. They will make a concerted effort to listen, understand, accept

differences, and value and confirm uniqueness. Family members will
develop and express themselves (uniqueness) in their family relationships
without the pressure to change or modify themselves (unity).

The capacity for family members to communicate feelings freely and
openly with one another is contingent on trust and commitment. They are not
afraid to share and be intimate with one another. John gives us insight into
this: “God is love” (1 John 4:16); “There is no fear in love, but perfect love
casts out fear” (v. 18). God expresses perfect love, and we can respond in
love because God loved us first (v. 19).

This brings us back to the unconditional covenant love that is the
cornerstone for family communication and honest sharing without the threat
of rejection. As family members offer their love unconditionally to one
another, the security that is established will lead to deeper levels of intimacy.

The unconditional love modeled by Jesus gives a picture of the type of
communicative intimacy desirable in family relationships. Recall how Jesus,
at the end of his earthly ministry, asked Peter not once but three times, “Do
you love me?” (John 21). Peter had earlier denied Jesus three times; Jesus
was giving Peter the opportunity to assert what he had previously denied and
to reaffirm his love three times. Perhaps the relationship between Jesus and
Peter had not been the same since Peter’s triple denial. Likewise, family
relationships become strained as we disappoint, fail, and even betray those
whom we love the most.

Forgiving and being forgiven are important aspects of renewal. There is a
need to confess as well as to receive confession. This is a two-way street
that can resolve the unfinished business between family members. Being
willing to admit failures and to acknowledge being offended by another
person opens intimacy between two people as they seek reconciliation.
Intimacy will bring relationships to full maturity.

Applying the Theological Model: From Hurting to Healing
In examining biblical themes that have a bearing on the nature of family
relationships, we have suggested that (1) commitment should be based on a
mature (i.e., unconditional and bilateral) covenant love; (2) family life
should be established and maintained within an atmosphere of grace, which
embraces acceptance and forgiveness; (3) the resources of family members

should be used to empower rather than to control one another; and
(4) intimacy is based on a knowing that leads to caring, understanding,
communication, and communion with others. These four elements of
Christian family relationships are part of a continual process: intimacy can
lead to deeper covenant love, commitment fortifies the atmosphere of freely
offered grace, the climate of acceptance and forgiveness encourages serving
and empowering others, and the resultant sense of self-esteem leads to the
ability to be intimate without fear.

Table 1, which represents a summary of our theological model, illustrates
how a family that places its allegiance in Jesus Christ can move toward
God’s paradigm for relationships. Although believers experience different
levels of maturity in Christ, each of them has a capacity to follow God’s way
because of the spiritual power within. Inasmuch as all family members are
imperfect, with their own individual temperaments and experiences, they
progress at different rates in the process of realizing God’s ideals of
unconditional love, grace, empowerment, and intimacy. That is to say, all
family members fall on a continuum between hurting and healing behaviors.
As long as they move in the direction of healing, they will grow and the
family will benefit. When they choose hurting behaviors and move away
from God’s way, however, the entire family will be negatively affected.

Among the hurting behaviors in a family environment are conditional love,
self-centeredness, perfectionism, faultfinding, efforts to control others,
unreliability, denial of feelings, and lack of communication. With such
behaviors, the focus is on self rather than on the best interests of the other
family members. In hurting families, each individual is affected on the
personal level. For example, one may not feel loved or worthy of being
loved by the other family members. Such individuals are limited in their
ability to love others unconditionally. A vicious circular pattern emerges.
Such problems at the personal level cause the individual to view
interpersonal relationships as potential threats. The result is behavior that
perpetuates the root problem. For example, an individual who does not know
what it is to be loved unconditionally is prone to approach others

Hurting families tend to withhold grace, often demanding unreasonable
perfection and blaming those members who don’t measure up. Individuals in
these families fear they will make a mistake and be rejected because of their

failure to meet the standards. So they try harder to be perfect. What they need
is acceptance for who they are and forgiveness when they fail.

Hurting families also tend to control rather than empower their members.
Individuals in these families lack the confidence that they can influence
others; they fear they will be discredited because of their inadequacies. The
result is a desperate attempt to get power by coercing and controlling less
powerful family members. What is needed instead is affirmation and
validation by the family. Empowerment will build confidence so that all
family members can reach their greatest potential.

TABLE 1 From Hurting to Healing Behavior


Problem at the
Personal Level

Obstacle to

Perpetuating the

The Cure

From Conditional Love to Unconditional Love


Feeling unloved Fear of not being

Loving others in
order to be loved in



Feeling unworthy of

Fear of being
thought worthless

Focus on self Christ-

From Shame to Grace

Perfectionism Fear of making a

Fear of not being

Trying harder Acceptance

Faultfinding Expectation of
perfection in self and

Fear of being

Blaming others Forgiveness

From Control to Empowerment

Efforts to
control others

Lack of confidence
in one’s ability to

Fear of losing

Overcontrol Building others

Unreliability Lack of control of

Fear of
disappointing others

Being out of


From Lack of Feeling to Intimacy

Denial of

Fear of feelings Fear of rejection Avoidance of

Experience of


Problem at the
Personal Level

Obstacle to

Perpetuating the

The Cure

Lack of

Distrust of others Fear of being hurt
by others


Open and

Hurting families are characterized at the individual level by their members
not being in touch with their feelings. Their fear of rejection keeps them in
denial of their emotions. What they need most is a safe atmosphere in which
they can express their feelings, thoughts, wants, and desires and be heard and
understood by the other family members. Open communication helps each
person share more honestly rather than hide feelings and thoughts from
others. In turn, this experience increases one’s capacity to be known by
others and to know oneself at deeper levels.

A cure is needed to break the perpetual cycle found in hurting families. An
individual who has been loved only conditionally needs to experience
unconditional love in order to feel lovable enough to give love and to
support others. The breakthrough comes when one receives God’s
unconditional love. Being cherished by God gives a sense of self-worth and
a new self-perception (“I am lovable”). Drawing on the Holy Spirit and
maturing in the faith, the individual now has reason to follow God’s
paradigm and to adopt healing behaviors.

We have seen that living in covenant love is a dynamic process. God has
designed family relationships to grow from hurting to healing behavior—that
is, to a maturity analogous to that of individual believers who attain the full
measure of perfection found in Christ (Eph. 4:13). This maturing of
relationships eventually enables family members to reach out to people
beyond the boundaries of the family.


The Family as a Developing
Biosocial System

Experience shows that it is possible to observe family life, or even be
actively involved in family life, and yet be limited in our understanding of it.
In fact, active involvement in family life may be the very reason we fail to
understand it from a wider perspective.

In this chapter, we introduce two theoretical perspectives that family
clinicians and sociologists have found helpful in gaining a wide-angle view
of family life. The first one is called family-systems theory because it views
family life not merely as the sum total of the actions of all the individual
members but rather as the interactions of all family members operating as a
unit of interrelated parts. Individuals are considered in the context of their
relationships. We describe this theory at length. Parenthetically, it should be
noted that by including biological factors relevant to family life, our focus is
on the family as a biosocial system. The other theoretical perspective is
family-development theory, which views the family as developing over time
through natural life-cycle stages. Both family-systems theory and family-
development theory emphasize the interrelationships between the
individual’s bio-psycho-social development and the relationship context in
which he or she is embedded. We explain these two perspectives, which will
serve as a basis for focusing attention on family life as a whole.

Family-Systems Theory
A major cultural theme in modern society is individualism. Individualism has
caused us to focus on the individual’s needs and perspective rather than on
relationships and groups. Current psychological approaches largely focus on
individual differences or individual psychology as opposed to groups or

networks of individuals (which more correctly belongs in social psychology
and sociology). The clinical profession is shifting the focus from the
individual to the broader family system and beyond to include multileveled
systems. This relational or systemic perspective allows clinicians to
understand the embedded social dimension of human nature and flourishing.
Both family therapists and sociologists now view family life from a broader
systems perspective.

What is a family-systems perspective? Basically, it is a holistic approach
that understands every component of family life in terms of the family as a
whole. A system is by definition any identifiable whole composed of
interrelated individual parts. To understand any system, one must begin by
identifying the various levels within that system. Think of a series of
concentric circles. At the core is the individual (bio-psycho-social
dimensions); the next level includes the nuclear family (the family one lives
within); then comes the extended family (grandparents, relatives, significant
others); the next level includes school, work, friends, neighbors, and faith
communities; and the final multicultural level includes socioeconomic,
cultural, ethnic, racial, geographical, religious, and historical context. All
these systems are interrelated. They influence and are influenced by one
another simultaneously. The boundary around each of these multileveled
systems involves belonging and membership. Western societies usually
define the boundary of the family system as a husband, a wife, and their
children. In many other societies, the extended family is considered the basic
family system.

Resilience and constraints are embedded within the relationships among
these levels. For example, a toddler is developing competencies related to
walking, talking, and increasing personal autonomy (bio-psycho-social
dimensions). This competence is supported and encouraged by parents
(nuclear family). The nuclear family is also embedded in a context that
supports their care and nurture (resilience factor) or constrains it (due to
limited economic opportunities, high levels of crime, and/or high levels of
divorce or out-of-wedlock childbearing). Finally, all the previous
subsystems are embedded in a macrosystem that provides meaning-making,
values, and spiritual perspectives either supporting the previous subsystems
or constraining them. The impetus for change in order to accommodate
various competencies can derive from any of the subsystems.

The fundamental concepts of systems theory are illustrated in figure 3.
Notice that there are several semipermeable boundaries: (1) around the
entire family, (2) between subsystems like the parents and children, and (3)
around each individual. Anything within the boundary is considered part of
the system, and anything that falls outside the boundary is identified as part of
the environment. These boundaries indicate that inputs may come from
outside the family as well as within each subsystem in the family. Input
includes any message or stimulus that enters the system from the environment.
Output includes any message or response from the system to the environment.
Boundaries around a system can be relatively open or closed. In an open
family system, boundaries are said to be permeable, allowing for significant
input from and output to the environment. In a closed family system,
boundaries serve as barriers to limit such interaction.

Parents form the leadership system that determines how open or closed the
boundaries with the environment are. Once a boundary has been established,
objects within the system are identified as units of the system. In the newly
established family, there are two units (individuals), the husband and the
wife, each with identifiable positions and roles within the family. As
children enter the family, the system becomes more complex, since each new
member (whether biological, adopted, or fostered) occupies a given position
in the system and is assigned a role to play within it, and now subsystems are

A family that includes children has at least two subsystems: the parental
subsystem, composed of the spouses or adult relationship partners, and the
sibling subsystem, composed of the children (or, in the case of an only child,
the child subsystem). Each sibling is also identified as an individual unit
with unique traits, qualities, and biological makeup. An extended-family
system includes grandparents, relatives, and nonrelatives who are considered
part of that system. For example, when a divorced father of two children
unites with a widowed mother of three, a broad definition of this family
system includes relatives and friends from all sides of that family.

In most systems, rules of hierarchy exist between the subsystems. The
major rule is that the adult subsystem (parents/adult members or nonfamily
members) is considered to have authority and responsibility over the
children in the home. It can be problematic when a child takes on a parental
position in the home rather than remaining part of the sibling subsystem. In
fact, the pattern of children becoming parents, or what we call parentified
children or parentification indicates a serious concern with the family. When
a child emerges as an authority and becomes the boss, an incongruent

hierarchy emerges. According to Nuttall, Valentino, and Borkowski (2012), a
parentified child can experience problems after marriage when parenting
their own children. This negative effect of parentification may depend upon
the nature of the sibling relationships (Borchet et al. 2020). Older siblings
can periodically take responsibility when parents aren’t present, but they
relinquish that position after the parents return.

Multilevel systems theory developed in large part because of the
inadequacies of a simplistic cause-and-effect model for complex social
behavior, such as that of a family. The difference between a more complex
system and a simplistic system can best be seen in the various ways in which
behavior can be controlled, balanced, or changed through a feedback
process. The many levels of feedback in a complex system, such as a family,
are embedded within one another and build on one another. There are four
major levels of feedback: simple feedback, cybernetic control,
morphogenesis, and reorientation.

Simple Feedback
Simple feedback is identical with a cause-and-effect model. For example,

to assist parents in toilet training a child, a behavior-modification therapist
focuses on the behavior itself. Giving the child candy intermittently when the
task is accomplished reinforces the desired behavior. By contrast,
withholding the reward (candy) conditions the child to relinquish undesired
behavior. Family members frequently use simple feedback as a stimulus for
change. It is a simple exchange between the system and the environment.

Cybernetic Control
Cybernetic control is somewhat more complex. Here an output from the

system feeds back to a monitoring unit within the system, which sets in
motion a systemic adjustment to the original output. Perhaps the best example
of cybernetic control is the self-monitoring action of a thermostat. On a cold
winter day, we may set the thermostat at 70 degrees. When the room
temperature gets below a certain point (say 68 degrees), then the needle in
the thermostat makes electrical contact and the heater turns on. The heater
will stay on until the needle rises to the point (say 72 degrees) where it loses
electrical contact; then the heater turns off. This is cybernetic control because
the heating system has a built-in mechanism to control itself. Cybernetic

control functions around a homeostatic balance—optimal functioning occurs
within a range. For example, the thermostat may have a five-degree range in
which it will not start the furnace or shut it off.

Family life can be understood in much the same way. Families have rules
or norms that define expected behavior for each family member. Each of
these rules has a tolerance limit beyond which one cannot go without the
family as a system taking some counteraction. In our thermostat analogy, the
tolerance limits were 68 and 72 degrees. The family will need some
flexibility in setting its tolerance limits, for if they are set too rigidly, there
will be a constant need to correct, and normal family living will be
impossible. For example, imagine what would happen to the heater if the
tolerance limits were set at 69.999 and 70.001 degrees. The heater would be
turning on and shutting off constantly, and all the energy would be exerted in
that endeavor.

Consider a family that has a rigid rule that everyone must be home and be
seated at the table at exactly 6:00 p.m. for the evening meal. The family may
be willing to wait for about thirty seconds for Maria to get off the phone so
they can begin, but they most certainly will not tolerate a five-minute delay.
The system will draw on its storehouse of memories and choose an action to
correct the undesirable behavior. It may be that Maria’s siblings will
pressure her to hang up or that her parents will warn her that she won’t get
anything to eat unless she hangs up immediately. In either case, the system
works as a whole to shape her behavior.

All families have rules that each member obeys for the good of the whole.
The system monitors deviance from these rules. Cybernetic control is the
action the system takes to maintain the rules or status quo (referred to as
homeostasis in systems-theory language). In other words, families exert a
certain amount of social pressure (called homeostasis in systems-theory
language) to maintain the current levels of family functioning. For the most
part, individuals in the family are able to develop competencies as long as
these competencies do not require the family’s nature or structure to change.
Adding a child, for example, means that the structure of the family needs to
change. New rules and communication patterns are needed as the new family
member is cared for. As the child develops, more and more competencies are
acquired. These new competencies will eventually require a change in the
nature of the family’s relationships—parenting strategies of teens should be
very different than for younger children; the parents’ relationship needs to

change to accommodate a teen; the family’s relationship with the social
world needs to change as well. The ways in which families respond to these
changes vary dramatically. Sometimes problematic responses to these
changes become homeostatic, meaning that the family becomes resistant to
trying a different coping mechanism to deal with the changes. This is known
as reification in family therapy. These reified functional patterns, sometimes
called overfunctioning/underfunctioning reciprocity, limit the effectiveness
of the individual and family development (Bowen 2004).

On the one hand, cybernetics is ultimately functional—concerned with the
accomplishment of tasks in the family. Function allows family members to be
responsive to one another while addressing inputs from the outside
environment. Sometimes, these functional changes incorporate more acute
challenges from outside the family, allowing children and more vulnerable
members to cope with the challenges. On the other hand, function may
become a more persistent pattern. In family therapy language, these functional
responses are reified and become the homeostatic balance in the family. The
issue here is that these challenges prevent others from developing needed
competencies themselves.

Families often go beyond cybernetic control, however, for they are

continually redefining and changing their rules, regulations, and procedures.
The system’s rule changes often result in a change of form or function
(morphogenesis) in the family. Expanding our illustration, let’s suppose that
the family is determined not to begin eating without Maria and that none of
their tried and proven techniques succeed in getting her off the phone. A
system that functions only at a cybernetic level can do absolutely nothing. It
must either resort to a past response or not respond at all. However, a system
that operates on a morphogenetic level is capable of generating or creating
new ways of responding to the situation. New responses are created
whenever tested methods no longer work or the system is facing a situation
for the first time.

One advantage that effective family systems have over ineffective family
systems is the ability to operate at this higher level. The overly rigid family
is usually incapable of morphogenetic responses because the family lacks
flexibility. However, chaotically structured families with few rules or

boundaries have similar difficulty because they do not possess the
cohesiveness to act in a united way.

The family is usually required to generate new response patterns whenever
unpredictable or unexpected changes occur. For example, when a member of
the family loses a job, gets sick, or dies, new response patterns are
demanded. This is also true for positive life-cycle changes, such as the birth
or adoption of a child into the family, a wedding or anniversary celebration,
or an unexpected inheritance of money. The family will be challenged to form
new response patterns to these events as well. For instance, when we (the
Balswicks) adopted our nine-year-old Korean son, each family member
(sister, father, and mother) needed to make space for and welcome him into
our family of three. Joel, in turn, needed to make space for us as he came to
know us through interactions as a brother and son and the newest family
member. We each were challenged in different ways as individual family
members through the process of becoming a newly formed family. In the
Frederick family, we also had to make changes with the adoption of a new
pet. The process is the same in this more lighthearted example. Each member
of our family provided input into the decision to adopt a kitten, we discussed
the impact this would have on our daily schedules, and we devised a chore
list with everyone contributing.

Another important aspect of a more complex model is that people bring
meaning to their behavior. We must do more than understand a person’s
actions; we must pay attention to the beliefs (perspectives) of that person in
relation to his or her behavior. So Maria may have a very good reason to ask
the family to make an exception for her lateness; for example, she is working
hard on an important project for school and needs the family to be flexible. If
family togetherness is the mother’s priority, however, she and Maria will
have to negotiate change according to the meaning each one brings to the
issue. In general, there is no right or wrong way for a family to be organized,
but the family must determine how its system will function by considering the
best interest of each family member in addition to what is in the best interest
of the family system itself. This is how the many levels of a system are
embedded within and build on one another.

The tendency in most families is to respond in old, familiar ways to new
situations (homeostasis). These old ways will likely be inadequate, and the
family will become stuck in them rather than be motivated to operate on the
morphogenetic level. It is also true that most families do not stagnate—

because changes are always occurring in the family, whether at an individual,
a relational, or a family level. In other words, family members constantly
need to be in tune with the complex changes happening at all levels as they
make adjustments in their daily living. The effective family understands that
flexibility in structure, as well as relational connection between family
members, is needed to operate on the morphogenetic level. Members of these
families are alert and responsive to one another in the realm of individual
differentiation and in keeping family togetherness a priority.

A unique perspective on morphogenesis developed from family-systems
theory is known as differentiation of self (DoS). DoS focuses on how
families function over time in response to one another. As described above,
families sometimes develop a cybernetic pattern of under- and
overfunctioning. Challenges to this pattern that disrupt the homeostatic
balance often require internal resources to change the rules of the system or
engage in morphogenesis. DoS is an internal resource, as well as a relational
strength, developed in families. DoS may be conceptualized as the balance
between individuality and togetherness (Bowen 2004; Kerr and Bowen
1988). DoS provides the resources to live out one’s core values and beliefs
(individuality) while maintaining relationships with others (togetherness).
Challenges to homeostasis create intense anxiety, which exerts pressure to
maintain the status quo in the family. DoS helps individuals to remain
authentic to their values and beliefs while engaging in the change process,
thus preventing rigid relational patterns like overfunctioning/underfunctioning
reciprocity to develop while encouraging open and authentic intimacy to
characterize the family’s relationships.

The following is a brief illustration of differentiation of self and work
based in Tom’s clinical practice. Carlos was a typical teen, and he regularly
questioned his parents’ desire and expectation that he would attend college in
preparation for a career. Education was immensely important to his parents,
Letty and Mario—they both graduated from college, Letty was a middle-
school teacher, and Mario was an administrator for the local school district.
To a large extent being in the Mendoza family meant that education was
important. Carlos was questioning the family’s very identity by stating his
desire to not pursue college. This questioning created a significant amount of
stress and tension that challenged the family’s homeostasis. Both parents
began to exert pressure on Carlos to be faithful to his Mendoza identity and
attend college. Our clinical work focused on supporting the family while

making space for Carlos to explore the potential of not going to college.
Differentiation helps each family member to maintain their relationships with
each other while allowing each to solidify their core values and beliefs. For
Carlos, this means that it is important for him to have space to ask the
questions and clarify and choose his core values while remaining part of the

The fourth and highest level of feedback is reorientation; here the family

changes its entire goal. In morphogenesis, new ways of responding are
generated, but in reorientation, the goals themselves are changed.
Reorientation involves a dramatic change in family life in which the entire
system converts to new ways of thinking and behaving. For example,
reorientation may occur when the family of an alcoholic comes to grips with
an understanding of how every member contributes to the problem. Treatment
affects not only the alcoholic but also each and every family member, so
change occurs at all levels. Another example is a radical change in an entire
family’s belief system, such as when an individual religious conversion
spreads to all members, resulting in an entirely new pattern of family living.

Major systemic change is fairly rare, and most families operate out of
morphogenesis (generating new response patterns) or homeostasis
(maintaining the status quo). Reorientation is most needed when a family’s
existing patterns of behavior prove to be totally unworkable and damaging to
its members.

Biological Influences on the Family
In their article “Biosocial Influences on the Family,” D’Onofrio and Lahey
(2010, 762) state, “There has been a growing acceptance of the importance
of biological factors in the study of family and social influences, as many
researchers are now studying how biological and social factors act and
interact.” Before the emergence of the social sciences, it was assumed that
nature rather than nurture was primarily responsible for human behavior.
Evidence for the importance of nurture ushered in a social determinism in the
form of behaviorism—recall John B. Watson’s (1930, 82) famous boast,
“Give me a dozen healthy infants, well formed, and my own specific world
to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him

to become any type of specialist I might select—doctor, lawyer, artist,
merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents,
penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations and race of his ancestors.” While
few behavioral scientists accepted such a strong social deterministic
position, they do include the influence of social and relational factors, along
with biological and neurological factors, in order to understand the
embodied nature of human existence.

A newer understanding of the biological and genetic influences on
individual and family life concerns interpersonal neurobiology. Based on
Dan Siegel’s (2020) work on it, aspects of interpersonal neurobiology
include (1) the brain and neuron functioning and (2) neuroplasticity. The
focus here is how both genetics and environments, especially parent-child
relationships, collaborate to enhance individual functioning. This perspective
also emphasizes how the brain and relationships are fluid or malleable
(neuroplasticity), allowing individuals to adapt to trauma and negative

Considering biological influences on the family is important for at least
two reasons. First, and most obvious, is to give a more complete and true
understanding of the family. Second, on a more practical level, is to
recognize that behavior by family members must be understood in terms of
biological as well as social factors. This helps members of the family to be
less self-blaming when certain difficulties arise. Parents of a child struggling
with mental illness, addiction, or any one of a number of other developmental
difficulties are empowered by knowing about the biological factors that
contribute to any particular behavioral problem. This liberates parents from
feeling overly responsible for their child’s difficulties. An oversocialized
view of child development leads to an undue burden of guilt and shame for
many parents or caregivers.

Because of the complex ways in which biological factors operate,
assessing the relative importance of biological versus sociocultural factors is
challenging. To begin with, it is necessary to move beyond a mere additive
model in which one simply assesses the amount of separate influences of
nature and nurture. Instead, what is needed is an interactive model that takes
into account how biological and social factors impact and are being
impacted by each other, and how the interactions impact family life. Although
the role of biological factors will be included throughout the book, a few
examples of genetic or neurological factors may be helpful at this point.

Genetic Factors
A simplistic view of the role of heredity in human behavior can be heard

in such comments as, “He’s just like his grandfather,” or “She’s just like her
aunt Betty.” In reality, the role of genes in human behavior is very complex.
We now know that genes influence behavior by controlling very complex
biological and developmental functions. D’Onofrio and Lahey (2010, 768)
conclude, “It has become clear that genes and environments influence our
behavior in a complex interplay that often involves the genetic moderation of
environmental influence.” Further, it is not simply that genes and the
environment interact, for as Adele (2009, 2) points out, “Experience affects
which genes are turned on (or off) and when,” and “the environment
participates in sculpting expression of” genes. Genetic disposition, therefore,
might be thought of as necessary but not sufficient for the display of complex

An example relevant to family life is the finding that the same gene has
been linked with alcohol dependence, decreased probability of marrying, and
an increased risk of divorce (Dick et al. 2006). Rendering these associations
much more complex, however, are follow-up analyses that revealed that
“personality characteristics, such as reward dependence, may partially
explain how the gene is associated with both alcohol dependence and marital
status” (D’Onofrio and Lahey 2010, 765). It should be noted, however, that
the associations between these behaviors were small. That is, neither genetic
nor personality factors completely explain the causes of alcohol dependence
and marital status. Behavioral scientists emphasize the multidimensional
nature of human problems like divorce and alcoholism, and addressing these
human concerns requires incorporating both the medical and psychological
aspects of human existence.

Another aspect in understanding the role of genetics is the idea that genes
may also influence behavior differently according to the social context of
behavior. For example, “Youth who are genetically predisposed to be
aggressive who live in sparse rural environments may be less likely to
engage in violence than youth living in urban environments because of the
greater density of gangs in densely populated environments” (D’Onofrio and
Lahey 2010, 768–69). Again, we must recognize the complexity of these
matters as well as acknowledge that with more study there will be more

Neurological Factors
Largely due to technological advances, including the use of brain imaging,

immunology, and endocrinology, much research has been done on how the
neurological system influences human behavior. The areas in which research
has shown neurological factors to be important in family life include the role
of human stress (D’Onofrio and Lahey 2010).

An understanding of the role of stress has been found to be important in the
following family processes: (1) during times of rapid change in the family,
such as pregnancy, early childhood, and puberty; (2) during parent-child
relationships, where stressful relationships can shape a child’s stress
neurobiology; (3) during conflict encounters where stress reactivity or the
lack of it can either escalate or dampen conflict and correspondingly the
stress levels of family members; and (4) in documenting how stress impacts
each individual family member in different ways (D’Onofrio and Lahey

Accumulated research shows that hormone levels influence and are
influenced by social environments. The implications for family life are many,
beginning with a better understanding of adolescent behavior when hormones
are raging, to showing how hormonal changes affect women during
menopause, to explaining changes in sexual relationships among elderly
couples as hormone levels diminish.

The use of MRI and other brain-imaging techniques has brought forth new
information on how the brain and neurological system impact human
behavior. For instance, we now know that the brain “is still undergoing
normative developmental changes during late adolescence and early
adulthood” (Casey et al. 2005, 45). The brain simply is not engaging in
higher-order brain processing until the mid-twenties. This knowledge may
not stop the parent-teen battles about teen behaviors, but it does give reason
to have dialogue about the concern.

Interpersonal neurobiology focuses on how the brain and relationships
mutually influence one another. For example, early positive interactions
fostering secure attachment between a caregiver and child support
neurological development. Further, this neurological development—
increasing neurons and connections in various parts of the brain—feeds back
into the parent-child relationship, enhancing the attachment bond (Cozolino

So, taking into account recent advances in knowledge about the influence
of biology on family life, we offer several guarded conclusions. First, the
influence of biological factors is very complex and interactive with
sociocultural factors. Second, the relative importance or amount of
biological influence is difficult to detect. Third, the amount of influence,
although important, is often quite small. For all of these reasons, the number
of citations given in this book for biological factors will be limited in
comparison to the evidence cited regarding the impact of sociocultural
factors on family life. We encourage readers to maintain an awareness of the
possible implications of biological factors for a more balanced and
comprehensive understanding of family life in the twenty-first century.

Family-Development Theory
Imagine that we had access to a time machine and could view the Lee family
at different points in its development. Let us suppose that we could view Mr.
and Mrs. Lee during their first month of marriage, the year their first child
was born, the year their youngest child was born, the year their youngest
child became a teenager, the last year that child lived at home, and the year
their youngest grandchild was born. Altogether, we would have six slices
from the life of this family. They would look quite different at each of those
points, but there would also be certain elements of continuity: the basic
organization of the family, the siblings’ birth order (family constellation), the
family’s history and traditions, the presence of extended family, and so on. It
should be noted that each stage of family life has predictable times of
tension, and certain stages require more family structure than do others.

The developmental perspective allows us to view the typical family’s
progression through various stages of life. The family is not only responding
to its current environment and trying to adapt to inputs (family-systems
theory), but the family is also embedded in time (sequences) producing inputs
and responding to global challenges throughout history. Within each stage, the
family must accomplish certain key developmental tasks (notice that changes
in family development primarily focus on membership changes like
engagement or birth). Likewise, each individual family member must master
developmental tasks at a particular stage. A degree of variation and
oscillation is normal in this process, since both the family as a unit and
individual family members must accomplish their respective tasks before the

family can move on to the next stage of development. To the extent that the
developmental tasks are not accomplished, the family will be less prepared
to move on. It is helpful to think about developmental tasks in terms of age
appropriateness for each unique family member and determine when an
individual is over- or underdeveloped in a particular area. While one is
working toward a balance in many areas of development, it is always
important to recognize the natural ebb and flow that occurs as an individual
family member proceeds through the life stages.

Some developmental tasks are stage specific, while other tasks are
accomplished throughout the phases of family life. For example, in the first
year of marriage it is important for a couple to make joint decisions about
finances and household chores, but this becomes less important once a
pattern is established. However, interpersonal communication is a skill that
will be important throughout married life.

Table 2 lists the basic developmental stages of a family, the major task
associated with each stage, and the event that initiates it. It should be noted
that all families are unique and that these stages do not happen as precisely
as the chart indicates.

In general, a family can be said to have moved from one stage to the next
when a major transition takes place. We begin our list with the premarital
stage because of the importance of differentiation from one’s family of origin
(the family into which a person was born). The goal of differentiation is to
develop a clear sense of self that enables one to relate to and interact with
others in interdependent ways. This sense of self is based on one’s identity.
That is, one’s true self is based on values and beliefs that ground human
action. DoS entails authentically living out one’s core beliefs while engaging
in meaningful relationships. Such a capacity for self-sufficiency leads to
deeper levels of connection. Note that differentiation does not negate
intimacy in favor of autonomy. It allows for intimacy and autonomy, for both
are intriguingly dependent on each other. The process of differentiation
begins in childhood, intensifies during late adolescence, and continues
throughout the life stages. Success in differentiation gives one the best
chances for achieving mature marital intimacy and forming an interdependent

TABLE 2 Family Development

Stage Major Task Initiating EventStage Major Task Initiating Event

Premarital Differentiating from family of origin Engagement

Marital dyad Adjusting to marital roles (establishing
a household)


Triad Adjusting to new child Birth/adoption of first child


Adjusting to new family members Birth/adoption of youngest child

Family with

Increasing flexibility in family system Children’s differentiation from the

Launching Accepting departure of family

Children initiating a move for college,
career, or marriage

Postlaunching Establishing new patterns and
embracing new members

Departure of last child from home

Retirement Accepting aging process and
regenerating meaning

End of employment

The most obvious and important transition in the family life cycle is
marriage. When two people marry, a new family begins in the form of a dyad.
The major developmental task involves the husband’s and the wife’s
adjustment to each other in their new roles as married rather than single
people. This interaction brings a differentiated marital unity. That is, each
spouse forms a meaningful, values-driven family based on their shared
beliefs. Each partner maintains this relationship while living authentically
according to their values. This unity forms the basis for engaging in other
social contexts, especially with in-laws.

There is an incredible agenda to be accomplished during this stage: setting
up a new household, dividing up household chores, creating a budget,
establishing work and career roles, meshing together sexually, developing
friendships and planning social events, making decisions about church
involvement and spiritual growth, and so on. On top of this, values and
meaning-making are also crucial. Partners need to identify the core beliefs
that will inform how the family engages with the social world. This is an
important time of establishing a sound foundation for future stages. The
couple will face questions about whether or when to have children, and some
will face infertility questions and decisions.

In view of the amount of energy and cooperation needed to accomplish the
items on this agenda, it is vital that the newly formed couple follow the

biblical mandate to “leave and cleave.” If they are to make these many
decisions, the couple must clearly define their united relationship. They need
encouragement and support from their respective families in this process, but
if the families interfere, the foundation will be weakened.

The third family stage, the triad, begins with the birth, adoption, or
fostering of the first child. Many couples benefit from having at least a few
years together to form the spousal union and accomplish the tasks required of
newlyweds before having children. The early arrival of a child can
prematurely shift the focus of attention from the tasks of the marriage
relationship to those of the parent-child relationship. When a child is born,
adopted, or fostered into a family, the existing system must make necessary
changes to welcome the new member. New boundaries will need to be
defined and established between members and subsystems; physical space
must be made to accommodate the new member.

When children reach adolescence, increased pressure is placed on the
family system to accommodate itself to greater demands for flexibility. At
this time, differentiation is especially pronounced because of the emotional
and physical separation taking place. The drive toward adulthood for the
adolescent generates internal pressure for the family to incorporate another
adult into the family. This pressure toward differentiation on behalf of the
adolescent encourages the family to expand its membership to include the
values and beliefs of the developing adolescent. It is also the time when
parents approach midlife, which often involves stress. Many challenges arise
when the stressful stages of adolescence and midlife occur simultaneously.
This may also be the time when a person builds a new family, made up of a
new spouse with the spouse’s children and/or one’s own.

The launching stage begins when children are hankering to make it on their
own. The parents must allow their children to leave the family of origin
while supporting this rather shaky interim period. It is crucial for parents to
be open to their adult child’s decisions, such as finding a place to live,
entering the military, choosing a college or training for a career, entering the
workforce, choosing a mate, taking a trip, and so on. In some cases, the adult
children are not ready to launch, and new rules for household living must be

The postlaunch stage brings new challenges, depending on one’s life
circumstances. Due to the expanded life expectancy in our society, the
postlaunch stage accounts for nearly half the lifespan of the typical family

system. This can be a period of renewed closeness and/or struggle between
husband and wife as they refocus their spousal relationship and develop
meaning without children in the home. It may be an exciting time of searching
for a job or pursuing a new career. Perhaps one is grappling with life after a
divorce, the death of a spouse, or life as a single parent. If children were
previously the major focus, it can be a period of disillusionment and
loneliness (the empty-nest syndrome). Another complication involves caring
for elderly parents and working through their deaths. Often there is time for
sibling relationship connection or reconciliation. Then, just when it looks as
if there is plenty of freedom to progress, spousal illness or financial
responsibilities pose a problem. Dealing with boomerang kids who return
home for one reason or another can become an unexpected focus. It is also a
time to plan retirement, make decisions about where to live and travel, and
prepare for a fixed-income lifestyle. A delightful aspect of this stage might
involve developing relationships with grandchildren.

An Integration of Systems and Development Theories
In this book, we use both the systems and the developmental perspective in
discussing family life. The family is a developing system that embraces the
arrival of new members and then releases them when they depart. It must be
able to tolerate and respond to the changing needs of its individual members
while providing a sense of belonging. At the same time, the family must be
responsive to the environment. It must maintain a stability that can provide a
firm foundation while remaining flexible enough to adapt to changing
circumstances. This is not an easy feat, especially with the enormous
demands made on the family in our postmodern urban society. A multitude of
extrafamilial systems (the work world, the educational system, the church,
clubs, and organizations) all contend with the family for the time and
devotion of family members. Only effective families can survive the
intrusiveness of our contemporary society.

To understand how to build effective families, we must begin with a
definition of what it takes to be an effective family. Table 3, which is based
on clinical and sociological literature, presents a summary of various
characteristics of strong and weak families. There are four major areas of
analysis: cohesion, adaptability, communication, and role structure. In each
area, two characteristics mark the resilient family.

TABLE 3 Characteristics of Effective and Ineffective

Effective Families Ineffective Families

Cohesion Individuation




Adaptability Flexibility




Communication Clear perception

Clear expression

Unclear perception

Unclear expression

Role Structure Agreement on roles

Clear generational boundaries

Conflict over roles

Diffused boundaries

Cohesion refers to the degree of emotional closeness existing in a family.

In fact, family cohesion has been found to be related to a number of positive
family outcomes, including child social competence (Leidy, Guerra, and Toro
2010). Additionally, young adult children transitioning to college tend to
have less depressive symptoms provided they have adequate cohesion with
their parents (Moreira and Telzer 2015). In effective families, the members
are differentiated (have a healthy degree of separateness) and have a strong
sense of belonging (a healthy degree of connection and interdependence).
There is mutual respect for the unique qualities and personalities of the other
family members. At the same time, there is family togetherness; members
belong to one another and realize they are interdependent in their family
unity. When family members are overly cohesive (fusion), family members
lack a sense of separate identity or individuality; each member is overly
dependent on the family or other members for identity, and individuals are
discouraged from developing values and beliefs in disagreement with the
family’s values. An example of fusion is when one member’s problem
devastates an entire family. The family members are so overly involved and

concerned that they lose perspective. In the process, the problem worsens,
and the chance of finding a solution lessens as they are pulled down together
as a group.

The opposite extreme is a very low level of cohesion, which can be
described as disengagement or emotional cutoff. In the disengaged family, the
life of each member rarely touches the other members in a meaningful way.
The members lack involvement, and they do not contribute to or cooperate
with one another. In times of personal crisis, the members of a disengaged
family are likely to be indifferent and uninvolved. In fact, they may not even
be aware of the problem because it hasn’t been shared. Here the system
cannot provide help or support for the hurting member. Each individual is too
busy or is uninterested in what is happening with the others, sometimes
refusing to acknowledge or even relate to one another.

Effective families, by contrast, have a degree of mutuality and involvement
that is supportive but not intrusive. This cohesion is based on the identity of
the family—its core meaning and values. Cohesion around this identity

allows each member to incorporate and expand the family identity while
maintaining membership in the family. This quality is lacking in both fused
and disengaged families, which are at the opposite ends of a continuum:
fused families do not allow individuals to expand or even question the
family’s identity, and disengaged families have no center around which
members orbit. In the middle of this continuum are resilient families, which
display an appropriate degree of cohesion and engagement.

For analytical purposes, individuation and mutuality can be discussed
separately, but in actuality they overlap in what we refer to as differentiation.
Figure 4 illustrates disengagement, differentiation, and fusion. The bold lines
in the figure represent the boundaries around the family, and the light lines
indicate the boundaries around each individual family member. In the
disengaged family (A), the lives of the individual members very rarely touch
one another. Cohesion is so low that each person lives in psychological
isolation from the others.

In the differentiated family (B), daily lives overlap, but each individual is
also involved in activities outside the family. Each member has a separate
life and identity and, therefore, is actively and meaningfully engaged with
others. Although a vital part of each member’s identity and support is found
within the family, much is also found beyond the family boundary.

In the fused family (C), the lives of all members are hopelessly entwined.
Each family member has little identity beyond the boundary of the family.
Even within the family, there is little space for a given member to be
independent of the others. A member of an enmeshed family who tries to
separate is likely to be labeled disloyal and to experience pressure from the
others to remain enmeshed.

Needless to say, the amount of cohesion varies from family to family and
from one life stage to another. For example, the degree of cohesion is higher
with young children when the emotional bonding between parent and child is
a primary focus. When children become teenagers and are working toward
self-identity, it is fitting that they separate emotionally in preparation for the
independence necessary to eventually leave home. But even when they
achieve suitable autonomy, they view themselves as part of—and keep close
ties with—the family throughout life.


A second important criterion for judging family life is adaptability.
Families that have too high a level of adaptability tend to be chaotic. They
lack the needed structure and predictability that provide stability and
security. At the opposite extreme, inflexible families have a very low degree
of adaptability and can be equally unbalanced. These families have created
such a tight, unbending system that they neither have nor give grace, a strength
especially needed during periods of change and transition in the family life

A balanced level of adaptability characterizes strong family life. The two
dimensions of flexibility and stability mark the orderly family. In resilient
families, there is a sense of orderliness that entails both flexibility and
structure. The difference between families in this particular area can be
observed in the dinner patterns. In the chaotic family, dinner is at no set time,
and family members come and go from the dining table whenever it is
convenient. In the inflexible family, it is understood that dinner is at

6:00 p.m. sharp and that time will never be altered. In the stable yet flexible
family, dinner is scheduled for a certain time because the members value
family togetherness, but exceptions are made when needed and determined by
the family as a whole.

David Olson (1988, 1998, 2011) has combined cohesion and adaptability
in the Circumplex Model, in which he describes balanced and unbalanced
family systems. The families at the center of figure 5 are balanced. They
experience satisfying degrees of cohesion and adaptability. The four corners
represent four types of unbalanced or extreme family systems, combinations
of disconnectedness or inordinate connectedness with either inflexibility or
excessive flexibility. Families that experience life in these extremes need
better balance and more appropriate levels of cohesion and adaptability in
their relationships. It is important to note that the balanced category includes
a broad range of family styles. There is room for a variety of styles. The
family needs to determine what is good for itself according to cultural
values, input from all family members, age appropriateness, and what is best
for the unique family members as well as the unique family system. Families
at the extremes have the most difficulty satisfying both individual and family
needs. Validation and suggested usefulness of the Circumplex Model can be
found in an article by Olson (2011). When couples and family members are
made aware of the disadvantages of the extreme categories of relating, they
can make necessary changes that bring a more satisfying balance to their

There are probably more self-help books on family communication than on

any other topic. Because communication contributes in such an important way
to effective family life, this is probably as it should be. The dynamics of
good communication boil down to clarity of perception and clarity of
expression. Clarity of perception pertains especially to the receiver of
communication. It involves good listening skills, the ability to pick up on the
sender’s intonations and body language, and the willingness to ask for
clarification when needed. In effective families, members have empathic
skills, which include the ability to put oneself in the other’s shoes and to
understand what it feels like to be in that person’s situation. This enables the
communication to be on target so the receiver can make a response that helps
the communicator feel understood and keeps him or her connected.

The more obvious dimension of good communication—clarity of
expression—pertains to the sender. In resilient families, members are able to
communicate feelings, opinions, wishes, and desires in a forthright and
unambiguous manner. Clarity in sending messages is often a result of
congruency between the person’s words and body language. Care in this area
goes far to ensure effective communication.

Role Structure
Each family member has a role to play in the family. The family as a whole

usually defines this role. In a family with two parents and two children,
every member has at least two roles: the adults take the roles of spouse and
parent, while the children take the roles of child and sibling. And, of course,
each person has roles outside the family (student, employee, etc.). One
challenge is that roles sometimes become one’s identity: who the person is in
the family consists only of what they do in the family. That is why cybernetics
is important but is not the most important aspect of family life.

Higher levels of role conflict are a common characteristic in less effective
families. Contention arises when the role expectations of one member
conflict with the role expectations of another member. For example, conflict
is evident if both spouses want to work outside the home and have the other
be totally responsible for the housekeeping and childcare. The expectations
cause great distress and provide little room for compromise or negotiation.
Highly effective families, in contrast, are characterized by expressing and
negotiating role expectations. In the case cited above, for example, spouses
strive toward a decision that works for both of them. They decide to share
responsibility in the home in a way that allows both to be fulfilled by work
outside the home. Note that the issue is not who plays a particular role but
whether there is mutual agreement about the roles.

A second dimension in regard to role structure concerns the generational
boundaries in the family. Strong families are characterized by clear
boundaries around the parental subsystem and clear boundaries around the
sibling subsystem. However, these boundaries are too diffuse when one
sibling begins to play the role of parent to a brother or sister. Of course, in
the single-parent home or when Mom and Dad are away, the oldest child may
be put in charge. However, this role is relinquished readily when a parent
returns home. When the oldest child is saddled with this role and continues to

parent the younger siblings when the adults are present, it becomes a
problem. This is a blurring of generational boundaries.

Boundaries in effective families are clear but permeable. This means that
family members have the freedom to take on different roles. For example, a
parent can become playful and childish at times, while children may
sometimes act as nurturers to their parents. For a parent or a child to
occasionally break out of a fixed role is a sign of flexibility. A mother may
playfully stand on the coffee table and perform for her children, or a child
may comfort the parent who comes home discouraged and needs
consideration and support. Though these are not their dominant roles, family
members have the freedom to take them on occasionally.

Flexibility in roles and permeable boundaries are important, but a problem
arises when generational boundaries are crossed. For example, it is
confusing when one of the marriage partners assumes the role of parent to the
other or when a child becomes a parent to the parent. In a single-parent
home, it is quite natural for the oldest child to take on extra responsibility to
provide the support needed. However, the single parent must be careful not
to overburden the child with adult responsibilities, because taking on
inappropriate responsibility infringes on the child’s sibling relationships.
Another example is siblings who jump out of their age-appropriate roles and
either regress to a younger role or assume an unsuitably older role in their
sibling relationships. In another scenario, grandparents may attempt to parent
grandchildren, thereby taking over the role that rightfully belongs to the
parents. This may occur because the grandparents desire control or because
their own adult child has abdicated responsibility. But whatever the case, it
can disrupt the relationships among family members.

The biblical basis for family relationships presented in chapter 1 combined
with the social-scientific developmental systems approach laid out in this
chapter provide the overarching framework for an integrated view of
marriage and family relationships. The initial task of integration is delicate.
Our Christian presuppositions include values and biases that influence our
response to the social-science literature. Likewise, our social-science
presuppositions will be present as we attempt to understand how Scripture
applies to the contemporary family. We encourage the reader to join with us

in the demanding task of integrating biblical and social-science knowledge
about the family.


The Foundation of Family


Marriage continues to be the foundation on which the family is established.
Family therapist Virginia Satir (1983) refers to the marital partners as the
architects of the family. There is certainly deep concern about the state of
marriage today and what needs to be done to ensure permanency. The
negative impact of marital fragility on our children and our society is
increasingly evident. In addition, research indicates that individuals who
marry benefit from this relationship in terms of physical and mental health
when compared to persons who remain single (Carr and Springer 2010). The
crucial question is what must be done to strengthen marriage across the life

Chapter 3 focuses on the coming together of two individuals and their
respective families. The couple who forms a family has already experienced
family life prior to their relationship. Each person brings with him or her
recollections and experiences from their family of origin that have greatly
impacted him or her. The saying that there are “six in the marriage bed” is a
way of alerting spouses that each brings a set of parents into their union.

The marriage ceremony proclaims to family, friends, and members of the
community that a new union has been formed. The reception provides an
opportunity for these groups of people to be introduced to one another in
anticipation of their support for the couple. Undoubtedly, the wedding day

can be a stressful time for families. Disparate emotions related to separation,
endings, and beginnings acknowledge a change in family dynamics. When
both families approve and support the union, the “leaving and cleaving”
aspects give the couple the best chance to flourish and establish a firm
foundation. Unfortunately, lacking family support means the couple is more
likely to start out on shaky ground as they try to achieve a stable marriage.

Chapter 4 is devoted to the process of establishing a firm marriage. The
essential supports in a solid foundation include the strengths of the two
families of origin, the character strengths that each spouse brings into the
marriage, the strength of the relationship itself, and the strength that comes
from friends and community. These sources of support are all crucial in
establishing a solid foundation. And in Christian homes, of course, the
cornerstone is Christ.

Although the foundation is established early in marriage, it is important to
recognize that the marital dyad is a dynamic and growing relationship. There
is no such thing as a static marriage, because, like any living organism,
marriage is in either a state of growth or a state of decline. Chapter 5
presents the constituent elements of a marriage relationship that is based on
and grows in accordance with biblical principles.


Mate Selection and

Romance and Reality

Western society has been based on the nuclear family, and the foundation of
that family is marriage. This means that the beginning of the family life cycle
occurs when a new family is formed, especially by marriage. All societies
have a process whereby unmarried people come to be married. This process
is called mate selection. While the beginning phase of marriage is technically
the first stage of family life, mate selection is a necessary preliminary.
Understanding mate selection is an important starting point for understanding
all other stages in the life cycle of the family. The traditional understanding
of mate selection as a transition to marriage has become much more complex
as a result of premarital practices like “‘hooking up,’ internet dating, visiting
relationships, cohabitation, marriage following childbirth, and serial
partnering” (Sassler 2010, 557). Given the changes and prevalence of
cohabitation, some scholars are choosing to eliminate “mate selection” in
favor of descriptions such as “relationship formation and development” (see
Hadden, Agnew, and Tan 2018).

Few developments related to family life have been as dramatic and
controversial as the rise in premarital cohabitation. The majority of
marriages in North America and European countries today are preceded by
the couples living together as sexual partners sharing a household.
Unfortunately, cohabitation as a precursor of marriage is a significant
predictor of divorce. Some evidence suggests that for the first year of
marriage, cohabitation is associated with increased satisfaction. However,
over the long term, cohabitation is associated with increased likelihood of

divorce (Rosenfeld and Roesler 2019). Our presentation of the mate-
selection process will include the consideration of whether cohabitation is a
step toward marriage or an alternative to marriage.

Mate Selection in Traditional Cultures
In the United States, selecting a mate is usually an individual matter.
Unmarried people date and then choose the person they will marry. Contrary
to popular opinion, this approach is actually a fairly recent development. In
most societies throughout history, selecting a mate was a decision made
solely by the parents, whose age, experience, and cultural heritage brought
the wisdom to make this important decision. Often, these arranged marriages
included neighbors and communities in the mate-selection process as well.

In societies that practice parental arrangement, mate selection is more a
link between two extended families than a uniting of two individuals. There
is great variability across cultures in the mate-selection process, extending
along a continuum from parent-arranged marriage at one end to total
individual free choice at the other. In societies where marriages are arranged
by parents, the two dominant approaches are the bride-price system and the
dowry system. The bride-price system is the norm in subsistence economies
where the labor performed by women is greatly valued and the daughter is
seen as the property of her father. In exchange for the bride, the groom’s
family gives her family various material goods. The dowry system is the
norm in agricultural societies, where organized family units live and work on
their own property. A dowry consists of goods that parents give to their
unmarried daughter to make her an attractive commodity on the marriage
market. In such a system, the wife brings the dowry with her into the

These approaches to mate selection are associated with important
economic aspects of the family. We will discuss some of these trends later in
this book. For now, we note that the family in traditional societies played an
important economic role (Frederick and Dunbar 2019; Sweet 2014). The
family in these societies was an economic producer, and children would be
taught the family’s business, making them productive members of the
community. Additionally, arranged marriages would benefit both families as
they would be joined via the new marriage. In the maintenance of the family
and community, arranged marriages played an economic, not emotional, role.

In this postmodern world, the modernization process has challenged the
tradition of parent-arranged marriages. Rapid advancements in technology
have driven profound changes in the workplace, which resulted in a
transformation in the family (Frederick and Dunbar 2019; Lee 1998). This
transformation of economics and the family is referred to as industrialization.
As a result of industrialization, families have been transformed from centers
of economic production to centers of consumption. More time away from the
family and going to work has allowed for individuals to maximize personal
choice and benefit. As societies increasingly value individual freedom, mate
selection becomes a personal choice instead of a parental one. A by-product
of accepting these modern trends has been the gradual erosion of parent-
arranged marriages and the emergence of romantic love as the basis for

Young people in traditional societies are increasingly exposed to a
Western view of romantic love through the mass media. Many of these youth
are quite familiar with American and Western European movies, popular
music, and magazines that glorify romantic love. When youth in traditional
societies begin to embrace the concept of romantic love, they do not
immediately challenge the time-honored mate-selection procedure, but on an
unconscious level these new ideas begin to undermine the old ways.
Acceptance of these new ideas occurs in a sequential order: (1) two people
should be romantically in love before they marry; (2) only the two people
directly involved can determine if romantic love is present in their
relationship; and (3) romantic love is most effectively cultivated within a
social environment where unmarried youth can become acquainted with
members of the opposite sex through dating.

In response to these modern notions of mate selection, parents may be
willing to consider the opinion of their children and even seek their approval
of a selected mate. They may even allow a courtship time for the young
people to become acquainted and fall in love. However, most often these
young people gradually assert themselves regarding their future mate and
demand a say in the matter. This changes the entire process. The Western
value that compatibility of personality should be a factor in mate selection is
adopted. Thus, unmarried youth want the freedom to become acquainted with
potential partners for the purpose of determining whether they are in love and
compatible. It is at this stage that dating enters the picture. Dating is often a
major point of contention between parents and children because it signals

that control of the mate-selection process is passing from the hands of the
parents to the hands of the unmarried youth. When two unmarried young
people believe that they are in love and want to marry, the parental
arrangement will be only a formality. In time, perhaps over several
generations in traditional cultures, the formality of parent-arranged marriages
will most likely cease to exist.

Mate Selection and the Role of Romantic Love
As we transition to discussing mate selection in postmodern cultures, we
will focus on mate selection as a prerogative of the two people directly
involved. In our postmodern era, many people believe finding a mate is
primarily about personal attraction and romantic love. The popular internet
matchmaking business also emphasizes personality compatibility as a major
factor, so taking personality tests, indicating preferences, writing
autobiographies, and viewing photographs are all part of the mate-finding

Although some would argue that romantic love is not unique to Western
cultures, the concept of romantic love is generally thought to have had its
beginnings in European societies during the eleventh century, when “courtly
love” became fashionable among the privileged class. Courtly love usually
involved a romantic relationship between a married aristocratic lady and an
unmarried knight or troubadour. The concept of courtly love introduced the
element of affection into male/female relationships. Affection was uncommon
in most marriages of the day because they were primarily economic
arrangements. By the sixteenth century, courtly love had changed to include
sexual involvement between the lady of nobility and her paramour. The
emerging middle class of European society during the sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries came to value romantic love yet held to faithfulness as
a value in marriage. This dilemma was solved when the love object changed
from a married person to a single person. Thus, during the seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries, parent-arranged marriage and romantic love existed
side by side. By the twentieth century, it became proper and somewhat of a
formality for a man to ask for parental permission to marry the daughter.

Romantic love and erotic love are very similar. We can understand their
relationship in three ways. First are feelings of longing for the other person
and the desire to be sexually and psychologically intimate; second, the

beloved is idealized and regarded as necessary for one’s happiness; and
finally, preoccupation with the relationship results in an overestimation of the
other person.

In fact, romantic love leads to rather dramatic changes in one’s character.
Studies suggest that an area of the brain known as the caudate is associated
with romantic passion. Neuroscientists have produced brain images of this
fevered activity prior to long-term commitment. Brain imaging reveals that
pictures or thoughts of the object of one’s desire are the only things that can
“light up” certain areas of the brain. Based on these findings, Helen Fisher
and her colleagues (2002) suggest that what we call romantic love develops
over three sequential stages, beginning with lust (sexual drive), then
attraction, and finally emotional attachment. Such “falling in love” is a
romantic attachment that differs from one’s relationship with family or
friends and changes one physiologically as the body increases the production
of hormones and chemical substances known as peptides, vasopressin, and
oxytocin (Fisher et al. 2002). Romantic love is similar to drives such as
hunger, thirst, or drug craving rather than to emotional states such as
excitement or affection. During this intense time, emotions may shift from
euphoria to anger to anxiety and become even more intense when love is
withdrawn or one is rejected. As a relationship deepens, the neural activity
associated with romantic love alters to long-term attachment.

Some have argued that romantic—or what is better considered erotic or
lustful—love should not be the sole basis for mate selection. Rational
decision-making and identification of other loving behaviors is important to
this process. Aaron Beck (1989), the father of cognitive therapy, wrote a
book called Love Is Never Enough, emphasizing the cognitive aspects of
being in love and how these cognitions either increase or decrease marital
satisfaction. Christians have traditionally understood three dimensions of
love from ancient Greek culture: agape, philia, and eros. C. S. Lewis has
written eloquently about these dimensions in The Four Loves (1960a). The
self-giving agape corresponds to commitment; philia, brotherly friendship,
corresponds to soul-mate connection; and eros, deep desire to know and be
known by a specific person, corresponds to passion and desire for that

Using these three dimensions, four types of love relationships can be
conceptualized. The first, complete love, embraces an equal portion of all
three loves: commitment/agape, intimacy/philia, and passion/eros. In most

cases, passion is likely to dominate at the beginning of a relationship,
followed by a surge in emotional and friendship intimacy, and finally,
commitment. While all three dimensions of love are important for a Christian
marriage, it is a commitment to the other person that provides an environment
in which intimacy and passion can grow to full maturity. The ideal
relationship exhibits equal amounts of commitment, intimacy, and passion
prior to marriage.

In self-giving love—a second type of love relationship—
commitment/agape is dominant. In many societies (including those with
parent-arranged marriages), the resolution of a couple to be faithful and self-
giving in their love is the most desired prerequisite for marriage. It is
noteworthy that marriages based on faithful commitment end in divorce far
less frequently than those based solely on romantic love. However, this fact
should not imply that parent-arranged marriages are more likely to achieve
the Christian ideal than love-based marriages. For while intimacy and
passion may develop in arranged marriages, the familial structure and
cultural values promoted in traditional societies may also hinder such
development. The commitment that keeps these marriages together may be
less a self-giving commitment to one’s spouse than a commitment to the
extended family and community. When marriages lack a personal covenant, it
is unlikely that the spouses will achieve true intimacy.

A third type of love relationship, friendship love, is when emotional
intimacy/philia is dominant. Although few relationships move into marriage
on the basis of friendship alone, it is an essential factor in a good marital
relationship. Many people describe their spouse as their best friend, an
indication of being an emotional companion to one’s mate. Others complain
that the friendship is so strong they find it difficult to feel passionate with
their partner, and it compromises the sexual passion.

In infatuation love, a fourth and final type of love relationship,
passion/eros is dominant. Some relationships get off to a passionate start:
two people connect on the basis of immediate attraction and sexual response,
which may lead to an impulsive marriage. Such relationships do not
ordinarily have the emotional core and stability of commitment to sustain the
marriage. But since passion by itself cannot carry a relationship over time,
infatuation often burns itself out before a couple decides to marry.

Theories of Mate Selection
In view of the flexibility and complexity of the modern courtship system,
family researchers have been challenged to explain the mate-selection
process. One of the most studied aspects of present-day mate selection is the
degree to which people choose mates who are similar or different from them.
If we believe both clichés, “like marries like” and “opposites attract,” there
will be similarities and differences in the couple. In this section, we will
describe several theories of mate selection.

“Like Marries Like” Theory
Studies have shown that endogamous factors, or similar social

backgrounds, are key components in mate selection. These factors include
race, ethnicity, religion, education, occupation, and geographical proximity. It
should be noted that some of these factors directly relate to the opportunity to
get to know another person. Close contact in the workplace, for example,
affords the opportunity to view someone as a potential marriage partner. For
this reason, it is fairly common for people in the same occupation to marry. It
has also been shown that homogamous factors, or similar personal
characteristics and interests, are of importance. Included here are religious
and political beliefs, moral values, hobbies, intelligence, height, weight, and
physical appearance. Another important finding is that most people seem to
marry partners with a similar amount of ego strength; that is, a person with
low self-esteem tends to marry a person with low self-esteem, and a person
with high self-esteem will marry another person with high self-esteem.
Internet matchmaking sites that take these important factors into account are
more likely to yield good matches than those that rely on more superficial
indicators, such as photographs or autobiographies.

Bowen Family Systems Theory
In chapter 1 and 2, we introduced the concept of differentiation of self

(DoS), which is part of Bowen Family Systems Theory (BFST). Bowen
(2004) developed a clear understanding of the role of DoS in mate selection.
For mate-selection purposes, Bowen theorized that individuals would marry
those who have similar levels of DoS. This is based in part on the idea that
individuals would have similar propensities to manage anxiety and maintain
certain relationship roles. As marital relationships have a high survival

level, meaning that marriages perform important psychological functions,
DoS allows individuals to cope with anxiety while maintaining these crucial
relationships. The research on this aspect of Bowen’s theory is mixed at best
(Rodríguez-González et al. 2016). There have been four studies that have
demonstrated a connection between levels of DoS and mate selection (Bartle
1993; Kear 1978; Rovers et al. 2007; Tuason and Friedlander 2000) and four
studies that do not support this connection (Day, St. Clair, and Marshall
1997; Lal and Bartle-Haring 2011; Peleg and Yitzhak 2011; Skowron 2000).

Theoretically, BFST understands that as individuals develop in their
families of origin, DoS mediates the relationship between maintaining one’s
relationships to others, especially one’s parents, and anxiety. One’s level of
differentiation is highly influential on one’s ability to manage anxiety while
engaging in relationships with others. In families with higher levels of DoS,
individuals are able to maintain developmentally appropriate responsibility
—that is, children learn to feed themselves while parents provide the meal
and maintain their relationships with their families. When anxiety arises,
rigid relational patterns emerge in an attempt to manage anxiety. These rigid
relational patterns demand that individuals maintain relationships with
parents at the expense of personal autonomy and development. As an
example, a child may develop and maintain more chronic behavioral issues
that function to distract family members from developing peer relationships
based on mutuality and interdependence. That is, chronic behavioral issues
function in relationships so that parents and children maintain rigid
relationship patterns characterized by over- and underfunctioning. These
rigid patterns prevent both the parents and children from developing
relationships based on mutuality and interdependence. When disagreements
arise between parents, anxiety increases, which is disseminated throughout
the family. The child responds symptomatically, creating a distraction from
the differentiation work the parental partners need to engage in. When this
child leaves his or her family of origin, BFST posits that a spouse with
similar relational patterns and lower levels of DoS will be sought.

Personality Theory
Personality characteristics have been an increasing focus for

understanding mate-selection preferences. This research has highlighted three
sets of characteristics (Fletcher et al. 2004): (1) warmth/trustworthiness,
(2) attractiveness/vitality, and (3) status/resources. Research suggests that

trustworthiness is an important factor in mate selection for both males and
females (Fletcher et al. 2004; Valentine et al. 2020). Women tend to
emphasize warmth/trustworthiness and resources as compared to men.
Attractiveness/vitality are important characteristics for short-term
relationships (hook-ups) more for men than women. For long-term
relationships, attractiveness/vitality are not important characteristics.

Filter Theory
In their classic work, Alan Kerckhoff and Keith Davis (1962) have

suggested that endogamy, homogamy, and complementary needs are three
different filters through which a potential mate must pass (see fig. 7). The
first and broadest filter in the mate-selection process is endogamy, as most
people date and establish relationships with individuals from similar
backgrounds. The second filter is homogamy, which is narrower and more
selective. Only those people who have similar interests and characteristics
pass through this filter. Casual dating allows individuals to discover which
potential partners have compatible interests and characteristics. The last
filter, complementary needs, is the narrowest. Whereas a number of potential
mates may pass through the endogamous and homogamous filters, only a few
will have the exact personality traits to meet one’s most pressing needs.

Marriage Markets Theory
Marriage markets refers to the idea that there is a discrete number of

potential partners in a given population. This population has traditionally
been defined in terms of neighborhoods or communities. In other words,
marriage markets are geographically and demographically homogeneous
places where individuals find mates. Before the advent of the internet,
individuals would generally seek mates that were geographically close
(Rosenfeld and Thomas 2012). The thinness or thickness of these markets
would be determined by the numbers of potential partners and the selectivity
of mate preferences. The advent of the internet has moved these markets from
local to international in focus, making one’s internet search skills an
important variable in identifying potential mates. Of course, geographical
proximity is still important. After all, individuals will need to physically
meet potential mates at some point in the process.

Other Theories
Furnham (2009) noted a gender difference in what is valued in the mate-

selection process. In a study based on 250 adults in their early twenties, he
reported that “females rated intelligence, stability, conscientiousness, height,
education, social skills, and political/religious compatibility significantly
higher than males, whereas males rated good looks higher than females”

Wenzel and Emerson (2009, 341) report that socially anxious individuals
believe others are less likely to select them when compared to socially
nonanxious individuals. McGee and Shevin (2009, 67) found that persons
with a good sense of humor are perceived as more attractive as potential
mates. Montoya (2008, 1315) indicates that “attractive perceivers expected
to date more attractive targets while unattractive perceivers expected to date
less attractive targets.”

A Christian Perspective on Mate Selection
Taken together, the various sociological theories of mate selection comport
well with the theological model of family relationships that we presented in
chapter 1. This will become clear as we describe what mate selection would
be like if it developed according to the principles suggested in our
theological model: commitment, grace, empowerment, and intimacy.

At the beginning of a dating relationship, there is a minimal degree of
commitment between the partners. With an increased degree of commitment
comes an increased sense of trust and security. Commitment being the
foundation for the relationship, it is important to consider what is being
committed to. In other words, mate selection should focus on the end result of
marriage as opposed to a more culturally consonant understanding of dating
and relationship formation as a way of meeting personal needs and avoiding

This means that human initiative and decision-making are foundational for
mate selection. Marriage requires something more than human love and
desire. Bonhoeffer (1997b, 41) describes weddings as a place where people
can be “celebrating their triumph [in getting married]” because “the course
[they] have taken at the outset is one that [they] have chosen for
[themselves].” The wedding is a place where God blesses the marriage so
that it can persevere throughout all of life’s challenges. God blesses a

marriage so that “it is not [their] love that sustains the marriage, but from
now on, the marriage that sustains [their] love” (Bonhoeffer 1997b, 43). With
the goal of marriage in mind, individuals should assess their ability to
commit to a specific partner in covenantal terms. The point here is that the
marriage becomes the covenantal context for living out one’s identity with
another. Making the covenant of marriage entails embarking on a lifelong
relationship that sustains and transforms each partner into a one-flesh reality
(see Gen. 2:22–25).

As each partner increasingly commits toward establishing a covenantal
relationship, grace can be expected to grow proportionately. Grace is
experienced through acceptance and appreciation by the partner. The
presence of grace promotes a feeling of security because differences are
respected and because there is an atmosphere of forgiveness whenever
failure occurs. Partners share more of their characteristics, desires, and
dreams as they enter deeper into commitment with one another. The partners
are increasingly valued and accepted for who they are and not for what they
might be or do for the other.

Out of grace emerges a mutual empowerment process. In the early stages
of dating, the couple may operate on a quid pro quo basis (something for
something), with each attempting to have personal needs met through the
relationship. Where there is a minimal degree of commitment and
acceptance, partners are likely to think more in terms of what they can get
from a relationship rather than what they can contribute to it. The
empowerment model is hopeful in that it shows that love can be elevated
above self-centered exchange. A depth of commitment and grace can imbue
each partner with a genuine desire to empower by both giving to and
receiving from the other. This involves being interested in the growth of the
other person and finding ways to encourage the partner to reach his or her
greatest potential and thus to be all that God created him or her to be.

Some relationships are not empowering but rather are based on mutual
dependency. When couples are overly dependent on each other, they tend to
demand that the partner meet their every need. Codependency is the exact
opposite of differentiation as noted in trinitarian theology, where
distinctiveness and unity are intermingled. Differentiated partners are
responsible to God for their lives and therefore bring unique gifts to the
couple relationship. In other words, each partner has based his or her identity
on Christ, who accepts and values them. Christian identity facilitates a

marriage covenant between partners and God, and grace, empowerment, and
intimacy deepen. Partners act in their relationship out of strength rather than
deficit. They are able to ask for what they would like without demanding the
partner provide it. Being centered in Christ gives them confidence that God
is the best resource to guide, empower, nurture, inspire, and soothe. They
look to God for personal growth but also openly share and offer themselves
to each other in that process. When spouses cling to each other for dear life
in a raging river, they perpetuate an enabling system in which they both are
likely to drown together. But when sufficiently differentiated, they are a
strong resource for each other so that when one is struggling, the partner is
standing on solid ground to extend a helping hand.

Ecclesiastes 4:9–12 refers to this idea that two sufficient persons are
better than one alone. Because they bring their unique strengths to the union,
they can be there for each other rather than be dragged down in an overly
dependent relationship. “Two are better than one, because they have a good
reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one
who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie
together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one
might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not
quickly broken.” Being united in unique strengths and making God the center
of their relationship (a threefold cord) presents a wonderful image of marital
partnership and union.

We live in a society that encourages people to think that they can have
instant gratification. This mentality carries over into the dating relationship,
where people look for instant sexual intimacy. The prevalence of an instant
sexual gratification ethic has resulted in the emergence of the concept of
“hooking up,” defined as intimate physical behavior outside of a committed
relationship. Hooking up seems to be less about dating in order to get to
know the other and more about sexual fulfillment. Research on hooking up
among college students reports that it can result in both positive and negative
experiences, “with women being more likely to report it as a negative
experience than men” (Owen and Fincham 2011). Negative emotional
reactions were related to “reports of depressive symptoms and feelings of
loneliness,” while positive emotional relations had to do with hope for the
possibility of a committed relationship (321). This finding seems to point out
the importance of the biblical wisdom that sexual involvement is best when
part of a committed relationship.

In our theological model, intimacy entails a deep level of knowing and
being known through understanding, listening, caring, and sharing. It is not
only a physical or sexual encounter but a deeply felt process of becoming
known. Sexual intimacy is one of many facets of intimacy, and it is certainly
not the most important one. Accordingly, intimacy builds on commitment,
grace, and empowerment. Using these foundational biblical concepts, people
who trust the commitment, who experience acceptance and forgiveness
throughout dating, and who find their partner interested in and actively
affirming empowerment during the dating process will feel safe enough to be
more honest and revealing. They are willing to take off their masks and resist
the temptation to put on pretenses. They share a desire truly to know each
other. The couple is more interested in a relationship with the other person
than in the mere pleasure that person can give in a superficial sexual
encounter. Intimacy of this nature leads to deeper levels of commitment,
grace, and empowerment.

Certain beliefs about mate selection, such as “love is enough” or “there is
a one and only for me,” are a serious hindrance in discerning God’s will. A
research study has identified seven such constraining beliefs that limit,
inhibit, hinder, or perpetuate exaggerated or false expectations about mate
selection (Cobb, Larson, and Watson 2003). The beliefsthat “there is a one
and only, that love is enough, that cohabiting before marriage will improve
chances of being happily married, that I will have complete assurance, that
the match will make a perfect relationship, that choosing should be easy and
effortless, and that one should choose someone to marry whose personal
characteristics are the opposite of their own” seem to adversely affect mate
selection. These myths blur the clarity of vision needed when choosing a
mate. The study discovered that “men and women were found to be equally
susceptible to constraining beliefs about mate selection, with the exception of
the One and Only belief, the Idealization belief, and the Complete Assurance
belief, all of which women appear to endorse to a slightly greater degree”

Cohabitation: A Path toward or Alternative to Marriage?
Virtually all industrialized societies in the last fifty years have experienced a
dramatic increase in cohabitation. This increase is true for premarital
cohabitation and cohabitation following divorce or the death of a spouse. In

the United States, cohabitation has increased seventeenfold between 1960
and 2010—from about 450,000 people in 1960 to more than 7.5 million
today (Wilcox 2011, 75). Most marriages and remarriages taking place today
will be preceded by a cohabiting arrangement.

Our goal in this section is to develop a Christian perspective on the topic.
We draw on existing research—mainly self-reported responses to survey
research questionnaires or interviews—to understand this phenomenon more
fully. We consider the reasons people choose to cohabit and examine the
impact of this trend. We offer a response to cohabitation that is informed by
both biblical and social-scientific literature. We begin by addressing the
question of whether premarital cohabitation is an alternative to marriage or
a step toward marriage.

Is Cohabitation a Step toward Marriage?
Actually, premarital cohabitation is not a new idea, for as early as 1966

anthropologist Margaret Mead proposed a two-step plan for single adults.
The first step, trial marriage, would be a time for the couple to determine
whether they were compatible; and the second step would be to legalize the
union when the couple decided to have children. A few years later, Scriven
(1968) proposed a three-stage plan whereby a relationship progressed from
sexual satisfaction, to social security, to sensible spawning. The idea was
for couples to establish contracts for stated periods of time and periodically
renew them as they saw fit. In 1997, McRae surmised that cohabitation
would serve as a type of marriage preparation, a stage that occurs between
courtship and marriage. He reasoned that cohabiting would give the couple a
chance to test the degree of compatibility, and if their personalities “fit” they
would move to marriage. This idea of cohabitation as being a trial for
marriage persists in the literature today (Rosenfeld and Roesler 2019).

What Does Culture Have to Do with It?
In terms of acceptability of cohabitation in various cultures, Heuveline and

Timberlake (2004) found that cohabitation had different meanings with
respect to family formation, values, and cultural sanctions. They describe a
continuum of attitudes, based on their study of cohabitation in sixteen
industrial societies. At one end of the spectrum, cohabitation is marginal
because it is culturally rejected or even penalized in these societies.

Societies with a more moderate view may accept cohabitation as a prelude
to marriage but expect the legalization of marriage prior to bringing children
into the home. More open cultures distinguish cohabitation as an alternative
to marriage or a stage in the marital process;and at the other end of the
spectrum are cultures that give total acceptance (northern European
countries), where cohabitation is actually indistinguishable from
marriagewith certain legal rights.

North America is moving toward the more open aspects of this continuum,
where cohabitation is considered an alternative lifestyle or even alternative
to marriage. In the United States, age seems to make a difference in that
“older cohabiters are more likely to view their relationship as an alternative
to marriage, whereas younger cohabiters view their relationship as a prelude
to it” (King and Scott 2005, 271). Since 1970, we have seen an increase in
cohabitation and a decrease in the social stigma associated with it
(Rosenfeld and Roesler 2019). In general, the more accepting a society’s
attitude toward cohabitation, the more cohabitation will be defined as an
alternative to marriage (Perelli-Harris and Gassen 2012).

Making the Decision to Cohabit
In an effort to answer the question about why couples choose to cohabit,

Huang et al. (2011, 876) report that the primary motives for cohabiting
include “spending time together, sharing expenses, and evaluating
compatibility.” Many couples admittedly decide to cohabit for the
convenience, companionship, and exclusive sexual relationship with a
chosen partner, regardless of whether there is an intention to marry or not.

Since the role of romantic love was addressed previously, we note only

that what distinguishes modern forms of relationship coupling from the past
is the greater freedom young adults have to pursue sexual/romantic
relationships without parental involvement. Marriage is no longer an
economic arrangement, controlled and arranged by parents, but a participant-
run system in which the concept of love drives the relationship. A decoupling
of economics, sex, and commitment from marriage has led to a growing
number who choose to cohabit and delay marriage (the median age for first
marriage now stands at 28.1 for women and 30.5 for men, according to the

US Census Bureau). Copen et al. (2012) note, “If entry into any type of union,
marriage or cohabitation, is taken into account, then the timing of a first union
occurs at roughly the same point in the life course as marriage did in the
past.” In other words, relationship unions occur when individuals complete
education and or job-training expectations and are ready to join the
workforce, while individuals have greater freedom to engage in less-
committed sexual and emotional relationships allowing them to fulfill their
emotional needs while completing education and job training.

By its very nature, a cohabiting relationship is one in which commitment is

ambiguous. Popenoe and Whitehead (2002) believe a high commitment ethic
is necessary for marital stability, so they warn against cohabitation for that
very reason. Marriage researcher and Christian therapist Scott Stanley and
colleagues (2006) describe cohabiting as “relationship inertia” in which
cohabiters are “sliding” rather than “deciding” on a marital partner. He
concludes that men who live with women they eventually marry are not as
committed to the union as those who did not live with their mates before

Smock (2000) discovered that cohabiting men and women differ in the
way they conceptualize commitment. She found that women tend to perceive
cohabitation as a step prior to marriage, whereas men are inclined to view
cohabitation as a step prior to making a commitment. When it comes to
drawbacks of cohabiting, Huang et al. (2011) found that “men [are] more
concerned about loss of freedom, while women are more concerned with
delays in marriage,” pointing out that gender norms about relationship
intimacy govern cohabiting unions (876).

Rhoades, Stanley, and Markman (2006, 553) report that “men who
cohabited with their spouse before engagement were less dedicated than men
who cohabited only after engagement or not at all before marriage,” and after
marriage, these husbands were “less dedicated to their wives than their
wives were to them.” These researchers wonder if some couples who
otherwise would not have married end up married due to what they refer to
as “the inertia of cohabitation.” In other words, the couple simply remains in
a relationship regardless of quality or fit. The obvious implication is that
persons do not make their expectations about marriage explicit prior to
cohabiting, and that becomes a problem after they marry.

In a representative sample of 1,294 unmarried individuals comparing
cohabiting with noncohabiting (dating) relationships, Rhoades, Stanley, and
Markman (2012, 348) found that initially “cohabiting relationships were
characterized by more commitment, lower satisfaction, more negative
communication, and more physical aggression than dating [noncohabiting]
relationships.” These authors summarize that the transition from dating to
cohabitation is declining “in most indices of relationship quality as well as
in interpersonal commitment after cohabitation began, though the frequency of
sex increased temporarily.”


While these studies are quite bleak when it comes to marital outcomes, a
couple’s or partner’s view and understanding of a unique cohabitation
agreement is certainly an important factor in whether they will end up in a
stable marriage. It is probably wise to recognize that for some couples,
cohabitation is an alternative to marriage and for others it is considered a
stage in the relationship that leads to marriage. Johnson and colleagues
(2011) describe the role that dedication and constraints play in choosing to
marry after cohabiting. On the more positive side, partners may have higher
levels of commitment to the relationship. On the other hand, there may be
constraints that deter the dissolution of the relationship (children or a joint-
owned business). Both factors influence the decision to marry after
cohabiting as well as the decision to dissolve the relationship.

Does Premarital Cohabitation Lead to Marital Adjustment?
Social scientists have been interested in the effects of cohabitation on the

institution of marriage since the early 1970s, when they began tracking the
increasing rates of cohabitation and out-of-wedlock births. As a result of
cohabitation redefining the nature of marriage and the family, the social-
scientific study of cohabitation became an important aspect of family

The initial prediction by social scientists on premarital cohabitation was
that it would lead to better marriages (Trost 1975). This stemmed from the
idea that cohabiting would serve as a screening device that would later
ensure the compatibility of prospective spouses (Danzinger 1976). It was
further reasoned that cohabiters would gain experience in intimacy and

therefore develop a greater degree of relational competence necessary for an
enduring and fulfilling marriage (Peterman 1975). An accumulation of
research on the outcome of marriage satisfaction preceded by cohabitation
has failed to support those optimistic predictions in the long term (Rosenfeld
and Roesler 2019; van Houdt and Poortman 2018).

However, cohabitation may be more closely related to marital satisfaction
and adjustment in the first year of marriage. In the first year of marriage after
cohabitation, the evidence suggests that cohabitation affords some
relationship skills associated with conflict resolution. These benefits
disappear around the fifth year of the marriage (Rosenfeld and Roesler

When compared to married persons, cohabiters had poorer relationships
with parents and expressed lower levels of commitment and happiness with
comparable married individuals. These factors also influence the dedication
and decision to marry after cohabiting (Johnson, Anderson, and Aducci
2011). Kulu and Boyle (2010, 881) indicated that cohabitation prior to
marriage was related to lower commitment to the partner, increased
incidence of divorce, lower marital satisfaction, and higher rates of wife
infidelity. Treas (2000) reported that cohabiting couples are more likely to
experience infidelity, while Binstock and Arland (2003) found that
cohabiting couples were more likely to separate and less likely to reconcile
after a separation when compared to married couples. Aarskaug, Keizer, and
Lappegard (2012) gathered a large sample of 41,760 marital and cohabiting
unions across Europe and have confirmed that cohabitation is related to
relationship instability in European societies. They report that “in all
countries cohabiters more often had breakup plans and were less satisfied
with their relationships than individuals who married” (389). These
researchers further report that the differences in relationship satisfaction
were greatest in those countries where cohabitation was least prevalent.

Thomson and Colella (1992) conducted some early research into the
effects of cohabitation on relationship and marital satisfaction. Among the
couples in their study, greater dissatisfaction in previously cohabiting
marriages had more to do with the unconventional attitudes and lifestyles of
these couples than the fact that they had cohabited. Individuals with more
liberal social values toward premarital sex and commitment have a greater
freedom to express dissatisfaction and to separate or divorce when things do
not go well. However, DeMaris and MacDonald (1993) disagreed with this

conclusion, stating that “controlling for unconventionality had only a minimal
impact on the cohabitation effect” (406), and they pointed out that “although
family attitudes and beliefs tend to predict the attractiveness of a cohabiting
lifestyle, they do not account for differences between cohabiters and non-
cohabiters in instability” (399). The role of more liberal social attitudes has
been included in much of the more recent research as well. Early research
demonstrates that cohabitation was more constraining on those couples that
married after cohabiting.

As pastors and Christians wanting to help, understanding the effects of
cohabiting—both positive and negative—on later marriages may identify
certain qualities that contribute to eventual marital success. It is important to
understand the relationship dynamics and the challenges associated with
cohabiting before marriage. However, it is also important to understand the
dynamics that occur for those cohabiters who eventually marry to build a
successful marriage and remain married. At this point, it may be helpful to
attempt to decipher some of the more complex factors linking premarital
cohabitation and eventual marital stability or instability.

In the article “Reassessing the Link between Premarital Cohabitation and
Marital Instability,” Steffen Reinhold (2010) gives “some support to the
thesis that the once-strong association between premarital cohabitation and
marital instability has weakened over time.” Copen et al. (2012, 2) likewise
surmise that although “it has been well documented that women and men who
cohabit with their future spouse before first marriage are more likely to
divorce than those who do not . . . recent research suggests that the
association between premarital cohabitation and marital instability for first
marriages has weakened over time.”

Is There a Selective Factor?
Certainly there are cohabiting couples who have been successful in

forming quality marriages, so we ask the question about selective factors that
might be at work. Brown et al. (2006, 454) conclude that “selection factors
largely account for the deleterious effects of premarital cohabitation on
marital success.” For example, certain individual characteristics (less
traditional, more independent, less culturally constrained, etc.) may put some
cohabiters at higher risk for marital instability. Kulik (2011, 120) found that
“the noncohabiting women reported better levels of adjustment of spousal

cohesion and display of affection, and they used strategies of concession to
resolve marital conflicts to a greater extent than did women who cohabited.”

Pootman and Mills (2012, 357) found that “joint investments increased as
interpersonal commitment increased.” Cohabiters who have no marriage
plans invest the least while couples who directly married without prior
cohabitation invested the most. This research would raise the question about
joint commitment in the relationship and degree of investment a couple makes
in their future relationship and eventual marital success after cohabitation.
Kulu and Boyle (2010, 881) agree that it is important to consider the prior
commitment factor while reporting general increased incidence of divorce,
lower marital satisfaction, lower commitment to the partner, and higher rates
of wife infidelity.

Other researchers make the point that a single-factor explanation between
premarital cohabitation and marital instability is faulty. Gender, age, and
ethnicity have also played a role in the effects of cohabiting on later
marriages. Phillips and Sweeney (2005) found that premarital cohabitation
was positively associated with subsequent marital disruption among non-
Hispanic White populations but not among non-Hispanic Black or Mexican
Americans. King and Scott (2005, 271) discovered that “older cohabiters
report significantly higher levels of relationship quality and stability than
younger cohabiters, although they are less likely to have plans to marry their

Based on a sample of 2,737 respondents, Musick and Bumpass (2012, 1)
found that the change in “a range of measures tapping psychological well-
being, health, and social ties” is similar in cohabiting and marriage
relationships. They conclude, “Overall, differences tend to be small and
appear to dissipate over time, when the greater instability of cohabitation is
taken into account.”

The National Center for Health Statistics reported evidence from the
National Survey of Family Growth (from a sampling of nearly 13,000
people) that the differences in marital adjustment and outcome between
married persons who had and who had not cohabited is small (Jayson 2010).

Rosenfeld and Roesler (2019) conducted one of the largest studies on
cohabitation before marriage. This study is based on six waves of data from
the National Surveys of Family Growth. The data from this study are
representative of individuals throughout the United States from 1970 until
2015. For women in this study, the rate of cohabiting with the man they

eventually married was 11 percent in 1970. By 2015, the rate was 70
percent, indicating the growing popularity of cohabiting. In more positive
terms, this study indicates that couples who cohabited before marriage have
higher satisfaction scales compared with couples that do not cohabit.
However, these gains are also maintained among couples who cohabit and do
not marry. This suggests that premarital cohabiting allows couples to learn
how to negotiate conflict and adjust to living together compared with
noncohabiting couples who do not have that opportunity. The long-term
effects of cohabitation prior to marriage are more negative (i.e., associated
with marital dissolution).

As the above discussion demonstrates, some of the research is mixed on
the overall negative effects of cohabiting on marriages. There are important
factors to keep in mind as a couple transitions from cohabitation to marriage.
Care must be taken to resist the assumption of a strong causal relationship
between cohabitation and marital failure. Viewing the connection between
cohabitation and relationship dissolution as the death knell of a relationship
may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Factors to take into account include the
following: the degree of commitment; valuing and making marriage and
family life a priority; communication and conflict-resolution life skills,
recognizing marital expectations, and developing a differentiated unity;
making joint decisions about children, roles, and careers; and being involved
in an extended family and/or faith community that supports and encourages
covenant vows.

How Does Cohabitation Impact Children?
Thinking beyond the pros and cons of premarital cohabitation for a couple,

we now consider how children are impacted. Heuveline and Timberlake
(2004) cite studies estimating that between 25 and 40 percent of all children
spend some time in a cohabiting arrangement. Brown et al. (2006) report that
when compared to children growing up with married couples, children
growing up with cohabiting couples tend to have worse life outcomes. Since
cohabiting parents break up at a much higher rate than married parents, the
impact of cohabiting on children can be devastating.

Aronson (2004) finds that among mothers with infants, those in cohabiting
relationships tend to fare far worse economically than married mothers.
Popenoe and Whitehead (2005) point to evidence of higher risk of sexual
abuse and physical violence among children in cohabiting unions. DeLeire

and Kalil (2005, 286) report the rather sobering finding that “cohabiting-
parent families, compared to married-parent families, spend a greater amount
on two adult goods (alcohol and tobacco) and a smaller amount on
education.” The implications are that cohabiting parents invest less in the
welfare of their children than married parents do.

In a study of 2,160 families, Schmeer (2011, 181) reports “worse health
for children born to cohabiting parents . . . than for children with stable
married parents.” In addition, it seems that stable cohabitation is no better for
child health than cohabitation dissolution, and a child’s health is better
among the cohabiting parents who marry than for those who do not marry.

Sociologists David Popenoe and Barbara Whitehead (2003, 2004, 2005)
at Rutgers University have completed a comprehensive review of research
on cohabitation before marriage in their yearly report on the state of marriage
in the United States. They caution young adults to think twice about
cohabiting prior to marriage, offering the following four principles. First,
consider not living together at all before marriage, since there is no
evidence to support the view that cohabiting will result in a stronger
marriage. The evidence, they suggest, shows that living together before
marriage increases the chance of divorcing after marriage. The exception
may be for those couples who are committed to marriage, have formally
announced their engagement, and have chosen a wedding date.

The second principle is don’t make a habit of cohabiting. They see the
evidence as refuting the popular myth that persons learn to develop better
relationships from a number of failed cohabiting relationships. Rather,
multiple cohabitation is repeatedly found to be a strong predictor of the
failure of future relationships.

The third principle is limit cohabitation to the shortest possible period
of time. The intent and spirit of this advice is based on their conclusion that
the longer one lives together with a partner, the more likely it is that the low-
commitment ethic of cohabitation will take hold. Participation in a cohabiting
relationship can have an eroding effect not only on the participants’ view of
the importance of commitment but also on societal ethics, which value
unconditional commitment as a basis for marriage and family life.

The fourth principle is don’t cohabit when children are involved. The
spirit of this principle is based on the value that children need and should
have parents who are committed to staying together for them.

While Popenoe and Whitehead write as social scientists, not as advocates
for a Christian view of marriage, their advice certainly comports well with
the biblical wisdom that marriage is to be based on lifelong covenant
commitments. Those who make a marital covenant with their partner will
have a better chance for stability and happiness than those who merely slide
into marriage through default.

A Christian Perspective on Cohabitation
A Christian response to cohabitation needs to be pastoral in intent,

understanding three important things: sin or violation of God’s ordinances is
serious; there is a difference between understanding sin and its effects and
living with sinners; and we are all sinners. Our discussion thus far has been
on the theoretical and empirical evidence related to cohabitation. But
Christians must go further, acknowledging that cohabitation is not God’s
sexual standard for relationships. Committed to this standard, we seek to
exude grace when dealing with others. Given that many congregants may be
living in cohabiting relationships, how can pastors come alongside and
support congregants and families in this family arrangement? In this pastoral
posture, we organize our response around four questions: (1) What is the
nature of commitment in cohabiting relationships? (2) When are two people
married in the sight of God? (3) Is cohabitation a threat to the institution of
marriage? (4) How should the church respond to cohabiting couples?


The prominent reasons people enter cohabiting relationships include love,

companionship, sexual exclusivity, economics, ambivalence toward
marriage, loneliness, and peer pressure. Whereas many of these are
understandable reasons for living with a companion, the critical missing
piece is commitment. Knowing that there is a conditional, reciprocal
relationship adds a level of instability to cohabiting relationships. A
conditional relationship is inherently less stable than a covenant relationship
because the commitment is on a trial basis. Cohabiting partners are
ambivalent toward vowing before God to commit themselves to each other
for a lifetime. This impermanence brings more anxiety to the relationship,

making daily life more uncertain and adding a level of worry to conflict

The biblical concept of a “one-flesh union” blessed by God is the
essential missing piece in a cohabiting arrangement. Whereas an exclusive
sexual union is an important aspect of cohabitation, just as it is in marriage,
covenant provides an enduring, ongoing, faithful commitment through all
aspects of married life. It is hesed (“steadfast love” or “loyalty,” a Hebrew
word often used to describe covenant commitment) that promises faithful
giving of oneself to the other and keeping the best interest of the other in mind
“for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and health, and till death
do us part.” The model of unconditional covenant commitment is a scriptural
ideal for marriage.

The cohabiting couple may have a difficult time grasping the value of
covenant love. Independence instead of mutual interdependence limits the
deepest possibilities of acceptance, empowerment, and intimacy. When
partners are uncertain about permanent commitment, they are prone to keep
some distance and protect themselves rather than open up in vulnerable ways
to one another. A relationship of reluctance, a fear of becoming too attached,
puts emotional barriers up rather than breaking them down. Thus, one of the
biggest problems with cohabitation is that it can inhibit deeper levels of
personal sharing and knowing. Holding oneself back limits growth through
mutual empowerment in the relationship and keeps partners from developing
the deepest capacity for intimacy and loving.

It takes courage to know oneself and then reveal that self to a partner. A
clarified sense of self allows a partner to surrender in self-giving ways. The
“forever” covenant commitment provides a capacity to share without fear.
Differentiation gives partners freedom to express personal longings and fears
as well as respond to the partner’s thoughts, feelings, needs, and desires.
Communicating covenant love through thought and action, regardless of
obvious flaws and failures, means partners are able to be “naked and not
ashamed.” There is no longer a need to protect oneself from a deeper
attachment. Grace-filled love gives partners the courage to risk letting
themselves be known. Covenant, grace, empowerment, and intimacy are the
essential ingredients of a committed relationship.



The covenantal basis for Christian marriage is modeled after the covenant
God made with Israel. God is pictured as trustworthy and forever faithful in
expressing unconditional love to the people of God. This translates to the
importance of permanence or covenantal love for human relationships as the
basis upon which sexual and emotional intimacy are developed. This
Christian view of marriage must be differentiated from the legal, civil
definitions. In the United States, there has been a conflation of these two
meanings so that pastors are able to perform legally recognized marriages.
To help cement the Christian understanding of marriage in the sight of God,
there are several important considerations.

First, does the couple need consent from parents or family before they can
be considered married before God? While parental consent was part of
Jewish marriage during biblical times, this was a cultural practice based on
the mate-selection process. Whereas parental consent is certainly desirable,
it would be difficult to find scriptural evidence that it is a requirement for

Second, does a couple need to make their commitment before a community
of believers before they are married in God’s sight? The covenant of
marriage is entered by relational partners, officiated by a minister or pastor,
and sealed by God. One could argue that while it is wise to have support
from a faith community, it is not a scriptural directive. There is not a mandate
or decree regarding the presence of the church for the wedding ceremony.

Third, is the consent of civil authorities needed? Those who believe that
persons should have the consent of the civil authorities point to health
concerns—for example, blood tests for negative Rh factor or sexually
transmitted diseases—that have ramifications for each partner and their
future children. Also, it gives spouses certain legal, financial, and property
rights. While there are excellent reasons to seek the consent of civil
authorities, it would be difficult to support this as a scriptural mandate.

Following a “letter of the law” interpretation of Scripture, one could argue
that none of the above conditions are required to be married in God’s sight.
At the same time, we think it is important to understand the spirit of the law,
which recognizes family, community, and civil authorities as structures that
support marriage. Cohabiting couples who say they are married “before
God” but fail to make it public miss out on a vital source of collective
encouragement. The strength of a commitment multiplies when it is made
before Christian witnesses who offer resources as well as a place of

accountability. The wisdom of making commitments within a believing
community is especially noticeable during times of trouble. A couple
depends on others to keep them resilient when life stresses come their way.

Partners who fail to legalize their “marriage” lose out on the government’s
obligation to look out for the welfare of each partner, the couple, and their
children. This especially has ramifications for spouses and their children in
regard to financial and property rights, benefits that occur when a
relationship has the legal support of society. There is a sense in which a
personal commitment is maintained through a supportive community and

Some endorse a mutual covenant commitment made between an unmarried
man and woman before God and sealed through sexual intercourse as the
minimal biblical standard; others believe there is a need for the commitment
to be made in the presence of the Christian community and/or within the
accepted formal structure of civil society. The ceremony and the license are
aspects that serve to integrate a couple into society. Evidence points to the
fact that the individualistic ethic in our society keeps people from fully
realizing the importance of personal commitments that are embedded in a
community context.


At the societal level, we do believe that cohabitation poses a threat to

marriage and family stability. In response, the church can offer an informed
voice to support societal practices that undergird marriage and family life. At
present, marriage in the United States is the accepted way of recognizing a
social and legally binding relationship between two consenting adults, and
cohabiters do not have that protection.

The negative impact of cohabitation on children continues to be a grave
concern to the church. Children born to cohabiting couples are less likely to
spend their childhood in a two-parent home than are children born to married
couples. There is ample evidence that the economic and emotional impact of
divorce on children has deleterious effects on them.



The church must make a distinction between how it responds to
individuals who are in cohabiting relationships and how it responds to
cohabitation as a practice or lifestyle. We advocate that Christians should
offer grace to cohabiting couples over law. Churches may want to encourage
congregants that are cohabiting to live into God’s covenant with the church
and make a covenant commitment to one another.

A detailed discussion of how the Christian community can wisely respond
to each of these cohabiting situations is beyond the limits of this chapter. We
do offer some general guidelines, however, about how the Christian
community can best respond to these different scenarios.

1. The Christian community promotes and encourages the biblical standard
of a permanent covenant commitment between two people before God,
presenting this through the compelling influence of modeling. The church
as a faithful community demonstrates living into commitment, grace,
empowerment, and intimacy. This community encourages each
congregant to live out these experiences in daily life.

2. The Christian community offers hospitality, lovingly reaching out to all
who enter their doors, offering covenant, grace, empowerment, and
connection, which provides a place of belonging and security.

3. The Christian community openly receives children and family members
into the church family, giving them a glimpse of the faithful, trustworthy
presence of love and support among God’s people.

4. The Christian community offers a public ceremony within the community
of faith to celebrate the covenant union when couples decide to marry,
with no stigma or shame placed on them or their children.

5. The Christian community continues to show love and grace, accepting
people as they are in the love of Christ without coercion.

6. The Christian community becomes a trustworthy place and loving
community and never turns away anyone who seeks God.

We believe that the church often deprives cohabiting couples of a genuine
place of caring and belonging and that we have so much to offer them in our
communities of faith. If there is a decision to make covenant vows, it
behooves the church to support them through a meaningful public ceremony.
Elaborate and expensive wedding ceremonies may keep some from moving
toward this. Helping with a simple, culturally appropriate ceremony that

includes congregation and family members as a witness to the covenant vows
is really the important thing.

Here are just a couple personal examples of the faith community providing
support in small but significant ways. Judy’s mother wore a simple gold
dress for her wedding ceremony after the Sunday night church service. Her
aunt and uncle stood with them, and the church provided cake and coffee for
a small reception afterward. Jack’s parents had a similar ceremony after the
Sunday morning church service. They invited the family and a few special
friends over to the house for a light Sunday brunch reception. A wedding was
an occasion to support the couple’s covenant commitment without all the fuss
and flair of an expensive, elaborate wedding. Both sets of parents were
married more than sixty years, a covenant commitment that lasted over their
long lives. Tom and Gail also had a very simple ceremony. They were
blessed to have Tom’s father, an ordained minister in the Church of the
Nazarene, officiate the ceremony. The wedding was followed by a small
celebration with close friends and family.

Perhaps the greatest challenge to the Christian community is to offer grace
in the midst of the tension felt when those who enter the church to learn of
God and God’s ways have a different set of value systems. The discouraging
truth is that living outside of biblically based norms can negatively affect
one’s attitudes toward those norms. Individuals grow accustomed to
lifestyles outside of God’s intention for humanity, yet they experience
glimpses of the blessings God intends for relationships even while living
outside the standard. For example, cohabiting couples meet intimacy and
relationship needs for one another. Joy and love are present. But
ambivalence toward God’s intended design leads to devaluing marriage and
covenant commitment. Discipling individuals and couples in situations like
this means we need to extend the hand of hospitality and friendship first. As
the church exposes individuals and families in this situation to more and
more biblical truth, the relationship of grace and fellowship aids in the
discipleship process. Rather than reacting with judgment or fear, the church
is the place that opens wide its doors, welcoming all to come and learn of the
ways of Jesus.

In its stance toward the practice of cohabitation, we believe that the church
can err in two ways: either by failing to uphold the sacred purpose of
marriage or by condemning and shutting out those who cohabit. In upholding
marriage as God’s way with one hand, we should extend God’s grace with

the other. Our gospel must be full of truth and grace. The church needs to be
the very place that reaches out to seekers, both those living outside biblical
norms and those for whom biblical behavior has not yet become part of their
lives. The church will have a minimal impact on the lives of those who are
cohabiting until it clearly offers the hands of both truth and grace.

A couple may be on a path to Christ without even knowing it. When a
cohabiting couple establishes a covenant commitment, they have understood
something essential about God’s way. The Christian community can nurture a
couple’s natural inclination to continue to move in God’s way through
patience, respect, and love that points them in that direction. Being
compassionate rather than judgmental comes out of the assurance that God,
who is the final judge, is the one who loves most fully. “Christ’s love sees us
with terrible clarity and sees us whole. Christ’s love so wishes our joy that it
is ruthless against everything in us that diminishes our joy” (Buechner 1992,
58). Striving to help cohabiting couples find the joy of covenant love is a
great privilege. The Christian community needs to show forth God’s love in
faithful, engaging ways that will draw those who cohabit closer to the way,
the truth, and the more abundant life.

Discerning God’s Will
Marriage is an important, sacred event in most societies. Marriage is pivotal
because it is necessary to the psychological well-being of the individuals
involved, the social well-being of the married couple and family, the
economic well-being of communities, and the survival of society itself. One
advantage of parent-arranged marriage is that it protects young people from
the pressure, confusion, and agony of having to make such a major decision
on their own. The obvious disadvantage is the impact of excluding the couple
from this critical process, which has enormous implications for the rest of
their lives. This leads us to the question of how Christians are to approach
the mate-selection process.

To answer this question, we must begin by considering how one comes to
discern God’s will in the matter of choosing a mate. First, a couple
contemplating marriage will want to view their relationship through the
theological and biblical relationship lenses we have presented in this
chapter. As they look at their relationship history in light of these values, they
will begin to answer the mate-selection question through their experiences

with each other. Many couples already recognize trouble in their relationship
as they are dating but deny the seriousness of the problems. For this reason,
long engagements are predictive of successful marriage. When the couple
gets beyond the romantic stage during the months and years prior to marriage
in a long engagement, they gain a more realistic idea about managing their
relationship. They will have experienced conflicts and struggles during this
time and have a good understanding of how they deal with each other in the
process. They will have had time to see each other in all sorts of situations
and been willing to discuss their expectations about roles and future plans.

Premarital counseling with a licensed therapist or pastor is a great way to
discern how marriage with a particular individual could grow. We strongly
suggest that a couple intentionally learn all they can about their relationship
through a premarital inventory, identifying strengths and weaknesses in their
relationship. David Olson’s Prepare/Enrich (1998) is a 125-item
questionnaire used by clergy and counselors to assess a couple’s chances for
a successful marriage. The inventory matches each person’s responses to
questions in major areas such as personality, friendships, conflict,
communication, finance, sex, views on children, and family of origin. It has
proven to be quite accurate in predicting whether a couple will be successful
or eventually divorce (Fowers, Montel, and Olson 1996). Another helpful
inventory is the “Preparation for Marriage Questionnaire” (Holman, Larson,
and Harmer 1994). It consists of 178 items that evaluate the following five
areas that are predictive of marital satisfaction and stability: (1) degree of
unity in values, attitudes, and beliefs; (2) personal readiness for marriage
(the indicators include emotional health and maturity, self-esteem, and
independence from one’s family of origin); (3) partner readiness
(communicating ability and skills, self-disclosure, and empathic behavior);
(4) couple readiness (agreement on basic issues, stability of the relationship,
approval of each other’s friends and relatives, and realistic expectations);
and (5) background and home environment (satisfaction with the home
environment, the quality of the home environment, the quality of the parent-
child relationship, and absence of physical and sexual abuse). Sue Johnson’s
helpful resource (2008) outlines important conversations relational partners
need to have to benefit their relationship. Another important tool for
premarital counseling is “Saving Your Marriage before It Starts” (SYMBIS),
developed by Les and Leslie Parrott (2015). (More information is available
on the Parrotts’ website,

These assessments and discussion tools can provide concrete information
that will help a couple determine the potential success of their future
together. Couples should spend time discussing these relationship dynamics;
process the results of the inventories with a trusted counselor or minister;
grapple honestly with family of origin and multicultural challenges; take time
to work out a financial budget; attend workshops on relationship skill
development; be aware of personality differences and consider how they
might affect the relationship; deal openly with sexual relationship issues with
a counselor and read and discuss an informative book on the subject.

No one particular way of finding God’s will is best for everyone, but in
most cases a combination of activities is advisable. Here are four specific
guidelines for couples to consider when seeking God’s direction about
marriage. First, look to God directly through prayer, Bible study, and
meditation. Second, seek wisdom and input from parents, significant family
members, and good friends. Trusted people who know and are willing to be
honest about each partner’s individual strengths and weaknesses will prove
invaluable. Third, as mentioned earlier, go through a premarital counseling
process in which all aspects of the relationship are examined honestly, and
spend time clarifying expectations with an objective professional or pastor.
Fourth, seek wisdom from trustworthy Christians in their community of faith.
Those in the body of Christ provide a communal perspective that will help
affirm or disaffirm the couple’s decision-making process.

Based on these suggestions, we advise that a couple can best discern
God’s will through a biblically balanced approach that is open to input from
three sources—the individuals directly concerned, family and close friends,
and the Christian community, which together can serve as a check against an
incorrect decision. When decisions are made without input from all three
sources, there is a greater probability of error. Given the power of passion
and the contemporary emphasis on intimacy in romantic relationships, the
individualistic bias is the most likely to have fatal consequences. Family bias
is typical of parental arrangements. When parents are discerning Christians,
they can be an invaluable source of wisdom, though they may have a limited
perspective because of personal or cultural biases. Christian-community bias
is probably the most difficult to detect since it is generally felt that a
corporate body is less prone to bias. However, an obvious danger is the
power a particular leader (or leaders) may wield. Leaders also have human
limitations and are therefore capable of using their influence in misguided

ways. Particularly troubling are communities in which congregants are
required to submit to an authoritarian leader out of loyalty.

Even if one concedes the wisdom of this model, there is always the
possibility of disagreement. Consequently, the individuals, family, and
Christian community should work together to bring about a congruous
decision that will enhance the probability of a lasting covenant.


Establishing Marriage
Moving toward Differentiated Unity

Each spouse’s experiences growing up in his or her particular family of
origin are major preparations for marriage, for good and for ill. Accordingly,
marriage involves more than a uniting of two individuals; it is also a uniting
of two extended families. Bringing aspects of two culturally diverse families
into a new unit is a process of affirming the best of both cultures (sense of
belonging) and discovering the spouses’ own sense of identity as a couple. In
the process, they may choose to discard some of their heritage, expand
aspects of it, and create a unique union that exceeds what either of them
would be on their own. Forming a new relationship as a couple distinguishes
each of them from their family of origin (the family each grew up in) and at
the same time keeps each of them connected with it. We begin this chapter by
recognizing the impact of family of origin as well as other important factors
that contribute to marital quality.

Factors That Predict Marital Quality
Researchers have identified several factors from the family of origin (FOO)
that affect marital satisfaction and quality. These factors include conflict-
resolution style, relationship self-regulation based on family-of-origin
climate (Hardy et al. 2015), and background and contextual factors (Larson
and Hickman 2004).

First, FOO experiences highly influence a marital partner’s conflict-
resolution style, which partially affects marital satisfaction (Dennison et al.
2014). This indicates that individuals learn relationship strategies from their
family of origin, such as how to resolve conflict, and these habits are

incorporated into conflict resolution in one’s family of choice. These
resolution strategies influence the overall satisfaction and quality of

Second, FOO climate can be thought of as one’s perceptions of the safety,
warmth, and fairness in the family of origin. This climate entails one’s
emotional experience of the support, empathy, and availability of parents.
One important aspect of this climate relates to how individuals learn to self-
regulate in their relationships. That is, more positive experiences in one’s
FOO lead to greater capacities to self-regulate in one’s marital relationship.
This relational self-regulation (RSR) provides important strategies for
engaging in relationships that facilitate marital satisfaction. Individuals learn
how to manage emotional experiences while maintaining their relationships
with their FOO. These are important skills needed for each spouse to learn
as they adjust to one another while creating a new sense of family identity.
One important RSR is the ability to manage one’s anxiety or anger in
responding to one’s spouse. Additionally, RSR allows individuals to
interpret their spouse’s behavior more positively, enabling conflict to be
avoided or resolved without relying on more negative conflict-resolution

Finally, sociocultural and contextual factors that affect the quality of
marriage include age at time of marriage, level of education and income, and
occupational stability. Being similar (homogamy)in race, socioeconomic
status, religion, intelligence, and age are factors that affect a new marriage in
a positive way. Individual characteristics such as physical and emotional
health, lack of neurotic traits, conventionality, and level of self-esteem
contribute to the quality a couple can achieve in their new union. Also,
having similar values, attitudes, and beliefs seems to bring out the best in
both spouses.

When it comes to interpersonal dynamics, good communication and
conflict-resolution skills bring strength and quality to the marriage (Gottman
2011). Not having cohabited and low participation in premarital sexual
intercourse also contribute to a couple’s quality of marriage and sexual
satisfaction (Larson and Hickman 2004; Strait et al. 2015).

Research regarding the effects of the family of origin demonstrate that
one’s family of choice is significantly influenced by one’s family of origin.
When parents have had a high-quality marital relationship, the couple has a
better chance of developing quality in their own marriage. When both sets of

parents have achieved a long-lasting marriage (no divorce), are relatively
free of mental illness, demonstrate positive conflict-resolution strategies, and
provide a warm, caring, and nurturing home environment, chances for high
quality in the newly formed marriage increase. Also, when families are
supportive and refrain from pressuring the couple, marital quality is more
likely. The new couple needs time and space to develop their relationship. In
the next section, we will consider in more detail the family-of-origin

Resolving Issues Related to the Family of Origin
The influence of families of origin on the family of choice is generally
referred to as intergenerational transmission (Bowen 2004; Kerr and Bowen
1988). This is one of the most important contributions from Bowen Family
Systems Theory (BFST). Intergenerational transmission refers to the
communication patterns and strategies children learn from their parents as
well as the emotional tone of the family. The main ways that communication
and relationships merge with emotional experience occurs via differentiation
of self (DoS).

DoS is a key component in the adaptability of families. It allows each
individual family member, with the sure identity of belonging to their family,
to understand his or her values and beliefs and engage in family relationships
based on these beliefs. Further, as stressors arise within the family and
children develop increasing competencies, parents need to support these
competencies by increasing parental expectations for the children. Stressors
outside the family demand the family to adapt to pressures as well. Taken
together, DoS provides the psychological and relational strengths needed to
respond to these challenges in a values-based manner.

DoS provides the individual with the tools to manage emotional
experience while maintaining one’s relationships with others. DoS should be
conceptualized along two dimensions (Frederick and Dunbar 2019). First,
intrapersonal DoS focuses on one’s ability to be attentive and responsive to
one’s emotional experience while not being overwhelmed by that experience.
Individuals with high levels of DoS are able to acknowledge their emotions
while responding to them in a values-based manner. Second, DoS has an
interpersonal dimension focusing on the balance of individuality and
togetherness (Bowen, 2004; Kerr and Bowen, 1988). Interpersonal DoS

enables individuals to maintain their values commitments while remaining in
relationships with others. Both these aspects of DoS are transmitted in one’s
FOO as described above.

Parents as Role Models
Parents are powerful role models. They teach through verbal

communication, but their nonverbal behavior is probably even more
influential. Children learn important lessons about marriage by observing
how their parents communicate with each other—how they express their
feelings of love, affection, and anger. Everything that parents do in their role
as marriage partners will profoundly influence their children’s behaviors and
attitudes as marriage partners. Although true for both husbands and wives,
there was a stronger correlation between wives’ positive experience in their
family of origin and reported marital adjustment. On the other hand, more
negative FOO experiences had more negative effects on conflict resolution
and marital satisfaction for women as compared to men (Dennison et al.

Research indicates that regardless of whether or not we agree with the
way our parents handled their marriage or parenting responsibilities, when a
similar situation arises in our own family, our spontaneous reaction will be
to behave as our parents did. The young wife who witnessed her mother’s
temper whenever her father was running late may be determined to give her
husband the benefit of the doubt rather than lash out in anger. However, when
a similar situation arises, she finds herself scolding her husband before he
has a chance to explain his tardiness. The husband, who remembers that his
father was less than considerate in not calling home about being detained,
nevertheless forgets to call his wife. In many ways, relationship partners
replicate relational patterns from their families of origin.

Spouses must make an effort to recognize and correct faulty attitudes and
behaviors they unthinkingly bring into their marriage. It is imperative to
avoid the fatalistic attitude that denies responsibility for one’s own behavior
by saying, “My parents have been such a strong influence on my behavior that
there is nothing I can do about it!” To make excuses of this nature is tempting.
A husband may say, “My wife wants me to be more open in communicating
my feelings to her; she just doesn’t realize that we didn’t do that in my
family.” A wife may say, “I can’t help worrying about you when you go on a

trip; my mother always worried about my father.” These defeatist attitudes do
not facilitate needed change.

Equally detrimental is the naive belief that one’s family of origin does not
affect one’s marital life. Such thinking leads to a denial of behavioral
patterns that have similar negative outcomes in one’s marriage. Without
personal awareness of these patterns, change is unlikely.

Parental Support
As noted at the beginning of this chapter, research indicates that social,

emotional, and financial support from parents and other relatives—what is
known as family climate—is very important in helping a newly married
couple establish a solid marriage. In fact, more positive experiences in
family climate are associated with better self-regulation (Hardy et al. 2015).
Children with more supportive and warm family climates internalize the
ability to regulate anxiety and anger in these early relationships. RSR is
cultivated in supportive families and translates to increased marital

In an ideal situation, children have the freedom to move some distance
from home for schooling or employment, and their parents remain available
to them for emotional and even financial support. This involves both
appropriate differentiation (no strings attached) and support (we want to
empower you). Some parents make their support conditional on the new
couple reciprocating in some way. For support (financial or emotional) to be
empowering, it must be unconditional and freely given. For example,
financial arrangements should be clearly negotiated in an attitude of mutual
respect and agreement. If there are expectations such as paying back a loan
later, these conditions must be specified up front so that responsibility
becomes part of empowerment.

Some parents are threatened by their children’s independence and want to
keep control. The demands they make can undermine the newly established
unit, forcing the couple to concentrate on meeting the expectations of the
family of origin rather than on building the newly formed marital dyad. The
couple that continually needs parental financial or emotional help has failed
to accomplish the important task of establishing autonomy, which includes the
ability to manage financially and to become functionally independent of
parents. The manner in which supportive arrangements are made and the

accompanying attitudes and expectations of both parents and married
children determine whether such help will have positive or negative effects.

The principle of empowerment can be demonstrated by asking the
following question: Does the support lead to responsible action and mutual
respect or to indebtedness, dependency, and obligation? If parents use their
resources to control, the result is emotional distance and resentment. If
parents use their resources to empower, they help the couple establish a
strong marital bond along with a desire to maintain solid ties and connection
with extended family.

A person’s identity is formed in the family of origin. In fact, until puberty it
is hard to think of ourselves apart from our family. In our families, we
acquire the majority of our attitudes, beliefs, and values. What we believe
our parents think of us shapes our self-concept. One’s identity is connected
with being from a particular family, and this identity forms the main
psychological vehicle for living. Identity is so important psychologically that
Dan McAdams (1997) describes identity achievement as the crux of human

At puberty, however, differentiation begins to intensify. Through this
process, teenagers establish an identity separate from the family.
Differentiated individuals are both connected to their families and, at the
same time, sufficiently separated socially and psychologically. On the one
hand, differentiated individuals have a strong sense of belonging or
togetherness with their families. On the other hand, differentiated individuals
know themselves—their beliefs, values, and desires—and are able to live
out those aspects of their self-concept, or what we would call core self
(Bowen 2004), while maintaining relationships with others. This core self
takes personal responsibility and is able to respond to experiences and
relationships in a manner consistent with its values while maintaining those
relationships. It takes a great deal of emotional, intellectual, and spiritual
energy to accomplish this extremely important task of sorting out and
determining one’s own values and beliefs rather than indiscriminately taking
on the values and beliefs of one’s parents. We describe the process of
adolescent differentiation in greater detail in chapter 9. At this point, it is
sufficient to say that people are not ready for marriage until they have clearly
differentiated themselves from their parents.

There are two types of undifferentiated individuals: those who are overly
close and dependent on their family of origin and those who are disengaged

or emotionally severed from it. In overly close (fused) relationships, people
are so tightly involved with their families that there is no healthy
separateness. People who are emotionally cut off, however, are so
emotionally removed from their families that there is no healthy
connectedness. Notice how these two types are utilizing similar relationship
strategies: both fused and cutoff people are using their relationships alone to
define their identities. The fused individual often modifies or disavows
aspects of the core self so that membership with the family is maintained. On
the other side, those who are cut off emotionally are trying to define
themselves in contrast to the FOO.

Genesis 2:24 describes differentiation for the marital couple: “Therefore a
man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become
one flesh.” A person cannot leave mother and father if he or she clings to or
is fused with them. People overly connected with their parents have difficulty
creating a new marital dyad. Yet leaving mother and father is equally
impossible if there has never been a sufficient connectedness with them. In
cutoff families, children lack the skills to make close emotional connections
with others, even a new spouse. In both extremes, it is highly difficult to
establish a meaningful “one flesh” union.

The concepts of fusion and cutoff are illustrated in the parable of the
prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32). The younger son cuts himself off from his
family, demanding his full inheritance and severing all connections. In the
process, he cuts off all cultural, social, economic, and psychological ties by
moving to a far country and working among swine (which are unclean for
Jewish people). On the surface, this may appear to be a sign of
independence, but it proves to be premature.

One might also wonder if the elder son who stays home is somehow fused
with his family. As the story unfolds, he appears to be undifferentiated. We
see this fusion when he complains to his father about his obedience not being
rewarded. The older brother is not willingly doing his father’s will; he is
biding his time until he receives the reward of his inheritance and is obedient
to his father only on the surface. His reaction to his father’s acceptance of his
lost brother is indicative of fusion. A differentiated son would have
established a solid connection with a clearly defined self and thus would
have celebrated his brother’s return. Additionally, his service to the father
and family would not be intrinsically based in identity and motivated by the
expectation of reward. His jealous and angry reaction suggests that he is

threatened by his erroneous belief that his father has only so much love to
give and that giving love to the younger brother means that the father loves
him less. He is not sufficiently separated from his family of origin, and his
dependency leads to possessiveness and jealousy.

Empowerment facilitates personal responsibility and empathy for the
other. Each brother would take ownership of his choices, both appropriate
and inappropriate. They would be able to allow others to experience the
consequences of their behavior while maintaining a relationship with them.
The father exemplifies this, understanding the sons’ choices and avoiding
interference when the consequences of those choices affect his sons. This is
not a cold, detached, unfeeling attitude on the part of the father. This is a
father empowering his adult sons by allowing them to experience the effects
of their choices.

The way God parented the children of Israel afforded them the possibility
of achieving differentiation. God offered covenantal love, which is the basis
of identity, and the building blocks of grace, empowerment, and intimacy. On
the one hand, when the children of Israel went their own way (cut off), he
held them accountable and responsible for their actions. On the other hand,
God continually offered grace in the form of reconciliation and restoration.
This balance of both offering emotional support and affirming differentiation
leads to interdependence in relationships.

We have seen that a very important factor in establishing a solid
foundation in marriage is the differentiation of both spouses from their
families of origin. There can be no cleaving without leaving. When two
individuals are differentiated and secure in their own identities, they can give
themselves to each other and make room in their selves for the distinct other
that contributes toward forming a differentiated unity. Their close and stable
relationships with their families of origin promote a loyalty to the old while
creating a new and distinct system.

In general, people need order in their lives. Scripture teaches that a human

community should be an orderly one. One of Paul’s qualifications for church
leaders is that they should have orderly home relationships (1 Tim. 3:1–7).
Effective families function well with a certain amount of routine and
structure. Yet the desired degree of order varies greatly among families and
cultures. Some families demand an excessive amount of order; others have

almost no structure at all. For example, children’s bedtimes may be observed
so precisely in some families that if the youngsters are not in bed with the
lights out at the prescribed minute, punishment is sure to follow. Other
families have such little regard for order that bedtimes are not even
prescribed, let alone enforced. These two extremes are examples of very low
and very high degrees of adaptability. Degree of adaptability is an important
dimension that marriage partners bring with them from their family of origin
(see chap. 2).

Most often, effective families have a healthy degree of structure and
flexibility (i.e., they are neither overly rigid nor chaotic). Marriages with a
capacity for adaptability endure well over time because they are more open
to and can adapt better to the changes that continually occur in family life.
This ability is especially important because change is inevitable, whether it
occurs in the development of individual members, in relationship dynamics,
throughout the family life stages, or because of an unexpected internal or
external stressor.

But what happens when a person from a rigid home marries a person from
a chaotic home? Both spouses will naturally attempt to implement their own
family style, and this presents interesting clashes, to say the least. Spouses
who come from more balanced and similar backgrounds will undoubtedly
have an easier time of it. All couples need to develop a system that works
best for them. Even such matters as how to celebrate particular holidays or
how to implement daily family routines such as eating, sleeping, and playing,
or rituals such as manners or prayers at the table or reading stories at
bedtime will need to be negotiated. The couple will begin to establish their
own routines, household rules, roles, and rituals. Once again, they may take
certain things from each of their family traditions to enrich their homes and
mutually create new ways of organizing their family life.

The Dilemma of Modern Marriage
The high rate of divorce in most Western cultures supports the notion that it is
difficult to establish a strong marriage in a postmodern society. Although a
variety of explanations can be proposed, such as urbanization,
industrialization, changing gender roles, and high social and geographical
mobility, surely a key factor is high expectations that marriage will fulfill
personal needs. One expectation that Tim and Kathy Keller (2013) describe

is the belief that personal happiness and fulfillment is the most important
aspect of one’s life. Marriage is unable to guarantee personal happiness
because it is inherently a give-and-take between relational partners. Personal
happiness takes a back seat to maintaining the marriage. This is an affront to
the postmodern belief that individual fulfillment and happiness is the most
important aspect of life. Up to one hundred years ago, marriage was
primarily a social institution designed to meet economic needs and provide a
place for rearing children. This view of marriage as an institution has been
replaced by the concept that marriage is a companionship grounded on
romantic attraction, self-fulfillment, and ego-need gratification (Coontz 2004;
Frederick and Dunbar 2019). As the marriage expectation bar continues to be
raised, fewer marriages are capable of delivering what they promise in the
way of personal fulfillment and satisfaction.

The tremendous expectations placed on marriage today are further
exacerbated by the notion that each spouse must compete for power and a
separate identity while in the marriage. In the past, wives simply yielded
their individual identity and rights to their husbands. As late as the mid-
1800s, ownership of any property contributed by the bride’s family
transferred to the husband. In the traditional marriage, the goal of two
becoming one was met by the bride giving up her own identity and taking on
a new identity as the husband’s wife. While few would want to return to this
kind of arrangement, the “challenge in modern marriage is to build a
relationship that is mutual, reciprocal, and balanced by equal regard for each
spouse and mutual sacrifice for the good of the relationship” (Balswick and
Balswick 2006).

One response to the contemporary marriage crisis is to abandon the ideal
that marriage is a lifelong commitment. When marriage is defined as a
business contract between two partners, the focus becomes maximizing one’s
benefits and minimizing expenditures. This implies that marriages are
primarily for the individual’s benefit and that the marriage should be ended
when costs exceed benefits. Family sociologists have documented this
response in the literature as the “deinstitutionalization of marriage” (Cherlin
2004), the “retreat from marriage” (Smock 2004), and the view that lifelong
marriage is “something of an aberration that existed” in the past (Gillis
2004). Ellen Lewin (2004) challenges the idea that marriage is the only
legitimate conjugal arrangement. John Gillis (2004) welcomes the new trend
of a wide range of formal and informal marriage arrangements and asserts

that “seen in the larger historical and global perspective, there is nothing
particularly alarming in the tendency. In fact, there is much to recommend it”
(991). A careful observer might note that these comments are based on
naturalistic assumptions that society should accept what is happening (such
as higher rates of cohabitation and divorce) as normative and not make value
judgments about what marriage should be. Contrary to a biblical view, much
contemporary writing views marriage as a relationship of convenience,
formed according to what the two people decide to make of it.

Differentiated Unity: Becoming One and Retaining Uniqueness
The contemporary crisis in marriage is real. But rather than cave in to
postmodern marital ethics, we believe the dilemma of modern marriage can
be solved by recapturing a biblical view of marriage. Whereas God intends
for marriage to constitute a unity as in “two become one,” it is not God’s
intent for either the husband or the wife to lose his or her own identity in the
process of forming that union. Tim and Kathy Keller (2013) describe how the
beauty of a biblical definition of marriage and Christian sexual ethic is that it
challenges premodern notions of marriage (marriage functions economically)
and modern (marriage is a contract) and even a postmodern view (marriage
is a remnant of a long bygone area that impeded on personal flourishing).
God intends marriage to reflect the unique type of relationality found in the
Holy Trinity. This truth is a core derivative of Genesis 1:26–27: “Then God
said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.’ . . .
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.” The relationality between the distinct
human beings (male and female) reflects the imago Dei—the image of God.

We bring this emphasis on relationality into our model for marriage. The
relational nature in marriage is analogous in human form to the divine Trinity.
As the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (three distinct persons) mutually
indwell the Godhead in a trinitarian fellowship, so do spouses (two distinct
selves) mutually indwell the marriage union. Ever mindful of our human
limitations, we believe this model offers great promise. It is in their
distinctiveness that spouses mutually permeate each other when they form
their union. Unity and distinction coexist. Reciprocal and mutual
interdependency is what God had in mind for marriage. A differentiated
unity brings great satisfaction to both spouses and to their relationship. In

this context, to be human in marriage is to be a particular spouse in a
relationship, distinct and unique and yet inextricably intertwined and
interdependent with the other. Mutual indwelling never negates but rather
enhances the particularity of each spouse. As Gary Deddo asserts, “The unity
and the distinction are each unimpaired by the other” (1999, 23).

DoS, or as we will argue later, differentiation in Christ, is about identity.
We are called into relationship with Christ during conversion. We are given a
new identity, one based on membership in Christ’s family. This new identity
in Christ forms the core self and is the basis for relating to others. Thus, our
differentiation in Christ is the key factor in determining the effectiveness of
spousal differentiation. Both spouses are more than they can ever be by
themselves, because they have become something bigger in their union. In
marriage, spouses are both distinct (male and female differentiation) and
equal (directed to be fruitful and have dominion) in their created purpose.
They find ultimate meaning in and through their relationship with God and
each other. The supreme meaning of being created in the image of God is that
spouses reflect a relationship of unity without absorbing one into the other.
Marital mutuality is reached through a reciprocating relationship in which
spouses encounter their own uniqueness in relation to God and the other.

Assimilation is a process in which two separate entities become one,
while accommodation is an agreement by two separate entities to be
different. From the lens of BFST, assimilation is fusion. The biblical concept
of one flesh might appear to be assimilation. However, the Bible also
describes the relationship of the believer with Christ as becoming one with
him. Does this mean that we lose our identity and personhood when we
become Christians? Of course not! In fact, this is the difference between the
various Eastern religions and Christianity. Salvation according to the Eastern
religions is to acknowledge the self as an illusion and then to recognize
oneness with the eternal force in the universe. The dissolution of the self and
the cosmos is described in the psychology of mindfulness (Grabovac, Lau,
and Willett 2011). In Christianity, salvation is relational. It comes when the
person is rightly related to God, the Creator and provider of eternal life.

Assimilation in marriage, where the personhood of one spouse is given up,
is not what God intended. Christian marriage is more like accommodation,
where two separate people each maintain a distinct personhood but choose to
come together in unity and oneness of commitment, meaning, and service. It is
noteworthy that the key verses in Ephesians 5, which speak about the

marriage relationship, are introduced by the directive, “Be subject to one
another out of reverence for Christ” (v. 21). Ideally, in Christian marriage
each spouse is subject to the other; that is, each makes room for the other to
love and be loved, to forgive and be forgiven, to serve and be served, and to
know and be known. A marriage in which one partner, the husband or the
wife, is asked to give up his or her personhood for the sake of the other
denies God’s expression in and through that unique member of the creation.
The relationship is remarkably more fulfilling when both people are equally
expressed in their union, providing others an opportunity to know two
distinct people as well as to relate to the couple as a unit.

Just because a couple forms a union does not mean there are no differences
between the spouses. Quite the contrary! Precisely because they bring unique
perspectives to the union, they will need to navigate through their
differences. In fact, Genesis 2 emphasizes the complementary nature of the
relationship—male and female. At a minimum, biological differences foster
opportunities to esteem the uniqueness of each spouse as well as incorporate
these differences into the marriage. In navigating these differences, it’s
important that each spouse be open and responsive in an attitude of humble
respect. Conflict is to be expected when two distinct and unique individuals
express themselves equally. Marriage without conflict can signify that one
spouse has given up personhood. In a vital relationship, conflicts are viewed
with an eye to finding a solution that is in the best interest of each spouse and
the relationship as a whole. Agreement is never at the expense of one spouse
over the other. Being subject to one’s spouse does not mean giving in for the
sake of avoiding conflict or maintaining harmony. In fact, giving in for the
sake of avoiding conflict may be a way of letting a spouse down.

Commitment involves a willingness to express your desires and opinions,
to confront a partner in love, to listen with openness to your spouse’s desires
and opinions, to have compassion, and to affirm the other’s ideas.
Differentiated unity assures a mutual love that works out differences for the
good of the relationship.

Learning New Roles in the Marital Dance
Perichoresis is the Greek word used to describe the relationality among
members of the Trinity. Eugene Peterson (2005, 44–45) points out that, in the
original language, perichoresis literally means “a round dance.” Like a round

dance, marriage can be described as two people moving rhythmically
together as they repeatedly embrace, release, hold on, and then let go of each
other. Partners will dance in unity when they share an understanding of their
roles in relation to each other as they perform their particular dance. It may
be an ever-changing dance with new moves as circumstances alter, but when
spouses are in step there is great joy in observing the graceful movements.
We find it helpful to think of spouses being in tune with each other as they
anticipate, construct, change, and live out their roles throughout their

Prior to marriage, most spouses have already formulated in their minds a
role for themselves and a role for the person they are to marry. How
husbands and wives define their respective roles can be important. High
expectations often lead to disappointment. It was discovered by DeMaris,
Sanchez, and Krivickas (2012, 989) that “couples characterized by more
traditional attitudes toward gender roles were significantly less satisfied.”
Discussing role expectations prior to marriage will hopefully counter the
unexpected or unrealistic ideals that hinder rather than help the couple work
out their respective roles. This subjective anticipation of new roles before
entering marriage is known as role taking. A rat running a maze is limited to
learning by trial and error. It must randomly follow each corridor in search
of food until it either reaches a dead end or finds the reward. Humans use
their rich vocabulary and elaborate thinking ability to run a maze in their
minds. In fact, before two people decide to marry, they each probably run
through an elaborate symbolic maze by imagining what it would be like to be
married to the other person for the rest of their lives. We constantly engage in
role taking when anticipating the new roles we eventually assume.

An important ingredient in the achievement of marital adjustment is the
ability to take on the role of another person. This requires empathy—the
ability to view the world from someone else’s perspective and to stand in
that person’s place. Research shows that people with role-taking ability
score high on marital-adjustment tests. It is extremely important that partners
be able to see things from the viewpoint of their spouses. This is what
understanding the other is about.

After marriage, spouses engage in role playing. Role playing is the
process of actually assuming the role of spouse and dancing out the part that
has been only imagined up to this point. The first part of role playing can be
thought of as playing at a role. Spouses play at a role to the extent that they

are self-conscious and unsure of themselves in marriage. We can engage in
role playing hundreds of times. However, when we actually assume a role,
we find it to be somewhat different from what we imagined. A newly
married couple will experience some awkwardness in playing at their new
roles as spouses. Even though they are acutely aware that they are
newlyweds, they are not yet accustomed to their new roles as married
people. It takes time to become comfortable with the role so that it feels

People who begin marriage by playing at a role will eventually become
comfortable with it and spontaneously engage in playing the role of marital
partner. Meanwhile, because of the expectations formed prior to role taking,
the early stages of marriage often bring role conflict. Both people enter
marriage with their personal and family-of-origin definition of what their
role and their spouse’s role should be. This can lead to confusion and

Much emotion is invested in one’s new role as husband or wife, and
consequently there is also great potential for conflict. A husband and wife
may disagree about the definition of the spouse’s role. He may enter marriage
thinking that husbands do not do dishes, while the wife may consider this to
be his role. Similarly, a wife may view her role as including responsibility
for the budget, but the husband may see this as his territory. As the couple
begins to clarify these messages, tension is likely to occur. If they resort to
pulling or pushing while learning this dance, they will appear uncoordinated
and will likely step on each other’s toes. Finding the mutual rhythm and
coordinating the right steps is worth every effort it takes to create a
harmonious pattern of movement.

Role conflict arises naturally and not necessarily because a person is
immature or unprepared for role skirmishes. Role conflicts need to be
worked out in an atmosphere of grace, acceptance, and dialogue. Spouses
who have good skills in problem-solving and conflict resolution will have a
head start. Resolving role conflicts throughout marriage gives the couple a
solid base of operation. Those who cannot achieve solutions are likely to
struggle with these same role conflicts, and the marriage will resemble a
wrestling match more than a dance.

The marital-role dance is an ever-changing dynamic that must evolve as
new patterns emerge. Role definitions appropriate in the beginning stages of
marriage may become outmoded two or three years later; roles will change

over time and in response to family life-cycle changes. In the daily acts of
being husband and wife, new ways of playing out roles are constantly
attempted. Role taking does not stop when a couple marries but continues
throughout the life cycle. For example, even among very egalitarian couples,
the transition to parenthood is associated with a return to more traditional
gender roles in marriage (Frederick and Balswick 2011). A couple may have
decided early in the marriage that one spouse would stay home with the
children when they are young. But when that spouse begins to imagine what a
full-time job outside the home would be like (role taking), a role conflict is
evident. When any new course of action is taken, the couple must carefully
consider its impact on household chores and responsibilities, cooking,
childcare, socializing, and so on. A small step now can make a huge
difference down the road.

The most troublesome adjustments in marriages are those not clearly
worked out ahead of time. In such situations, each spouse may have unspoken
expectations of which the other is unaware. Assuming that spouses can read
each other’s minds is a recipe for relationship breakdown. A typical example
is the wife who assumes that her husband’s agreement that she be employed
outside the home means that he will take on household responsibilities. When
he fails to do so, she finds herself doing double duty, a common complaint in
marriage that understandably leads to resentment. Many women who imagine
they are entering an egalitarian marriage have been disillusioned to find that
they are expected to be the superwoman who does it all.

A spousal role can be defined objectively by spouses, family, culture,
church, community, and society at large, but the one who performs the role
defines it subjectively. And there is rarely a one-to-one correlation between
the general definition of a role and how that spouse actually defines it.
Because each individual person is unique, role playing is always role

Each person plays the role of husband or wife according to one’s own
distinctive taste and style—a person embellishes the marital dance with his
or her unique flair. Marriages in which either partner has a prescribed
definition of what the other’s role should be will most likely encounter
trouble. It’s best to recognize individual differences and unique personalities
in taking on roles. During the Balswicks’ early years, Jack complained that
Judy was too much like her mother, a very spontaneous and expressive
person. Judy’s spontaneous ways would embarrass Jack, who was more

reserved, and he would reprimand Judy for her behavior. Talking about this
helped him see how his role expectation for Judy dampened her free spirit. In
fact, he realized that her outgoing personality was one of the things that
attracted him to her in the first place. Judy, in turn, was willing to be more
considerate of Jack in these situations. It led to an acceptance and
appreciation of each other as unique persons with unique personalities and
became a significant stepping-stone of growth in the relationship.

Tom and Gail married in May, moved across the country in July, and
started seminary in August. They had to rely on one another for help because
Tom’s parents were in Pennsylvania and Gail’s family of origin was in
Taiwan. One early adjustment involved negotiating dealing with others. For
example, Gail would interactive with wives and Tom would interact with
husbands separately at social events. In the car on the way home, Gail would
have a list of details and other information from the wives with whom she
interacted. She would then ask Tom about details from the husbands. He
would frequently respond, “I don’t know,” since he did not want to pry into
other mens’ lives. Initially, it was a little frustrating that Gail would learn
things about others that Tom would not. But eventually they learned to
appreciate how each of them uniquely interacts with those who would
become friends.

Adjustment in the Marital Dance
Throughout the marriage, role adjustments must be made for the sake of the
relationship. Whatever the reason, both partners must recognize the continual
need for flexibility. On occasion, a marriage is adjusted at the expense of one
or the other. Although this may occur from time to time out of particular
circumstances and by mutual decision, when one spouse always gives in to
the demands and needs of the other, it is a one-sided proposition. This is
contrary to perichoresis, which involves two people agreeing to make room
in themselves for the needs and desires of the other. Each learns to honor and
not compromise the unique contribution of the other. Reaching mutual
satisfaction through assuming marital roles is the goal. This occurs when both
spouses derive fulfillment and pleasure from the marriage union. Their
commitment to each other, the relationship, and the marriage permits
flexibility and creative openness to change that is in the best interest of both
spouses and the relationship.


A Model for Biblical

While the previous chapter dealt with some of the social and psychological
issues involved in marriage, this chapter applies our theological basis for
family relationships, as presented in chapter 1, to marriage in postmodern
society. Both modern and postmodern ideologies have influenced today’s
marriages. For the sake of simplicity, we use the term modern marriage to
refer to contemporary marriages that have been affected by both, in contrast
to the traditional marriage preceding these influences.

It is a common mistake for Christians to defend a cultural version of
marriage as the biblical ideal. They fall into this trap by reading the customs
of their own culture into biblical passages or by regarding the biblical
accounts of specific historical marriages as normative instead of descriptive.
Records of marriages during biblical times do not necessarily reflect God’s
intention for today.

While one mistake is to assume that what our society regards as traditional
marriage is biblical, another mistake is to uncritically endorse secular
humanistic ideals and ignore what the Bible and Christian tradition have to
say about the nature and purpose of marriage. Somewhere between these
extremes is what we believe to be the biblical model. Table 4 summarizes
the major characteristics of traditional marriage, biblical marriage, and
modern marriage, comparing them in terms of the four aspects of our
theological model: covenant (commitment), grace (adaptability),
empowerment (authority), and intimacy (communication). We will explore
each of these characteristics in depth. Close examination will show that both
traditional and modern relationships fall short of the ideal. Parenthetically,
we believe that social-science research will reveal the practical wisdom
contained in a biblical model of marriage. Recently, Day and Acock

(2013, 164) noted that “relational spiritual framework theory posits that
religiousness is associated with couple well-being through relational virtues
(e.g., forgiveness, commitment, and sacrifice).”

TABLE 4 Traditional, Biblical, and Modern Views of

Traditional Biblical Modern

Nature of Relationship

(to the institution)

(between partners)


Coercive Cohesive Disengaged

Nature of Sexual Intimacy

Dutiful Affectionate Self-centered

Male pleasure Mutual pleasure Personal pleasure


Law Grace Anarchy

(segregated roles)

(interchangeable roles)

(undifferentiated roles)

Rigid/Stilted Adaptable/Flexible Chaotic

Leadership and Decision-

Ascribed power Empowerment Possessive power


Mutual submissiveness

Absence of authority

Male-centered Relationship-centered Self-centered


Inexpressiveness Intimacy Pseudo-intimacy




Nonassertive/Aggressive Assertive Aggressive


Because Western laws have come to treat marriage as a contract rather than
as a covenant, the common statement “Marriage is a commitment!” is often
misunderstood. A traditional view of the nature of the marital relationship
focused on the notion that a couple should stay married for life; it viewed
marriage as a sacred institution that must be upheld at all costs. Preserving
the marriage took priority over each spouse’s individual well-being. There
was also a collective emphasis on loyalty to the group (family or community)
rather than to the individual. The individual sacrificed his or her (usually
her) preferences in order to maintain the institution and support the
collective. Over the years, this collective emphasis has given way to an
individualistic, “me-oriented” emphasis—the hallmark of modern marriage.
Tim and Kathy Keller (2013) report the results of a survey that describes
how many respondents feel marriages impeded personal freedom. From a
modern perspective, the marriage should be dissolved when the
relationship’s demands outweigh the benefits. The focus has shifted to the
individual’s right to personal happiness. Thus, commitment to marriage as an
institution is rejected when it interferes with the individual’s perceived right
to self-fulfillment.

Prevalence of divorce is one way to gauge the transition from viewing
marriage as an institution to marriage as a contract intended to maximize
one’s personal happiness. It was rare under the traditional system because of
an intrinsic commitment to marriage as an institution. Divorce was
unthinkable because it transgressed a strongly held belief that violating the
institution was morally wrong. The youth counterculture movement of the
1960s challenged these traditional ideas and asserted that commitment to the
institution was an invalid reason to stay married. Sexuality was ideally
confined to traditional marriage, but with the advent of birth control and
increasingly promiscuous sexual behavior, the individual’s happiness and
personal satisfaction were becoming more important. These shifting values
helped transform the nature of marriage (and divorce) from a traditional
institution to a relationship contract between two equal partners. Our
postmodern culture continues strongly to emphasize this self-absorption.

Accordingly, in the early 1970s, the divorce rate began to rise
dramatically and continued to do so for nearly ten years. We have seen a
flattening of the divorce rate beginning around the 2000s to around 50
percent. Social scientists now believe that one of the major reasons for this
phenomenon was that people who were unhappy increasingly turned to

divorce as a way to remove themselves from their past and to find happiness.
This turning to divorce was accelerated by several factors. First, we did not
know the negative consequences of divorce until much later, especially with
the publication of works like The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce
(Wallerstein, Lewis, and Blakeslee 2001). Second, social stigma regarding
divorce diminished as the definition of marriage changed. That is, marriage
is no longer considered an institution, so the dissolution of the marriage is
like the ending of other contracts. Divorce was pursued without fear of
shame or failure because the partnership simply did not fulfill its contract.
Finally, therapists tended to encourage the trend. In some ways, therapy
reifies the hyperindividualism of modern and postmodern views. Therapists
would subtly and not so subtly encourage people to end marriages that were
no longer satisfying so an individual could find his or her personal
happiness. Since therapists generally believed individuals had a right to
personal happiness, this value took precedence over commitment to the
sanctity of marriage as an institution.

In the modern marriage, continued commitment is contingent on self-
fulfillment. Indeed, one of the main criteria that sociologists now use to
measure marital success is happiness or personal satisfaction. A common
phrase describing marriage is that it is a 50/50 agreement where each partner
supports exactly half of the entire marriage. Dissatisfaction or unhappiness
occurs when an individual perceives their load to be greater than 50 percent.
A marriage is considered successful if the partners describe themselves as
happy or satisfied. Realizing that something is missing in the concept of
commitment to marriage as an institution, many people have discarded the
whole concept of commitment in favor of individual happiness. This is a
tragedy because commitment is the cornerstone of the marriage relationship.
The problem lies with too narrow a definition of marriage: in the past, it was
solely a commitment to the institution; in the contemporary secular view, it is
solely for self-fulfillment.

One way to frame this issue is to emphasize either the togetherness aspects
of the relationship (marriage is an institution) or the individualistic aspects
of the relationship (personal happiness is all that matters in the marriage).
Neither of these approaches the beauty of the biblical perspective that God
created humans in his image in the context of relationship. Genesis 2 recounts
that God saw it was not good for the man to be alone, so God created the
woman. The man recognized her as equal and complementary, bone of his

bones and flesh of his flesh; they became one flesh and were naked and not
ashamed (vv. 23–25). This is a beautiful picture of interdependency built on
complementarity and sacrifice.

Marriage is not only a commitment to the institution but also a commitment
to the relationship and the well-being of the marital partner. The relationship
is vital in and of itself and needs to be nourished to grow into all God
intended it to be. The commitment of Yahweh to Israel as depicted in the
book of Hosea provides a profound example of a commitment that endures,
renews, forgives, and restores. Marriages are strong when both partners are
committed to the institution, to the relationship, and to each other as persons.
Commitment only to the institution results in legalism; commitment only to the
other person results in humanism. A commitment to all three (person,
institution, and relationship) fosters a transformative, authentic marriage that
reflects or images (eikon in Greek) the trinitarian God of the Bible. This
biblical model takes into account the importance of caring for the needs of
the individual, the relationship, and the social system.

In the complex interplay (perichoresis) of the life of the Trinity—our
model for relationality—identity is not diminished in the relationships among
the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Modalism is a trinitarian heresy (Horton
2012) that views God as a single person in three different forms—Father,
Son, and Spirit. This distortion is reflected in traditional approaches to
marriage, in which the individual is subsumed in the marriage. Tritheism,
another heresy, views each person of the Trinity as a distinct, separate divine
being (Horton 2013). This distortion is reflected in humanistic or modern
approaches of maximizing individuality; the partner and his or her “needs”
and desires for self-fulfillment take precedence over the relationship. As the
church has rejected both modalism and tritheism, so should Christians reject
their implications for developing a trinitarian view of marriage.

A trinitarian view of God shapes our view of marriage as a covenantal
relationship between two complementary relational partners. Because of the
mutual interplay of the relational partners, their love expressed in the
covenant fosters individual growth and becoming. Each partner desires the
best for the other. Further, each partner learns to “take up their cross” (Mark
8:34) in denying one’s immediate, self-centered desires in order to benefit
the covenant relationship. Over time, individual needs are balanced with
togetherness needs as the covenant marriage grows over the course of the
partners’ lives.

The core passage in Genesis 2:24 reads, “Therefore a man shall leave his
father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one
flesh” (ESV). This “one flesh” perspective emphasizes both the individual
identity aspect of husband and wife while also highlighting their “one flesh”
unity. When these passages are used in the New Testament by Paul (in
Ephesians 5:22–33, for example), the emphasis is not on either one
(husbands or wives) or the one-flesh nature of the relationship. The focus is
on both the relationship and the individuals in the relationship.

This biblical model also speaks directly to a Christian view of marital
sexuality. In traditional marriage, sex is viewed as a right to pleasure for the
man but as a duty to be endured by the woman. In modern marriage, sex tends
to be self-centered, with the emphasis placed on each individual’s right to
personal pleasure. There is much to be said for the idea that married people
are to be fulfilled sexually, but when this becomes the dominant emphasis,
the relationship suffers and the real meaning of sexuality is lost.

The biblical response emphasizes person-centered, affectionate sex in
marriage. Scripture advocates mutual pleasure and mutual benefit. This
involves a mutual decision to give and receive in love. First Corinthians
7:3–4 clearly states that our bodies are for each other as the ultimate
expression of ourselves to each other.

The security that stems from a commitment to the marriage relationship
provides an atmosphere of freedom and willingness to learn together through
the sexual expression of love. Spouses learn to mesh their lives as sexual
persons in the security of relationship commitment. The biblical ideal, then,
is much more than personal sexual pleasure or one spouse submitting to the
other out of commitment to the institution of marriage. It is relating to each
other on all levels: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. The scriptural
concept of one flesh entails a mutual commitment to one’s mate, the
relationship, and the institution of marriage.

Relevant to covenant commitment is the finding by Ellison et al.
(2011, 404) that although general religiousness “bears a weak relationship to
marital outcome—sanctification strongly predicts desirable marital
outcome . . . [and] appears to buffer the deleterious effects of financial and
general stress on marital quality.” We would propose that couples who
define their marriage as a sacred relational union—what we call a covenant
relationship or marriage—relate to each other in sanctified and sanctifying
ways such as “going the second mile” when it comes to handling various

marital stressors. Likewise, in their study of marriages Day and Acock
(2013) report a positive association between couple well-being and the
relational virtues of commitment and sacrifice.

In traditional marriage, roles are inflexibly segregated. The husband usually
assumes the role of working outside the home, and the wife assumes the role
of homemaking and caring for the children. Most people who argue for
separation in marital roles are not aware of how recent this phenomenon is.
Until the Industrial Revolution, 90 percent of all families lived on farms, and
even as late as one hundred years ago, two-thirds of all families in the United
States did so. That the marital roles were far from segregated will be no
surprise to anyone who has lived on a farm. Whereas some kinds of work
were designated as the man’s or the woman’s province, both husbands and
wives performed manual labor on the farm, and both shared the
responsibility in raising their children.

The Industrial Revolution transformed the nature of the family and
economy, which had a profound effect on familial roles (Frederick and
Dunbar 2019). Industrialization fostered the view that the family is a separate
sphere from work and that men could earn enough money so that the wife
would not have to work outside the home. These separate spheres of work
and family life directly led to the segregation in marital roles developed in
the urban family, where home life and work life are divided. In this type of
family, the husband works outside the home, leaving childcare to the wife.
One would be hard-pressed to argue, on the basis of either historical or
biblical evidence, that woman’s place is in the home and that man’s place is
in the business world outside the home.

The modern view that spouses can take on any role in marriage in many
ways is refreshing, yet at the same time, undifferentiated roles may result in
chaos or conflict about what will get done and who will assume a given
responsibility. In the modern world, who does what is often worked out
according to a system of social exchange. This system is based on the simple
assumption that all relationships involve costs and rewards. What one gives
to a relationship is experienced as a cost, and what one receives is
experienced as a reward. Marriages thrive when the rewards outweigh the
costs for each partner. As long as one gets more than or as much as one gives,

there is reason to stay married. The concept of social exchange can be stated
as a formula: rewards minus costs equals profit.

Let’s imagine a couple trying to decide who will cook the evening meal.
The conversation may begin with the husband suggesting that his wife cook,
pointing out that he has had a hard day at the office and that he cooked the
previous night. The wife may respond that she has had an equally hard day at
work and that she cooked dinner three out of the last four evenings. The
husband may then agree that he will cook if she cleans up, washes the dishes,
and takes out the garbage. The point here is that this arrangement demands
constant bargaining and negotiating skills. Each partner keeps a running tally
of rewards and cost and they are constantly calculating the profit margins.
Disaster looms around the corner when roles are not agreed on beforehand.

We suggest that roles be clearly defined but interchangeable in terms of
gender and subject to change (with the obvious exception of biologically
determined roles like childbearing). In the case of segregated roles based on
a traditional view of marriage, tasks are predetermined according to gender,
with no room for change. In modern marriages, roles are often undetermined.
Determining roles through mutual agreement opens up creative possibilities
for husbands and wives to serve each other through their roles. They are
committed together in cooperative efforts to take on certain tasks of daily
living. They agree to periodically review how things are going so that they
can make changes when necessary in order to maximize their relationship

Although no Bible verses deal explicitly with marital roles, Scripture does
teach that everything ought to be done with a sense of order and harmony.
Assigning tasks on the basis of a person’s interests, skills, and availability is
a loving way to work out marital roles. It also respects differences and
recognizes the unique talents of each spouse and his or her special
contribution to the marriage.

Of the various tasks to be performed, parenting is without question one of
the most crucial. In the traditional family, the mother automatically does most
parenting and caregiving. Unfortunately, this leads to the neglect of fathering,
a major problem in our society today. In the traditional family, the distinct
division of gender roles and responsibilities leaves the emotional nurture to
wives and economic development to husbands. Modern families remove the
role of economic training from families and foster the male being removed
from the family as he is breadwinning. Both of these approaches to fathering

contribute to fatherlessness. In modern marriages, parenting roles and
responsibilities may be avoided or excused because of overinvolvement in
work and extracurricular roles, to the detriment of parenting. These parents
should increasingly prioritize the needs of children over and against their
career goals. Single- and dual-earner parents often rely on excellent
childcare facilities to fill in for them while they are bringing in the income.

In a biblical marriage, both the mother and the father are actively involved
in the parenting process. There is no biblical evidence that would lead one to
believe that a mother’s involvement with children is more important than a
father’s involvement. Scripture refers to the responsibility of both parents, as
in Ephesians 6:1–4: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is
right. ‘Honor your father and mother.’ . . . And, fathers, do not provoke your
children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the
Lord.” Coparenting seems especially critical in our day and age, as the lack
of effective fathering often relates to breakdown in the family system
(Lindsey, Caldera, and Colwell 2005) and many other social ills (Lamb

In the traditional marriage, roles are stilted and rigidly defined. There is
very little flexibility as to how they may be performed. In the modern
marriage, expectations are so loose that marital roles can be truly lacking.
Without any set procedures to bring stability to these roles, the marriage
relationship lacks integrity. The biblical marriage has flexible and
interchangeable roles as each occasion calls forth what is needed. These
roles are intended to foster authentic Christian character, leading us to
resemble Christ and his work in the world.

Since change can be expected throughout the cycles of family life, it is
vital that spouses be flexible and adaptable. Married life and family life are
at their best when they are neither predetermined nor undetermined but
provide structured security. This structured security allows spouses and
family members to experience the exciting process of each member working
for the good of the whole. Family members are empowered to serve others in
collaborative efforts.

Leadership and Decision-Making
Authority in marriage is persistently a controversial issue among Christians.
Until very recent times, authority in marriage exclusively meant a strong male

headship approach. Christians and non-Christians alike have adhered to the
idea that the husband is to be the head of the home, whereas the wife is
expected to submit to her husband. Recently in Christian circles, a renewed
philosophy of authority has emerged involving mutual submission. The
husband is challenged to love, serve, and submit to his wife, just as Christ
gave his life for the church. Paul argues that family authority should be based
on the model of Christ and the church. Ephesians 5:21 reads, “Submit to one
another out of reverence for Christ” (NIV), which prefaces perhaps the most
famous passage regarding family authority (5:21–33). Everything that
follows—husband-wife dynamics, parent-children relationships, and even
master-slave roles—is based in the context of the church’s submission to the
authority of Christ.

Modern marriages are opposed to the traditional male headship
arrangement and emphasize individual spousal power in marriage. While this
may present power dilemmas for spouses, it enhances equality, freedom, and
personal power. In particular, the postmodern perspective recognizes that
there are a variety of authority styles, determined mainly by cultural values,
and, therefore, not just “one” way to define authority in marriage. Each
couple, considering their generational and culture values, will determine
authority issues accordingly.

The system of social exchange plays an integral part in dealing with
personal power struggles in modern marriage. The focus is on the quid pro
quo notion of getting something for something—“if you scratch my back, I’ll
scratch yours.” Spouses are satisfied as long as everything comes out equal
and neither partner perceives things as unfair. However, it is hard to define
equal, and therefore authority and decision-making power may cause

Under a system of social exchange, negotiation is the best way to deal with
conflict. Each partner tries to maximize the returns on his or her investments
in the marriage. Accordingly, research shows that in this system, wives who
work outside the home have greater power in the marriage relationship than
wives who do not. The money earned can be converted into power, thus
elevating the authority of the wife in the marriage.

It should be noted that the system of social exchange is built on an
assumption about humans that is consistent with Christian thought—namely,
that people are basically self-centered by nature. In reality, social exchange
is a fairly good model to describe how many marriages operate. We would,

however, question the assumption that fighting for your own rights without
regard for a partner is ideal. The Christian worldview, by contrast, values
unselfish giving, mutual exchange, and even going beyond what is expected.
The goal is not to maintain power over one’s partner but to empower and be
empowered through the relationship.

Authority in Christian, biblical marriage includes dual submission to the
lordship of Jesus Christ and to each other. The chain-of-command view that a
wife should submit to her husband, who in turn should submit to God, is
popular in some Christian circles. This faulty authoritarian persuasion fails
to take into account the great news of the New Testament promotion of mutual
love, joyful service, and reciprocal submission.

Ephesians 5:25 reads, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved
the church and gave himself up for her.” From this, it is clear that headship is
to be understood not in the hierarchical sense of the husband’s lording it over
his wife but rather as taking the role of a suffering servant who gives himself
out of his love. Christ’s example as a compassionate servant who gave his
life for his bride, the church, is the model of how the husband is to be a
source for his marriage. Wives too are called to this same self-giving,
suffering-servant role. Mutual submissiveness, then, is the overriding
message of Ephesians 5.

In place of mutual submissiveness, the biblical marriage is based on the
concept of mutual regard. That is to say, the biblical view is for marital love
to regard the other as one would want to be regarded. This mutual regard
emphasizes empowering the other to submit to Christ in discipleship and
sacrifice. One way to conceptualize this is the idea of Christ as mediator.
Christ mediates one’s relationship to others (Bonhoeffer 1995)—in this case,
the spouse. When one is a Christian, he or she experiences a separation from
the world and an immediacy with Christ: “Although the direct way to our
neighbor is barred, [Christians] now find the new and only real way to him—
the way which passes through the Mediator [Christ]” (Bonhoeffer 1995,
100). In a Christian marriage, each interaction, each engagement between the
spouses, expresses Christ to the other. This mediation of Christ challenges
each partner to become more like Jesus in love and self-sacrifice. Stanley et
al. (2006, 289) report that sacrificial attitudes were found to predict the
maintenance of relationship adjustment over time.

At times one partner may be required to give much more than an equal
share to the marriage. God calls both spouses to give generously for the sake

of the other when sickness or some other circumstance makes it difficult for
one to give much at that time. Putting the interests of the spouse first out of
regard for his or her needs is the extraordinary way of the cross.

In the traditional marriage, there is little need for verbal communication.
What communication exists tends to take the form of pronouncements—
talking at, rather than with, one’s spouse. The husband as head of the
marriage legislates without consulting his wife. When conflicts or delicate
matters arise, they are often dealt with by sidestepping the issue. Verbal
communication is de-emphasized because meeting socio-emotional and
companionship needs is not considered a major part of marriage. Marriage is
regarded as an institutional arrangement that provides for economic needs
and social status.

Communication in the modern marriage can be characterized as a series of
declarations and demands that each spouse makes to the other. When
conflicts arise, confrontation is the way to get one’s needs and
disappointments out on the table. The motto is “Openly express what you
need from your mate.” While such openness can be refreshing when
compared to the traditional pattern, a combative posture and insistence on
satisfying personal needs will obviously obstruct a sensitive caring for the
other. Making aggressive demands, such as “I want my needs met regardless
of how you are affected,” results in counterdemands that ultimately lead to a

In a biblical marriage, the partners communicate by expressing themselves
in an open manner. When one talks, the other listens. They care about what is
best for their partner. Differences are dealt with by respecting each other’s
needs and desires. They make an effort to understand each other’s point of
view and to respond accordingly. There is an attitude of submission and a
willingness to consider giving up one’s own needs and desires for the sake of
the other and the relationship. Both spouses work together to seek solutions
through mutual and reciprocal decision-making.

Dual-Earner Marriage

Dual-earner couples bring a new dimension to marriage and parenting roles
in today’s world (Bianchi and Milkie 2010). Based on data from 2019, half
of all couples are dual career or dual earner. The rate of dual-earner families
with children has risen to 63 percent. Balancing career and family
obligations creates unique challenges for dual-career couples (Su 2019).
Economic necessity leaves many families little choice but for both parents to
work outside the home. As they consider what is in the best interest of
everyone concerned, they must decide whether both the husband and the wife
should work. If a couple decides that they will both work outside the home,
then the question is how to accomplish this in the most satisfactory way. In a
recent study, husbands with more traditional gender-role ideology had lower
marital satisfaction if their wives had higher levels of work and family role
conflicts (Minnotte, Minnotte, and Pedersen 2013). Additionally, husbands’
gender ideology also affected wives’ marital satisfaction, while wives’
gender-role ideologies had no effect on either spouse’s marital satisfaction.

The key to finding the right balance is learning how to manage work and
family so that neither impinges on the other in disruptive ways. We believe
that the working couple must proactively establish and maintain a balance
between work and family. The couple will be most successful in coming up
with a suitable arrangement if they (1) mutually contribute unconditional
love, grace, empowerment, and intimacy to their relationship; (2) have an
extra dose of cohesion and adaptability; (3) agree on priorities, recognizing
what is essential and what is nonessential in their family and work roles; and
(4) identify resources within themselves, their marriage, the family, and the
wider community to help them meet the demands of their dual roles.

In dealing with work and family conflict, two key dimensions are needed
(Frederick and Dunbar 2019). First, role salience is critical. Dual-career
couples need to acknowledge that both work and family demands are
relatively pressing at a given time. Within a biblical view of marriage, each
spouse acknowledges the importance of these demands as well as the
individual’s need to fulfill these demands. This means that personal identity
as both a spouse and a career holder is honored. Discernment, based partly
on this personal-identity perspective, enables each spouse to evaluate the
actual salience of each sphere’s demands.

Role satisfaction is the second dimension needed in balancing work and
family conflict. Each partner takes satisfaction in the many or multiple roles
they play in life. One’s overall satisfaction as a person is not subsumed in

either being a spouse or holding a career. One’s ultimate satisfaction is being
a child of God based on Christ’s saving work. Recall the words spoken at
Jesus’s baptism: “And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son;
with you I am well pleased’” (Mark 1:11). These words are spoken of each
Christian as we are adopted into the family of God via Christ. This is the
basis of our ultimate identity, which is expressed as we fulfill our other
callings as husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, and earners. As we
experience satisfaction in one role, the crossover effect builds endurance for
challenges in another role.

A comparison of dual-earner couples from 1970 to 2001 indicates that the
proportion of income contributed by wives relative to husbands has steadily
increased (Raley, Mattingly, and Bianchi 2006). It is a legitimate question
whether a husband’s contribution to housework and parenting tasks has
correspondingly increased. Some research notes a startling imbalance in
dual-earner marriages, as wives continue to do the majority of housework.
Those husbands who do contribute describe themselves as “helping out.” It
appears there is a dire need for dual-earning husbands to not only increase
their contribution to home and parenting tasks but also to change their idea of
being a helper to taking an active leadership role in parenting.

There are major benefits for both men and women in a dual-earner
marriage in which responsibilities are equally shared. The incorporation of
relational skills with household tasks further endears men to their families.
An important aspect for the man is the knowledge that his intentional choice
to be involved as a father leads to validation and appreciation. Also, when
the wife relaxes her household standards and parenting expectations, it is
much more inviting for the husband to willingly join in. Through the sharing
of roles, the wife is not only validated in her work role but more fulfilled in
her marriage and her parenting role.

A hard lesson for all dual-earner couples to learn is that they can’t do
everything! In prioritizing, they must learn to do a “good enough” job. Given
the economics of living in the United States, more and more couples are the
dual-career type. One reason is that marriage is increasingly delayed due to
educational demands and work. Each spouse then maintains their previous
commitments, including work, after marrying. Research suggests that work-
family conflict is more impactful for single-earner families than dual-career
families (Fellows et al. 2016). One important factor for dual-career couples

is having social support and a sense of community. They need all the support
they can get as they work toward a satisfying and meaningful family life.

A significant part of those family-friendly environments involves the
provision of high-quality childcare centers. Many churches are offering such
services to their community, meeting a need for many dual-earner parents. An
increasing number of young children spend some of their time in day care.
We would recommend that parents who send their children to childcare
ensure a high degree of values alignment between the parents and the day-
care provider. Parents must make every effort to secure high-quality day care
as well as be alert to the unique needs of the child in choosing a facility. The
relationship established between the parent and the day-care staff is crucial.
Children tend to thrive when they have a secure attachment to their parents
and their parents appreciate the special bond between their child and the
day-care worker. Parents and caregivers who are dedicated to staying highly
involved in their children’s lives will establish mutual trust and work toward
the best interest of each child. An important benefit is the perspective that
well-trained and experienced teachers have to offer when it comes to
developmental issues, routines, discipline, and care.

The Mindset at the Center of Christian Marriage
At the very heart of marriage is the willingness of spouses to let go of their
personal agendas so that they can truly listen to what their partners are
saying. Philippians 2 describes Christ as emptying himself and taking the
form of a servant. Kenosis, or emptying, as described in this passage is key
to our view of marriage.

It is really a matter of the attitude or mindset of grace and empowerment
(Phil. 2:5); this humble posture is characterized by servanthood and keeps
relationships and the best interest of others as a precious priority. When both
spouses willingly lay down their own interests for the sake of the other, it
will organically be a mutual and reciprocal process. The meaning of
marriage as mutual edification and ultimately a crucible for sanctification
means that each partner is continually challenged to develop the mindset of
Christ described in Philippians 2. One’s covenant-keeping entails (1) the
expression of grace as both partners need forgiveness; (2) mutual
empowerment as each partner bears one another’s burdens; and
(3) deepening intimacy throughout the process.

We should not overlook the Jewish and Eastern traditions that see
marriage as a gift for the community as well as for the couple. The family is
the foundation of strong societies, and supportive communities beget strong
families. It is wise to move beyond our individualistic bias and affirm that
the bond of marriage is strengthened when a couple invites a supportive
group of people to share in their commitment to their marriage and family

In this chapter we have sought to apply biblical principles of relationality
to marriage. A three-year longitudinal study of a community sample of 354
married couples by Day and Acock (2013) indicates that marital well-being
and religiousness (church attendance, religious practices, belief in God) is
mediated by relational virtue and equality. Specifically, not only do religious
activities contribute to marital well-being, but religiousness also heightens
the relational virtues of forgiveness, commitment, and sacrifice. These
relationship virtues in turn contribute to marital well-being.


The Expansion
of Family Life

Parenting and Beyond

In this section we move beyond the marriage relationship to parent-child
relationships. A strong marital relationship serves as the secure foundation,
while children are the building blocks through which the family structure
changes during each life stage. It is a universal truth that the couple
experiences a dramatic change when children enter—as well as when they
exit—the family. In fact, marital adjustment has been found to be at its highest
just before the birth of the first child and continues to decline until the last
child leaves home (Twenge, Campbell, and Foster 2003). Making the
necessary adjustments from the dyad to the triad can be relatively smooth for
some couples, whereas the transition to parenthood is a trying time for

Summarizing twenty-first-century research, Smock (2010) notes that the
“decoupling of marriage and childbearing” draws attention to the fact that
there are many pathways to parenthood. Remarking on these demographic
changes, Cherlin (2010) found that in 1950 only 4 percent of all children
were born outside of marriage, but by 2007, nearly 40 percent of all children
were born outside of marriage. Special consideration needs to be given to
each unique situation when responding to the particular needs of that family.

Parenting is more difficult than most ever imagine it to be! Building
relationships with our children continues to be one of the most rewarding and

challenging experiences of a lifetime. It brings both harmony and disharmony
to the marriage relationship. Children are also experiencing greater levels of
stress and access to information and situations that were unthinkable in
previous generations. Parents are facing these pressures external to the
family while they try to support the positive development of their offspring.

A major adjustment also occurs during the later stages of family life when
adult children leave home (or boomerang back) or when the care of elderly
parents brings other kinds of stressors to the couple. Like any sound group,
the family must have not only a well-organized structure to function
effectively but also one flexible enough to survive the twists and turns of life.
The following chapters present some blueprints for successful family living.

Chapter 6 introduces a model of Christian parenting that empowers
children to become competent, mature, responsible adults. We look at the
pros and cons of some common parenting styles and then offer a biblical
model that we believe incorporates the best of these styles. We propose that
as children mature, parents must also grow so that there is mutual
empowerment and transformation.

In chapter 7, we examine the life of the child from the perspective of
several developmental theories. We evaluate how these theories comport
with the Christian view of human personhood and indicate important aspects
in parenting young children. A primary concern in this discussion is the
matter of empowerment.

The topic of chapter 8 is family spirituality. We use this umbrella term to
represent the role of the family in inculcating values, morals, beliefs, and
religious faith within children.

Chapter 9 deals with the stresses and strains that can develop when
adolescence and midlife occur simultaneously. Important to this discussion is
the origin and impact of adolescence in modern/postmodern society. Crisis
often accompanies these life stages of adolescence and midlife, resulting in a
serious clash between the generations.

Finally, in chapter 10 we discuss the dynamics of the family in later life.
This begins with the launching of adolescent children, an ambivalent time of
life for both parents and children. Parents struggle to let go, while children
seek freedom and yet fear leaving the security of their homes. Following this
is the postlaunching stage, when parents move into the so-called sandwich
generation. At this time, parents feel the squeeze of dealing with both adult
children and elderly family members who are physically, emotionally, and/or

financially dependent on them. This period of family life involves losses of
many kinds, as well as gains reaped from meeting the challenges of changing


The Process of Relationship


A metaphor of what it means to be a child in contemporary society will help
us understand how parents provide empowerment to their offspring. Hyde,
Yust, and Ota (2010) offer the metaphor of children as active agents. From
birth, children are actively engaging and learning from their parents and their
environments. Further, children as agents illuminates how children, in limited
yet emerging ways, are developing shared meaning-making systems with
their parents. Childhood agency develops as children’s bodies and brains
grow and they attain more and more competencies.

In most societies, parents simply expect their children to grow up to be
normal, healthy adults—no special techniques are deemed necessary. In our
modern/postmodern society, however, parents are conditioned to believe just
the opposite—we presume we need the help of experts to tell us how to be
successful. Reliance on education and experts in diverse fields has subverted
the premodern view of parenting. Parents look to websites, pediatricians,
and other mental health professionals to identify the optimal path for
parenting. This sometimes reduces parents to a state of fear—afraid that they
may do something that will have a lasting harmful effect on their children. In
this psychologically sophisticated world, we have developed a cult of the
expert, keeping our eyes set for authoritative opinion and our ears attuned to
the latest wisdom on parenting. Living as we do in a child-oriented society,
we are extremely concerned about the parenting role.

One issue here is the transformation of the meaning of parenting. In
premodern cultures, the main role of parents was to teach children the family
trade. If a child was born to a farmer or blacksmith, the parents would teach

the child the skills essential to participate in that business. Further, this
would teach children their roles in the community. For modern and
postmodern parents, the emphasis is on meeting the needs of children to
enhance their flourishing. The modern and postmodern method for ensuring a
child’s flourishing is to engage them in many activities outside the home.
When it was time for Tom’s son Nathaniel to attend preschool at the age of
three, there was a huge amount of social pressure to decide which was the
perfect day care center based on educational outcomes and pedagogy! When
the open enrollment day arrived, we went to line up for registration at 5:00
a.m., and we were dismayed to see that there were already fifteen parents
ahead of us in line. For preschool day care! The point here is that these types
of decisions are assumed to have a profound effect on a child’s well-being—
that somehow this single choice would determine the outcomes of
Nathaniel’s life.

It is certainly helpful for parents to gain a solid understanding of the
biological, psychological, and social development of children so that they
have realistic, “age-appropriate” expectations. But in the long run, they need
to feel confident in themselves as they nurture, discipline, guide, and relate to
their own children. Together, husband and wife must be coleaders in
deciding what is best for their children. This develops as they integrate
expert knowledge with the personal knowledge that comes from building a
secure relationship with their unique children and empowering them to be all
they can be.

As contributors to the growing body of expert opinion, we hasten to point
out that our quarrel is not with expert opinion but rather with the dogmatism
under which some advice is given. We advocate informing parents about
child development and parenting methods as well as encouraging them to
critically analyze the information and compare it with biblical principles.
Parenting is inherently a values-based process. Parents need to listen to and
engage with expert advice and opinions and ultimately decide for themselves
if and how to apply these opinions in their families. One’s identity as a
partner and parent will inform how one parents his or her offspring. This
identity is crucial because the family is their family, and they will inculcate
this meaning and identity in their children. Effective parenting must always
account for the particular needs of each child and the family as a whole,
incorporating or discarding ideas accordingly.

Various New Testament passages describe the Christian life as growth
from spiritual infancy to maturity. Theologically, this process is called
sanctification, and the goal is becoming more Christlike. The new believer
starts as an infant and eventually grows up in Christ. One moves from a state
of dependency—in which others model, teach, and disciple—to a mature
walk with God. The book of Hebrews describes how new believers need
spiritual “milk” like a baby does, and the expectation is that someday they
will receive solid food as a mature Christian (Heb. 5:11–14). As this growth
occurs, the believer begins to disciple others. Although the believer is
always dependent on God and the Holy Spirit in that growth process, there is
also a natural progression in maturity, leading the believer to be used by God
to serve and minister to others.

The human developmental process encompasses a similar progression
from dependency and infancy toward maturity and adulthood. Maturity is
often defined as self-sufficiency and independence from one’s parents. Most
developmental theorists, however, hold that maturity involves more than
independence; it entails the capacity to contribute in a positive and
constructive way to the good of others. For example, Erik Erikson (E.
Erikson 1980; J. Erikson 1997) identifies the virtue of care as the hallmark of
adult identity development. In adulthood, the resolution of the struggle
between generativity and despair is one of the lengthiest stages. In this stage,
individuals identify, develop, and maintain commitments to career, family,
and community. These commitments and behavior result in care. However,
people may experience regret or lack of concern about career and family,
experiencing stagnation. As Donald Capps (2000, 2008) describes it,
stagnation results in acedia, which is apathy or a profound experience of
disinterest in and inability for empathy. This is a spiritual malaise. The
spiritual cure for this is renewing one’s spirit and understanding one’s
purpose. This means care is essential to Christian development.

The New Testament describes empowerment as the building up of one
another in the Christian faith. It involves loving and serving others and
helping them mature spiritually. This description is consistent with the
social-science literature regarding the type of parenting that helps children
mature. The parenting model we present in this chapter focuses on the parent-
child relationship. Each parent and each child is developing and maturing
throughout the entire process. We believe that our model, which emphasizes
empowering children to maturity, is a needed alternative to models that

emphasize control and coercive power. Our model is based on engendering
hope and growth in parents and children as they journey together toward

Speaking for a moment from our personal experience as parents and
grandparents rather than as experts, we would challenge parents to
concentrate less on the technique of good parenting and more on the process
of being a parent. Good parenting is a matter of interacting with our children
day in and day out. It is these day-to-day experiences that build our
relationships with them. The covenantal bond between spouses forms the
basis for the covenantal bond with the children, securing children and parents
together. Children experience the truth that their parents are with them and for
them, which provides security even when correction and discipline are
needed. Even though the suggestions that follow offer useful guidelines that
contribute to an understanding of the child-rearing process, parents can
function more freely and openly in their role if they are simply willing to be
more genuine with their children.

The Basic Components of Parenting Styles
Now that we have dispelled the notion that there is one correct way to parent
children, we will investigate what the social-science literature says about
various parenting styles. Parents and other primary caretakers have a
significant impact on children’s emotional, social, cognitive, and spiritual
development. While some parenting styles encourage growth and
empowerment, others hinder or block growth either by fostering dependency
or by expecting premature self-reliance. Before we analyze these various
styles, it will be helpful to examine some of the components that go into them
—namely, approaches to discipline and types of leadership.

Approaches to Discipline
Early research into parent-child relationships distinguished between

permissive and restrictive parenting. Proponents of permissive parenting,
while not denying the need for discipline, stressed that a child’s greatest need
is for warmth and security. The restrictive school of thought, while not
rejecting parental affection, emphasized that a child’s greatest need is for
discipline, responsibility, and self-control.

Recent literature has taken the same approach but describes the two main
dimensions of parenting in terms of responsiveness and demandingness
(Carlo et al. 2018). Responsiveness focuses on how parents are engaged
emotionally with children’s experiences and expressions of feelings. Highly
responsive parents tend to be more accepting of the children’s actions and
feelings and less punitive. Demandingness describes parents who have
higher behavioral expectations for their children and consistent enforcement
of those standards and expectations. Some of the research on parenting and
parenting styles also uses terms like support and control: Support is defined
as making the child feel comfortable in the presence of the parent and giving
the child a sense of acceptance and approval as a person. Control is defined
as directing the child to behave in a manner desirable to the parents.
Examples of control include giving guidelines and setting limits.

Based on the parental support and control dimensions, Diana Baumrind
(1996, 2005) identifies three types of parents—authoritative, authoritarian,
and permissive—each of which differs in effectiveness in eliciting
obedience and responsibility in a child’s moral/character development. A
number of studies have found that a combination of high levels of support and
control—authoritative parenting—is most conducive to developing
competency and mental and behavioral health in children and adolescents
(Akcinar and Baydar 2014; Larzelere et al. 2013; Pinquart 2017). An
interesting finding here is that authoritative parenting is associated with
better educational outcomes for children, among other things (Majumder
2016). The authoritarian style (low support and high control) produces
children who respect authority but who show little independence and only
moderate social competence. Permissive parenting (high support and low
control) tends to produce children who lack both social competence and

It is important to incorporate both dimensions into the parents’ style.
Children need both nurturing and emotional support and clear expectations
and parameters. As parents gain more experience and learn more parenting
tools, they begin building their parenting toolbox. We generally encourage
more gentle and supportive parenting strategies with children. As behavior
escalates, even when parents have been consistent in setting boundaries, they
may need to be firmer and more creative in establishing consequences for

Disciplining children takes time, patience, and wisdom. Parents who
employ corporal punishment as the primary or even exclusive method of
discipline are admitting bankruptcy in disciplinary approaches,
demonstrating an inability to be creative and effective. Although coercive
punishment does work when parents are attempting to eliminate certain
behaviors, it also teaches children that force is what counts. Consistent use of
physical punishment eventually leads to dominating or imposing power. This
may lead children to retaliate or try to get even. An effective parent wins a
child’s cooperation by leading rather than coercing.

A comprehensive study of African American, European American, and
Hispanic children examined the relationship between physical discipline,
emotional support, and behavior problems in children. It was found that
parental spanking increased the level of problem behavior in the child over
time, but only when maternal emotional support was low. Additionally,
corporal punishment was associated with higher degrees of parental
frustration regarding children’s misbehavior (Irons et al. 2018). Parental
support is a key factor in how children respond to spanking. The social-
science evidence is becoming more and more conclusive about the overall
negative effects of corporal punishment (Larzelere et al. 2010; Gershoff and
Grogan-Kaylor 2016). We strongly discourage using physical force with
children since there are so many other effective ways of discipline.

Unfortunately, the terms discipline and punishment are often confused in
our society. Some Christians defend physical punishment based on verses
such as Proverbs 13:24: “Those who spare the rod hate their children.”
However, in applying that verse, it is important to consider how the rod was
used in the pastoral culture of Old Testament times. It was an instrument to
guide ignorant sheep, not a means of beating them into submission. Note how
the verse concludes: “But those who love them are diligent to discipline
them.” Discipline is instructive and restorative, used to correct and teach
appropriate behaviors. The heart of discipline is to educate children in the
proper path.

It is important to recognize that child-rearing patterns considered
authoritarian in Western culture might be viewed differently in other cultures.
What seems to make for the best disciplinary parenting practice is the
certainty or consistency of the practice as opposed to its severity. For
example, Asian families frequently exert coercive control because of the

demands for high achievement and conformity in the culture. Children in
these homes tend to adopt their parents’ family and societal values.

The evidence suggests that corporal punishment and physical abuse tend
toward more negative child outcomes, and there is only a slight difference in
the size of this effect between abuse and physical punishment (Gershoff and
Grogan-Kaylor 2016). Continued exposure to corporal punishment is
associated with increased adult antisocial behavior, lower educational
outcomes, and maladjustment (Gershoff and Grogan-Kaylor 2016; McKinney,
Morse, and Pastuszak 2016).

Physical punishment leads to disempowerment, whereas natural and
logical consequences lead to empowerment. Punishment is ultimately
discouraging to a child. Children who are physically punished are receiving
a severe consequence for their action, but there tends to be little instruction
or guidance for improvement. Physical punishment emphasizes that the
parents are in control of the environment, which reduces a sense of personal
agency. The best way to empower children is to have them face the
consequences of their behavior and hold them responsible for their actions in
a consistent, firm, and loving manner. Recognition of the consequences of
one’s behavior leads to internal control, whereas punishment focuses on
external means.

Logical and natural consequences serve to stimulate children’s creative
responses. Parents who fail to honor and respect their children will find that
their children fail to honor and respect them. The traits of an effective parent
include wisdom, vision, a sense of humor, patience, encouragement, and
good judgment, not the exercise of superior power. Using everyday situations
to teach consequences promotes the child’s self-confidence, ability to take
others into account, and responsibility for one’s own behavior.

In our metaphor of children as agents who are able to influence and engage
their social environments, increasing self-regulation is key. Parents have a
crucial role in providing emotional support for their children—this is the
responsiveness dimension we discussed. Parents must also provide
consistent boundaries or standards, which reflect the demanding side of
parenting. Erring on the side of permissiveness or responsiveness fosters
adults who have difficulty managing their emotions and delaying
gratification. Erring on the side of demandingness results in rigid, distant,
and domineering adults who have difficulty connecting emotionally with

Types of Leadership
Building on research about leadership and small groups, we suggest that

empowered parenting involves two different types of leadership skills (J. K.
Balswick et al. 2003): instrumental and socio-emotional. Instrumental
leadership is task oriented, focusing on the things that need to be
accomplished in the group. Such leadership organizes activities, sets goals,
and generally keeps the group focused on accomplishing those goals. Socio-
emotional leadership, by contrast, is person oriented and concentrates on
maintaining a healthy relationship among group members. Research indicates
that both types of leadership skills are necessary if small groups are to
function well. Interestingly enough, it has also been discovered that the two
types of skills are rarely found in the same individual.

The studies on instrumental and socio-emotional leadership in small
groups apply to the family as well. Instrumental parenting aims at inculcating
beliefs, values, and attitudes. It involves teaching children what they must
know and how they must behave to be in good standing within the family.
Socio-emotional parenting attends to the emotional nature of the relationship
between parents and children. Whereas instrumental parenting focuses on
tasks and content, socio-emotional parenting focuses on the affective bonding
between parent and child (Baumrind 1996).

Alternative Parenting Styles
Having briefly defined parental support and control as well as the
instrumental and socio-emotional aspects of parenting, we are ready to
combine these two areas to discuss alternative styles of parenting and their
effects on children. We will consider various instrumental styles and then
several socio-emotional approaches.

Instrumental Parenting
Figure 6 represents the four styles of instrumental parenting. Two

dimensions are involved: action and content. Parenting styles can be
classified as either high or low in action. That is, some parents engage in and
thus demonstrate the type of behavior they want their children to adopt; other
parents make no such effort. Parenting styles can also be either high or low in
content. Some parents verbally communicate through a rich elaboration of

rules, norms, values, beliefs, and ideology; others simply do not bother to
teach their children.


Parenting that is low in both action and content is the neglectful style.
Proper behavior is neither displayed nor taught. Because the parents give no
direction verbally or otherwise, the children are on their own to latch on to
any social norm or form of behavior. The parent who is neglectful in
instrumental parenting is also likely to be neglectful in socio-emotional
parenting. This style leaves much to be desired, since the children lack good
supportive care and must learn by trial and error to fend for themselves.


Parenting that is low in action and high in content is the teaching style.
The parent, in effect, says to the child, “Do as I say but don’t look to my
behavior as a model.” Children in such a situation feel that they are being

preached at. Though this style may be effective in bringing about the desired
behavior in children, it may also breed disrespect for the parents, whose
words do not match their lives. As children mature, they become increasingly
sensitive to any form of contradictory behavior in their parents. The typical
teenager is quick to point out such inconsistency.

Despite its shortcomings, the teaching style is better than the neglectful
style. The teaching style becomes a problem for children, however, when the
parents’ teaching is inconsistent with their behavior. It may be that the
parents do not intentionally cause this confusion if they truly believe in and
desire to live up to the standards they enunciate but fail to do so.


Parenting that is high in action and low in content is the modeling style. It
also is only partially effective in that a child must rely entirely on observing
the behavior of parents to gain a system of values, norms, and beliefs.
Modeling does have some advantage over the teaching style, however. While
the teaching style lacks behavior to back it up, the modeling style offers the
behavior (but with little or no explanation of the values behind it). The old
adage that what children learn is “caught rather than taught” applies here, and
parents will find that modeling is an effective way to inculcate values and
desired behavior in their children. Recent research has verified that
modeling does have positive benefits (e.g., Kjøbli et al. 2013).


Parenting that is high in both action and content is discipling. This style is
complete in that parents teach their children by word and by deed. It is
curious, however, that while the concept of discipling is popular in the
contemporary church, it is rarely used to refer to parental training. The term
discipline, remember, is related to the word disciple, which refers to one
who accepts certain ideas or values and leads or guides others to accept
them as well. Discipling, then, is a system of giving positive guidance to

Socio-emotional Parenting
An important aspect of socio-emotional parenting focuses on the

attachment quality of the relationship between parents and children. A

resource we highly recommend for parents of young children is the work of
Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson. Based on attachment science and an
understanding of a child’s brain, The Power of Showing Up: How Parental
Presence Shapes Who Our Kids Become and How Their Brains Get Wired
(2020) offers the following building blocks (the four S’s) of healthy
development: safe, providing a place of safe harbor; seen, paying attention to
positive and negative emotions; soothed, being attentive to the hard things
they experience and teaching coping skills; and secure, providing faithful,
ongoing, trustworthy presence. Siegel and Bryson emphasize the significance
of parents attuning to children’s experiences so that their children experience
being felt and known. These experiences emphasize how children respond
when one or both of their parents demonstrate affective attunement. That is,
children experience a sense of validation when a caregiver responds in a
manner that demonstrates attunement. One important way for parents to attune
is to remain curious about what their children’s behavior is communicating
and respond to who they really are, not what parents want them to be.

Repeated experiences of positive relational attachment build children’s
brains to regulate and thrive. Effective and enduring mental health results
when parents teach children how to tolerate the inevitable stress and
distraction of their young lives through insight, empathy, and emotional and
bodily regulation. This model comports well with covenant, grace,
empowerment, and intimacy. In a distressing, unsafe, hyper-focused
postmodern world, it’s not about being perfect parents—it’s about showing
up, being present, and giving wise guidance. These are important components
for connecting and supporting children while also empowering them.

Figure 7 represents the four styles of socio-emotional parenting. Here
again there are two dimensions, support and control, each of which can be
classified as high or low. The four styles depicted should be thought of as
hypothetical rather than precisely representative of the way any one person
engages in parenting.


The easiest style to criticize is neglectful parenting because of its obvious
shortcomings. With low levels of support and control, little bonding
develops between parents and children. In many homes, particularly those
where economic factors play a devastating role, children are indeed
neglected. This parenting style can also be found in homes where our
modern, individualistic society leaves little time to meet the demands of
caring for and providing sufficient structure for the children. The latchkey
child may be a victim of this system. Single parents have little choice and
agonize over their lack of time to provide support and exercise control due to
the many other demands on them.

There are those who advocate this very free lifestyle for children. They
see no need to teach morals; rather, children should experiment and come to
their own conclusions about personal values. This philosophy emphasizes the
child’s right to discover his or her own beliefs and lifestyle and suggests that
character is built by allowing children to make their own way in the world.

This low-support, low-control style of parenting is characteristic of
disengaged families in which each member’s life rarely touches the others in
any meaningful way. It also characterizes many urban families in which both
parents work outside the home or in which there is only one parent. The
tentativeness of many people in making a commitment to another person may
be a result of being reared in a neglectful home.

We believe that a home without parental leadership is lacking a great deal.
Children who grow up without adequate guidance become fertile ground for
authoritarian leaders or cults that prey on neglected young people. Neglected
children experience a void regarding their identity and values, making them
ripe for manipulation. These individuals hunger for a strong, strict leader to
follow and obey without question. Such people are most susceptible to the
dictates of an authoritarian figure because they have never experienced
bonding with any authority figure. This happens because children are
desperate for connection, and they will seek attention, either positive or
negative, wherever they can find it.


When support is low and control high, we have what is called
authoritarian parenting. The children are likely to be respectful and
obedient to their parents. What is missing, because of a deficiency in the
bonding process, is a sense of warmth, openness, and intimacy between
parents and children. Authoritarian parenting has been found to be correlated
with child behavioral problems (Tan et al. 2012). A study by Gromoske and
Maguire-Jack (2012) reported that early spanking (at age one) is predictive
of social-emotional development difficulties by age five. In a variation of the
authoritarian style, the father is cast in the role of the instrumental leader who
expects obedience from his children and teaches them what they need to
know, while the mother assumes a socio-emotional role. There is high
emotional support in the home, but only on the part of one parent—the one
who is not seen as the ultimate authority figure. Compared to those with
authoritative parents, children with authoritarian parents tend to have lower
educational outcomes and prosocial behaviors like helping others, being
sensitive to needs, and offering help before asked (Carlo et al. 2018). This
pattern has been found in patriarchal cultures across the world where fathers
avoid becoming emotionally close to their children due to prescribed
parenting roles.


Where support is high and control is low, we have permissive parenting. It
assumes that a newborn is like a rosebud, needing only tender love and
support to blossom slowly into a beautiful flower. Present-day permissive

parenting can be traced back to the ideals of the counterculture movement of
the 1960s, which can in turn be traced back to the bohemian morality of a
century earlier. The thinking here is that every child has special potentialities
at birth that are destroyed by societal rules and standards. Therefore,
children need to be allowed to find their own purpose through free
expression. During the 1960s, this philosophy was epitomized in the slogan
“Do your own thing.”

Noticeably absent from the permissive style is any idea that children tend
to be self-centered and need parental guidance in learning values and
interpersonal skills. Consequently, children raised in permissive homes tend
to lack a sense of social responsibility; they also fail to develop
interdependence. A permissive parenting style has also been shown to be
related to a number of negative child outcomes, including the emergence of
children’s behavioral problems (Tan et al. 2012).


Authoritative parents combine the best qualities found in the authoritarian
and permissive styles. Authoritative parents attempt to direct the child in a
rational, issue-oriented manner; encourage verbal give-and-take; explain the
reasons behind demands and discipline but also use power when necessary;
expect the child to conform to adult requirements but also to be independent
and self-directing; recognize the rights of both adults and children; and set
standards and enforce them firmly. These parents do not regard themselves as
infallible, but they also do not base decisions primarily on the child’s

Children thrive in an environment of high support and high control. Carlo
et al. (2018) and Pinquart (2017) found that social competence in children
increases in matters of self-esteem, academic achievement, cognitive
development, lowered externalizing behaviors (acting out), creativity, moral
behavior, and instrumental abilities. Children raised in authoritative
parenting homes have an increased capacity to make good internal decisions.

Other Impacts of Parenting Styles
Researchers have begun to study the differing impact of parenting styles on
children according to the ethnicity and gender of the parents. Rodriguez,
Donovick, and Crowley (2009, 195) “showed the majority (61%) of Latino

parents as ‘protective parents’” and that “while mothers and fathers were
similar in their parenting styles, expectations were different for male and
female children.” Kawabata et al. (2011) observed that children’s relational
aggression was higher when they were raised by psychologically controlling
fathers but not by the same controlling behavior by mothers. Another study of
adolescents reported that although “authoritative mothering was found to
relate to higher self-esteem and life-satisfaction and to lower depression,”
for fathering “the advantage was less defined and only evident for
depression” (Milevsky et al. 2007, 39).

Parenting styles affect other areas of a child’s life as well. As might be
expected, children’s internet use is highest when the parenting style is
permissive and lowest when the style is authoritarian (Valcke et al. 2010).
Even when it comes to physical activity, children perceive themselves to
have higher fitness competence and value when their parents have a high
challenging style in physical activities (Kimiecik and Horn 2012). Parenting
styles have also been associated with obesity (Kakinami et al. 2015) and
physical activity (Poppert Cordts, Wilson, and Riley 2020).

It should be noted that certain kinds of parental control are more effective
and produce better results. For example, a coercive approach that forces a
child to act against his or her will usually results in low levels of social
competence in that child. Withdrawing one’s love to obtain compliance is
also ineffective. Inductive control—giving explanations, using reasoning, and
encouraging a child’s voluntary compliance by avoiding direct conflict of
wills—proves to be the most effective approach. Coupling this type of
control with strong emotional support produces competent children (Carlo et
al. 2018). Coercion has an adverse effect on the development of social
competence in children, which supports the type of empowerment we have
suggested above.

Biological Factors in Parenting
In chapter 2, we discussed the importance of biological factors in
understanding family life, including parent-child relationships. Some parents
may wrongly hold to a social deterministic view of parenting—thinking that
they have an amazing power to make sure their children grow up to be happy,
well adjusted, and free from any developmental difficulties. This sets parents
up for harsh judgment of themselves or their children, resulting in sure

failure. Instead, child development must be understood as an interplay of
biological and social-environmental factors. Parents of a child struggling
with hyperactivity, attention deficit, addiction, mental illness, or other
developmental challenges should be acutely aware of the biological factors
that play a major role in their child’s struggle.

Many parents find parenting to be especially difficult during the teenage
years, when biological changes enter the relationship dynamics. Significant
changes in a teenager’s endocrinology system mean that a child’s hormones
are expressed in mood swings and emotional-sexual struggles. In addition,
the brain is still undergoing normal developmental changes during late
adolescence and early adulthood. In fact, the brain does not reach adult
capacity until the mid to late twenties (Cohen et al. 2016). Adolescents are
prone to engage in risky behavior due to their inability to execute higher-
order thinking such as planning for the future, controlling impulses, and
setting priorities, and that inability impacts their judgment. Of course, this is
a cause of concern for parents because these judgments can lead to lifelong

If that isn’t enough, the developing self-structure of teenagers means that
they have an increasing desire to make their own decisions. In this struggle
for independence, teenagers may strike out in ways that tempt parents to ask
themselves, “Where did we go wrong?” Not only do parents need to offer
more grace to their children at this stage; they also need to offer grace to
themselves. In this spirit we advocate a parenting style that is relational in
nature. Open communication and firm guidance are achieved in the context of
warm, secure, and caring interaction.

A Biblical Model of Parenting
Having summarized the social-science literature on the effects of various
parenting styles, we will now present a biblical model, with the goal of
integrating these various materials into a model of biblical parenting.

We believe that a biblical model of parenting can be derived from the
scriptural depiction of God as parent. The nature of God is love. God cares
for us, is faithful to us, bestows gifts on us, redeems and forgives us,
disciplines and grows us, challenges and tests us, comforts and consoles us,
and is with us through the difficult times. Taken as a whole, the Bible clearly
emphasizes the love and grace that God freely gives (Gen. 6; Ruth; Matt.

9:12; Mark 2:17; Luke 19:1–8; John 3:16; Romans 3:24; 4:16; 5:1–20; Titus
2:11; Hebrews 4). Yet this unconditional love is not free of expectations and
demands. God’s love includes disciplinary action for our good. God’s love
as parent bears a striking similarity to the parenting style advocated in the
social-science literature: a high degree of support and of inductive (rather
than coercive) control.

The actions of God as parent clearly point to a model in which parental
love (support) and discipline (control) intertwine to help children develop
toward maturity. This model comports well with the theological basis for
family relationships that we introduced in chapter 1—covenant, grace,
empowerment, and intimacy. Parent-child relationships begin when the
parents make an initial covenant (a one-way, unconditional commitment) of
love with their child. This covenant makes demands and provides
stipulations reflective of God’s covenant with Israel and us. Although the
infant cannot return this commitment, as the child matures the initial covenant
should grow into a mature covenant (a two-way, unconditional commitment).
This maturing of the parent-child relationship is possible because the
covenant commitment establishes an environment of grace and forgiveness in
which parents empower their children and reach new levels of intimacy with

Initially, the parents need to maintain both parties’ responsibilities in the
covenant. The parents provide for the emotional and physical needs of the
child as is their duty in the covenant. Children in the covenant initially have
no responsibilities. As children grow in competence, their responsibility
grows more and more. Further, they increasingly engage intentionally in the
covenant relationship. This covenant is characterized by grace—a gift on the
part of the parents. Over time, children are exposed to both responsiveness
and demandingness, which empowers them by communicating their value and
identity in the covenant family. As children take on more and more of the
family identity and develop increasing levels of competence, more and more
mutual forms of intimacy occur.

This is illustrated by the story of Jesus’s baptism (Mark 1), where the
covenantal relations of the Trinity are expressed physically. The Holy Spirit
is there in the form of a dove, the speech of the Father pronounces love and
identity over Jesus, and Jesus is being baptized physically. The covenant
relation of the Trinity is Jesus’s identity—God the Son. This identity forms
the basis of Jesus’s actions in ministry—revealing grace and forgiveness,

empowering others via healing, preaching, teaching, and discipling, and
making intimacy with God possible (Heb. 5).

When each parent’s identity is based on Christ, we develop a
differentiation of self that is based on our adoption into God’s family. Our
primary calling as a Christian takes precedence over all other domains in our
lives. Differentiation in Christ means that we can parent our offspring in
noncoercive and noncontrolling means because of our experience of grace
and empowerment in Christ. We can extend grace to our children because of
our experience of forgiveness in Christ. We can empower our children as
opposed to controlling them as we are discipled in a Christian community
under the guidance of the Spirit. Finally, we can experience intimacy as we
are fully and authentically known by Christ.

In an ideal situation, the four elements of the parent-child relationship are
in a continual process of maturing: intimacy leads to deeper covenant love,
which enhances the atmosphere of grace, which strengthens the empowerment
process, which leads to deepened intimacy, and so on. This cycle is
relational and requires reciprocity, meaning that it is based on the
development of competencies in all relational partners. The foundation
consists of a faithful commitment and accepting environment where children
and parents can be vulnerable and open with each other. This relationship
connection promotes the empowerment process in which parents and
children learn to serve and to give to each other.

Empowerment is the central element in our biblical model of parenting.
Exactly what is involved here? Parents and children are initially at different
levels in their relationship. As Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy and colleagues
(Boszormenyi-Nagy 1987, 1996; Boszormenyi-Nagy and Krasner 1986)
remind us, this relationship contains ethical obligations. That is, parents are
ethically obligated to meet the needs of offspring, and children are in a
position to make those ethical demands. Children are not obligated to meet
the parents’ needs until they are adult peers. Good parenting is the wise
exercise of parental position and ability. Empowerment is the process of
instilling confidence, of strengthening and building up children to become
more powerful and competent. Parents who have been empowered by the
unconditional love of God and the Holy Spirit are best able to empower their

Jesus redefined power by his teaching and by his action in relating to
others as a servant. He rejected the use of power to control others and

instead affirmed it to serve others. Using parental power to serve our
children involves nurture, guidance, love, discipline, and empowerment.

The capacity to be a servant-leader to others requires a high level of
maturity and unconditional love. It demands that a person achieve a maturity
going beyond self-sufficiency to interdependence. Abundant life is more than
a narcissistic euphoria in which all one’s personal needs and desires are met.
It involves having a meaning beyond oneself. The admonitions in the New
Testament to submit to one another and to love, forgive, serve, and value all
of God’s people are actually a call to mature living.

The most striking example of mature servanthood is the way Jesus honored
children. His example is vital to developing a proper theology of power.
Like his approach to children, Jesus related to his disciples in terms of
empowerment. He even provided for a continuation of the empowerment
process after his departure: “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the
Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all
that I have said to you” (John 14:26). Jesus wanted them to have the capacity
and confidence to carry on the message. They had been prepared by his
teaching ministry to be independent and by his example to be servants.

Parents who empower their children help them become competent and
capable people who will in turn empower others. Empowering parents are
actively and intentionally engaged in various pursuits—telling, teaching,
modeling, delegating—that equip their children to become confident
individuals able to relate to others. Parents who empower help their children
recognize their inner strengths and potentials and find ways to enhance these
qualities. Parental empowerment is the affirmation of the child’s ability to
learn, grow, and become all that one is meant to be as part of God’s image
and creative plan.

Empowerment, from a biblical perspective, does not entail the child’s
gaining power at the expense of the parent. The view that the supply of
power is limited is purely secular. When empowering the children of Israel,
God did not give up power but offered it in unlimited supply. The authority
(exousia) of Jesus flowed from his personhood; it was in no way diminished
when he empowered his disciples. Similarly, the authority of parents, which
flows from their personhood, is not diminished when they exercise the
responsibility to nurture their children to maturity. The process of
empowering children does not mean relinquishing parental authority, nor are
parents depleted or drained of power when they empower their children.

Rather, when empowerment takes place, authority and ascribed power are
retained as children develop, grow, and achieve a sense of personal power,
self-esteem, and wholeness. Successful parenting results in the children’s
gaining as much personal power as the parents themselves have. In the
Christian context, children are empowered to love God and their neighbors
as themselves. They are capable of going beyond themselves to reach out to

Find a more detailed account of this biblical model in Relationship-
Empowerment Parenting: Building Formative and Fulfilling Relationships
with Your Children (J. K. Balswick et al. 2003).

The Case for Coparenting
It should be noted here that the relationship-empowerment model—our name
for the biblical ideal—is most efficiently achieved if both parents bring their
respective strengths to the process in a complementary way. There are two
types of complementarity. In the case of longitudinal complementarity,
parents complement each other over time. One parent may be better at
dealing with infants or young children, while the skills of the other emerge
once the children have developed greater cognitive ability. In the case of
situational complementarity, parents complement each other on a day-to-day
basis throughout their parenting years. Here the situation determines which
parental skills are most needed. Thus, at times, the parent who is more
capable of helping a child with homework is needed; in other instances, the
parent who is more able to provide encouragement when the child lacks self-
esteem is needed. Notice that these types of complementarity require a high
degree of communication and flexibility. This type of complementarity
allows each partner to express his or her needs (intimacy), express grace and
forgiveness as challenges arise, and be mutually empowering as talents,
skills, and responsibilities are developed and used to parent. All of this is
built on the covenant between the relational partners. Complementary
parenting offers an advantage in that one parent does not have to meet all the
child’s needs. The main point is that both parents have an essential role in the
empowerment of children.

While children benefit from having both parents involved, it is imperative
that parents agree on the basic parenting process. We would warn against
parental determinism—the view that parenting is a one-way process—for

there is sufficient evidence that “child temperament plays an important role
in shaping the coparenting relationships” (Szabo, Dubas, and van Aken
2012, 554). One certainly must take into account the personality dynamics
that play a part in the relationship between children and each of their parents.

Parenting that empowers children to maturity is conceptually similar to the
New Testament depiction of discipleship. Jesus gathered and trained
disciples, empowering them to “go therefore and make disciples of all
nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the
Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded
you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt.
28:19–20). Parenting follows a similar course. The ultimate reward for
parents and children is a relationship that grows into maturity so that when
the children have been empowered, they will in turn empower others.


Developing a Mature,
Reciprocating Self

The outcome of parenting, as was the focus of the previous chapter, is the
development of a competent, productive adult. In the United States, the route to
this outcome is fraught with concern and challenge. Parents are given many expert
opinions—often contradictory—that contribute to this sense of uncertainty about
parenting the next generation. This anxiety is further exacerbated by the internet
dumping an overload of information on parents, many of whom are ill-equipped to
evaluate the quality of the information being provided.

As we mentioned in the preceding chapter, we believe that parents need to
resist bowing uncritically before expert opinion and simple formulas that
guarantee parenting success. It is more important to develop a parenting
philosophy that takes into account cultural beliefs, family of origin (FOO)
heritages, personal strengths and limitations (both one’s own and those of one’s
children), knowledge derived from firsthand experience, and common sense.
Confidence in one’s ability as a parent comes from integrating these elements with
the clear findings of child development professionals and solid biblical
principles. Parents who wait with bated breath for the next gem of wisdom from
the so-called experts are setting themselves up for disillusionment when their
offspring do not automatically develop into the ideal children they were
promised. Child-rearing is a much more complex process than most people

In chapter 2, we introduced the family developmental systems perspective, and
in this chapter, we use developmental systems theory (DST) to understand child
development (Ford and Lerner 1992; Lerner 2018). Consistent with biblical
assumptions about human nature, DST provides an integrative approach to child

Many child development theories are limited in that they split explanations of
development into oppositional camps—nature versus nurture, individual versus
the group or family, mechanistic versus organismic, continuous versus

discontinuous (stage) development, and so on. In its emphasis on relationalism,
DST emphasizes the interaction among all factors that contribute to human
development. In other words, DST incorporates the context of the individual’s
development (family, community, etc.) into understanding how biological, genetic,
relational, and psychological factors affect human competence.

Rather than focusing exclusively on the unique contributions of nature or
nurture, DST emphasizes the interaction between them as playing a significant
role. A proper understanding of child development must consider an interactive
rather than an additive process. It is not enough simply to add together the
influence of the mother, plus the father, plus other family members, plus peers,
plus school and church; we must consider the overall impact of all these factors
interacting together on the development of a child.

Some key assumptions in DST (Lerner 2018) are that (1) child development
includes a multiplicity of biological, cultural, social, and psychological
influences; (2) influences are reciprocal in that parents not only affect their child
but also are affected by the child at the same time; (3) each child is a unique
human; (4) the development of each child is different; (5) children are active
choosing agents, participating in their own development; and (6) children are
created for community. At the end of this chapter, we revisit these basic
assumptions as we critique child-development theories in light of biblical
assumptions about being human.

Jack Balswick, Pamela King, and Kevin Reimer (2016) seek to understand
human development from a Christian theological viewpoint. In doing so, they note
that developmental theories lack a guiding teleology, an understanding of the goal
of development. Implicit in all theories is a soft teleology, or the idea of what is
optimal human flourishing. There is a lack of consensus regarding this ultimate
goal of human development, as each theory and researcher tends to focus on a
limited number of variables and theories of human nature. Balswick, King, and
Reimer cite this lack of teleology as a developmental dilemma resulting from the
lack of a theologically informed understanding of development completeness. The
naturalistic assumption underlying most developmental theories alludes to
survivalistic inclinations (humans evolve based on characteristics that best
contribute to the survival of the human species) but lacks theological explanation.

A secondary issue tied into the developmental dilemma concerns the difference
between description and prescription. Many developmental theorists and
researchers attempt to describe the natural process of human development over
the course of the lifespan. This description is needed to understand and document
how humans change over time. When experts try to popularize these theories and
research, they are offered as normative or prescriptive, meaning that this is how

human should change over time. A move from description to prescription is a
move from science to scientism. It incorporates morality as important questions
arise: Does this theory and research contribute a moral good? Does this
understanding of development consider cultural and other influences on human
development? How does this research reflect naturalistic or mechanistic views of
human nature (called psychological anthropology)? Science alone cannot answer
the questions of the developmental dilemma—we must propose a theological

In response to the developmental dilemma, we begin with the assumption that
humans are created to reflect the image of God. The theological dimension of
human development is sanctification, or the process of becoming Christlike.
While part of that image includes rationality (mind), the relationality of God, as
exemplified in the relationship among the three persons of the Holy Trinity, is also
a core part of that image. Being created in the image of God encompasses a
relationality that simultaneously includes differentiation and unity. From a
theological perspective, the goal or purpose (teleology) is for people to develop a
mature, reciprocating self—a self that in all its uniqueness engages others in
relationships (Balswick, King, and Reimer 2016) that reflect the renewed or
sanctified nature of Christ. As Hebrews 1 reminds us, Jesus Christ is the perfect
image of God, representing humanity and allowing access to God the Father.
Therefore, our understanding of child-development theories centers on how each
child develops into a reciprocating, relational self with respect to God and others,
as emulated in the incarnation of Christ, the perfected image of God.

Theories of Child Development
Theories of child development consist of systematically organized knowledge
accumulated through empirical observation of children. A good theory is like a
pair of glasses in that it allows one to focus more sharply on that which is being
observed. This is important to remember, as each theory tends to focus on a select
aspect or domain of human development. These theories tend to describe distinct
aspects of child development, and they shed light on the total developing person
when taken together. We draw attention to the major child development theories
so that we aren’t blinded by one theory while ignoring the others.

To illustrate this point, let us suppose that representatives of the major theories
of child development are watching a child playing in the family living room.
Although the observers will be exposed to the same behavior, they will not see it
through the same set of lenses. Each observer will perceive the child’s activity
through lenses of predetermined notions about human behavior. The cognitive

development theorist will be especially aware of the particular stage of
development; the psychoanalytic theorist will look for unconscious motivations in
overt behavior; the symbolic interactionist will concentrate on the child’s self-
concept; the social learning theorist will pay special attention to what the child
has learned from observing others. Although it is not a conscious process, all
theorists engage in selective perception, viewing the child’s actions in accordance
with their own general conceptualization of human behavior.

It is also important to discern the goal of each developmental theory. In The
Reciprocating Self (Balswick et al. 2016), we learn that each stage theory’s
teleological focus is described in the final stage of development. In other words,
the highest accomplishment or the competence that humans should strive for
occurs in or is described by the final level of development. We need to understand
the Christian-worldview implications of these views of human flourishing in
order to discern their relationship to the reciprocal self and becoming more

Table 5 compares the major theories of child development that conceptualize
development as emerging in specific sequential stages. After presenting brief
summaries of each theory introduced in table 5, brief summaries will be given of
four important non-stage-specific theories—object relations, social learning,
sociocultural, and social ecology. Due to the specific nature of moral
development theory and faith development theory, they will be summarized in the
following chapter on family spirituality. A good strategy is to consider how these
theories are complementary and not just contradictory in yielding insights into the
child development process. As a summary, we will compare and contrast the
strengths and limitations of each based on biblical assumptions about being

Psychoanalytic Theory: Internal Focus
The father of psychoanalytic theory, Sigmund Freud, began by describing the

newborn baby as all id—a bundle of unrestrained instinctive energy seeking
gratification via expression. Although he posited that the id contained both a
positive instinct (Eros, or life) and a negative instinct (Thanatos, or death), Freud
described the id as amoral, impulsive, and ruled by unconscious and irrational
demands for immediate gratification. In other words, the motivating or animating
force for human development is the gratification of one’s instinctual drives.
Therefore, Freudian psychological approaches are often referred to as drive-
reduction models. The id seeks the immediate gratification of these drives
regardless of social context. Freud saw parents as attempting to impose their own
wishes on the child, which when internalized by the child formed the superego.

You can imagine the internal struggle between the id wanting immediate
gratification and the superego (the internalization of parental wishes) seeking to
deny the immediate gratification of impulses of the id. The superego operates as a
moral police officer attempting to contain the id, or to find more socially and
morally appropriate expressions of id impulses. The third part of the personality,
the ego, develops out of the struggle between the id and the superego. The ego
(self) functions as a type of internal diplomat. The ego attempts to calm the wishes
of the id and the superego by finding acceptable ways of rewarding each. The
superego rewards the ego by building up self-esteem but punishes the ego with
guilt when it does not comply (Freud 1949, 1954).

TABLE 5 Major Stage-Specific Theories of Child




Cognitive Development

(Moral) Fowler (Faith)


Oral Trust Sensorimotor Undifferentiated


Anal Autonomy Preoperational Obedience


(4–6) Early

Genital Initiative


Industry Concrete




Identity Formal




Intimacy Maintaining
social order



(30–45) Generativity Social
contract and


(46–) Ego integration Universal


Parenting from a psychoanalytic perspective can be thought of as a journey
through a minefield of potential dangers. If parents are overly rigid and
moralistic, they risk suppressing positive aspects of the life force residing in the
id. If they are too permissive and fail to provide adequate boundaries for the
child, they risk allowing the formation of a child with an inadequate superego,
resulting in the unchecked id running wild. Effective parenting is a balance of
allowing a child’s expression of innate creativity while at the same time taming
the child through societal behavioral norms.

According to the psychoanalytic theory of the personality, healthy development
is characterized by a strong ego, which can monitor the extreme demands of the id
and the superego. During their first six years of life, children move through three
developmental stages—oral, anal, and genital—in which they must negotiate
their need for gratification with parental and societal approval. In Freud’s theory,
eros and thanatos are encapsulated in the sexual organs’ development. Freud’s
theory is based in the appropriate expression of id drives that are mainly
sexualized in nature (except for the latency stage, where these drives lie in a
dormant state). Secure gender identity and self-esteem develop during the latency
stage (age seven to twelve) if a firm foundation is established during the first six
years of life. If earlier conditions were less than ideal, the child may have
difficulty relating to others and experience increasing self-doubt and lack of self-
esteem. The internal conflicts (id, ego, and superego) are experienced through
each stage of the relationship with parents. When relationships with both parents
are strong and unwavering, the child will feel a sense of well-being and worth.

Erikson’s Neopsychoanalytic or Psychosocial Theory: Infancy
through Adulthood
In traditional psychoanalytic theory, the basic personality is thought to be

formed by puberty, with minimal change likely thereafter. Two major
contributions to our understanding of psychoanalytic human development are
provided by Erik Erikson (1968, 1985), who argues that development continues
into adulthood. First, Erikson suggests eight developmental stages (as opposed to
the five stages proposed by Freud), the last emerging at approximately age forty-
five. Erikson focuses on how parents and wider psycho-historical and social
factors affect a person’s learning each stage-specific developmental task. Mastery
of the developmental tasks at each stage is vital to successful achievement of the
tasks at the next stage.

The degree of mastery determines the strengths and deficits with which an
individual develops. The mastery of these strengths resulted in what Erikson
referred to as virtues or vitalities for the individual. To arrive at maturity (the last

stage of development) with a sufficient sense of ego integrity, one must have
achieved trust, autonomy, initiative, industry, identity, intimacy, and generativity
during the previous seven sequential stages. At the opposite extreme are those
individuals who end up in a state of despair because they have experienced
mistrust, shame and doubt, guilt, a sense of inferiority, role confusion, isolation,
and stagnation sequentially during the developmental stages.

A major strength of Erikson’s theory is its recognition of the importance of both
familial and extrafamilial influences on human development. Recognizing the
cumulative effects of experience throughout the life span, the theory also suggests
interventions to help those who have been socially or psychologically deprived at
a specific stage of development.

Cognitive Structural Theories
We now turn to cognitive structural approaches to human development. This

transition is facilitated by a change in how psychologists understand and study
humans. First, we notice that both Freud and Erikson attempt to describe more
general human characteristics. Their theories are more global. For example,
Freud’s theory attempts to explain why people make verbal mistakes (i.e., a
Freudian slip) all the way to why a person marries someone else or chooses a
specific vocation. Second, in moving toward the cognitive revolution in
psychology, theorizing and research focus on more limited human phenomena like
language learning or moral development. Finally, there is an increasing emphasis
on understanding the interrelationships among biological, neurological, and
psychological processes (like thinking) that are reflected in the research.
Cognitive structural approaches like those of Piaget, Kohlberg, and Fowler share
an emphasis on combining an understanding of the need for brain development to
occur before a child is able to achieve a specific level of cognitive, moral, and
faith development. In other words, the brain has to have the neurological
mechanisms in order for the cognitive, moral, and faith psychological processes
to be developed.

Cognitive Development Theory: The Child as a Developing Scientist
While cognitive development (CD) theory singles out the cognitive aspects of

human development, it should be noted that Kohlberg’s moral development model
and Fowler’s faith process model, while reflected in table 5, will be discussed in
chapter 8 as part of the topic of family spirituality. Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget
starts with the assumption that children are not merely passive objects but also
active agents in constructing their personal reality; that is, they turn all life

experiences into action. In a rational fashion, the child continually attempts to
make sense of the world. Piaget bases his theory on qualitative data, mainly from
observing his own children; he observed how babies make use of their natural
reflexes as they contact an object or a person. The child is a “little scientist,”
learning by acting upon the world. Children are discovering the scheme into
which a thing fits so they can act toward it consistently. A ball is to be bounced,
but a dog will bark, growl, move away, or bite. Therefore, the child learns to act
accordingly by picking up on these cues. The acquisition of language brings a
wide variety of new possibilities. With time, the child learns to discriminate
between and distinguish parents as “Mommy” or “Daddy” and strangers as “man”
or “woman” (or “boy” or “girl”). In analyzing this process, Piaget uses the terms
assimilation, accommodation, and equilibration. Assimilation is taking
information in and construing it in terms of one’s established way of thinking.
Whatever is perceived is made to fit into existing schemes. The more refined a
scheme, the less likely it is that new pieces of information will be misplaced
(Piaget 1932).

However, if children could assimilate experiences only into existing
categories, no new scheme would emerge. And because many things do not fit into
existing schemes, new schemes must be formed. This is the process of
accommodation: altering the existing cognitive structures to allow for new objects
experienced. Children continually engage in assimilation and accommodation.
The balance between the two is equilibration. People with mature cognitive
structures engage in both assimilation and accommodation. People with immature
cognitive structures fail to engage in one or the other and thus do not achieve
equilibration (cognitive balance).

According to Piaget, cognitive development in a child takes place in four major
stages. The first is the sensorimotor stage, which covers the period from birth
until about two years of age. During this stage, children are primarily focused on
basic motor skills and learning to adapt their behavior to their external
environment. The child classifies objects by acting upon them. In the process, the
child begins to grasp the idea of object permanence—that is, to realize that
objects that are out of sight have not ceased to exist.

Children also learn to coordinate the different parts of the body during the
sensorimotor stage. For example, when trying to reach for an object, they will
stand on their tiptoes and stretch their arms as high as they can. Toward the end of
the sensorimotor stage, children intentionally engage in goal-directed behavior;
that is, they push a chair up to the table and then climb on the chair to get the
cookie on the table, all in an orderly sequence.

Mastery of linguistic skills is primary during the preoperational stage, in
which children are able to name objects, to place words together into meaningful
sentences, and to begin to construct a view of reality.

Because the acquisition of language skills is so complex, the thinking and
behavior of a child are characterized by unsettledness, fear, and confusion—
precisely why this stage is referred to as preoperational. For example, the child
may conclude that firefighters, since they always appear at the scene of a fire, set
fires, or that police initiate trouble. Parents must be mindful that children need
help in logically explaining the events they experience. It is natural at this stage
for children to think everyone else experiences the world as they do. If they are
happy, they project happiness onto everyone else; when they are sad, then
everyone else must be sad.

Eventually children are able to move beyond self-focused thinking. At about
seven years of age, they reach the stage of concrete operations, when thought
processes become more stable and consistent. Children at the concrete operations
stage can understand the principle of invariance (certain matters of space and
weight are in some sense unchangeable regardless of the shape). For example,
children at the concrete operations stage understand that the water’s volume does
not change, no matter the shape or size of the container it is poured into. Children
at this stage are also avid collectors since they love to classify and arrange their
priceless objects on the basis of color, size, shape, and every other aspect
imaginable. This reflects an expanded reasoning ability.

At the formal operations stage, children understand causality and can perform
scientific experiments. By using deductive reasoning, they formulate hypotheses,
carry out experiments, and reach conclusions based on evidence. At this point in
children’s lives, there is an increased concern for basic values and truths. Formal
operations is the teleological trajectory for Piaget. The highest level of human
cognitive flourishing is described as the attainment of formal operational thought.

Object Relations Theory: The Child as an Object Needing Love
Even though object relations theory is rooted in psychoanalytic theory, it is

useful in understanding the child’s development of self within the context of
parent-child relationships. Object relations theory emphasizes the development of
the self or personality within the context of an infant-caregiver relationship. This
is actually the strength of object relations theory compared with classic Freudian
approaches. An important assumption of Freud’s understanding of human nature is
that drives are satiated by nonspecific objects. This means that any mother could
fulfill the drives of any infant. Object relations theory contends that the early
interactions of a child and its most intimate caregiver, usually the mother, shape

and form personality. That is, the specific mother-child relationship uniquely
influences how the child develops.

In object relations theory, there is a shift from biological to interpersonal
determinism and a corresponding change from an internal to a relational
structural model. Melanie Klein (1932) is a transition figure (Greenberg and
Mitchell 1983) in the development of object relations theory and practice. She
replaced biological drives with psychological and relational drives. Her work
brought about a major paradigmatic shift from biological determinism to a
perspective that took into consideration the significance of interpersonal

The core element in Klein’s theory consists of the internalization by the child of
its relationship with the primary caregiver(s). Klein’s theory has similarities with
Freud’s drive theory, but she changes the essential nature of the drives. Klein
posits the essential relatedness of human beings; children are essentially
relational in nature (Ogden 1990). Children are born with drives that inherently
have objects that can satisfy the drives (Greenberg and Mitchell 1983; Ogden
1990). Klein sees early relationships between mother and infant as primarily an
internal event for the child, who cannot differentiate between the experience and
the meaning of the experience (Ogden 1990). “Klein conceives of early infantile
experience as nonsubjective (that is, devoid of a sense of ‘I-ness’)” (Ogden
1990, 27).

Once internalized, the internal object can bring the child comfort or pain. No
matter how well the caregiver interacts with the infant, the infant most likely will
internalize an object with some negativity. The internalized object then becomes
an organizing principle for future interactions. If the child internalizes a good or
safe object, he or she will feel secure and will be able to form positive
relationships. If the child internalizes an anxious or hateful object, he or she will
anticipate having negative experiences in other relationships.

Donald Winnicott’s (1971) version of object relations theory strongly
emphasizes that the mother or the caregiver is almost solely responsible for
influencing the development of the self. He refers to the “holding environment,”
since a mother provides a physical and psychological space where the baby
experiences a sense of well-being. In this secure holding environment, the infant
begins to gain a sense of self and other (Grolnick 1990). The mother as an internal
object provides a sense of security and safety. If the holding environment is
adequate (good enough), the infant’s needs are satisfied. A crucial element of this
holding environment is how mothers respond to and reflect the experiences of
their infants. Parents attuned to the baby’s physical and emotional needs provide
the foundation for trust and security. The good-enough mother can also find a

balance between empathetic gratification of the infant’s needs and satisfying her
own needs. Parents attuned to the child’s needs mirror the child’s behavior and
feelings. For example, a mother is mirroring her child when she produces the
same sounds of delight the infant produces when he is lifted into his mother’s
arms. Rather than ignoring or overwhelming the child, an appropriate response
provides an authentication and validation of a child’s sense of self.

Transitional space (psychological space) emerges through the process of
internalizing the presence of an emotionally attuned but nondemanding parent. The
child who has internalized the parent as a good object has the capacity to be
alone. Sometimes a transitional object (a special blanket or stuffed animal) can
help the child internalize the mother. By symbolizing the calming presence of the
caregiver, transitional objects allow toddlers to feel secure even when they are

Transitional space allows for the expression of the true self. The true self is the
authentic, spontaneous self, aware and comfortable with his or her uniqueness.
The false self is a result of a lack of transitional space. The major contributors to
the false self can be seen in the extremes: absent parents or impinging parents.

In summary, a good holding environment includes a present, mirroring, non-
impinging mother; transitional space; and a fostering of the ability to be alone.
Transitional space is created by the nondemanding, good-enough mother in a
holding environment where she mirrors the child in a non-impinging way.

Social Learning Theory: The Child as Learner
During the past half century, behaviorism has been shaped by the creative

research and writing of B. F. Skinner. Skinner (1953) developed what is known as
operant conditioning, which is a modification of classical conditioning. Rather
than using a stimulus to bring about a desired response, Skinner’s model
emphasizes reinforcement—that is, a system of rewards for desired behavior and
punishments for unacceptable actions. The basic principle here is that
consequences shape and maintain behavior. Operant conditioning has proven
useful in bringing about changes in behavior.

Social learning theory emphasizes learning by observation rather than through
direct reinforcement (Bandura 1977). Children learn how to behave by observing
the consequences of the behavior of other people. For example, children learn not
to hit other children on the playground primarily by observing that children who
do hit others experience negative consequences, such as getting hurt themselves or
being reprimanded by a teacher.

Social learning theory also observes that children learn from the modeling of
parents and important others in their lives. As role models, parents influence their

children in both positive and negative ways. Comparison of direct learning
(reinforcement) and indirect learning (observation and imitation of modeled
behavior) reveals that modeling is more effective. The application is obvious:
effective parents are those who model the behaviors they want their children to

The idea that learning comes through the child’s observation and interpretation
of behavior implies a self-consciousness and self-determination within the child.
Change, then, can be activated both by environmental stimuli and by the child, a
discovery that has enhanced learning theory.

In Albert Bandura’s concept of reciprocal determinism, three factors
reciprocally influence one another: behavior, the person (i.e., one’s cognitive
makeup), and the environment. Children not only change their environment but are
being changed by it. Children do not simply react to their parents but act upon
them and influence how they parent. The colicky baby elicits a different parenting
response than the easy baby does, just as the way the parent deals with the baby
affects the baby’s response. Although social learning theory doesn’t stress innate
or biological factors, it views children as actively involved in the construction of
their environment and thus in their own developmental process.

Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory: Parenting as Scaffolding
In the 1930s, in forming a sociocultural theory of child development, the

Russian theorist Lev Vygotsky concentrated on the relational influences on
children as they live in a sociocultural context. Vygotsky paved the way for
understanding how culture affects development and how language serves as the
primary vehicle for the transmission of cultural information. Vygotsky’s concept of
the zone of proximal development is especially helpful in understanding how a
child masters a task. The zone contains the range of tasks that a child cannot yet
accomplish without the active assistance of parents and others (Vygotsky 1986).
The expansion of the child’s skill comes through interpersonal relationships since
children’s immediate potential cannot be magically realized on their own. The
child learns new skills each step of the way in the context of relationship support
until he or she masters a specific task.

The child is a collaborator, learning new skills through interactions with more
cognitively advanced people. Parents must create what Vygotsky refers to as
appropriate scaffolding. Those who provide an adequate scaffold (not too much
or too little support and control) provide an optimal learning environment. The
scaffold extends just slightly beyond the child’s abilities but never so far beyond
as to create unreasonable expectations that end in failure. The concept of
scaffolding is similar to the empowerment principle, according to which

guidance, assistance, and support are given so the child reaches his or her full
potential and mastery. When parents do too much or “take over,” the child is
disempowered and feels inadequate and dependent. When the child accomplishes
a task on his or her own, the parent wisely removes the scaffolding. The child is
now competent and confident and has no need to be dependent on the parents.

Children require a high level of interpersonal commitment as they develop. It
follows that abused or neglected children often develop negative representations
of the self. They have not had sufficient support or scaffolding to reach full
maturity. In fact, they need to develop protective strategies for self-survival.
Abuse frequently results in the child internalizing the social influences of shame,
violence, or emotional abuse that lead to negativity toward others, such as
bullying, delinquency, or violence.

Social Ecology: Child Development in the Village
The African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child” is verified in a social

ecological theory of child development. Urie Bronfenbrenner (1979) suggests that
child development is best understood within four increasingly encompassing
ecological systems. At the smallest, most specific level is the microsystem, the
parent-child relationship. Beyond the microsystem is the mesosystem, consisting
of social environments such as a child’s kindergarten, Sunday school class,
neighborhood playgroup, and so on. Each of these settings in and of itself is a
microsystem, but the collection of all these microsystems and the relationships
between them constitute the mesosystem for the toddler.

Children are also influenced by what occurs in the social environment beyond
the settings in which they directly participate. This constitutes their exosystem.
When both parents are employed outside the home, the child is affected because
of parental involvement in these work environments. The child’s exosystem
consists of all those environments, even when he or she is not a direct participant,
because, even from a distance, they affect the parents or the siblings.

Encompassing all three of these systems is the macrosystem, best understood as
the wider cultural level. Macrosystemic influences are such things as popular
culture, the mass media, the government, and moral and religious beliefs and
practices in a culture.

According to Bronfenbrenner, “The ecology of human development involves
the scientific study of the progressive, mutual accommodation between an active,
growing human being and the changing properties of the immediate settings in
which the growing person lives, as this process is affected by relations between
these settings, and by the larger contexts in which the settings are embedded”
(1979, 21).

A social ecological understanding of child development complements the child
development approaches that have a more limited focus. Parenting is best
understood as part of a web of social relationships that affect the development of
a child. As children mature, they become increasingly involved in a variety of
settings as they learn to adapt to new environments, roles, and relationships in the
process of developmental growth.

A Critique of Child Development Theories in Light of Biblical
Although it is beyond the scope of this chapter to present a complete synthesis of
the child development theories discussed, it will be helpful to briefly critique
them on the basis of how well they comport with biblical teachings on being
human. We shall build our critique around three biblical doctrines: (1) humans are
in a state of constant internal tension: though created in God’s image, they have
fallen into sin; (2) humans are active agents who have the capacity to make
choices; and (3) humans are created for community.

Internal Tension
None of the theories adequately takes into account the biblical view that

humans are distinct from all other living creatures because they carry the image of
God within them. Granted, the human condition is marked by sin, and therefore we
are a broken image. “Sinning must be understood in the context of its relation to
the general human longing for goodness” (Shults 2003, 190). The biblical view of
being made in God’s image and being marred by sin acknowledges that the human
condition is marked by internal tension. As Paul states in Romans 7:21–24, “So I
find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For
I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law
at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in
my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of

In viewing human behavior as part of the natural order, developmental theories
refer to internal tension but stop short of using the concept of sin. If the ultimate
meaning and purpose of human development is to be understood, we need to know
what it means to fall short or miss the mark in human development. In Ray
Anderson’s theological anthropology, sin is understood in a relational context. He
defines sin as “defiance of God’s gracious relation to those who bear his
image . . . [resulting] in separating persons from the gracious life of God”
(1990, 234).

Shame illuminates the experience of sinfulness (Capps 1993) as it is (1) self-
involving, (2) self-constricting, and (3) results in estrangement. Sin is self-
involving, as it is centered in one’s physical being as well as one’s thoughts and
motivations. Further, sin prevents the flourishing of the person, and the ultimate
outcome of sin is alienation or estrangement from others. Sin as the shame
experience impacts the relational dimension of the image of God—estrangement.
Capps (1993) also argues for the structural impact of the shame experience—
increased psychic depletion of resources as well as the division of the self.
Broadly, sin may be conceptualized as an orientation to life that (1) destroys
community; (2) impedes God’s intentions for the world—human and natural
(cosmos); and (3) inhibits or destroys individual well-being (Capps 2000).

In like manner, Shults states that at the “heart of the doctrine of original sin . . .
is that each and every person is bound by relations to self, others, and God that
inhibit the goodness of loving fellowship” (2003, 309). Humans desire to be
related to good objects—this is a core feature of being made in God’s image.
Human nature is motivated to secure relations with these good objects. The good
but sinful human is unable to truly discern what is of ultimate value. This means
humans often substitute idols for the ultimate security provided by God—
salvation in his Son.

Sin is the condition of failing to be in proper relationship with self, others, and
God. Brokenness in relationship is the heart of human sin. Thus, the goals of child
development from a Christian point of view are realized in capturing a sense of
the relationality in the divine Trinity, as exemplified in the covenant love, grace,
empowerment, and intimacy modeled by God for us in the Old and New

Capacity to Make Choices
In developmental theories, the capacity to make choices is generally couched in

terms of human agency. From a theological perspective, human agency is
understood in terms of people struggling to live as broken images of God yet
being responsible to God and others for their behavior. Child development
theorists differ significantly in the degree to which they conceptualize humans as
choice-making creatures.

Classic learning theory assumes that children are born as clean slates on which
social conditioning imprints the cultural script. In this mechanistic view, people
operate on much the same principles as do machines.

Social learning theory leans toward the conviction that children are active
organisms who continually act upon and construct their own environments.

The contemporary theories maintain that children are unable to take any action
apart from the options presented by their environment. While we can use the
wisdom of child development theories to understand human freedom, we must not
allow this knowledge to deter us from accepting the scriptural view of free will.

Humans, from a Christian perspective, (1) act intentionally and judge between
objects, (2) are motivated by desire for certain goods, and (3) act to attain
perceived goods (Shults 2003). “The emerging agent is embedded in a dynamic
trajectory in which one finds oneself loving and longing to be loved” (Shults
2003, 191). However, this agent is ambiguously related to the good. Humans have
the capability to choose and are inherently motivated to choose. Sin has not
removed the ability to choose; it has warped humanity’s ability to accomplish
good in that choice.

Created for Community
Whereas child development theories have only recently leaned toward the view

that children are active organisms or are agents working on the environment, they
have been in continuous agreement that human input is necessary if children are to
take on human characteristics. Deprived of a human social environment, very little
in the biological structure of children would induce them to embrace norms,
values, or attitudes. When children are part of a human social environment,
however, they take on the attitudes and behaviors of that community.

God created humans to live in community. Imaging God means being in
relationships. This is the message from Genesis 1:26, “Let us make humankind in
our image,” and from Genesis 2:18, “Then the LORD God said, ‘It is not good that
the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’” Relationships
are reflected in the Trinity and are modeled in Adam and Eve’s relationship. The
“be fruitful and multiply” aspect of the creation of humanity is known as the
cultural mandate (Gen. 1:28; Wolters 2005), indicating God’s desire for humanity
to flourish and build community and culture. This core theme of living in
community is woven throughout the Old and New Testaments and is central to our
theological model of relations. Humans require an empowering community of
grace, based on covenant commitment, to provide the security and emotional
intimacy all humans need.

In summary, children need not only a family; they also need a family of
families. This is essentially the New Testament model of what the church is to be
to the family—a place where family members are nurtured, empowered, and
developed in a community of faith. The covenant community is to care for
members as well as to help them mature spiritually.

Parenting Young Children
The major theories of child development provide a basis for discussing important
dimensions of parenting young children. In this section we address the matter of
how parents can best facilitate the social, psychological, and spiritual growth of
their children. In keeping with our theological basis for family relationships, we
believe that parents need to provide unilateral unconditional love. This is the
indispensable component in the empowerment process. The fundamental qualities
—loving, accepting, knowing, and communicating—kindle in children the
capacity for mature bilateral commitments. The question of how to empower
children comes down to a twofold concern: (1) how to build self-validation and
(2) how to discipline.

Unconditional Love and Self-Validation
Children need to be valued for who they are and their unique contributions to

their families. When parents have high self-esteem and model mutual regard and
cooperation in their marital relationship, they establish a climate in which self-
esteem is nourished in their children.

The covenant commitment from parents to children establishes children’s
identities. As children experience responsiveness and accessibility from their
parents, this identity as belonging to the parents is solidified. Covenantal love
cements belonging in children. Children learn that they are valued for who they
are, not only for how they behave or contribute.

This identity is reflected in our adoption into God’s family. In a poignant
passage, Paul describes how gentiles and Jews are joined into one family: “So
then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and
also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles
and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:19–20).
Identity is based on acceptance into God’s family; analogically, identity is based
on the covenant commitment parents make to their children.

Unconditional love should be shown not only in the parents’ commitment to be
responsible and faithful in child-rearing tasks but also in verbal and behavioral
demonstrations of affection for their children. The children will then begin to
recognize that they are loved not only for what they do but also for who they are.
This gives them a sense of security and increases the incentive to be cooperative
and helpful family members.

Acceptance of Differences Inherent in the Family Constellation

The order in which siblings enter into a family is referred to as the family
constellation. Although research is inconclusive about the empirical effects of
family constellation on adult personality (Miller, Anderson, and Keala 2004),
many therapists emphasize how an individual’s birth order affects adulthood.
Each position in the family is important, and every child needs to feel secure in
his or her place. Particular characteristics accompany each position. For example,
the oldest child is usually an achiever since parents tend to give first children
special attention and expect them to take responsibility early. Middle children
often try to compete with the older sibling(s), but since they cannot catch up, they
often achieve in areas untried by the older sibling(s). Sometimes middle children
feel squeezed or lost. The family usually caters to the youngest children, who,
therefore, tend to be more easygoing and relaxed. The terms babied and spoiled
are usually affectionate labels, but there can also be resentment toward the
youngest children. An only child is similar to the oldest child but tends to be more
adult in attitudes and actions. Children who come from large families tend to
separate themselves into smaller sibling groups.

Every position in the family has certain advantages and disadvantages. The
only girl in a family of boys or the only boy in a family of girls may have special
privileges and problems. Siblings who are more than five years apart tend to feel
separated into different subsystems. And, of course, there is great variability in
how each unique family reacts to each individual child.

It is important that every position be respected and that age-appropriate
behavior be expected of every child. Parents who exert too much pressure or
expect too much burden a child unnecessarily; however, parents with low
expectations or who show little faith in a child’s abilities provide insufficient
stimulation. Neither of these extreme approaches empowers the child.

Older siblings need assurance that their positions in the family are special and
secure. Knowing that younger children are not more loved or more valued
encourages them to be helpful with their younger siblings rather than jealous or
competitive. If middle children are noticed and perceive that they are cherished as
special and capable, they will not feel the need to outdo the older children. If the
youngest children are given adequate attention and encouraged to accomplish
appropriate tasks, they will be able to contribute to the family system without
feeling overindulged or coddled. Parents send their children a strong message by
believing in them and in their ability to contribute to the well-being of others.

Parents use verbal and nonverbal communication to show that they respect and

value their children. Critical to effective communication is the ability to be

genuine. Most children can sense an inauthentic remark because the verbal claim
is incongruent with the body language. It behooves parents to be congruent; that is,
words, body language, and tone of voice should convey a consistent message.
Expressing one’s feelings honestly gives children clear and direct messages to
which they can accurately respond.

When there is a discrepancy between verbal and nonverbal messages, a child
will be confused and frustrated. This is sometimes called the double bind: the
child cannot respond to both messages at the same time without being
contradictory. The major problem is that neither the parent nor the child talks
openly about the confusion, which further obscures the truth. Such distorted
communication disrupts family functioning.

Communication will be enhanced if parents use encouraging statements such as,
“Mike, you did a fine job of cleaning out the sink,” or “Barb, I know it’s difficult
for you to do those math problems, but you’re getting better at it.” These messages
are very different from negative appraisals, which tend to become self-fulfilling
prophecies—for example, “What’s wrong with you; don’t you know any better?”
Such remarks lead to discouragement and uncooperative attitudes.

The most important element of communication is listening. When we are
listened to, we feel validated and cared for. Our children also need to be heard
and understood. Considering their ideas and caring about their feelings are ways
in which parents show they accept their children’s perspectives. Taking the time
to know how they think and feel leads to deeper understanding. This is the very
essence of how children gain the confidence that culminates in self-esteem and
good decision-making.

The following illustration demonstrates the supreme importance of listening.
When eight-year-old Mario comes home because he has been hurt by his friend
Reed, it is important for him to process his feelings with a parent who will listen
and try to understand what he feels. This is not a time for the parent to question,
scold, make suggestions to fix or repair the relationship, or insinuate that Mario
was wrong; nor should the parent march to Reed’s house to solve the dispute.
Listening is especially helpful because it gives Mario a chance to express and
deal with his feelings safely with someone who truly cares about him. Doing so
provides a perspective that most likely will enable him to decide for himself how
to handle the situation. In other words, listening in this situation allows Mario to
become responsible for the relationship. Knowing that parents accept, understand,
and support them gives children confidence in themselves. Given such assurance,
they will be empowered to act appropriately.


There are three main types of definitions of forgiveness (Shults and Sandage
2003). First, we can think of the legal aspects of forgiveness, as in eliminating a
debt. Second, therapeutic forgiveness focuses on the psychological and relational
benefits of going through a forgiveness process. The final definition of
forgiveness is redemptive forgiveness, which emphasizes restoration and
reconciliation as an outcome of forgiveness. In family relationships especially,
there are many opportunities to practice the virtue of forgiveness. Forgiveness in
families is redemptive in nature, not therapeutic, as covenant-keeping families
empower and exude the grace of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a two-way process:
neither parents nor children are perfect, and they all need forgiving when they
make mistakes. Every day, we need to admit when we’ve offended or
disappointed someone. Saying we forgive each other is living out grace and
acceptance, which is rooted in unconditional loving.

Love You Forever, a wonderful children’s book by Robert Munsch (1986),
illustrates this kind of love. The boy in this story makes many mistakes throughout
his growing years, infancy through adolescence. However, he is assured each
night by his mother that he is loved unconditionally: “I’ll love you forever; I’ll
like you for always!” This guarantee of always being accepted, no matter what he
has done, gives him the confidence and incentive to love others in the same
unconditional way. Such is the love we experience as God’s children and ought to
extend to our children.

Empowerment gives children the sense that their contribution to the family is

valuable. The perspective that each family member serves and supports the others
imparts a feeling of worth and esteem to children and adults alike. When children
are expected and encouraged to participate in the functioning of the family, both
emotionally and physically, they sense that the family is more than a group of
separate individuals. They begin to see themselves as part of a larger system that
is greater than all the individual members put together.

When children sense that they are an integral part of the family and that their
input is esteemed, they are glad to cooperate and serve. Their contribution will be
not only instrumental (doing chores) but also emotional (uplifting the family
mood). They will help create family morale, identity, and unity.

The Bible uses words such as love and honor to describe the ideal parent-child

relationship. Various Old and New Testament passages also discuss the

importance of guidance and correction, and these passages promise that good
training will pay off because children will not depart from it. They learn from
sound discipline and eventually become self-disciplined, responsible adults.

One helpful method of discipline is the concept of natural and logical
consequences (discussed in chapter 6). This method is familiar to us because God
dealt with the children of Israel in a similar way. God’s people had to face the
consequences of their choices and behaviors. There are consequences to be
reckoned with when we disobey. The blessing of the covenant was conditional in
that they reaped what they sowed (although God’s gift of love and grace was
unconditional). God has laid down laws such as the Ten Commandments to guide
us in rightful living, which will bring meaning to our lives. God has our best
interests in mind and knows what will bring fullness and peace and purpose.

In the same way, children learn best when they experience consequences for
their behavior, especially if they realize that the rules are a product of their
parents’ love and concern for them. This is in contrast to training children
primarily by punishing their negative behavior, an approach that puts all the
responsibility on the parents—they alone make the decision to wield punitive
power when they are displeased. It is more helpful for children to come to
understand that their misbehavior has specific consequences and that the ultimate
responsibility rests with them.

Take the example of five-year-old Alexis in a rocking chair. Rocking back and
forth brings pleasure and joy, but if she rocks too hard or becomes too
rambunctious, the chair falls over and she suffers the consequences of her action.
This experience helps her monitor herself the next time she rocks in the chair.
Children find their own limits through these consequences. As they self-correct
and set appropriate boundaries for themselves, they are taking responsibility for
their actions.

How should parents go about the business of setting up fair and reasonable
rules (with logical consequences) to help their children learn limits and
eventually become responsible for their own behavior? Children should be given
a reasonable limit and told that a specific consequence will be applied if they go
beyond that limit. For example, if Ming is given the task of taking the garbage out
before dinner, he has a clear task and timeframe. When dinner comes and he has
not remembered to take out the garbage, his place at the dinner table is not set
(meaning no plates, utensils, cups, etc.). Of course, he will get dinner once he
completes his task of throwing away the trash.

Notice how the consequence is logically related to the misbehavior and carried
out in a clear and pleasant manner. There is no need for a verbal reprimand,
which might well lead parent and child into a useless power struggle and

sidetrack attention from the child’s responsibility for the consequence. The main
point is that the parent does not need to scold or punish but must see to it that the
child becomes fully aware of the consequences of the behavior. Additionally, with
a clear expectation and consequence, silence allows the child to own the problem
and its solution. One important caveat is that the consequence needs to be
something the parents can live with. For example, if it is challenging or
uncomfortable for parents to withhold dinner until the task is completed, then this
approach should be used with some other logical consequence. This allows the
child to accept limits and eventually to achieve self-discipline.

Obviously, a crucial point is how the consequences are set up and carried out.
The consequences should, of course, be appropriate to the child’s age and
maturity. Also, parents should not be unduly restrictive and punitive by making
rules and regulations that seem unfair or unreasonable to the children. Remember
that the certainty of the consequence is more important than the severity.

Here the idea of the family council comes into play. When children are old
enough, they should be included in setting up the rules and the consequences of
failing to keep them. The family decides together what are reasonable rules and
expectations for everyone. It must be an equitable arrangement. For example, if
the family rule is “no dishes are to be left in the sink after supper,” then every
family member must submit to the consequence. Therefore, if the father forgets,
he, like any other family member, must wash the dishes the next morning.

When assigning chores, wise parents are flexible and listen to every family
member. Perhaps someone is too fussy about how the beds are made, and another
too careless in mowing the lawn. If folding laundry is assigned to a teenager, then
clear expectations about how to fold the laundry should be provided. However, if
a particular family member is too picky about how the laundry is folded, they
should either take the chore on themselves or not complain or redo the folding
after the teen completes it. Individuals need to complete their tasks to their ability
and their preference. These matters need to be discussed together openly in the
family council. This is the time and place to set up assignments that are age
appropriate and fair. The family council provides an opportunity for children to
learn the democratic principles of equality, freedom of speech, and fairness. All
members should have input as to whether the emotional needs of the family are
being met. Even the youngest child can point out that the family is not spending
enough time together having fun and give suggestions for remedying the problem.
Or the teenagers may need to point out that since they are older and can handle
more independence, it is time to make some changes in policies.

The mode of discipline we have suggested entails personal empowerment. The
ultimate goal is mutual empowerment among all family members. Of course, the

onus of responsibility will initially be on the parents. They will need to take time
with the family, listen to each member, and consider the uniqueness of each child.
The parents must be willing to forgive and be forgiven, set an example by
submitting to the same requirements asked of the others, and model love and
caring behavior, fairness, and consistency. As modeled in the story of the prodigal
son (Luke 15), wise parents allow a child the right to choose a behavior despite
the consequence to be faced. They know when to step back and allow the
consequence to do the correcting, as well as when to intervene to prevent a
destructive consequence from exacting its toll.

These principles of the empowerment process involve serving and being
served. They are built on a foundation of unconditional love and commitment,
operate most successfully in an atmosphere of acceptance and forgiving grace,
and result in intimacy through deep knowledge of and communication with one
another. People who have been empowered have a competence and self-esteem
they can share both in the family and with their community, society, and the world
at large.

Once again, God’s covenant serves as an analogy. Unconditional faithfulness
and love form the foundation. Even though we deserve the consequence of our
failure and sin, God offers grace and forgiveness when we fail to meet
expectations. Moreover, God provides the Holy Spirit to encourage, empower,
and enable us to live according to the law so that the blessing may be ours.
Finally, our hope of intimacy and relationship with the Almighty One renews and
revitalizes us. As we grow in this circle of covenant, grace, empowerment, and
intimacy, we experience a deeper and more intense level of God’s love and of our
love for one another. And so does the love within a family deepen as its members
implement the empowerment process.


Family Spirituality
Nurturing Christian Beliefs, Morals,

and Values

In traditional family systems, grandparents played a central role in the
spiritual development of the young. The decline of an extended (three-
generation) family system changed that, leaving the isolated nuclear family
solely responsible for spiritual formation. For the most part, busy modern
families have relinquished to other institutions (church and school) the
responsibility of teaching moral beliefs and values to their children. Without
question, social institutions play a vital role in inculcating values, yet parents
are the ones who are directed to “train children in the right way” (Prov.
22:6). We believe spiritual formation begins in the home through everyday
interaction practices and patterns of modeling that occur in day-to-day living.

The sometimes-conflicted understanding of education regarding values is
described as secondary socialization by Peter Berger and Thomas
Luckmann (1966). Berger and Luckmann describe how the family is the
primary socialization context for children, meaning that children learn values
and morals in the family. These values and morals are oriented toward filling
important roles in the community. Secondary socialization occurs when
children are sent to institutions like schools for education. In modern and
postmodern cultures, education is highly valued and inculcates the morals of
the dominant culture. Often these dominant values are at odds with the
worldviews of families and communities.

The family is indispensable when it comes to building character. How
parents live out their faith in the context of the family relationship has an
enormous impact. Ideas about how to facilitate this can be found in Sacred

Matters: Religion and Spirituality in Families by Burr, Marks, and Day

In this chapter, we use the term family spirituality as an umbrella concept
to refer to all the ways family members cultivate an understanding of biblical
truth, moral beliefs, and values in children. Family spirituality forms the
value, moral and ethical, and characterological core of one’s identity. Moral
values are based on underlying beliefs concerning right and wrong. Ideally,
the internal formation of becoming Christlike is manifested in attitudes and
behavior that are truly transformative. Although the word faith can refer to
one’s religion, we use it to refer to a personal relationship to God the Father,
the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We begin this chapter with a discussion of
moral and faith development, using trinitarian concepts as a model for family
interaction, and we conclude with an examination of family spirituality as an
essential aspect of faith communities.

Moral Development
Building on Piaget’s assumption that children reason differently at different
stages of development, Lawrence Kohlberg (1963) suggests that moral
development is best understood in an analogous way (see table 5 in chap. 7
above). During early childhood, moral decisions are made in terms of
obedience and punishment. The child obeys rules because to disobey results
in punishment. The second stage of moral decision-making—individualism
and exchange—is slightly refined as the child becomes aware of his or her
own individual needs as well as the self-interests of every other family
member. A sense of fairness accompanies this realization, and the child is
motivated to make moral decisions that show impartiality to each person
involved. The capacity to think more abstractly in early adolescence moves
one toward the interpersonal relationships stage. During this third stage,
personal intentions and character traits are taken into consideration in terms
of how they affect the relationship when one makes decisions. The fourth
stage of moral development involves maintaining social order. Now a
person comprehends the more complex way that moral judgments maintain
social order through laws and societal responsibility. This more abstract
understanding emphasizes the fact that laws exist to serve a greater social

However, in the next stage—social contract and individual rights—the
person recognizes that social order does not always equal societal goodness.
Therefore, one searches for a criterion higher than the existing social order
when making moral decisions. At this point, a person moves on to the highest
level of moral reasoning—the universal principles stage. Here all people
are valued equally, and therefore one bases moral judgment on the principle
of the greatest good for the most people. This is known as utilitarianism.

It is clear that Kohlberg’s major focus is the form of a person’s moral
reasoning, not the content. His model is epigenetic in that the sequence of
moral development moves forward through these stages, never skipping a
stage or reverting to an earlier stage. Although stages of moral development
might approximate chronological age, Kohlberg acknowledges that it is
possible to “get stuck” in a specific stage of moral development and never
move forward. Therefore, he reasons, only a small minority reaches the more
advanced stages of moral reasoning. This model has been criticized for
neglecting the research findings that females tend to make moral decisions
more from a personal context rather than simply in consideration of rights
and justice. In light of this, some social scientists are interested in getting
beyond a cognitive approach by looking at the importance of moral identity
—one’s self-identity as a morally responsible person.

The Handbook of Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence
(Roehilkepartain et al. 2005) proposes that moral identity is formed by
social influence and most importantly through relationships with others. The
authors insist that moral development is not merely a reflection of cognitive
ability but primarily the result of a personal relationship. These personal
relationships or identifications with moral exemplars—individuals who
devote their lives to bettering society—form the basis of moral identity.
Moral exemplars can be famous people, such as Mother Teresa or Martin
Luther King Jr., or simply people who have forsaken personal ambitions to
devote their lives to the good of others. The inspirational stories of moral
exemplars tell of life-changing experiences, such as serving the poor, that
have transformed them (Reimer 2003). While cognitive development is
certainly an important dimension of moral decision-making, the role of moral
identity has a profound personal impact on a person. Having a relationship
with a person of strong moral character is a transformative experience in and
of itself.

Therefore, we conclude that a holistic understanding of moral
development includes content, cognitive reasoning, and relationships with
moral exemplars. What is important for family spirituality is that values,
norms, and rules be based on biblical truths and lived out in family

We would argue that family spirituality fosters what we earlier described
as differentiation in Christ (DifC) (see “Differentiated Unity: Becoming One
and Retaining Uniqueness” in chap. 4). DifC emphasizes that Christians’
authentic identity comes from one’s relationship to Christ. This identity base
is the bedrock from which all behaviors and relationships are built. In other
words, DifC forms the basis of identity- or values-based action. Core values
and meaning-making are the center of one’s identity. DifC provides the value-
and-meaning system upon which one engages in value-based action. There
will be more on this below.

Faith Development
In his classic work, James Fowler (1981) brings cognitive development
theory to his “faith process” mode. He argues that faith is always relational.
There is always someone to trust in or be loyal to. Faith, according to
Fowler, is an epistemological process—a way of knowing. It is a covenantal
relationship between an individual, or meaning-making community, and the
transcendent Other. It is important to note that Fowler squarely relates the
capacity to have faith to the bonding process between parent and child:

In the interaction of parent and child not only does a bond of mutual trust and loyalty begin to
develop, but already the child, albeit on a very basic level, senses the strange new environment as
one that is either dependable and provident, or arbitrary and neglectful. Long before the child can
sort out clearly the values and beliefs of the parents, he or she senses a structure of meaning and
begins to form nascent images . . . of the centers of value and power that animate the parents’
faith. As love, attachment, and dependence bind the new one into the family, he or she begins to
form a disposition of shared trust and loyalty to (or through) the family’s faith ethos. (1981, 16–17)

When parents model covenant love to their children, they expose them to a
way of seeing and being in the world. Their provision of a safe, trustworthy
environment allows the child to experience loyal and faithful connection,
which opens up a meaningful structure for the child. Fowler understands faith
as developing through six sequential stages. Infancy begins with
undifferentiated faith, derived from the infant’s initial experience of being

sufficiently cared for by parents. The formation of secure or insecure
attachments establishes the foundation on which faith is built (and is not
counted as one of the six stages). The first stage, intuitive-projective faith,
emerges during early childhood as language acquisition and emotional
development allow a child to imagine through stories. Since logical thinking
does not control imagination, reality and fantasy are indistinguishable during
this stage. Children begin to form a conscious image of God. The mythical-
literal faith stage emerges during middle and late childhood. As children
begin to reason in a more logical and concrete manner, they can distinguish
between fantasy and reality. Children’s understanding of God is largely a
projection from human characteristics they find present in “godly” characters
in stories. Adolescence is characterized by a synthetic-conventional faith
that allows children to integrate their abstract religious ideas and concepts
into a coherent belief system. Developing a personal identity spurs teenagers
to incorporate God into that identity, while an increasing capacity for
intimacy in personal relationships leads to a desire for a personal
relationship with God. Stage 4, individuative-reflective faith, emerges as the
adolescent transitions into young adulthood. The process of anchoring faith
within the self is often accompanied by examining and questioning the
unexamined conventional, community-referenced faith of the previous stage.
Individuative-reflective faith tends to be both consciously chosen and
intellectually based.

Advanced chronological age is no guarantee that one has automatically
moved to a new stage of faith. In fact, a majority of young adults do not
advance to the conjunctive faith stage. During this fifth stage, the need for a
rational, intellectually consistent faith is replaced by the acceptance of a faith
that includes paradox, ambiguity, and mystery. The black-and-white certainty
of the previous stage is replaced by the reality of gray areas.

At this time, one moves toward a deepening of one’s relationship with
God through spiritual disciplines and practices. It is a time when young
people take up a clear devotion to God as their own personal quest rather
than riding on their parents’ coattails.

The highest developmental stage is universalizing faith, reached by few
and then rarely before middle to late adulthood. Universalizing faith is
characterized by a commitment to overcome division, violence, and
oppression, and an ability to transcend specific belief systems. Fowler
suggests that a quest for universal justice that moves beyond self-interest can

be observed in the lives of people such as Mother Teresa, Martin Luther
King Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi.

To summarize Fowler (1996), faith (1) is an integral, human process;
(2) underlies the development of beliefs, values, and meanings; (3) provides
coherence—a sense of sharing trust and loyalty with others; (4) grounds
one’s relationship to the ultimate; and (5) provides a coping mechanism for
human finitude. This is incapsulated in Fowler’s term centers of value and
power (CVP), which form the basis of faith relationships. These CVPs are
crucial in relating individuals with the transcendent other based on family
and community relationships.

Although these specific stages of faith development are helpful markers,
Fowler maintains that children enter the faith process through the
relationships with their parents and primary caregivers, which are so
persuasive. Children deprived of trusting and caring relationships are
therefore hindered in the development of a mature and trusting relationship
with God. The ability to experience God as a loving and trustworthy Parent
is related to personal experiences of loving and trusting in and through family
relationships. The Christian family plays a crucial role in the development of

A Trinitarian Model of Family Spirituality
Using a trinitarian focus on relationality, we suggest that the core aspect of
family spirituality centers on each family member achieving a differentiated
faith. Differentiated faith in the context of family life is multilayered: first,
each family member is differentiated (identity) in Christ; second, each
member establishes spiritual differentiation in the context of the family; and
third, a differentiated family spirituality develops, which serves as a unifying
and transforming process in the life of each family member. This approach
also connects and unifies the believer with the Christian community, which is
ultimately the context for both the individual and family to flourish

Differentiation in Christ
Differentiation in Christ refers to the New Testament emphasis on each

believer finding his or her identity and reference in relationship with Christ
rather than with other humans. Trusting in Christ’s death on the cross for

salvation and looking to the Holy Spirit for indwelling and transformation
starts the process. DifC is based on being adopted into God’s family: the
words from Jesus’s baptism—“You are my Son, the Beloved” (Mark 1:11)—
are said over us when we are adopted into God’s family through Christ’s
saving work. Surrendering one’s will to the will of God places Christ at the
center of each family member’s identity. As the Spirit enters, this individual
family member takes on a Christ-centered focus. The apostle John expresses
it this way: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). Each family
member’s personal relationship to Christ and growth in the Spirit enhances
family spirituality. Mutual commitment to spiritual transformation keeps
family members consciously aware of how God is working in and through
each of them and how it affects the family as a whole.

Spiritual Differentiation in the Family
The theological concept of perichoresis is based on the reciprocal

interiority of the divine persons through mutually indwelling and permeating
one another. Miroslav Volf (1998) writes that the “internal abiding and
interpenetration of the Trinitarian persons . . . determines the character both
of the divine persons and of their unity” (208). In a similar way, we suggest,
the internal interdependence and mutual indwelling (interpenetration) of the
spiritual lives of its members defines a family’s spiritual character. Just as
the members of the Godhead do not cease to be distinct persons in their unity,
neither do family members cease to be distinct spiritual persons in the family.
Volf further explains, “The distinctions between them are precisely the
presupposition of that interiority, since persons who have dissolved into one
another cannot exist in one another” (209). In other words, differentiation
makes interiority and interdependency possible.

If family members absorb into one another spiritually, they cease to be
distinct spiritual presences to one another. We call this spiritual fusion.
When members dissolve into one another, they cannot offer unique spiritual
perspectives. They relinquish their uniqueness, which is based on their
personal relationship with Christ. At the other extreme, when the spirituality
of family members has little or no mutual impact, spiritual interiority and
interdependence are nonexistent. We might call this spiritual cutoff. When
family members distance or cut off from one another spiritually, they cannot
draw on the spiritual resources that could enrich their spiritual lives as a
family. The relationship is sacrificed for a pseudo-individuality.

Spiritual differentiation means that each member is ultimately formed
through a personal relationship with Christ and God’s Spirit. The family
supports and nurtures this spirituality, and the family encourages each
member to cultivate spiritual meaning individually while maintaining
relationships with one another and the local church. DifC means that one is
personally called beloved of God and finds his or her identity in Christ and
his family, the church. Second, this identity forms the foundation for relating
to the family as well as the local church.

In spiritual fusion, the spiritual trials or doubts experienced by one
member precipitate a crisis that threatens the faith of the whole family.
Hardships necessarily bring questions about the faith to the forefront. These
questions produce anxiety as they are perceived to threaten the family’s
Christian identity. Further, individuals are unable to express honest
differences because members are overly invested in being of one mind on
spiritual matters. Any expressed difference sends members into a reactive
panic mode, and honest doubt and questions are interpreted as a personal
affront to the family faith—an existential threat to the family’s identity. Such a
state of spiritual fusion puts all family members under duress, leading to
shaming and judgmental tactics to bring the straying member back into the
fold. It might be helpful to make a distinction between spiritual
overdependence and spiritual interdependence among family members.

The opposite end of spiritual fusion is spiritual disconnection and
indifference. In this case, a low level of differentiation in Christ leaves
family members cut off from one another’s spiritual lives. In spiritually cut
off families, individual spiritual lives are kept private, as are most personal
experiences. Spiritual joys and struggles are not shared, resulting in
disconnection. The family misses out on the spiritual meaning that emerges
when members openly express their beliefs and spiritual visions. What is
needed is neither spiritual independence nor spiritual dependence but rather
spiritual interdependence.

The spiritually differentiated family, in contrast to the spiritually fused or
cutoff family, allows members to share their spiritual lives in a way that
expands and connects. In other words, this type of differentiated spirituality
is transformative (Shults and Sandage 2006). Family relationships become
the means for growth because spiritual differences become a catalyst for
spiritual differentiation. In a spiritually differentiated family, the personal
faith of each family member can remain firm regardless of what is happening

in the life of another member. At the same time, the doubts, struggles, and
questioning experienced by one family member can serve as a catalyst for
dialogue and personal self-examination before God for the others. Interest,
concern, and support are given for the others’ spiritual lives. Bringing
resources to bear creates a beneficial balanced perspective.

This type of transformative spirituality (Shuts and Sandage 2006) reflects
two of the main types of spiritual development. Shuts and Sandage focus on
the two-step process of dwelling (togetherness) and seeking (individuality).
Times of spiritual dwelling emphasize relationship-oriented activities like
fellowship, worship, and connection. In the family, these practices are
supportive and reinforce how the family identifies with the Christian story.
Times of spiritual seeking are characterized by individuals increasing their
knowledge of and relationship with Christ. This intensification aids the
individual in making spirituality more personally meaningful. Often times,
seeking facilitates isolation and “desert” experiences. Research suggests that
individuals with higher levels of DifC tend to have more relational forms of
spirituality (Frederick et al. 2016).

Family Spirituality and Sanctification
We believe that healthy spiritual differentiation within the family and

among family members offers the greatest potential for a transforming
experience. Because of the sheer magnitude of shared life experiences, no
other human arena is as potentially powerful to form the inner spiritual life.
In a parallel sense, there is no other human arena in which living a Christlike
life is more difficult. In the family, we are more exposed than anywhere else,
and it is nearly impossible to wear a mask in front of other family members
or to fake a spiritual life. Individual spiritual growth is an ongoing and
sometimes painful journey that takes place in the demands of actually living
together as family. The family becomes a resilient vessel in which a spiritual
metamorphosis occurs. Family relationships can become the catalyst for
members to grow and to change in response to one another.

It should be noted that family tensions and conflicts can also be the
catalysts for healthier forms of spiritual differentiation. Although not
pleasant, family tensions and trials allow one to understand oneself more
clearly and take responsibility for one’s own growth. The family is a safe
place where we can encounter others honestly and deal openly with spiritual

differences and disappointments. However, if the family is an unsafe arena,
spiritual stagnation will result.

Family members become acutely aware of their human frailties in the
context of relating to one another. However, living out the biblical
components of unconditional love, grace, empowerment, and intimacy offer
the deepest possibility of being transformed into the image of Christ.

Dealing with Differences in Faith
In this section, we address the issue of diversity of faith commitments within
a family. Although one should not assume that the lack of a common faith
automatically negates the possibility of family spirituality, it certainly makes
it more challenging. Differences in faith commitments can seriously limit
family spirituality or place a family at a distinct disadvantage in this area.
Under the conditions of diverse faith commitments, spiritual differentiation
within a family becomes even more important. Since the adolescent is
typically at a development stage in which she or he is trying to develop a
personal faith, we use the family with an adolescent child to illustrate this

In a spiritually fused family, the teenage child must either conform to the
family ideal or risk the dire consequence of fracturing the family’s spiritual
unity. Since spirituality is foundational to both the individual’s identity and
the family’s, there is intense pressure to maintain this family identity,
sometimes at the expense of individual identity. Spiritually fused families
have lower thresholds for allowing members to think differently about issues
of faith and spirituality, as thinking differently reflects divergent values and
consequently a divergent identity. The unfortunate cost for such “spiritual
unity” is that the adolescent does not form a personal faith and may be
especially vulnerable when he or she leaves home.

We (Jack and Judy) remember when our fourteen-year-old daughter,
Jacque, announced at the dinner table that she no longer believed in God. We
gulped, tried to remain calm, and listened with interest to what she was
saying. We asked questions to help her sort out her ideas. Instead of giving
pat answers, we responded to her questions by sharing our beliefs. A few
weeks later from our living room, we overheard a conversation Jacque was
having with two of her high school–age friends on the front-porch swing. To
our amazement, Jacque was reiterating some of our beliefs as well as

expressing more clearly her personal belief in God. We realized others were
challenging her faith, and she was searching for answers. Much of her
questioning about religion during her teenage years was an attempt to make
personal a faith she had learned from her parents and church. We were not
always cool parents when our teens expressed doubts. Because it is difficult
for us to tolerate our own anxiety, we can’t help but bombard our children
with what we think is correct theology. However, with Jacque we learned to
trust in God to be at work in her and to be at work through others as well. We
will always be thankful to the youth pastor and a sixty-year-old mentor from
our church who allowed our son, Joel, to grapple with faith and ask honest
questions without fear. This is how he finally came to a personal faith in

As we are working on this latest revision, there is intense angst as the
COVID-19 pandemic continues to challenge our faith in God. Questions
abound regarding the meaning and purpose of God allowing the pandemic to
continue. My (Tom’s) son Nathaniel is entering his senior year of high school
and has felt this angst acutely. Our family has encouraged Nathaniel to
develop his faith personally, and we have had many conversations about
God’s nature and purpose. For Nathaniel, like so many seniors in 2020 and
2021, missing one’s friends and many important senior-year activities
(especially graduation) looms large. We have adopted a listening approach;
it is important for Nathaniel to have space to ask and process the questions,
frustration, anger, and grief (anticipated and actual) caused by the pandemic.
We are hoping that our relationship with Nathaniel, as well as his connection
with God, will sustain him—and all of us—during this uncertain time.

Spiritual insecurity is likely to be at the heart of family spiritual fusion.
Insecurity about spiritual differences tends to set up defiant and hostile
attitudes toward other family members. Parents may be tempted to ridicule or
put down their child’s tender beliefs in their attempts to cajole or coerce
their child to believe a certain way. Parents may even have a need to punish
their wayward child for not conforming to what they need him or her to
believe. Having a child who holds to a religious belief different from their
own may cause them to feel defeated as Christian parents or to be
apprehensive about their status in the church community when their children
are not following the faith. These self-focused concerns diminish a genuine
concern about their child’s spiritual well-being.

At the opposite extreme, spiritually disengaged families take a “hands-off”
approach in the name of respecting faith differences. Although such evasive
tactics succeed in eliminating religious conflict (each family member can go
his or her own independent way), they do little to enhance family spirituality.
Consciously ignoring the spiritual differences, doubts, questioning, and
struggles of other family members renders them “ships passing in the night.”
Compartmentalizing spiritual dimensions may prevent spiritual conflicts, but
it also stifles sharing spiritual joy and meaning as a family unit.

When there is a high level of family spiritual differentiation, children can
share spiritual and faith questions with their parents, free of the fear of being
rejected. Of course, it is always disheartening when your child seems to
reject God. Yet knowing that your children can honestly come to you with
doubts and questions means that they are secure in your love. This gives you
the best of all possibilities to be with them in their journey of faith.

Family Spirituality Embedded in Supportive Community
Although a family may be able to survive on its own spiritually, we believe it
will never thrive without a supportive community. Stanley Hauerwas (1981,
283) describes the church as the first family of every Christian by pointing
out that we learn “fidelity and love in a community that is sustained by a
faithful God.” When the family stands alone, it is difficult for it to withstand
the onslaught of spiritual distortions from a secular society.

The relationality exemplified in the Holy Trinity is a model for
congregational life as well as the family. Identity in Christ, or differentiation
in Christ, at the congregational level means there is a healthy degree of
connectedness as well as a healthy degree of separation. Permeable
boundaries show respect for individual, couple, and family needs as all
people participate in the life of the church. All voices are respected and
decisions are made in the best interest of the whole body. This community
lives out themes of reconciliation, transformation, restoration, and spreading
peace and justice. In other words, the church that is differentiated in Christ
embodies the kingdom or reign of God.

A faith community must be invested in the spiritual maturity of all
believers (1 Cor. 12:7–12). Baptized by one Spirit into one body, members
acknowledge their interdependency and mutual submissiveness (Eph. 5:21).
When one stumbles, everyone is affected, just as the healing of one brings

blessing to the entire congregation. The community calls members to
accountability for destructive patterns of relating and empowers them through
care and challenge. The church is a place where a family’s differentiated
faith is nourished and preserved. It supports the making and keeping of the
family members’ covenant commitments to one another. Through its multiple
resources, the church supports the family’s growth through instruction and
enrichment opportunities. Colossians 3:12–15 provides a model: “As God’s
chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness,
humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a
complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven
you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which
binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule
in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be

The deep undertone of hyperindividualism in modern society is an
enormous barrier to faith. It is nearly impossible to hold on to community
values in a society that promotes the “I” and the “me” over the “we”and
the“us.” In fact, community words such as cohumanity, reciprocity,
interdependence, and mutuality are undervalued and rarely used. This self-
focused mentality goes against the Christian ideal of forsaking self for the
sake of other. This in itself is a compelling reason for families to join a
community of faith that upholds biblical principles. We need all the help we
can get to be God-centered and relationship-centered. Being part of a
Christian community of care is not just a wise thing to do; it is a necessary
spiritual discipline.

Family Spirituality as a Process
The foundational element of family spirituality is covenantal love, which
responds to shortcomings with grace and uses personal gifts and strengths for
mutual empowerment, resulting in intimate relationships. Family spirituality
is not a static state to be achieved but a relational process to be lived out.

In introducing the model of family relationality, we stressed that such a
form should be found not only inwardly but also outwardly. As family
members are called to love unconditionally, forgive, and empower one
another in moving toward greater intimacy, so they are called to do the same
with those outside the family. The greatest evidence of strong family

spirituality can be seen in the way families reach out to minister to the needs
of others.

Family spirituality is an evolving process that corresponds to the major
developmental issues of living together as a family. The early stages of
marriage establish the foundational spiritual practices. With the arrival of
children, family life re-centers around and immerses in teaching and
modeling faith. When children become teenagers, parents and children
negotiate the meaning of an independent faith. After grown children leave
home, both those children and the parents redefine what it means to relate as
adult to adult and honor one another’s spiritual beliefs. Later in life, a
couple’s faith extends to grandparenting and elder-care roles, while in the
last stage of family life, the finality of death is faced in light of one’s faith. At
each stage of family life, the potential for individual spiritual growth or
stagnation reflects the health of family spirituality and the nature of its
corresponding relationality.

The relationship between Jesus and his Father serves as a model. Jesus
proclaims in John 17:22–23, “The glory that you have given me I have given
them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that
they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have
sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” God’s desire for
family life is for Christ to indwell each family member so that his or her
unique spiritual gifts mutually serve and empower the other members. Christ,
the cornerstone of faith, is the grounding force that permeates family
relationships and the life of the family with sacred meaning.

In anticipation of his death on the cross, Jesus offers us a glimpse of the
spiritual differentiation between the Father and the Son. In his time of
greatest spiritual anguish, Jesus tells his disciples, “I am deeply grieved,
even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me” (Matt. 26:38). He
reprimands them for falling asleep rather than joining him in prayer. In his
humanity, Jesus seeks comfort and support from his disciples. After they fail
him, Jesus prays, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me”
(v. 39). Jesus faces the anguish of being torn to the breaking point. He
desperately wants to be relieved of the upcoming suffering but also agonizes
about being separated from his Father in death. But in the intimate connection
of prayer and assurance of his Father’s love, he willingly submits: “Yet not
what I want but what you want” (v. 39).

The text reveals that the Son and the Father have individual wills. Yet the
Son’s desire is that his will be one with the Father’s will. Does the Father
feel the anguish and the “sorrow unto death” of the Son? We have no doubt
that he does. In a fatherly sense, he is very present through his love and
certainly dies with Jesus in that love. However, it is the Son, not the Father,
who physically dies on the cross. In a spiritual sense, the Father is there for
the Son without depriving the Son of his spiritual purpose. And in the end,
after the resurrection, Christ is fully transformed as he becomes one with
God. Here we have a glimpse of the differentiated spiritual unity between
God the Father and God the Son that can be a model for spiritual
differentiation in human family relationships.


Adolescence and Midlife
Challenging Changes

The greatest conflicts within the family are likely to occur when children are
in their adolescence. One reason is that at the very time children are in the
difficult period of adolescence, their parents are likely to be reaching
midlife. Research on adult development has shown that reaching midlife is
often a time of crisis for adults (Sneed et al. 2012). Thus, the conflict that
frequently occurs during the strain of adolescence must be viewed in light of
the parental strain as well. Both parents and adolescents are experiencing
significant developmental transitions individually, which adds potential
stress for the family.

A systemic approach helps us understand the interactive effect of these
transitions: adolescent stress does not just add to parental midlife stress—it
multiplies it. Further, midlife challenges affect and are constantly affected by
adolescent changes. These transitions influence one another, either
magnifying conflicts or dampening them. Whenever two or more family
members are going through a period of personal crisis simultaneously, the
potential for conflict increases exponentially. It is also true that some
conflicts with a particular teen may elicit more difficulty than others.

This chapter presents the stressful challenges of adolescence and midlife
separately and then considers the special problems that arise when they
happen concurrently. We begin with an examination of the factors
contributing to the rise of adolescent and midlife strain in our society.
“What’s the big deal?” the reader may be asking. “People pass through
adolescence and midlife in every society. Why make such an issue about
them?” But this is not, in fact, the case. True, people in every society pass
through the chronological ages corresponding to adolescence and midlife, but

these are not distinct stages of life in most societies. We will attempt to
explain why our society seems to produce more adolescent and midlife strain
than most others.


The Origin of the Adolescent Stage
Western societies initially possessed the cultural equivalent of puberty

rites, which marked the transition from childhood to adulthood. Prior to the
Industrial Revolution, youth learned to farm or acquired a trade by
developing skills through the apprenticeship system. As they both lived with
and worked under the watchful eye of the master craftsman, apprentices
occupied clear-cut positions. Once the skills were mastered, one was ready
for adulthood and marriage. Mastering the skills of one’s future trade was the
rite of passage into adulthood.

Urbanization and industrialization brought about a slower and more
ambiguous passage into adulthood. With the development of factories, the
apprenticeship system declined. Factory work did not require a high degree
of skill, so youth could begin working independently at an early age.
Children began to leave their homes to work in urban factories. Because of
the extremely low pay, most of them lived in slum apartments. Alienated from
the rest of society, they increasingly became a problem to society. Because
these adolescents were disenfranchised from adult life, an adolescent culture

What in the beginning included just a few urban youth for a brief period of
their lives has grown to include virtually all young people in our society. The
period in view—the gap between childhood and adulthood, which we call
adolescence—has also expanded. There are several reasons for this
phenomenon. First, as our society has become increasingly technologically
oriented, more jobs have been created at the highly skilled level and fewer at
the lower level. Thus, young people must continue their education and delay
their entrance into the full-time workforce, which would normally award
them adult status.

Second, one of the effects of the Industrial Revolution has been the
development of the separate spheres of home and work life. The upshot is
that home is a place of refuge, relaxation, and enjoyment, where work is a

place of toil, difficulty, and challenge. As children are prevented from
entering the work sphere until they have sufficient skills and education,
adolescence has expanded. This is changing to a certain extent, as technology
has been eroding the clear boundaries between work and family life. In some
respects, technology (social media, for example) has allowed individuals to
be more connected with the world and peers; but it has also increased
loneliness, depression, and isolation (Woods and Scott 2016).

Third, the extended family has been replaced by the nuclear family
because of high mobility. The nuclear family is a small, fragile unit, isolated
from relatives who could provide resources and give young people a sense
of stability and belonging. In many families, divorce, separation, or the need
for parents to work long hours in the marketplace further complicate the
situation. In the present day, nuclear families outsource to churches, agencies,
and the local community many needs that extended families once met.

A fourth factor contributing to the expansion of adolescence is the
affluence of youth in Western societies today. Either because they earn their
own money or because their parents give them money, many young people
possess a degree of independence not experienced by any previous
generation. The greater independence of youth today goes hand-in-hand with
a loss of parental and societal control.

Although these factors did not produce adolescence, they have been
instrumental in furthering it. Adolescence came about because social
structures developed that slow the movement of youth toward adult status.
Concomitant with this arrested development is a lack of meaning in the lives
of young people today. Locked out of adulthood, they find their lives void of
the meaning that is a part of adult roles. From this vantage, the creation of
adolescent subcultures can best be understood.

Adulthood is generally marked by marriage (or having a stable, committed
relationship), the end of occupational training, childbearing and rearing,
gainful employment, and home ownership (see Townsend 2002 for an
excellent discussion of the effect of these markers on gender identity), and
adolescence is supposed to equip individuals to attain those markers.
Because these markers are increasingly difficult to attain, adolescence has
been stretching beyond the traditional end point of eighteen years old and into
the mid to late twenties (Kail and Cavanaugh 2017).

There is evidence that, because of a combination of biological and social
factors, adolescence is beginning earlier and lasting longer, resulting in the

identification of an emerging adulthood stage between adolescence and
young adulthood (Kail and Kavanaugh 2017). Formal attempts to define the
beginning of adulthood in contemporary society do very little to dispel this
confusion. For example, the legal age at which one may marry varies from
state to state. In terms of voting privileges and military service, an eighteen-
year-old is judged to be an adult. In most states, a young adult is permitted to
drive at sixteen and legally allowed to drink alcohol at age twenty-one. It is
enlightening to note the age at which a person is regarded as an adult when
financial profit is involved. Movie theaters, airlines, and most public
establishments that require an admission fee consider a twelve-year-old to
be an adult. Teenagers are asked to pay adult prices but are told to wait until
they are older to receive adult privileges.

To grow up in the United States can be a free-form experience.
Adolescence can be compared to a jam session in which experienced jazz
musicians play without a score. They simply improvise as they go along,
relying on their skills and experience as musicians to feel the ebb and flow of
the music. Unfortunately, being a teen or parenting a teen usually means
having little experience or expertise in navigating the crescendo and
diminuendo of the sometimes-turbulent improvisation. Unlike the master jazz
musician, adolescents follow no clear cultural norms. This explains the rapid
change in adolescent fashion and style, whether it be clothes, hairdos, or

Adolescence as an Identity Crisis
Although adolescence can be explained as resulting from the social and

economic conditions of Western cultures, its effect is most profound at the
individual level, where it is often experienced as an identity crisis. This
identity crisis is the most important feature of the psycho-social development
of adolescents (Erikson 1980, 1997). Our discussion of adolescent stress
needs to be tempered by the fact that the media are quick to report on all that
is wrong with adolescents but rarely give positive examples illustrating the
good things adolescents do (Damon 2004). The popular depiction of
adolescence focuses primarily on teenage risk-taking and other negative
stereotypes of this life stage.

The creation of an adolescent subculture is an attempt to establish identity.
One learns from peer groups what to wear, what music to listen to, what
movies to see, what language is “in,” and so on. The greater the adolescent’s

insecurity, the greater the slavish obedience to doing all the right things
sanctioned by the peer group.

During the process of differentiation and identity formation, the adolescent
is often caught between the family and the peer group. We might think of the
family and the peer group as being alternative gravitational forces around
which teenagers are orbiting satellites. Young children orbit quite closely
around their family, but the orbit becomes wider and wider as the children
grow older. As they approach their teenage years, they are increasingly
drawn by the alternative gravitational pull of their peer group. As the pull
from the peer group intensifies, they sometimes retreat from the family and
reorient themselves around the peer group. Parents know quite well when
this has happened because their teens usually give more weight to the
opinions of their peers than to those of their parents.

The generation gap can be understood as the result of the identity crisis
faced by most adolescents. An important aspect of identity development for
teens and young adults is technology. As teens communicate more and more
online via social media such as Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok, social
pressure, almost instantaneous feedback, and pictures and video form the
context for identity. We can see distinct changes in the ways in which
personal pictures reflect increasing confidence, scope (through sharing),
intimacy, and intentionality (Yang and Brown 2016). Social media’s role in
teen and emerging-adult identity formation is both a positive in that
geographical distance is overcome and also a negative, as feedback can be
very harsh and overwhelming. Research has identified a strong connection
between social media use and depressive symptoms (Nesi and Prinstein
2015). The increasing role of social media has added a dimension to
adolescence that many parents are unable to understand. When a teen can
receive a million likes and severely negative feedback in the span of a few
minutes in his or her own bedroom, caregivers can be at a loss to understand
the sometimes-positive and sometimes-negative effects of social media on
the teen.

Adults continue to pass through individual stages of development throughout
their lifetimes. One of the most widely recognized stages is the onset of
midlife, used to describe the feeling of not being able to keep up with the

vast changes of the postmodern world. The rapidity of social and
technological changes tends to shock each new generation. Personal
adaptations can reach crisis proportions when we are not prepared for the

Technology has had a profound effect on adults in the workforce. Younger
workers tend to adopt technology based on their perceptions of how the
technology will assist them in accomplishing their tasks. Older workers rely
on workplace social norms and the subjective experience of exerting control
over the use of the technology (Morris and Venkatesh 2000). Adults in the
labor force are especially vulnerable when they realize that the jobs they are
trained to do and have been doing for most of their adult lives are becoming
obsolete due to the introduction of new technology that boosts productivity.
Automobile workers quite understandably experience a crisis when they
realize that robots can do much of their work. A similar anxiety plagues
managers and other people in the business world. They fear being overtaken
by younger, better-trained college graduates, especially in the computer age.

Midlife transition may also be a crisis for people who begin to realize that
they will not reach the lofty goals they set years before, goals that represent
self-esteem. Erik Erikson (1980, 1997) describes the longest period of one’s
development as the generativity versus stagnation stage. As individuals
begin to reflect on their contributions, they invest in caring for their current
relationships and work-related developments. Individuals in this stage
develop and cultivate the life they have been creating thus far—at work and
at home. That is, individuals experience generativity by enhancing their
relationships with family and further cultivating or growing the tasks and
projects they have built. Care, as the resulting virtue of this stage,
emphasizes the commitment and concern one has in establishing and
developing what has been generated. Capps (2008, 126) explains:
“Generativity involves an expansion of one’s personal interests and
emotional attachments to include that which has been generated (conceived,
originated, produced, etc.) while stagnation suggests either that nothing has
been generated or that, once generated, nothing is being done to insure its
survival, growth, or development.” This means that individuals make or
renew commitments to the investments they have made, whether it be to
work, family, friends, or the community. This is known as stewardship from
the Christian perspective. Individuals experiencing generativity express care

for their contributions to the world. Generativity is achieved when
individuals exercise stewardship over their creations.

On the negative side of generativity versus stagnation, individuals
experience depletion or emptiness over the lack of meaningful contributions
at work and home. In an extreme case, this could result in burnout, but usually
individuals begin to lose the sense that work is meaningful and they become
increasingly lethargic (Frederick, Dunbar, and Thai 2018). Still others who
have worked long, hard hours at their jobs reach midlife only to realize that
they have spent little time with their children, who are now nearly grown,
and have had little actual influence over them. Some of these hardworking
people find that when they do want to relax with their families, they are
unable to do so. The crisis in this case is that one has become a slave to
work and career.

In his study of career-oriented men, Daniel Levinson (1978) has identified
four polarities of midlife transition:

1. Youth/Age. Many men in midlife occupy a marginal status: they feel past
their youth but are not ready to join the rocking-chair set. They attempt to
appear young by the way they dress or to improve their physique by
running or lifting weights.

2. Destruction/Creation. Having experienced conflict on the job and being
battle scarred and hurt by others, men in midlife may resort to the same
tactics. They are aware of the death of friends their age, but at the same
time they have a strong desire to be creative as they enter what often
proves to be the most productive years of life.

3. Masculinity/Femininity. Concern over a physically sagging body is
coupled with a desire to become more nurturing.

4. Attachment/Separateness. A continued need for bonding with others is
balanced by a need to prove that one can get by alone.

Levinson believes that although these polarities exist throughout the entire
life cycle, they are accentuated during transition periods. Men who have
dealt with these polarities throughout their lives, having met minor crises on
a regular basis, do not experience the midlife transition as a crisis period. By
contrast, men who have not dealt with them are candidates for a major
midlife crisis.

Although much of this is also true of women, Levinson (1996) suggests an
important gender difference. For women, midlife transition is less
pronounced than for men. This is especially true for women not employed
outside the home. Women employed outside the home engage in gender
splitting, simultaneously holding dichotomous identities. Four common types
of gender splitting are domestic/public, homemaker/provider, women’s
work/men’s work, and femininity/masculinity in individual psyche. Most of
these splits in identity involve women wanting to uphold a traditional view
of marriage while also holding an nontraditional view that allows for more
independence and equality with men when participating in the public world.

For the woman whose only role has been mother and wife, midlife may be
traumatic for other reasons. She may feel her role is being phased out—her
maturing children have less need of her, and her husband may no longer
appreciate what she is doing in the home. For the woman whose whole
identity and self-esteem are based on being a supermother and a superwife,
this can be a devastating blow.

Parent-Adolescent Relationships
Having considered the stressful aspects of adolescence and midlife, we are
now in a position to consider the interaction between them. To begin with, it
should be noted that a family with adolescents is likely to have a double
inferiority complex when parent and teen have an insecure identity. This will
have an enormous impact on the parent-adolescent relationship.

While the major task during this stage of development concerns identity
formation, the following relationship tasks are needed (McGoldrick, Garcia
Petro, and Carter 2016):

1. Shifting parent-child relationships to permit adolescents to move into
and out of the family system. In other words, adolescents spend more and
more time outside the parents’ sphere of influence. As a result,
adolescents begin to create new relationship and authority networks that
may contradict the parents. Parents and adolescents need to negotiate and
communicate about these relationship networks that extend outside the
family of origin.

2. Refocusing on midlife marital and career issues
3. Beginning the shift toward caring for the older generation

As adolescents gain competence, they expect more and more freedom and
responsibility. The family system needs to accommodate the teen entering and
exiting the family and engaging with the community as a peer. Further, the
teen’s growing competence and autonomy allow for parents to reengage as
spouses rather than just as coparents. Finally, there is an increasing shift on
the part of the parents to care for their own parents. Parents who are
confident in themselves do well in making these transitions.

Parents are a source of stability when they encourage these changes as a
natural part of their adolescent developing a mature self. Parents in the midst
of their own identity crises, however, may not be as understanding or
psychologically prepared for the changes. They may personalize the
problems and feel angry, rejected, or overwhelmed. In reaction, they may
place unnecessary restrictions on their teenagers and dampen the teens’
ability to find their own way. It only complicates matters when personal
needs in both cases put inordinate strain on the relationship.

One of the factors in parent-adolescent conflicts may be that the parent in
midlife and the adolescent are experiencing contrasting physical changes. At
a time when the adolescent is developing the physical characteristics of
adulthood, the parents are beginning to lose theirs.

There are a variety of other reasons for parent-adolescent conflict. Lack of
connection and intimacy between parent and teen is a cause of conflict,
especially when interpersonal boundaries are tested. The disagreement peaks
in mid-adolescence, around the age of 18, then becomes less intense when
realignment occurs in the relationship. This transition occurs when parents
and adolescents are able to develop more peer-to-peer type relationships.
The teen’s sense of identity is supported, and the relationship with the parent
is maintained, especially in times of disagreement. The parents emotionally
support the teen, and the teen is increasingly responsible for his or her
emotional and physical needs. Interestingly, parents tend to view the
relationship as more positive and the conflicts as less severe than do the
adolescents. The relationships parents maintain with their teens have
important consequences for their future relationship. Interestingly, research
suggests that teens with more cohesive relationships with their mothers tend
to live in closer proximity to the parents, especially in early adulthood
(Gillespie and Treas 2017).

Parental Stimuli of Adolescent Rebellion

Sociocultural factors often escalate adolescent strain and rebellion. But
while these factors help explain the emergence of adolescence as a general
phenomenon in societies around the world, they do not entirely explain why
some adolescents go through a period of rebellion and others do not.
Evidence suggests that parenting style and structural components within the
family contribute to adolescent rebellion (Sogar 2017).


In chapter 6, we compared the effects of four socio-emotional parenting
styles. Parenting styles are not directly associated with academic
achievement (Pinquart 2016). Parenting styles subtly and indirectly influence
academic outcomes. Authoritarian parenting styles are associated with more
emotional and behavioral problems and less prosocial behaviors (Kuppens
and Ceulemans 2019). Authoritative parenting styles, on the other hand, are
associated with fewer behavioral and emotional problems and more
prosocial behaviors.

The relationship between parental restrictiveness and adolescent rebellion
is far from simple. Adolescent rebellion is highest in very permissive and
very restrictive homes, and lowest in homes with a balanced approach to
discipline. This may be related to the important task of differentiation.
Adolescents are challenged to develop a self in relation—that is, establish a
separate self (attitudes, beliefs, and values) while remaining connected with
their family. Finding and asserting a clearly defined self is critically
important because it is the only way one learns to establish a genuine
relationship with parents and others. When an adolescent feels confident as a
separate self, he or she has a new capacity to interact in meaningful ways
with others.

An example may be helpful here. One of my (Tom’s) client families came
to me with a “teen defiance” problem. This African American family
consisted of a mom, dad, and their only son—a teenager who was sixteen
years old at the time they came in for family therapy. The defiance problem
concerned identity and membership in the family. The family’s identity or
core-self consisted in valuing membership in the military as the primary way
to serve the public. It was important to their identities as African Americans,
as well as being a military family, that their son also follow in their
footsteps. For this family, there were generations of elders that sacrificed for
the country via military service. As sixteen-year-olds tend to do, the teen

began to question whether he wanted to go into the military. The parents, who
were highly educated and had spent significant time in the military, were
taken aback. They experienced their son’s identity question as a challenge to
their own identity. Could their son not go into the military and still be part of
the family? They immediately became defensive and angry. In my time alone
with the teen in therapy, we discussed the meaning of his questioning and
how it related to him being a member of the family. In other words, he was
questioning his desire to be in the military and if that meant he could no
longer be a member of his family. The teen only wanted to investigate and
decide whether going into the military was important for him personally. He
did not mean to question his parents’ ideals or identity. The parents, son, and
I were eventually able to have these important identity conversations in a
nonreactive, emotionally neutral manner. The teen eventually decided to
prioritize going into the military, but he had to do so of his own volition.

In terms of differentiation, the core self of the family needs to be
internalized intentionally on the part of the children. This means that they are
choosing to adopt the family’s values and identity. In families with lower
levels of differentiation, identity is either forced onto the children through
compliance (restrictive parenting practices) and emotional fusion, or identity
is diffused through cutoff and emotional distance (permissive parenting

Ideally, the child moves from complete dependence on the parents to semi-
dependence to relative independence and eventually interdependence. The
change from dependence to independence tends to proceed smoothly if the
parents are moderate in their disciplinary practices. Although younger
children seem to thrive on structure, when they become teenagers, they need
far more breathing space. If parents continue to be very restrictive,
adolescents are likely to rebel out of frustration. Overly restrictive parents
hold the reins too tightly and do not allow for a gradual development of self.
This creates a situation where independence can be achieved only by a
drastic break from the parents. Restrictive parenting fails to provide enough
structure/support in the child’s process of developing a self. Children in such
families may become frustrated or aggressive toward their parents and
society in general, acting out in rebellious behavior. Maintaining a good
balance of staying connected while supporting differentiation is the goal.


It is no secret that there is currently much controversy about the best
authority pattern in the home. Studies show that the incidence of rebellion
tends to be high in homes where either the father or the mother is dominant,
moderate where the parents share equal authority, and low where one parent
has slightly more authority. We believe that extreme inequality in parental
authority results in a state of confusion for the teen. When authority is
perceived as being primarily in the hands of one parent, the child may have
problems interacting with both parents as authority figures.

Identity development in adolescence can create anxiety among family
members as they feel that the family’s identity is threatened by the questions
the teen is expressing. Confusion may result if the child is not sure where the
ultimate authority resides or tries to pit one parent against the other. Power
imbalances tend to foster increasing use of triangulation in relationships
between the parents and offspring, which indicates a lower level of
differentiation (Titelman 2007).

This is why parents need to agree about discipline and stand together as a
united front. It is best when teens are crystal clear about their parents being
the coleaders in the home. The balance of parental power means that parents
consult each other about final outcomes. When both mother and father are
actively involved in coparenting, trust is established as they love, discipline,
guide, teach, nurture, and empower their children. The key is that parents
work in tandem.

Empowering Adolescent Children
Although they may not realize it at the time, parents play an extremely

important role in the lives of their teenagers. Parent-adolescent conflict is
associated with negative outcomes like emotional and behavioral problems
for adolescents (Ehrich, Dykas, and Cassidy 2012). Pamela King and James
Furrow (2004) found that young people having a strong sense of shared
beliefs, values, and goals with their parents is related to their being altruistic
and empathetic toward others. Supportive and encouraging relationships
between parents and teens promote empathy and altruism. Positive effects
were found for such parental monitoring as setting clear boundaries,
establishing clear expectations, and being aware of when their teens left and
returned home. Pamela King and Ross Mueller (2004) found that parents
significantly influenced their teenager’s religiosity.

Delegating responsibility is a challenging task for parents. Fostering teen
responsibility is an important aspect of the teen and parents’ relationship. To
trust one’s teenager to make the right choices and to act responsibly is
perhaps one of the hardest things a parent is asked to do. It’s important to let
go as well as to stand firm with teenagers until they reach their full adult

Adolescent empowerment depends on parents giving responsibility and
adolescents acting responsibly. Adults are an often-overlooked source of
empowerment for adolescents. In fact, there may be times of emotional
turmoil in the parent-teen relationship when another adult can be more
influential than the parents. King and Furrow (2004) found that formal
mentoring relationships and informal school, neighborhood, or church
relationships are most effective when the relationship between adult and teen
is positive and trustful, with open communication and a shared sense of
values. Again, adults most positively influence teens when they provide a
balance between accountability and guidance on the one hand, and
encouragement and affirmation on the other.

Undoubtedly, mistakes will be part of the learning process. But the
empowerment process will be most successful, we believe, in parent-child
relationships based on covenant commitments. The true test of unconditional
parental love occurs when the child reaches adolescence. Where
unconditional love prevails, the family lives in an atmosphere of grace.
Where there is grace, there is room for failure and the assurance that one will
be forgiven and afforded the opportunity to try again. Our teens need to feel
our deep affirmation of who they are and acknowledgement of their unique
gifts and purpose. This deepens the intimacy between young people and their
parents and makes mutual empowerment possible.


The Joys and Challenges of
Family in Later Life

Families in later life are those that have passed beyond the child-rearing
years. The typical parent whose children are in their twenties or thirties can
expect to live one-third of his or her life in this particular family life stage.
Because of the increase in life expectancy, this stage can last several
decades. Many find this time of life an awesome, complex, and arduous
journey, especially when there are three or even four generations of family
members with which to deal.

The “sandwich generation” describes those “mid-life adults who
simultaneously raise dependent children and care for frail elder parents”
(Grundy and Henretta 2006). Around the age of fifty, people who are at the
peak of their earning capabilities may find it necessary to provide emotional
and economic support to both young adult and elderly family members. The
responsibility of caring for parents and/or adult children can come as quite a
shock, especially after looking forward to a time of freedom to enjoy the fruit
of one’s active years of labor and raising children. Hoping for a breather
after adult children have finally left home, fifty-year-olds may find it
burdensome to meet the increasing needs of their adult children and elderly
parents. A study of job burnout and couple burnout in dual-earner couples in
the sandwich generation revealed “significant differences in burnout type
(job burnout higher than couple burnout); gender (wives more burned out than
husbands); and country (Americans more burned out than Israelis)” (Pines et
al. 2011, 361).

On the positive side, although the phenomenon of living longer results in
greater complexity in family relationships, it also opens up the possibility of
increased cross-generational family interaction, support, and connection. In
this chapter, we describe three separate stages of later life: launching,

postlaunching, and retirement. We will clarify the unique aspects and typical
dynamics of each of these stages.

The Launching Stage
The launching stage is the period when adult children leave home to establish
an independent life outside the family. Tasks to be accomplished by the young
adult include (1) achieving autonomy in caring for oneself, managing
finances, and being a responsible citizen; (2) developing meaningful
relationships and support systems; and (3) finding a personal purpose and
spiritual meaning in life. If all goes well, young adults prove able to manage
their own lives effectively, think and act on their own behalf, take
responsibility for their choices, and accept the consequences of their
decisions. Other indicators of maturity are the establishment of relationships
within and outside the family that lead to mutual interdependence and respect
and settling into a career and lifestyle that give personal meaning and

In chapter 7 we noted Erik Erikson’s thesis that identity and intimacy are
key developmental goals to be achieved by young adults on their way to
maturity. Subsequent research has shown that while this sequence (identity
then intimacy) holds true for males, the reverse (intimacy then identity) holds
true for females. During adolescence, males are more likely to be members
of an identifiable peer group, while females are more likely to have made a
few close friends. For males, one’s rank in the peer group helps to form
personal identity; while for females, the emotional bonding and
communication between close friends develop intimacy. As a result of these
differences during adolescence, the average male enters young adulthood
with a firmer sense of identity, while the female has more fully developed
intimacy skills. This difference explains why, among those who marry young,
husbands struggle more with achieving intimacy and wives with identity.
Working on those areas in which one is deficient is essential for young adults
at the launching stage.

Adulthood is defined in most cultures as the time when people are held
accountable for their behavior in society. It must be remembered that each
culture, with its particular beliefs, traditions, and values, determines the pace
of the launching period. We must not judge all families by the Western ideal
but respect how each unique culture helps its young adults reach the point of

accountability. Many circumstances influence the launching of each
individual young adult, so we must pay attention to cultural diversity as well
as individual differences and oscillations throughout the process from
dependence to independence and eventually to mature interdependence.

In chapter 9 we identified some of the normal tensions that arise when
parents are grappling with midlife issues just as their children enter
adolescence. How well the launching goes is in large measure determined by
how well parents and adolescents have addressed and resolved these
tensions. We might speak of a smooth launch when the adult child who has
left home orbits around the family at a safe distance; good connections are
maintained, and there are mutually gratifying touchdowns. In a recalled
launch, everyone seems prepared and ready for the big day, yet complex
family circumstances prevent the adolescent from actually getting off the
ground. More time is needed to make necessary repairs or to right wrongs
before a successful launch can be accomplished. Sometimes there is clearly a
blastoff, fueled by anger and dissension, which propels the young adult to a
distance beyond the gravitational pull of the family. In such cases, the
premature cutoff leaves young adults floundering without support, and it is
not surprising that they come crashing back, often having an impact on
everyone in their path. Thus, there are sad and incomplete leavings, just as
there are happy and satisfying leavings. Perhaps one of the most reliable
predictors of the chances for a successful launch is the level of
differentiation a youth has achieved while in the home.

There may also be times of renesting, when adult children return home to
cohabit with parents due to educational circumstances, financial hardship, or
partner breakup (such as death or divorce). Renesting requires that adult
children and parents renegotiate their relationship and the accompanying
rules of cohabitation. This renegotiation should be based on adult, reciprocal
relationships, and not based on parent-child relationships. Some specific
aspects of this negotiation should be (1) rent or other renumeration for living
in the parents’ home, (2) dealing with grandchildren regarding rules and
expectations for behavior, (3) the adult child having intimate partners visit,
and (4) a plan for relaunching. None of these suggestions should be
considered final, but the negotiations should be ongoing, as the reasons for
renesting are often complex and multifaceted.

Differentiation is the process whereby an individual assumes his or her
unique identity as separate from while remaining connected to the family.

Those who approach the launching stage without a clear self-definition can
be overly dependent or too cut off and disengaged from their parents. Without
a solid, sufficient sense of self, they either pretend that they don’t need
anybody or they lack the confidence that they can succeed on their own. In
contrast, differentiated young adults can assume interdependence in their
relationships because they are both separate from yet stay meaningfully
connected to their parents.

Transition Tasks
Successful transition through the launching stage is accomplished through

four tasks. First, married parents must refocus on their marriage relationship.
When the marriage is doing well, an adult child’s leaving home unites rather
than divides the parents. However, if unresolved issues have caused ongoing
tension and disagreements, the marriage may be on shaky ground. If the
couple has focused solely on the parenting role, whether through trials or
delights, the loss of that role puts them at jeopardy. They may need to face
each other and their relationship in new ways. This can lead to growth and a
stronger marriage if the couple is able to refocus on their partnership. If not,
there is little to keep the marriage vital, and it may disintegrate. Adult
children feel the freedom to go forward with their own lives when they are
assured their parents have a substantial marriage.

The second task is related to the first: parents and children need to learn to
relate to each other as adults. Part of the letting go involves allowing the
child to take on a new adult role. Respecting young adults and
acknowledging their adult status can be a challenging task for parents. It is
especially problematic for parent-child relationships based on authoritarian
practices; affirmation of the child’s adulthood is more difficult for
controlling parents. Easing into an adult-adult relationship is more natural for
those working from an empowerment model, since there has been continual
affirmation as the child developed toward maturity.

A third task for successful launching is for parents to develop good
relationships with their adult child’s mate. Often the daughter-in-law/mother-
in-law relationship is the most conflicted. One reason may be that mothers
tend to be more heavily involved in the lives of their married children. This
may be exacerbated when the husband compares his wife to his mother on
such matters as cooking, cleaning, and parenting. These comparisons put the
daughter-in-law in a no-win situation, since the husband defines “good” in

terms of his family of origin. The new wife naturally operates according to
her family’s traditions and tastes.

Also prone to conflict is the relationship between the son-in-law and the
mother-in-law. The popular stereotype of a mother-in-law interfering may
serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy. The expectation that she will interfere
serves to increase the son-in-law’s reaction to her involvement with her
daughter. The conflict in the son-in-law/father-in-law relationship seems to
be centered in the father-in-law’s view that the son-in-law is inadequate to
provide for his daughter. Indeed, when the son-in-law is perceived by the
father-in-law as a good provider, the chances are good that this will be a
positive relationship. The least conflictive relationship seems to be between
the daughter-in-law and the father-in-law. This relationship is often
characterized by mutual acceptance and well-intended humor. Perhaps the
relational skills of the daughter-in-law give her an ability to get along with
her father-in-law.

The fourth task for successful launching is to resolve issues pertaining to
the older generation. When the emotional and economic needs of their adult
children have consumed and drained parents, the problems presented by their
own aging parents may come as a disturbing reality. Having fewer resources
to give may fuel resentment about the needs of aging parents. Taking time to
anticipate and prepare for the needs of the elder generation can alleviate
some of the frustration.

Contemporary Obstacles to Successful Launching
Clearly, the process of leaving home is not as easy as it once was. In a

highly technological society, the majority of well-paying jobs demand a high
degree of education, training, and skill. Even adequate entry-level jobs may
require a college degree at a minimum. Given the high cost of education and
training, the adult child today often needs additional economic help. The
pattern of adult children leaving home only to return a few months or years
later has given rise to the term boomerang children.

The cost of housing also makes it difficult for newly married couples to
move into their own homes. This means that adult children frequently ask for
financial help from their parents even after they have established themselves
in careers and significant relationships. Given this trend of continued
financial need on the part of children who have already launched, the

contemporary family may be returning to the more traditional extended-
family structure.

The Postlaunching Stage
Whenever we (Jack and Judy) visited Jack’s parents, a predictable ritual
would take place. Dad Balswick would gleefully announce, “I think it’s time
we washed your car!” Clean cars were a priority for Dad, and our car was
sure to need a good washing after traveling three hundred miles. The car-
washing ritual dated back to when Jack was a little boy. Dad would hold the
hose and give the instructions as Jack did the grunt work of soaping down
and scrubbing the car. Now, as an adult, Jack moved back into his little-boy
position, while Dad assumed his “father knows best” position. Although this
was an innocent ritual, one that Judy thoroughly enjoyed because her father-
in-law winked at her as he bragged about how he got Jack to wash the car, it
points to an area of struggle during the postlaunching phase. Old patterns of
relating can sometimes be hard to take and even more difficult to break
during family reunions, especially if the parents fail to relate to their children
as adults to adults.

Tom’s journey in the postlaunching phase has been similar to Jack’s. One
challenge when I (Tom) return home is the need to return as a more helpful,
caring son as opposed to an adult. Due to my mom’s history of strokes, I had
to do more caregiving as a child than most of my peers. I learned to wash and
fold clothes at an early age. When I return home as an adult, Mom’s chronic
health issues often become a source of conflict. Having conversations with a
parent about what they can and cannot do for themselves is challenging under
the best of circumstances, let alone when significant health issues are a part
of the picture.

Leaving home is definitely a challenge for both parents and adult children.
The fact that launching has taken place doesn’t mean that all issues have been
clearly worked out between family members. In fact, working out these
family relationships is a lifelong process. Making adjustments is difficult
because the family is a network of patterns and roles so predictable that they
seem cut from a template. And even greater adjustments are required when
adult children bring their partners and children into the mix. Old routines
will be tested, and new coalitions will bring a mosaic of different
interactions and interconnections. Expectations and unspoken messages can

leave the new spouse feeling excluded. If parents and their adult children are
to have a successful relationship during the launching and postlaunching
stages, new roles and patterns must be established. The family should
endeavor to create new ways of relating that are also inviting to and include
the new members.

An aspect of differentiation is the ability of launched children to be
objective about their families and resist the pull that hooks them into the old
patterns. Instead of responding in predictable ways of the past, parents and
adult children alike need to find appropriate new ways that work best in the
current circumstances. A flexible environment allows changes that enhance
all relationships so that there is a feeling of well-being and harmony among
family members. Rodney Clapp (1993, 86) comments insightfully: “When
family is not the whole world, parents can let children go and in turn find
themselves reclaimed as parents. Truly letting a child go is hard, not only
because of the pain of separation, but because a child fully released will
reclaim and reshape the relationship in a way that may not be entirely to the
parents’ liking.” This opportunity for change and growth can increase
interconnectedness and renew the relationship.

Grandparents have long been depicted as gray-haired, slightly frail, sitting

in their rocking chairs, and passing out sugar cookies to their adoring
grandchildren. Such stereotypes do not fit our modern picture of grandparents
between the ages of fifty and sixty-five who dress in blue jeans and tennis
shoes as they actively engage with their grandchildren. In view of the amount
of financial and emotional support given by grandparents, it is now accurate
to describe the North American family as a modified extended family.

Research has provided insights into the changing nature of how
grandparents contribute to their grandchildren as they develop and mature
from childhood to adulthood. Infants and toddlers benefit most from secure
bonding with grandmothers who provide physical and emotional care. During
the early school years, grandchildren value what grandparents do for and
with them, such as showing love, giving presents, taking them places, and
having fun together. In preadolescence, grandchildren continue to value
indulgent grandparents but focus on the feelings of connectedness and the
family pride they derive from the relationships (Ponzetti and Folkrod 1989).

When the relations between parents and teenagers become strained,
grandparents can be sensitive, nonjudgmental listeners to their grandchildren.
It is especially important that grandparents of teenagers listen to the problems
relating to self-esteem, affirm their grandchildren’s strengths, and
demonstrate their care by attending special school events and other
performance-oriented activities. An intimate, meaningful relationship
between grandparents and teenage grandchildren can be mutually beneficial,
contributing to both the grandparents’ mental health and the grandchildren’s
efforts to resolve identity issues. Adult grandchildren and great-
grandchildren can benefit from the emotional support given by grandparents
and great-grandparents.

What goes around comes around, for those grandparents who actively
bond with their grandchildren when they are young can expect their
grandchildren to be emotionally supportive and concerned about them when
they are old. Although granddaughters and grandsons bond equally well with
their grandparents, there is a tendency for both to be closer to maternal than
to paternal grandparents and to be closer to grandmothers than to
grandfathers (Hodgson 1995). Since women traditionally take on the role of
keeping up relationships with extended-family members and kin, this finding
is not surprising.

In traditional nonindustrial societies, most grandparents were highly
involved in the lives of their grandchildren. Since parents devoted much of
their time to work, the care of children as well as the inculcation of morals,
beliefs, and values were frequently the province of grandparents. Indeed,
Scripture emphasizes the grandparents’ spiritual role of passing on the faith:
“I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your
grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you”
(2 Tim. 1:5). But because of both the decline of the extended family and the
high geographical mobility of industrial society, few grandparents have daily
involvement with their grandchildren, let alone the opportunity to pass on
their faith. Moreover, in our society, not only the parents but also often the
grandparents work outside the home.

The extent to which contemporary grandparents are involved in the lives
of their grandchildren varies greatly. Differing circumstances create different
styles of grandparenting that can include grandparents as fun seekers,
parental surrogates, reservoirs of family wisdom, or even distant figures.
Margaret Mueller, Brenda Wilhelm, and Glen Elder (2002) found that

grandparents who were most influential and supportive were usually part of
a highly cohesive family, had more education, fewer grandchildren, and lived
closer to them. Grandparents with a more traditional view tend to be formal
figures who take on the role of defining moral behaviors and rules.
Grandparents who live a great distance from grandchildren pack a lot into
brief visits once or twice a year. They are prone to engage in fun-seeking
interaction during those visits but remain background figures for the rest of
the year.

Grandparents who live with or close by their grandchildren usually have
frequent contact with them. It may be that they serve as surrogate parents for
a variety of reasons. And this surrogate parenting is an unfortunate necessity
for many in the later-life developmental stage. According to a US census
report in 2012, about 10 percent of all children cohabited with grandparents.
The number of grandparents who were “grandparent caregivers” or primarily
responsible for their grandchildren was roughly 2.7 million (Ellis and
Simons 2014). In terms of households, roughly 3 percent of all households
include grandparents co-residing with grandchildren. Most of these
households are maintained by the grandparent. When Tom was in full-time
private practice, grandparents were increasingly seeking parenting education
and individual and family therapy to improve parenting. Fortunately,
evidence suggests that parenting interventions by grandparents are effective
(Sherr et al. 2018). In these cases of surrogate parenting, it goes without
saying that grandparents have a great impact on their grandchildren.

Many adults tell heartwarming stories that credit grandparents with
providing the love, prayer, values, faith, and beliefs that made all the
difference in their lives. The sad news is that when grandparents are
divorced, they, and particularly grandfathers, are less involved in the lives of
their grandchildren (King 2003). Most grandparents make quite an effort to
connect with their grandchildren, even if they are geographically distant.
Interest, support, and concern can be communicated through phone and video
calls, cards, email, packages, visits, summer trips, and vacations. Regardless
of the grandparenting style, most grandparents can be counted on for support
in one way or another.

Most adult children turn to their parents for help during times of stress and
crisis. Grandparents are called on to fill in the gaps and provide a significant
amount of support to their children and grandchildren when divorce occurs.
The role of grandparents in the lives of grandchildren can be especially

meaningful at transition points, such as leaving home, when the tensions
between parents and child are at their highest. Think of the advantage for a
child of any age who can draw on unconditional support and love from both
maternal and paternal grandparents. Grandparents who have intense
relationships with grandchildren during their childhood promote continuation
of the relationship into adulthood (Geurts, Van Tilburg, and Poortman
2012a). Parenthetically, it is good to note that intense relationships between
grandparents and grandchildren are predictive of adult children supporting
their elderly parents (Geurts, Van Tilburg, and Poortman 2012b). Yorgason,
Padilla-Walker, and Jackson (2011) found that the emotional and financial
support from nonresidential grandparents had a positive effect on their

There are increasing numbers of grandparent-headed households in the
United States. Grandparents who assume the responsibility of raising
grandchildren face special challenges, including “financial burden, worry,
health issues, and freedom restrictions” (Williams 2011, 948). Drawing from
a number of research studies on resident grandparents, Strom and Strom
(2011, 910) suggest that successful grandparents are able to “establish
suitable priorities, recognize the necessary adjustments in their thinking and
behavior, and discover how to assess progress by being willing to amend
their dreams, get to know grandchildren by spending time together, and adopt
a perspective that enables management of stress.”

Multigenerational Households
Multigenerational households, consisting of three or more generations

living together, are most common during the postlaunching stage. In extended-
family systems, such as those in Asian societies, the family by its very nature
is multigenerational. In the nuclear-family system of Western societies,
multigenerational households are of two types. First is the postlaunching
multigenerational household of married children and their offspring who live
with their parents or return home after they have been on their own for some
time. A second type of multigenerational household forms during the
retirement stage, when elderly parents move in with their married children.
The dynamics of these two types of multigenerational households may be
extremely rich and rewarding or extremely stressful and disruptive. In most
cases, there is a mixture of rewards and stress.

In general, families that have not coped well with major transitions in the
past are likely to find that multigenerational living amplifies the strain. The
stress will be less intense in those multigenerational families characterized
by good health, emotional maturity, and self-differentiation. Other factors that
can help alleviate stress include adequate material assets, financial security,
a house of ample size, access to transportation, and availability of community
resources. Among the more beneficial community resources are elder-care
programs, day care centers for young children, and a network of extended
family, friends, and church members who can step in to provide assistance
when needed.

Establishing appropriate boundaries helps combat one of the most
potentially troublesome areas within multigenerational households. The
homeowners will quite naturally feel that it is their right to establish
household rules and boundaries with their adult children, grandchildren, and
elderly parents. These rules and boundaries are likely to concern questions
of space, household responsibilities, child-rearing or elder-care practices,
and time schedules. Although most of the space in the house may be
understood as a common living area, it is wise to establish clear guidelines
before living together. Taking time for mutual consideration of each
individual’s needs will help with the negotiation.

During the Balswicks’ postlaunching period, our married daughter, son-in-
law, and two young grandsons came to live with us for three years. Although
we developed clear spatial boundaries from the start, we experienced some
humorous moments. Much of the rather large house was open to everyone, but
Curtis and Jacob had to be reminded that Grammie and Grampie’s bedroom
and upstairs living-room areas were private space that was off limits when
the doors were closed. We soon learned that our grandsons lived by the letter
of the law, so when the door was open just a crack, they would rush in with
all the exuberance of young children. One morning, as our grandsons were
trying out Judy’s hairbrush, comb, perfume, and other items of interest while
she was getting ready for work, it was necessary for her to explain that these
things belonged to Grammie and were not to be “messed with.” After
listening to Judy expounding on the boundary rules, Curtis piped up with a
serious expression on his face, “And Grammie, when you’re in our room, you
don’t mess with any of our things either!” It was a lighthearted moment, but
Judy was quick to reply, “Yes, Curtis, that is right! Grammie and Grampie
will knock before we come into your room and ask if we can play with your

things!” The boys had learned that boundary issues are a matter of mutual

Other rules concern the responsibility for household tasks such as
cleaning, yard work, and meal preparation. In the three years we lived as a
three-generation household, our son-in-law took responsibility for house
repairs, Jack did the yard work, our daughter cleaned the common living
area, and Judy planned the meals, to which we all contributed by cooking and
cleaning up. Similarly, when elderly family members move in, it is vital that
they contribute to the household in any way they can. For some it may simply
be doing a little dusting or clearing the table or gardening or making their
beds; the very act of participating gives them meaning. Those unable to help
physically can say a prayer or contribute through their presence at family
gatherings. They should be affirmed for what they contribute to the family and
be told how much they are appreciated.

An area of potential conflict and misunderstanding is caretaking. When it
comes to discipline of children, for example, grandparents may tend to take
charge. Having strong ideas about parenting since they have already been
through the experience, they may find it tempting to criticize the parents’
methods. The task facing grandparents is learning how to share knowledge
without undermining or disrespecting the parents. Grandparents must also
acknowledge that adult children have both the right and the responsibility to
raise their children their own way. A sacred rule for the Balswicks was to
never interfere with our daughter and son-in-law as they were actively
parenting but to share any concerns or suggestions with them in private. Of
course, when they were not in the home, we clearly took the leadership role.

Different ideas about caring for elderly parents can also become a serious
area of conflict between couples. Making good judgments about what is
needed, without being over- or underprotective, is the key. When there are
differences that can’t be resolved, it is wise to protect the marriage by
bringing in substitute caretakers who can ease the load.

When an elderly family member moves into the home, it is essential to
discuss some important issues. First, talk openly and honestly about feelings,
expectations, strengths, and limitations as you anticipate caring for an aging
parent. Get together with one or two close friends to talk through the hopes,
fears, and doubts that having this particular parent in the home raises.
Discuss the parent’s physical and emotional needs and your ability to meet
those needs. Consider the role that your sense of obligation plays in the

decision to care for your parent and be willing to examine any resentment
you may have. It is also vital to spend time reflecting on how the decision
will affect your life and your significant relationships. Are there hidden
expectations about the extent to which others (spouse, siblings) will be
involved? What fears are there about becoming emotionally distant in your
relationships as you focus on the needs of the elderly parent? Clearly voicing
these concerns helps you be as realistic as possible about the decision.
Periodic discussion about how things are going ensures that necessary and
appropriate changes are made.

A second set of questions concerns the family as a whole. These questions
center on the family’s relationship with the aging parent and the impact of the
decision on each member. Do they all get along with the elderly individual?
Are there particular concerns with any family members that put them at
special risk? How will they deal with illness? What feelings of intrusion or
resentment are present? These and other questions should be processed in a
family meeting. Letting family members voice their fears and concerns as
well as their positive attitudes about the decision allows everyone a chance
to make it a successful venture.

A third set of questions deals with the adequacy of living space, privacy,
and financial resources. Finally, investigating the community resources that
can contribute to the well-being of the elderly members of the household will
benefit everyone. Such community resources might include transportation
programs, senior-activity centers, home-delivered meals, housekeeping
services, and home health care.

The Retirement Stage

Couple Satisfaction and Challenge
Most couples report retirement to be a satisfying phase of their lives.

Those who are most satisfied engage in rewarding activities and reserve time
for themselves. They have fulfilling marriages, a sexual relationship founded
on mutual expressions of affection, open communication, and the ability to
resolve conflicts. Good communication and compatibility in marriage are
most important in preventing stress during retirement. Highly satisfied
couples are also fairly healthy, financially secure, and involved with church
and friends. Couples in long-term marriages report more affection and

intimacy and fewer marital problems, conflicts, and negativity than do
couples who have been married fewer years (Cooney and Dunne 2004).

At a time when approximately one out of every two marriages ends in
divorce, it is particularly important to discover reasons for long-term marital
success. A study of couples who had been married from forty-five to sixty-
four years (Lauer, Lauer, and Kerr 1995, 39) reports that essential to success
in marriage is an intimate relationship with a mate whose company one
thoroughly enjoys. Almost as important are commitment, humor, and the
ability to agree on a wide variety of issues. In their review of literature on
long-term marriages, T. Cooney and K. Dunne (2004, 138) report that “the
same things that make a given couple happy or unhappy early in marriage
tend to make them happy or unhappy later in marriage.”

Of course, retirement brings with it some notable changes in the marital
relationship. As the relationship becomes more equal in power, wives
become more assertive, and husbands more concerned with interpersonal
relationships (Long and Mancini 1990). Given the additional time that retired
couples have to focus on each other and their relationship, it is not surprising
that most of the research reports an increase in marital happiness after

But retirement also tends to highlight the negative qualities of a couple’s
marriage. Role loss is an inevitable challenge. A workaholic (whether in the
home or outside it) who has defined self-worth purely in terms of work will
find retirement a difficult time of life. Also, involvement in work may have
kept spouses from developing a more satisfying marriage. With time on their
hands, a retired couple must confront unresolved marital issues head-on. An
annoying habit that was previously tolerated may become unbearable when
one must deal with it on a constant basis. Another difficulty for some retired
people is insufficient financial resources to maintain their accustomed
lifestyle. The most challenging part of retirement involves health and aging
bodies. Illness and physical and mental deterioration can sap vitality and
much of the joy of living.

One of Tom’s favorite couples was facing a challenge during the transition
to the husband’s retirement. The husband was a Caucasian American, and the
wife was Taiwanese. In Taiwanese culture, retirement is viewed very
positively. Retirement signals the accomplishment of a lifetime of work and
support for one’s family. Additionally, aging is viewed more positively in
Taiwanese culture than here in the United States. These cultural perspectives

influence how the husband more negatively experienced retirement and how
the wife had difficulty understanding this life transition. They were both
gainfully employed throughout their marriage, even working at the same
company. They had been married for over thirty years and had successfully
raised and launched three children, two sons and a daughter. Since his
retirement, both spouses reported increasing anger and arguments. In
discussing the meaning of the retirement, the issues came to light. The wife
viewed retirement in solely positive terms—as a much-deserved reward for
a lifetime of hard work and providing for the family. The husband would
have time to do everything he always wanted—golf, play with grandchildren,
vacation. However, the husband experienced retirement as a loss—a loss of
an important aspect of his identity. As part of his grieving process, he was
experiencing profound sadness, guilt, and purposelessness. When he tried to
communicate these feelings to his wife, she had difficulty understanding
them, as she viewed retirement very differently. Therapy mostly involved
exploring the meaning of retirement and how identity for both partners could
expand outside of work.

Minor tensions can arise because retired husbands spend so much time at
home. One elderly woman compared the development in her marriage to
having an ever-present twin: “He’s always right there under my feet! I’m not
used to it, and I don’t know what to do with him being home all day long.”
His constant presence interfered with her freedom to socialize with female
friends and to run the household on her own. A retired husband with few
friends and interests outside the home may find himself at a loss as to how to
fill the day and become overly dependent on his wife in retirement.

Retired couples face two major crises: illness and death. The first crisis
occurs when one of the spouses becomes seriously ill, making it necessary
for the other spouse to become the caregiver. Since husbands are usually
older than their wives and women have a longer life expectancy, the wife is
more likely to find herself in the caregiver role. Even minor illness can
provoke tension when one spouse assumes the burden of caring for the other.
The healthy spouse also lives with the fear that the other will get worse and

Both physical and emotional illness can greatly affect the quality of a
marriage relationship. The increase in life expectancy means that a larger
number of people will suffer a debilitating condition such as Alzheimer’s or

Parkinson’s disease. It is estimated that 50 percent of all marriages will
reach a point where one of the spouses develops some form of dementia.

As a couple’s time and energy focus more on a debilitating illness, their
involvement with other couples and friends decreases. At this time, they need
assistance from adult relatives. Without help from other family members, the
caregiving spouse can become overburdened and stressed beyond the ability
to cope. When both spouses are too ill to care for themselves, the extended
family must enter the picture to arrange for care.

The death of a spouse is the final phase. Although death can be a relief in
the case of a severe illness, it usually comes as a numbing shock to the
surviving partner and other family members. Free from the responsibilities of
children and work, the lives of elderly partners usually revolve around each
other, resulting in mutual emotional and physical dependency. Thus, the death
of a beloved partner often leaves the surviving spouse seriously depressed.
Frequent crying, withdrawal from others, loss of appetite, sleep
disturbances, fatigue, declining health, and lack of interest in life are common
symptoms. It is not unusual for a surviving spouse whose health is also
failing to give up on life and die shortly after the death of the partner. (For a
scholarly discussion of widowhood and its negative effects, see Ennis and
Majid 2020.)

It seems that the wider supportive network of friends that characterizes
widows, compared to widowers, helps women adjust better to living after
the death of their spouse. In addition, older women gain independence
through social networks due to their greater potential to “have bridging
potential in their networks—between both kin and non-kin contacts”
(Cornwell 2011, 782).

Although we might expect that people who are most dependent on their
spouses will be more devastated by their deaths, this is not necessarily the
case. A study by Carr (2004, 220) found that “women who were most
emotionally dependent on their spouses had the poorest self-esteem while
still married, yet evidenced highest levels of self-esteem following the loss.
Men who were most dependent on their wives for home maintenance and
financial management tasks experienced the greatest personal growth
following loss.” From this we conclude that highly dependent spouses have
or can learn the capacity to gain self-confidence when they are forced to
manage on their own.

Caring for Aging Family Members
Adult children are called on to care for their dependent elderly members

when chronic illness or death strikes. Although such responsibility causes a
certain amount of strain, a study of patients with advanced cancer shows that
hope is an important ingredient that not only eases one’s ability to cope with
stressful situations but also reduces caregiving strain (Lohne, Miaskowski,
and Rustoen 2012). Extended-family systems take for granted the care of
elderly parents by adult children. In nuclear-family systems, care for elderly
parents may be more problematic. After their children leave home, parents
pride themselves on their desire and ability to live their remaining years by
themselves. Single adult children and those in dual-career families may not
be able to stay home to care for elderly parents. Some are also caring for
boomerang adult children, a situation that leaves little time and energy to take
in elderly parents. Health and financial problems may also deter adult
children from caring for their elderly parents.

A new perspective on adult children caring for aging family members has
been described as intergenerational ambivalence (Willson, Kim, and Elder
2003; Pillemer and Luscher 2004). Intergenerational ambivalence is a theory
in family gerontology that addresses positive and negative features of
intergenerational relationships. Ingrid Connidis and Julie Ann McMullin
(2002, 565) define ambivalence as “socially structured contradictions made
manifest in interaction.” Family members with fewer options are more likely
to resolve ambivalence through acceptance rather than confrontation. Family
members exercise agency as they negotiate relationships within the
constraints of social structure. One study of middle-aged persons caring for
elderly parents found that the caregivers reported more quality of life
problems than noncaregivers (Roth et al. 2009).

By comparing and contrasting alternative models of intergenerational
family relationships, Vern Bengtson and his colleagues (2002) identify the
likely path to intergenerational ambivalence. They conclude that
intergenerational relations begin with solidarity, the bonds of cohesion that
hold a family together, followed by conflict, as the ideal relationship evolves
into reality, with the intersection of solidarity and conflict resulting in
intergenerational ambivalence (575).

Modern industrial societies seem to consist largely of modified extended
families in contrast to truly nuclear families. Even though parents may live
apart from their adult children and grandchildren, they are interdependent and

receive emotional, social, and economic support. Thus, the care of aging
parents is more a question of how it is to be done than whether it is to be
done. The children will inevitably be involved in one way or another.

The sandwich generation is a term that has been coined to refer to couples
who are in mid- to late midlife, who may be looking forward to retirement
but find themselves caring for both aging parents and children. While their
elderly parents may increasingly need financial, emotional, and social
assistance, their young adult children may need continued support as they
struggle to find financial independence. This dual responsibility can result in
couple burnout, especially among dual-earner couples who need to not only
balance work and home life but also find time for other family members and
their own marriages (Pines et al. 2011). Results from national surveys of
women aged fifty-five through sixty-nine in Great Britain and the United
States showed “around one-third of the women reported providing help to
members of both generations. . . . Having three or more children is
associated with a reduced likelihood of providing help to a parent” (Grundy
and Henretta 2006, 707).

Although the inclusion of dependent elderly parents can greatly enrich
family life, it can also be a psychological, social, and financial burden. As
more people live longer, an increasing percentage of health care costs occur
in the later years of life. The statistics are staggering. According to the 1990
census, thirteen million Americans were age seventy-five or older. It is
estimated that by the year 2040, one in every five Americans will be sixty-
five or older. This is approximately seventy million people. There is concern
whether Social Security will have sufficient funds to take care of the needs of
the elderly in the future.

The cost of placing an elderly person in a convalescent home averages
between $30,000 and $50,000 a year. A couple who have worked and saved
money over a lifetime may see their nest egg vanish in a matter of years. The
inability of such couples and their families to meet the costs is merely the tip
of the economic iceberg and a serious concern for our nation.

It is worth noting a gender gap when it comes to taking care of elderly
parents. Studies consistently show that adult daughters spend more time
giving assistance to their elderly parents than do sons (Sarkisian and Gerstel
2004). A study by Sechrist et al. (2011) found that the quality of the adult
daughter–elderly mother relationship was greater when there was greater
similarity in religiousness. Women tend to bear more caregiving costs than

men and receive more rewards than their spouses in the caregiving process.
Although some of the gender difference involves employment obligations, we
believe sons as well as daughters need to share the responsibility so that
women are not overly burdened in the caregiving process and so that men can
experience the rewards.

In chapter 1, we discussed the ideal of a mature bilateral commitment in
which the unconditional love shown by parents to their children is
reciprocated when the parents age and become socially, emotionally, and
physically dependent on their adult children. When this happens, family life
has truly come full circle. The Bible speaks of the family’s responsibility to
care for its most needy members. That this includes elderly parents is made
clear in 1 Timothy 5:4: “If a widow has children or grandchildren, they
should first learn their religious duty to their own family and make some
repayment to their parents; for this is pleasing in God’s sight.” Lest the
reader fail to get Paul’s message, he continues with this warning in verse 8:
“And whoever does not provide for relatives, and especially for family
members, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”

In the social economy of the early church, it was primarily the
responsibility of the family rather than the church to care for the elderly. First
Timothy 5:16 reads: “If any believing woman has relatives who are really
widows, let her assist them; let the church not be burdened, so that it can
assist those who are real widows.” The reason given is that the church will
then be better able to care for the dependent elderly who do not have family.
The clear social ethic found in Scripture is that we are to care for our own
family members as well as for those in need through the community of faith.

Terry Hargrave (2005) develops three principles for biblically caring for
one’s parents. They are (1) responsibility, (2) openhandedness, and
(3) evenness. Responsibility focuses on “the honor, respect, and cooperation
between parent and child.” This devotion “demonstrates how to humbly work
together for future generations, and it reminds us how we are expected to do
the same in our relationship to God” (73). As parents have invested in their
children, children show honor and respect by caring for their parents. Part of
this respect is providing care and facilitating the parent’s responsibility for
things they can manage. Openhandedness is about giving to others what they
need, while he or she is also able to receive God’s blessings at the same
time. Out of the abundance of God’s gift of grace, one does not give
grudgingly. Evenness is about finding harmony in the midst of stress. This

harmony is balance; caring for elderly parents gradually makes more and
more demands on the adult children. Considering these three principles
together, caregiving is about (1) reciprocity through respecting both the
dependent elderly and the caregiving child; (2) balance with the other
obligations in the caregiver’s life such as spousal, vocational, and parental
ones; and (3) honest understanding of both the caregiver’s ability and the
dependent’s needs.

Within reason, the elderly person should have a say in the matter, and their
preferences should be taken into account. The elderly parent must be treated
with dignity at all times.

Caring for elderly parents is both a privilege and a priority for Christian
families and the church community. Granted, making decisions about how to
best care for elderly parents is a complex process, and we must do so with
respect, honor, and integrity.

Regardless of the social structural arrangements used to care for the
elderly, fostering independent living is an important goal. In addressing
theological issues in caring for the elderly, Balswick, King, and Reimer
(2016) suggest that the family create zones of proximal capabilities. In
chapter 7, we referred to Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development concept
to describe the range of skills to accomplish in assisting children. In a
similar way, a zone of proximal capability helps establish the range of skills
an elderly person can accomplish on his or her own or with the help and
support of others. As a mirror image of empowerment, family members will
increase the scaffolds or helping structures as needed to allow the elderly to
continue to be as independent as possible. Sometimes outside caregivers can
empower and model patience because family members have a hard time
seeing a loved one struggle in an attempt to be independent.

Given the biblical emphasis on community, one can argue that the entire
community, rather than merely a few family members, is responsible for the
elderly. Some religious groups and denominations are well known for
establishing excellent retirement communities to provide for the aging. The
overarching biblical principle here is that family members care for their own
families. How this is done, within the household or within an elder-care
community, depends on social, psychological, physiological, and economic
circumstances. God can honor a number of alternative social arrangements.
Both approaches—household and community care—have unique strengths
and limitations. The important thing is that the dependent elderly be nurtured

and loved unconditionally as family, regardless of who is providing the day-
to-day care.


Gender and Sexuality
Identity in Family Life

This section focuses on two major sources of personal identity: one’s gender
and one’s sexuality. In chapter 11, we discuss the impact of changing gender
roles and relations on the family in our society. We examine current
explanations of gender differences and then offer a Christian viewpoint. We
also offer practical ideas on how Christian families and the church can
provide leadership in this area.

In chapter 12, we expound on the fact that God created us as sexual beings
and pronounced this very good. God intended that we be authentic and whole
in our sexual relationships. After noting sociocultural influences on the
development of our sexuality, we present a theological understanding.
Finally, focusing on four important aspects of sexual expression—sex and
singlehood, masturbation, sexual preference, and marital sexuality—we offer
some practical guidelines for achieving wholeness in a broken world.


Changing Gender Roles and

The Impact on Family Life

In most societies throughout history, knowing how to be a man or a woman
was taken for granted. This is certainly not the case today! Our society is
embroiled in debates over what constitutes masculinity and femininity and
what the appropriate roles are for each gender. This redefinition of gender
roles has caused significant shifts in family life. The marital dyad, where
husbands and wives are struggling with conflicting definitions of marital
roles, has had to make the most adjustments. Redefining gender roles also
extends to parent-child relationships in determining how to relate to and
raise sons and daughters in an age when traditional definitions of manhood
and womanhood have changed.

In this chapter, we extend our discussion from gender roles to gender
relations. Doing so challenges us to understand family life beyond mere
definition of roles to relationships established between the genders both
within the family and the wider sociocultural context. The four biblical
relationship principles (covenant, grace, empowerment, intimacy) and
trinitarian theology bring us to the conclusion that relationship surpasses
roles. A great deal of flexibility in roles continues to be structured and
renegotiated throughout family life.

When it comes to gender relationships, we agree with Mary Stewart Van
Leeuwen that we are created from the beginning as males and females for
sociability and mutual dominion, equal dignity and mutual respect. The
cultural mandates and other dimensions of image bearing in Genesis 1:26–28
are given to both the man and woman, male and female. Together we are

called to be God’s earthly agents (not separately or hierarchically or in
competition, but cooperatively) for engaging in rightful relationships with
each other and our world for God’s glory (Van Leeuwen et al. 1993).

First, we note the reasons gender roles and relations have been changing
and then consider some of the explanations for gender differences. Then we
explore the effect that redefinition of gender roles and relationships has on
the family. In the process, we reflect on our hermeneutical understanding of
the relevant scriptural texts.

Why Gender Roles and Relations Are Changing
There are several reasons why traditional definitions of sexual roles and
relations are currently being called into question. The social sciences have
demonstrated that many of the traditional characteristics of masculinity and
femininity, formerly assumed to be the result of natural development, are in
reality a result of cultural conditioning. Increased observation and dialogue
with people from various parts of the world have also informed us that most
differences between masculinity and femininity are culture bound.

There has also been an increasing separation between the sex assignment
of individuals and the gender roles associated with a particular sex. Van
Leeuwen (2002) describes six processes or forks that result in adult gender
identity. First, chromosomal aspects of sex identify one genetically as XX
(female) or XY (male). Second, the gonadal process entails the forming and
development of sexual organs (testes or ovaries). Next, the hormonal
dimension describes the relative amounts of specific sex hormones. Fourth,
internal accessory refers to the development of the biological structures that
connect the primary sex organs. This is followed by external genital,
meaning the external physical sex organs (penis or vagina). And sixth is the
pubertal aspect, which is related to the development of secondary sex
characteristics and adult sexual identity. This demonstrates that there is not a
direct connection between genetic and biological sex and one’s gender
identity from a social-science perspective. Gender is defined as a social
construct. This means that gender roles are defined by the society that one is
in. We see a high degree of differences in gender role expectations when
comparing cultures, thus indicating the social—not genetic or biological—
origin of masculinity or femininity. For example, a recent editorial in Nature
(2018), “US Proposal for Defining Gender Has No Basis in Science,” argues

for the biological science associated with moving from a binary
understanding of sex to a continuum of sexual identity. This means that most
individuals will identify with the gender traditionally associated with their
sex, and there will also be some who will identify with the opposite gender
than the one associated with the sex they were assigned at birth.

Workforce changes have also provided an impetus for a shift in gender
roles. Dual-earner households represent most families today, so we must also
consider the impact of this demographic. This is a crucial concern for
children, since the family is the arena in which a child’s personal character
and gender identity are formed. Young children are continually impacted and
develop gender identity by observing the behavior and expectations of male
and female figures in their lives. For this reason, we have chosen the family
as the context for our discussion of changing sexual roles.

Explanations of Gender Differences
For years, there has been an argument as to whether gender differences are
due to heredity or environment—nature versus nurture. This controversy
began with the emergence of modern science. With the development of the
biological sciences, it was discovered that genetics plays a key role in
determining the nature of both plants and animals. Furthermore, not only
physical features but also traits of temperament were traced to the genetic
packages that children inherit from their parents. Although each individual
genetic package was understood to be unique, males and females were
thought to possess decidedly distinctive genetic packages.

Behavioral scientists challenged this notion, explaining that gender
differences are acquired after birth through cultural conditioning. Both sides
of the debate initially assumed an either/or approach, arguing that gender
differences are either a result of hereditary factors or a result of
environmental factors. As the dividing lines between scientific disciplines
have broken down, explanations for gender differences have become less of
an all-or-nothing proposition. Contemporary explanations of gender
differences are much more complex, and both theoretical sides point to the
interactive effect between heredity and environment.

Critical Theory

Critical theory is a sociological analysis of power in relationships. Power
is based on having the resources to dominate and control and is thus always
being negotiated and reconstructed to keep the dominant group (race, gender)
in charge. As a sociological theory, the focus is on the relationships between
men and women and how men use institutional and informal power to
dominate and control women.

Central to critical theory is the idea of hegemony, the process whereby
men keep power by ensuring that everyone sees the world from their point of
view. While men are the dominant group and women are the subordinate
group, neither of these categories is homogeneous. Only certain men have
what the masculine or patriarchal ideology defines as the most desired
characteristics: financial independence, physical strength, good looks,
toughness, and social status. These men possess hegemonic masculinity. Men
who lack these particular masculine characteristics are considered to be of
lower status and may be labeled wimps or nerds.

Although all women are a part of the subordinate group, they too differ
greatly in relative status. Women who possess the characteristics defined as
desirable by the patriarchal ideology (i.e., a pretty face, a shapely body,
emotional warmth, submissiveness) experience privilege because they
approach ideal femininity. But regardless of how closely a woman
approximates ideal femininity, she can never obtain hegemony, for she is not
male. Theological, political, and philosophical ideologies combine to justify
barring women from powerful positions. For instance, certain religious
ideologies maintain that only men can occupy ecclesiastical positions that
carry the greatest power.

Michael Messner (2002) provides a heuristic for evaluating the effects of
evangelicals adopting hegemonic and privileged forms of masculinity and
femininity, respectively. First, one should consider the cost of hegemonic
masculinity and privileged femininity for evangelicals. Traditional gender
ideology is oppressive to males that do not or cannot conform to hegemonic
masculinity and to females that do not or cannot conform to privileged
femininity. This oppression occurs at both institutional and individual levels.
The second area Messner (2002) proposes for understanding the politics of
masculinity concerns the benefits associated with hegemonic masculinity and
privileged femininity. Those who are already in power benefit because they
remain in power. As men continue to control access to resources, they will
continue to receive benefits for others’ labor. Connell (2000) calls this the

patriarchal dividend; it is a way to quantify the benefits for hegemonic
masculinity and privileged femininity. The final area Messner (2000)
describes as being impacted in the politics of masculinity is diversity. As an
example, the diversity of gender metaphors suggests that evangelicals have
many options to choose from in defining their gendered identity (Bartkowski
2000, 2001, 2004; Gallagher 2003; Smith 2000). Bartkowski (2004)
identifies four distinct archetypes of Christian masculinity as espoused
within Promise Keeper (PK) advice manuals. These types are (1) the rational
patriarch, (2) the expressive egalitarian, (3) the tender warrior, and (4) the
multicultural man. Despite these diverse gender metaphors, evangelicals
demonstrate a preference for the traditional family model with its
concomitant gender ideology.

One concerning challenge is that critical theory will never complete or
exhaust its power-dynamic analysis. Messner’s three aspects allow us to
uncover increasingly hegemonic and privileged gender roles in social
interactions. At this point, even the denial and questioning of the validity of
critical theory is a sign of hegemonic privilege and denial of the effects of
systemic oppression. Consequently, there are increasing pushes for
acceptance of broader and broader categories and redefinition of gender and
sexuality in the name of science without room for critical reflection or
honest, data-driven dialogue.

An area of concern with critical theory is the eventual erasure of any
differences between males and females and men and women. This would
contradict the findings of scientists who have identified the following
neurological differences between males and females (Jahanshad and
Thompson 2017): (1) men tend to have larger brains than women, resulting in
certain areas of the brain being larger in size but not in overall volume;
(2) females’ brains develop earlier than males’, especially as they enter
puberty; (3) males’ brains tend to deteriorate more quickly than females’; and
(4) illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other behavioral
disorders affect men and women at differential rates. Critical feminism
views sex and gender as independent, and gender being a social construct
means that one’s gender identity can be whatever the individual wants it to
be. This means that men and women are interchangeable. This extreme form
of critical feminism is at the root of the transgender debate (Strachan and
Peacock 2020).

Biblical Feminism
Biblical feminists are women and men who advocate legal and social

changes that would establish the political, economic, ecclesiastic, and social
equality of the sexes based on the views of gender as described in the Bible.
They are committed to empowering women to identify, develop, and use their
gifts for the advancement of God’s reign on earth. This is to be done
responsibly and without regard to sexual stereotypes.

The excellent work After Eden (Van Leeuwen et al. 1993), a book
authored by a five-member study group that weds the ideas of critical
feminism to biblical feminism, provides an insightful understanding of the
structural barriers hindering gender equality. It also presents a biblically
informed basis for gender equality as a matter of fundamental Christian

Biblical feminists are committed to raising the consciousness of people
within the Christian tradition. They challenge the inequality of hierarchical
structures by promoting the ordination of women and gender-inclusive
language in the church as well as Bible translations, by attending to the
special needs of the disadvantaged poor, and by fighting against the physical
and sexual abuse of women and children.

Christian feminists seek reform in and through the church. They urge
Christian communities to acknowledge the human suffering of women and to
find solutions. They demand that the church encourage all people, regardless
of gender, to recognize and affirm that they are endowed by God with gifts
and responsibilities to strive for love and justice through service to one
another in all realms of life and in all parts of the world.

Organizations such as Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE) have
provided a strong voice for evangelicals who advocate equality for all
humans. Their methods include issuing challenges, setting up remedial
processes, and promoting reconciliation and change. The central difference
between biblical feminism and other types of feminism is that its authority is
biblical revelation. As men and women reconciled in Christ work together
for worthy goals, they will transform the kingdom of God on earth.

One of the main Scriptures that speak the equalitarian understanding of
gender is Galatians 3:28. It is helpful to look at this important passage in

Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith
that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might

be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into

Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free,
nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you
are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Gal. 3:23–29)

The emphasis for biblical feminists is on how gender should not privilege or
benefit anyone in the kingdom of God. God’s grace is equally applied to men
and women, and both have ultimate value to God. Galatians 3:28 reminds us
that any human category or division intended to privilege one group over
another is obliterated in God’s just reign. All need God’s grace equally.
Biblical feminists are concerned with establishing justice through living
one’s faith. The essential message of CBE is stated in the introduction to its
sponsored book, Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without
Hierarchy: “Gender, in and of itself, neither privileges nor curtails one’s
ability to be used to advance the kingdom or to glorify God in any dimension
of ministry, mission, society or family” (Pierce, Groothuis, and Fee 2005,

A Radical Proposal for Reconciliation
The common themes in all feminist thinking are (1) the fervent goal of

eliminating sexism and (2) the view that gender differences are the product of
the fabric of society and culture. Patriarchy has been an obstacle throughout
history, blocking the affirmation of women as persons. Frustrated by this
obstacle, feminists see the necessity of altering the social and institutional
structures that perpetuate the subordinate status of women. Liberation for
both women and men from their respective restrictive roles as oppressed and
oppressor is the corrective needed to overturn the damage done by
patriarchal structures.

Miroslav Volf’s (1996) compassionate but tough model on forgiveness
offers a powerful ideal for gender reconciliation. The theological starting
point is found in the “offense of the cross.” It seems outrageous that Christ
would make himself totally vulnerable on the cross to create a space in
himself for those who were his enemies. Yet he opened his arms and invited
the offenders in. Applying Christ’s model to the relations between men and
women, Volf believes that a “reconciliation with the other will succeed only
if the self, guided by the narrative of the Triune God, is ready to receive the
other into itself and undertake a readjustment of its identity in light of the

other’s alterity” (110). This readjustment leads to equal acceptability and
equal power between the genders as they make space for the other and move
toward true reconciliation.

In this radical approach to reconciliation between men and women, Volf is
careful to clarify that forgiveness is not a substitute for justice. What makes
confession and repentance so powerful in this situation is the very idea that
injustices are being dealt with in the presence of God. Volf’s invitation to
women and men to let go of the rage and its destructive consequences that eat
away at their very souls is crucial because only God can truly forgive. Of
course, the choice to no longer see the other as the enemy puts one in a
vulnerable position. However, it also means that one is no longer defined by
the offender and that one has a new ability to remember rightly. When women
and men get beyond excluding each other and reach the point of embrace,
there is great hope for the future.

At the heart of the cross was Christ’s decision to heal brokenness by no
longer keeping offenders as enemies. Volf offers this as a model for groups
who define themselves as enemies. For just as God makes room for us, there
is hope that when “guided by the indestructible love which makes space in
the self for others in their alterity, which invites the others who have
transgressed to return, which creates hospitable conditions for their
confession, and rejoices over their presence, [women and men will with
God’s help keep] re-configuring the order without destroying it so as to
maintain it as an order of embrace rather than exclusion” (Volf 1996, 165).

Toward an Integrated View of Gender Differences
On the basis of both physiological and social-science research, we can

conclude that both nature and nurture and the interaction between them
become important contributors to the formation of femininity and masculinity.
We must challenge a single-factor deterministic explanation of gender
differences. One’s natal, chromosomal, gonadal, hormonal, internal and
external accessory, and pubertal sexual development play a profound role in
one’s sexual identity. However, socialization also significantly affects the
meanings and behaviors associated with sexual identity.

The interaction of nature and nurture are important in the Christian
perspective. The main bodily or physical aspect of human existence is one’s
sexually differentiated body. “The fundamental human differentiation which
constitutes the true order of humanity is necessarily experienced as sexual

differentiation, and this is a determination of humanity, not an accidental or
incidental manifestation of humanity” (Anderson 1991, 51; italics in
original). Humanity is being male or female (Strachan and Peacock 2016).
That is, structurally speaking, sexuality is the natural state of affairs that
determines one’s relationships to others and the nonhuman world. From
Anderson’s perspective, being male or female is primary to one’s social

Social relationships or roles are secondary to one’s gendered humanity.
This is not to say that social relationships are unimportant. Sexual humanity
is true humanity, and gender informs how people relate to one another. An
important implication of Anderson’s (1991) perspective is that being male
and female takes precedence over marital and familial roles. This means that
we embody the social roles we find ourselves in based upon our sexually
differentiated bodies. This sexual differentiation is the intended, holy, and
willful differentiation of the Creator of the universe (Strachan and Peacock
2016). Anderson (1991, 35; italics in original) says, “that which we call
human being is differentiated creatureliness, experienced as a response to
the creative divine Word.”

One’s sexual, bodily existence is the context for living out the image of
God. That is, being male or female forms the central, structural category for
differentiated human relationships. This differentiation occurs through God’s
creative Word and empowerment of humans. Through relationships, humans
are to steward and fill the earth. Sexual differentiation provides the somatic
experience of both particularity and relatedness. In a profound sense, one’s
sexual identity is constituted in one’s relationships with both the same and
opposite sex. This mutuality reconciles males and females to collaborate and
complement one another in stewardship of creation and living out family
relationships while mutually submitting to the will of Christ.

The most compelling evidence that biological factors account for some
gender differences can be found in correlations between the social behavior
and the physiological attributes of each gender; gender differences in infants
and young children prior to socialization; the emergence of gender
differences with the onset of puberty, when physiology and hormonal
secretion changes rapidly; stability of gender differences across cultures; and
similar gender differences among the higher primates. For other examples of
gender differences see Debra Soh’s (2020) excellent work, The End of
Gender. Whereas these findings may seem to reinforce traditional gender

stereotypes, they do not deny that the socialization process accentuates these
tendencies. The issue here regards society or socialization as creating these
differences or stereotypes (social construction of gender) or biology as
significantly influencing the interests and activities of one gender compared
to the other.

Genesis 1:27 records the creation of humans: “So God created humankind
in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he
created them.” One important implication of this verse is that God created
male and female as distinct human beings. We are left to determine exactly
what that means and how such differences are to be expressed in male-
female relationships. We must turn to the Scriptures for further elaboration on
this distinctiveness and then interpret what we find there in light of social-
science findings on gender differences. In certain New Testament passages,
Paul argues that there are differences between men and women in dress and
certain social roles (1 Cor. 11:1–13). These differences are not viewed as a
necessary part of the created order, but they are adopted in society. In some
passages on how women and men are to relate in households (Eph. 5:21–33),
Paul incorporates Roman and Greek household ethical codes and argues that
Christians should follow those principles.

Some theologians would argue for specific gender-differentiated
household roles or divisions of labor (Köstenberger and Köstenberger 2014;
Strachan and Peacock 2016; Strachan 2019). For example, Strachan (2019)
identifies these roles for the male as provider, protector, caretaker, and
nurturer of the female. One concern with this approach that identifies more
traditionally modern male and female divisions of labor as the biblical ideal
is that household tasks themselves are difficult to identify as either male or
female. More importantly, these modern divisions of household labor may
not reflect household division of labor in New Testament times. It is
important to maintain the distinctiveness of men’s and women’s sexual
differentiation and how this differentiation results in gender identity and
expression. However, we need to be careful to see that God-honoring gender
identity may involve different gender expressions as cultures change over

The Bible has more to say about Christian temperament in general than it
does about distinctions between female and male temperament. Paul writes
in Galatians 5:22–23: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience,
kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” It is

noteworthy that our culture considers these attributes to be feminine. On the
basis of these verses, we would argue not only that males and females should
be more alike but also that males need to develop the qualities that have
traditionally been defined as feminine.

Still another means of viewing gender roles from a Christian perspective
is to examine the person of Jesus during his earthly ministry. That is to say,
what was Jesus really like as a human? To begin with, we read about a
person who experienced a wide range of emotions, but compassion and love
were pervasive. The compassion of Jesus is seen in his relationships with
the blind man, the woman with the issue of blood, the lepers, the bereaved
widow, the woman at the well, and children. Consider also his actions
toward people in need—feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and reaching out
to the lost as to sheep without a shepherd.

The compassion of Jesus was also expressed in his sorrowful emotions
during experiences of despair and loss. Jesus wept over Jerusalem because
of the unbelief of its people. When he saw Mary and Martha grieving over
the death of Lazarus, he openly cried and expressed his own sadness. At
other times, Jesus was elated and expressed great joy. When the seventy he
had sent out to witness returned, Jesus “rejoiced in the Holy Spirit” (Luke
10:21). He also told his disciples that if they would abide in his love, his joy
would be in them (John 15:10–11).

In addition to meekness, Jesus openly expressed anger and indignation. In
a world under the curse of sin, he responded appropriately with anger. When
he witnessed unbelief, hypocrisy, and acts of inhumanity, he took action.
Jesus openly expressed his emotions, whether it was to nurture the little
children or to overturn the tables in the temple. The picture that emerges is
that Jesus was not traditionally masculine or feminine by our current cultural
standards but, rather, distinctively human. He incorporated the characteristics
of both masculinity and femininity and presented to the world a model of an
integrated and whole person.

Changing Gender Relations and Family Life
The home is one of the main arenas in which males and females live out their
gender. As we express our gendered identities in a manner that glorifies God,
we need to understand women’s and men’s roles in family life. A biblical
understanding challenges traditional female and male gender roles and offers

a corrective to postmodern and critical theory’s attempts to erase any
meaningful differences between men and women.

Women in Family Life
Western women have traditionally acquired status in our society through

being wives and mothers. The dramatic redefinition of work along with
men’s and women’s roles in the workplace has transformed the ways women
and men participate in work and family life. Many women experience
contradictory expectations when they begin to pursue professional careers or
work full time outside the home. Magazines, films, and television add to the
confusion by encouraging romance, marriage, and childbearing while at the
same time glorifying the independent, career-oriented woman.

The message given to Christian women is that they must have it all. In an
effort to do it all, they become superwomen who suffer stress and frustration,
especially if they attempt to balance a career and motherhood. The fallout
from this might best be illustrated by the titles of popular books written for
Christian women such as Recovering from Biblical Manhood and
Womanhood (2020) and Beyond Authority and Submission: Women and
Men in Marriage, Church, and Society (2019).

In The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has
Undermined All Women (2004), Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels
suggest that there is a “new momism” consisting of a set of standards of
success that any mother will find impossible to meet—devoting herself 24/7
to her children with a professionalism that includes the skills of a therapist, a
pediatrician, a consumer products safety inspector, and a teacher. In The
Myth of the Perfect Mother (2004), Carla Barnhill urges mothers to parent
without fear or guilt by reclaiming their personhood in Christ. This means
viewing motherhood as a spiritual practice and not as a calling. A mother
should be judged less on how her children turn out than on how her spiritual
practice of mothering is exemplified by the virtues of love, mercy, humility,
peace, justice, and compassion. Rethinking the spirituality of mothering goes
a long way in combating the cult of the perfect mother.

Whereas husbands may encourage wives to work outside as well as inside
the home, they often do not pick up the slack at home, so the woman is left
with a double-duty workload—a second work shift. Wilcox (2004) found
that married fathers who express the most traditional gender-role beliefs and
whose wives also work outside the home spend about three hours less on

household labor each week than do egalitarian fathers. We believe that
Christians should pursue a path of dual leadership and coparenting.
Husbands and wives should be on the cutting edge in working for
interdependence and role flexibility in this cooperative venture.

Men in Family Life
The traditional definition of masculinity has also been evaluated

negatively by emerging research on men. Men are described as so
emotionally restricted that they are often strangers to their wives; fathers are
so emotionally absent that they are often more a “phantom man” than a
“family man”; boys grow into manhood with a “wounded father” within,
resulting from an emotionally distant father they never knew; and what men
learn about power, achievement, competition, and emotional
inexpressiveness results in their entering relationships with other men with
great caution and distrust.

Fatherhood has received careful attention in the past decades. The effect of
fatherlessness has been documented as an aspect of social and civic concern
since the 1990s. According to 2017 US census data, more than one in four
children lived in a home without a father. David Blankenhorn (1995) argues
that the decline of the father’s role as caregiver, moral educator, head of the
family, and breadwinner has been enormous. Although we are cautious about
offering a single explanation, there is a wealth of research evidence
suggesting that the diminished presence of the father is responsible for
increases in a variety of social ills such as juvenile delinquency, youth
violence, domestic violence against women, child sexual abuse, children
living in poverty and economic insecurity, adolescent childbearing, and
unwed pregnancy. In contrast, living with an involved father has been
associated with better educational outcomes (Whitney et al. 2017), and father
presence in the household is associated with greater emotional and social
well-being (Adamsons and Johnson 2013). This does not mean the mere
presence of the father is enough to overcome father-absence per se
(Schoppe-Sullivan and Fagan 2020). That requires strong fathering, which
can have a profound effect on children and all of society (McLanahan, Tach,
and Schneider 2013).

More recent definitions of fatherhood describe both the economic and the
direct activities associated with it (Schoppe-Sullivan and Fagan 2020).
Fatherhood is increasingly understood as providing both direct engagement

—including male warmth and responsiveness to children and control or
authority—and indirect provision through economic and process needs such
as educational opportunities, daily physical resources, and access to parks
and recreational activities (Pleck 2010). The emphasis here is on both the
emotional and behavioral engagement of the father with his children as well
as the indirect provisions of shelter, education, and medical care. Fathers
having intimate relationships with their children is crucial to children’s well-
being. This aspect of fatherhood represents a significant change for men
operating with a traditional view of masculinity.

The Christian men’s movement Promise Keepers has strongly emphasized
emotionally involved fathering as a major plank in its construction of
Christian manhood. Men need to be committed—especially in their
relationships—to Christ, family, and the church. A number of Christian
organizations continue to work to strengthen the father in the home.

Bradford Wilcox (2004) notes that when compared with both fathers who
do not attend church and fathers from mainline churches, fathers in
evangelical churches tend to be warmer and more expressive in their
fathering. Family values have become the key markers of evangelical
identity. A legitimate question to ask is how evangelical family values and
ideology correspond with men’s behavior in family life. Wilcox uses the
term soft patriarchy to describe the “softening effect” on men who are
regular attendees of conservative churches, shown by greater emotional
engagement with wives and children.

Christians in the early church were known for their love of one another.
The same should be said of Christian men today; they should be known by
their love. Authentic Christian manhood is found in behaviors that reflect the
character of Jesus in ways that “seek to support rather than dominate women,
empower rather than control younger men, and mentor and complement rather
than compete with other men” (J. O. Balswick 1992, 212).

Coparenting: The Need for Mothering and Fathering
Children who live in coparented families have the best of all worlds since
they have the presence and involvement of two parents in their lives. Couples
who share parenting and household roles experience a high degree of marital
happiness, whereas couples who both work but do not share roles at home
experience distress. The commitment coparents make to work through

various issues about gender-specific parenting and household roles teaches
their children about mutual respect, gender equality, and cooperation.
Coparenting not only enhances the marital bond but also sends a clear
message to children that the parental bond is strong.

A coparenting model begins with the assumption that parenting
responsibility should be shared. That is, parenting obligation resides with
both mothers and fathers. While recognizing that the mother may have an
initial advantage in emotional connectedness through birthing and nursing,
fathers can compensate by making special efforts to bond with children. Part
of this ownership of parenting emphasizes that mothers and fathers contribute
equally to parenting, and this contribution is based on being a father or
mother. In other words, mothers and fathers make unique parenting
contributions to the children. Coparenting will happen only if parents
intentionally move toward collaborative parenting, in which fathers are open
to learning tasks traditionally reserved for mothers and mothers allow fathers
to learn “on the job,” resisting the urge to intervene.

Fathers who become involved in the parenting process find that their
socio-emotional and relational sides develop. This has a positive effect on
sons as well, for when fathers set an example of expressing their feelings,
their sons also become more expressive. In contrast to the world of work
outside the home, where decisions are expected to be based on the rational
rather than the emotional, taking care of children inclines men to consider
personal and emotional issues, which will affect their work roles as well.

If we take seriously the evidence suggesting that modern society has
become increasingly cold, heartless, and impersonal, then the need for the
family to be an intimate, nurturing, and caring environment becomes even
more obvious. Parents who do daily battle in this impersonal and heartless
society often return battered and bruised to the confines of their self-
contained, emotionally isolated nuclear family. At the same time, the cultural
move toward modernity—extended families, neighborhood networks,
community embeddedness—has largely eroded social supports for family
members. That is, these aspects of modern family life are commodities that
the family purchases to fulfill the needs of the children. This economic
approach undermines the premodern emphasis on communal identity. The
result is that the nuclear family is often the sole source for meeting its
members’ emotional needs.

Coparenting is the ideal arrangement for parents, children, and society.
Having both parents actively engaged in the parenting responsibilities
provides same- and opposite-gender modeling for children. They are able to
see authentic, caring, and discipling male and female examples as they grow
and learn. Children are able to internalize these models and the positive
emotional experiences they provide and pass them on to others.

Sharing the parenting responsibilities and privileges allows men and
women to engage in their God-ordained roles as mothers and fathers. It
brings balance to the home after a long day’s work and school, providing the
family with a safe emotional haven in which to recoup. Coparenting
challenges and equips men to father in a more emotionally intimate manner
and challenges mothers to take on leadership roles in decision-making and
discipline. For both women and men, coparenting models for children the
self-sacrificial leadership of Jesus Christ.

A Concluding Comment
True Christian womanhood and manhood are not mere reflections of
traditional definitions of femininity and masculinity. To help achieve the
ideal of true manhood and womanhood, cultures can continue to recognize the
distinctions between men and women and at the same time encourage
individuals to meet their potentials and goals in life through equal
opportunities and responsibilities. Scripture proclaims, “There is no longer
Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and
female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). The essential
question that we should be asking is at what point our cultural norms prevent
both men and women from becoming the fully human persons God intended
them to be (Fee 2005). Women and men are both in need of liberation from
the gender stereotypes that have hindered growth in personhood. It is
important to define gender roles in family life that encourage males and
females to flourish and be empowered.

It is important for us to grasp the intentions God had in mind in creating
humanity as distinctly male and female (Gen. 1–2). In her essay “Toward
Reconciliation: Healing the Schism,” Alice Matthews (2005) credits David
Scholer with noting that the biblical text that one chooses for one’s starting
point in the study of a doctrine or issue in Scripture becomes the lens through
which one looks at all other texts. The difference between the two positions

reflects a difference in hermeneutics—which is determining, through careful
exegesis, the original intent of Scripture and applying it to contemporary life.
Both positions recognize that culture can bend or alter gender distinctions in
ways that the Creator did not intend.

Currently, the Christian community is far from united in its evaluation of
the change in gender roles; some Christians say that women should return to
their rightful place in the home, while others argue for increased
participation by women in all occupations, including the ordained ministry.
John Stackhouse (2005) attempts to reconcile these two evangelical positions
by suggesting that both sides are wrong—and right! First, egalitarians need to
concede that in some of his writing “Paul is maintaining a patriarchal line”
(68). Stackhouse goes on to remind his “complementarian friends that the
task is to make sense of all that Paul says, including the apparently
equalitarian verses, some of which appear in the same passage” (68). He
suggests that, for a reason similar to why Paul did not directly write against
the practice of slavery (see Philemon), he at times did not directly write
against the patriarchal structure of New Testament times. Stackhouse presents
two principles in his paradigm: first, “men and women are equal in every
way” (35), and second, “some things matter more than others” (38).

Once again, our theology of relationships is pertinent. Men, women, and
children benefit from interacting with one another in a cycle of covenant,
grace, empowerment, and intimacy. There must be a joint commitment to one
another in a covenant of love working toward the goal of equality. This
entails a willingness to forgive and be forgiven of the oppression and
antagonism that have existed between the sexes. It takes grace to
acknowledge and accept differences of opinion in this area. Other elements
are mutual serving and empowerment. Finally, men and women will achieve
intimacy in same-sex and opposite-sex relationships as they become free to
know and be known by one another. This requires communication and a
desire to understand the other so that we may cherish and value who we are
as brothers and sisters in Christ. As we become fully developed men and
women, others will know that we are Christians by our love for one another.


Becoming an Authentic
Sexual Self

Becoming an authentic sexual person begins with an understanding of who
God created us to be as sexual persons. How we behave sexually certainly
influences how we define ourselves as sexual beings and vice versa.
However, an understanding of what it means to be created as sexual persons
in God’s image involves much more than a simple assent to or an ability to
live according to specified behavioral standards.

Sexuality includes such factors as biology, gender, emotions, thoughts,
behaviors, attitudes, and values. The word authentic is defined as “real,
genuine, believable, and trustworthy” (Balswick and Balswick 2019). We
use the term to indicate that sexuality is meant to be a congruent and integral
part of a person’s total being. Our sexuality must be a real, genuine,
believable, and trustworthy part of ourselves, so that we can embrace what
God has created and declared to be “very good.”

Our sexuality is a product of God’s design, but it bears the taint of our
fallen nature. In a multitude of ways, this good gift of sex has become
perverted and warped in our world. The interplay of societal attitudes and
beliefs, cultural structures, and biological factors shapes the inauthentic
sexuality inherent in our fallen human condition. In this chapter, we examine
some societal and cultural influences on the development of our sexuality. We
also present some ideas on how Christians can become more authentic in
their sexual personhood and expression.

Societal Attitudes toward Sexuality
Human sexuality is profoundly affected by prevailing societal attitudes. The
predominant attitude in the United States has changed throughout history. Our

past is often regarded as a time when sexuality was repressed; our modern
society, by contrast, attempts to throw off all sexual inhibitions.

While the Puritans have traditionally been blamed for some of the
uptightness of past generations, they actually had a quite healthy view of
sexuality. They held to a standard of celibacy for the unmarried and
monogamy for married people, but they advocated a wholesome sexual
expression in the marriage relationship. An example comes from the Groton
church leaders in 1675. When a husband announced that he planned to abstain
from having sexual relations with his wife as personal penance for
disobeying God, the leaders rebuked him, saying he had no right to deny his
wife her rights to sexual fulfillment. Sexual expression between spouses was
regarded as good, natural, and desirable and therefore not to be withheld, in
accordance with 1 Corinthians 7:1–5 (Doriani 1996).

The Victorians, on the contrary, held many sexual taboos and negative
attitudes about sex. They attempted to repress anything that appeared to be
sexual. Not only were people required to cover their arms and legs in public
as a symbol of modesty, but even the legs of furniture were covered with
little skirts. A sharp line was drawn between sexual desire and love. A
virtuous man was encouraged to wed a woman for whom he had pure
thoughts, which meant no sexual desire. Husbands were told that if they
really loved their wives, they would refrain from having sex with them too
often since sexual relations even in marriage were considered degrading to

The expert medical opinion of the day asserted that any sexual desire in a
young woman was pathological. The attitude in the 1880s was that decent
women do not feel the slightest pleasure during sexual intercourse. The
advice columnists of the day indicated that the more a woman yielded to the
animal passion of her husband, the more he would lose respect for her. It is
not coincidental that one of the most popular songs at the turn to the twentieth
century began, “I want a girl just like the girl that married dear old Dad.” The
dichotomy between sexual desire and love led to a dual arrangement: a man
had his sexual needs met by a “bad” woman, but he would only marry a
“good” woman. It’s no wonder that both men and women believed distorted
messages about their sexuality.

Things began to change during the first half of the twentieth century,
especially during the 1920s. Shifting attitudes ushered in an era of greater
openness toward sexual expression, with a new standard described as

permissiveness with affection. Now it was acceptable to acknowledge and
express sexual desire and engage in sex when persons felt mutual affection.

For a period following World War II, there was a revolution in American
attitudes and interest in sex. This began with the publication of the Kinsey
reports: Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior
in the Human Female (1952). There was great interest and fascination with
the topic of sex. During this time Hugh Hefner started Playboy Magazine,
directed to an eager audience of adult males who were ready to jump on the
sexual-freedom bandwagon. The magazine (and others like it) had great
appeal for men who were obsessed with sexual freedom. Enticed by the
centerfold, they were told how to dress, what music to put on, how to mix a
drink, and when to turn the lights down. In short, the message was how to get
the woman into bed free of emotional attachments. By denying the
multidimensional facets of womanhood, this message of freedom reduced
women to sex objects.

C. S. Lewis (1960b, 75) compares a sex-obsessed society with a
hypothetical society in which people pay good money to view a covered
platter sitting on a table. At an assigned time and to the beat of drums, the
cover is slowly lifted, and the object underneath is exposed for all to see. To
everyone’s great delight, a pork chop is revealed. Lewis concludes that
something is radically wrong with a society so obsessed with food.
Likewise, there seems to be something wrong when a society is so obsessed
with sex.

In the 1980s, a slight backlash resulted from sexual overexposure, and a
trend toward a new virginity emerged. Women began to question what they
had bought into with their newfound sexual freedom; many felt their deeper
desire for emotional intimacy had been completely sabotaged. College
students wore large red buttons declaring “NO” to casual sex. Many took a
second look at how sexual freedom undermines relationships. Christian
young people made a pledge of celibacy before their parents and God with a
“promise ring” representing their determination to maintain their chastity
until their wedding night. Raw, explicit sex had lost its appeal as a shock and
stimulus, and people rebuffed the use of sex for entertainment purposes and
recreation. The fear of AIDS reinforced the trend to stop promiscuous sex
and begin safe practices. Furthermore, the physical risk of STDs associated
with unprotected, promiscuous sex led many to declare, “While I like sex,
I’m not willing to die for it.”

The backlash in the 1980s proved to be short-lived. Using C. S. Lewis’s
analogy, we might say in regard to sex in the twenty-first century that the
platter is no longer covered. Explicit sex is depicted in most forms of
popular culture: movies, television, popular music, and so on. The internet
allows people to privately consume erotica and pornography. In this
computer age, a culture saturated with sex inundates children as well as
adults. As harmful as exposure to nudity and sexual innuendoes may be, an
even greater harm comes from dishonest messages that depict sexual
promiscuity and nonrelational sex as having few or no negative

The Origin of Sexuality
Not unlike the human personality, human sexuality does not emerge in full
bloom in a person. One becomes a sexual being through a multidimensional
developmental process. It is evident from social-science research that human
sexuality is partly a reflection of the culture within which a person is
socialized. In other words, society identifies sexual mores and sexual
objects. We are taught to respond sexually to certain objects and symbols in
our environment, and this influences how we define ourselves sexually. Our
sexuality is also a product of biological, psychological, and experiential
factors. We must resist the temptation to give a simplistic explanation of
sexuality, one that relies only on either sociocultural or biological

Human sexuality emerges as part of a complex interactive developmental
process between biological and sociocultural factors. Figure 8 presents
biological factors on the left side and sociocultural factors on the right, with
the arrows between the two sides indicating directions of influence and
interactions between them. As part of the maturation process, biological and
socio-emotional-cultural factors individually influence sexual development,
and there is also an interactive effect. The one-way influences are
represented by one-way (→) arrows and the interactive influences by two-
way (↔) arrows.

For example, a baby born to a drug-addicted mother is born
physiologically addicted to the drug as the drug is able to pass through the
placenta into the baby’s system. While “crack babies” are physiologically
normal in genetic and chromosomal makeup, the sociocultural factors

(poverty, abuse, depression, etc.) of the mother abusing drugs result in a
chemical dependency in the newborn infant that affects his or her future.
Without intervention, this will undoubtedly lead to physical, emotional, and
cognitive problems in the development of the child.

A second example involves the development of sexual desire. In response
to erotic stimulation (sociocultural), the brain (biological) organizes the
behavior that will lead the body to sexual involvement. Incoming sensual
stimuli are encoded in the cortex of the brain. The hypothalamus then
determines if the stimuli are painful or pleasurable. This determined, the
message is sent to the pituitary gland, which controls the adrenal glands and
the female and male gonads. If the incoming sexual stimuli are pleasurable,
the pituitary gland will command the gonads to produce the necessary
hormones to begin sexual arousal. However, if the stimuli are painful, the
pituitary gland will close the system down. Thus, the social environment
greatly influences and affects the brain, which is a biological organ. It is also
true, however, that hormone levels can greatly alter the power of external
sexual stimuli to bring about erotic arousal within the sexual system. Social
and biological factors interact with each other in ways that make it difficult
to assess the effect of each separately.

Another example comes from the prepubescent stage, when a variety of
changes begin to shape boys’ and girls’ bodies in different ways, not only
between genders but within gender. During this period, boys learn a boy code
that teaches them to be strong, competitive, and sexually aggressive, while
girls learn a girl code that teaches them to be nice, cooperative, and sexually
modest. There will be differences among boys and among girls, however, to
the extent to which these sex-typing codes are learned. Some parents make
sharp distinctions between boy and girl behaviors, while others encourage
their children to value and emulate both male and female characteristics. At
the same time, there are also significant differences in hormone levels among
boys and girls. High testosterone levels among some boys and high estrogen
levels among some girls set the stage for early development of secondary
sexual characteristics (pubic hair, breast and hip development, etc.). The

range of gender-typical and gender-atypical behavior during prepubescence
can best be understood in terms of both biological and sociocultural
influences and the interaction between them. The fact that some boys and
some girls prefer male-typical competitive play while others prefer more
female-typical relational or nurturing play is most likely the result of both
biological and sociocultural influences and the interactive effect between

Adolescence is a time when hormonal and biological sexual drives begin
to take more prominence. Most boys find their masculine identity in male-
typical behavior and girls in female-typical behavior. However, there is a
wide range of gender-typical and gender-atypical behavior among teenagers.
Parental values and spiritual teaching impact this decision as well.

The above example describes the complex interplay between biological
drives and processes associated with sexual development and how society
channels these drives into gender-segregated activities. Parents tend to take a
more protective stance toward their daughters. Girls are warned to show
modesty in their apparel; they are instructed to keep their dresses down, their
breasts covered, and to guard themselves against sexual advances by boys. In
the United States, females bear (no pun intended) more of the costs of
pregnancy, childbirth, and rearing than males, so parents and society tend to
foster more protective and restrictive practices for females as compared to

Although the interaction of the biological and sociocultural contributors to
human sexuality is complicated, we offer some generalizations. First, rather
than writing about causation, it is more accurate to cite the factors that
contribute to the development of human sexuality. Second, both biological
factors and sociocultural factors contribute to the formation of human
sexuality. Third, human sexuality emerges as part of a developmental
process, influenced by physiological, psychological, social, and cultural
factors. One’s beliefs and attitudes based on an effective value system
become an important element in developing a healthy sexual self.

The Meaning of Sexuality
Explanations of sexuality are important but incomplete. Moving directly from
biological and sociocultural information to value judgments about sexuality

is a premature leap. It is one thing to examine sexual behaviors and norms
and quite another to make decisions and judgments about moral issues.

While biological factors are most crucial in establishing sexuality early in
life, sociocultural factors become increasingly significant as the child
matures. As children develop the capacity to use language, they
correspondingly learn the meaning of sexual attitudes and behavior. An
understanding of God’s design for human sexuality becomes increasingly
important if the individual is to construct a truly meaningful, authentic
sexuality. Because the meaning of sexuality is learned within a social context,
it is imperative that the family and community powerfully live out and
communicate God’s design for human sexuality.

Families, churches, communities, and societies vary in the degree to which
they reflect God’s design and meaning for human sexuality. Since every
individual belongs to a variety of groups, many of which offer competing
perspectives on human sexuality, internalization of contradictory views is
likely. The more the various groups to which the individual belongs
consistently reflect God’s ideal for sexuality, the more internally consistent
will be his or her development of authentic sexuality. Where contradictions
exist, our nature as choice-making creatures with emotive, volitional, and
moral qualities can help us achieve authentic sexuality.

A Biblical Perspective on Human Sexuality
With this understanding of the development of sexuality, we are now in a
place to expand on the biblical meaning of human sexuality. Theologically,
human sexuality can be understood as a reflection of God’s design for
creation. Genesis 1:27–28 declares, “So God created humankind in his
image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created
them. God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and
fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and
over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the
earth.’” This passage shows that the two sexes are distinct in God’s design,
yet in God’s sight they are also equal and to be united as sexual beings. Both
men and women are commanded to be fruitful, to subdue the earth, and to rule
over the rest of God’s creation. The beginning point includes an acceptance
of one’s unique sexuality, with the ability to acknowledge and be thankful that

it is part of God’s creation, design, and intention. Our sexuality is good in
God’s sight.

The biblical account, however, does not end with the creation story; it is
followed by the fall, and then redemption and restoration. The first chapter
of Genesis speaks of the differentiation of male and female and the harmony
between them. Human sexuality is a good gift meant to draw us to deeper
levels of knowing and being known (ourselves, others, and God). Our bodies
are equipped with a nervous system, hormones, physical sensations, and an
emotional capacity to help us connect with others. As embodied beings,
sexuality incorporates our physiological and spiritual identities, and living
authentically means expressing our image bearing physically. In this way,
our identity is expressed functionally (Strachan 2019). We are born with an
innate capacity for sexual pleasure; God’s intended design for expressing and
experiencing sexuality occurs within an emotionally caring, trustworthy
family, and eventually a loving person-centered relationship. Sexuality and
spirituality are intricately connected and must not be separated.

After the fall, sexuality was distorted and in need of redemption. In the
beginning, Adam and Eve were perfect sexual beings just as God created
them to be, yet they fell from that perfect state. Our fallen nature includes our
sexuality. It is clear from the Genesis account that the fall has affected both
sociocultural and biological life. Forever after, humans must face physical
death and various mental and physical consequences of the fall (Gen. 3:17–

The comprehensiveness of the fall means that achieving an authentic
sexuality involves conflict and struggle for everyone. Brokenness is
evidenced in the home through distorted views of sex as well as the
reprehensible acts of sexual and physical abuse and neglect. Family
structures, along with other social and community structures, all play their
part in contributing to the distortion. It becomes difficult to achieve an
authentic sexuality in the midst of these distorting influences.

Because these systems are imperfect, we are also imperfect in our
sexuality. Some people suffer from deficiencies in the genetic package they
have inherited; some lack a sexual wholeness because of inadequate
socialization in the home and community; some are victims of societal ills
such as rape and pornography.

Despite all the obstacles, the sexual authenticity God intended for us is a
goal worth striving for. Authentic sexuality is most attainable for those who

are born with a normal genetic and physiological makeup, who are
socialized in a home where parents display healthy attitudes regarding
sexuality, and who live in a community where societal values are consistent
with biblical teaching.

Sexual distortion can take a variety of forms as a result of differing
combinations of sociocultural, biological, and spiritual factors. Some people
have the disadvantage of living through circumstances that result in a
devastating sexual brokenness. This is especially true when sexual
encounters have been deeply harmful, creating scars that make healing a
long-term process. The good news of the gospel is that we can find hope and
wholeness in Jesus Christ, who, having once been wounded for us, shows
compassion for and heals our wounds. Christ offers restoration and renews
our potential for authentic sexuality.

Sexual Wholeness in a Broken World
The preceding analysis points to the development of sexuality as a complex
process of multidimensional factors. Achieving sexual authenticity in a
broken world is equally complex. We all have wounds that need to be healed
as we struggle to authentically express our sexuality in relationship. In the
remainder of this chapter, we will address four aspects of sexual expression
that are important concerns to the Christian community: sex and singleness,
masturbation, sexual orientation, and marital sexuality.

Sex and Singleness
Not wanting to wrestle with the difficult question of sex and singleness,

churches sometimes seek an easy out by declaring that single people should
deny their sexuality, or they ignore the question completely. This often leaves
Christian singles insufficient guidance as to how they are to live as sexual
persons in a singles’ subculture that endorses standards in direct
contradiction to biblical values.

In 1994, Lewis B. Smedes wrote a book called Sex for Christians. He
advocates three important principles:

1. The sexuality of every person is meant to be woven into the whole
character of that person and integrated into his or her quest for human

2. The sexuality of every person is meant to be an urge toward and a means
of expressing a deep personal relationship with another person.

3. The sexuality of every person is meant to move him or her toward a
heterosexual union of committed love.

Living out these principles keeps sexuality and personhood connected at
every level. It also calls to mind our theology of relationships. Sexuality is to
be exercised within a context of covenant, an unconditional commitment to a
personal relationship. We are challenged to work toward deepening this
personal relationship by establishing an atmosphere of grace (acceptance and
forgiveness), empowering one another, and increasing the level of intimacy.
As Smedes puts it, “Sexual fulfillment is achieved when a personal
relationship underpins the genital experience, supports it, and sustains a
human sexual relationship after it” (1994, 25–26). This will be our basic
premise in discussing premarital sexual relationships.

In the United States today, there are four major standards of premarital
sex: (1) sexual abstinence, (2) the double standard, (3) permissiveness with
affection, and (4) permissiveness without affection. Although sexual
abstinence is the traditional Christian value (and one of the two most strongly
held beliefs in the general population), when it comes to behavior, a majority
in today’s society do not adhere to it. The double standard, which allows
premarital intercourse for males but not for females, has declined during the
last hundred years. However, in their book Premarital Sex in America
(2011), Regnerus and Uecker report that the double standard is alive and
well today. They explain the persistence of the double standard with two
theories: (1) sexual scripts, which define the male role as more permissive
than the female role; (2) sexual economics, which presumes that the rational
pursuit of reward maximization, rather than love or intimacy, governs the sex
lives of young men.

Permissiveness with affection is the viewpoint with the greatest number of
proponents in Western societies today. This has to do with sharing more
positive feelings and emotional connection leading to sexual intercourse.
This also implies a level of exclusiveness and mutuality in expressing
affection as well as sex. Permissiveness without affection, which allows
casual and recreational sex between two consenting adults, has been a
standard in the past few decades, often referred to as “hooking up.” A study
of 832 college students’ experiences with hooking up reveals that women

were less likely to consider it a positive emotional experience and that
hooking up is a practice associated with “being white rather than a person of
color, more alcohol use, more favorable attitudes toward hooking up, higher
parental income . . . [and] having hooked up at least once in the past year”
(Owen et al. 2010, 653).

We believe that Christians should celebrate their freedom in Christ and be
bound by no rules other than those given in Scripture. Starting with the Ten
Commandments, it is clear that the Bible holds adultery to be contrary to
God’s will (DeYoung 2018). While the term adultery is usually defined as
sexual intercourse between a married person and a person other than the
lawful husband or wife, in his Sermon on the Mount Jesus Christ expands the
meaning of adultery to include all lust (Matt. 5:27–30; DeYoung 2018).

The New Testament word porneia, which is translated “fornication” or
“immorality,” has traditionally been interpreted as sex outside marriage.
Those holding to the position of situational ethics (the guiding principle of
which is to maximize love) argue that “fornication” refers to a
depersonalized, body-centered sex. Such a definition promotes freedom to
engage in sex if it is not depersonalized (love with affection). Although the
word may have this meaning in some passages, porneia almost always refers
to sexual intercourse outside the marriage union.

We interpret the Bible as upholding the restriction of sexual intercourse to
the marital relationship. Depending on how engagement and betrothal are
defined, specific application of this principle may vary from one society to
the next. Historically, girls were often very young at the time of engagement.
In contemporary society, however, the trend is to marry at a later age, making
it more difficult for older single adults to abstain until marriage.

Another contrast with the past is that societal structures used to help young
people meet the biblical standards, but in modern society people of all ages
are bombarded with explicit sexual stimuli. The mass media sanction sexual
expression before marriage. At the very height of their sexual urges, people
who have committed themselves to abstinence before marriage are besieged
by such messages.

To add to the confusion, singles must grapple with the gray areas of
determining the amount of physical and sexual involvement they will engage
in during dating and courtship. This can mean anything from merely holding
hands to genital contact just short of sexual intercourse. While the Bible
advocates physical affection between Christians in the form of greeting one

another with a holy kiss, it does not tell us what makes a kiss holy or how to
express affection in a relationship that goes beyond friendship. It is indeed
difficult to set up hard-and-fast rules regarding premarital sexual
involvement since many factors enter into the situation, such as the couple’s
age and maturity, the level of their commitment, the length of the engagement,
and the closeness to the marriage ceremony.

It is natural and good for a single person to physically express affection
for the one he or she loves. Touching is a means of communicating
acceptance, love, and care. We learn this from children, who are free to
express themselves through touch and open themselves up for expressions of
affection. Single adults more often withhold expressions of affection, an
important means of affirmation, out of fear of being misunderstood.
Unfortunately, this leaves many singles longing for intimate relationships
with others that are free of such sexual connotations. Singleness presents a
wonderful opportunity for both men and women to develop deep friendships.
Reaching an appropriate level of vulnerability in emotional and spiritual and
physical relationships with others brings richness to one’s life.

Of course, when there is a sexual element to relationships, the couple must
negotiate this. It is essential at this point for both individuals to determine to
what degree they will be involved, what is appropriate in their relationship,
and how to proceed in mutually agreed-upon goals, all the while submitting
to the authority of Scripture to guide their discernment process. We present
the following guidelines to aid in discerning the expression of sexuality
outside marriage.

1. The degree of sexual intimacy should correspond to the degree of love
and commitment present in the relationship. Where there is no commitment, a
high degree of sexual intimacy is inappropriate. Where there is commitment,
being with the person is more important than the pleasure derived from the
physical intimacy. In covenant love, commitment to the person and the
relationship takes precedence over sexual expression.

2. We tend to desire increased physical involvement in our lovemaking
which progresses toward more stimulatation. The ultimate sexual expression
is orgasm. The closer a couple gets to that point, the harder it is to retreat to a
previous level. The couple needs to be aware of this fact so that they can
determine appropriate limits for their physical involvement.

3. Both partners must test their personal motives for the physical
involvement and activity. Is the motive for physical involvement to express

affection or to sexually excite one’s partner and oneself? It does something
for the ego of both men and women to know that they can sexually excite
another person. As the motive behind physical involvement, such ego
gratification has a way of separating sex from personhood, since the goal is
not deeper personal connection but satisfaction of one’s personal needs.

4. The two people involved must continually communicate about all areas
of the relationship. A couple should tread cautiously when the physical
dimension develops out of proportion to the social, emotional,
psychological, and spiritual dimensions. When the sexual aspect dominates,
the other important dimensions are undernourished, and the relationship
becomes lopsided, vulnerable, and weak.

5. Both partners should take responsibility for establishing guidelines and
setting physical limits. Christian males must reject the societal norm that
males should go as far as they can sexually, since it is up to the female to set
the limits. Both partners are responsible for their sexual involvement.

6. The two people involved must agree to abide by the limits proposed by
the partner with the more stringent standards. Such an attitude of respect and
caring places the person above the desire for sexual activity.

To sum up our guidelines: the sexual dimension must be put in proper
perspective. In 1 Corinthians 6:12–13, Paul says, “‘All things are lawful for
me,’ but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will
not be dominated by anything. ‘Food is meant for the stomach and the
stomach for food.’. . . The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord,
and the Lord for the body.” There are, then, no hard-and-fast laws to govern
premarital sexual expression; rather, there is freedom in Christ to make
responsible decisions that are in accordance with God’s Word up to the limit
of sexual intercourse. We must bear in mind that not everything is good or
beneficial for us; this is especially true of behavior that comes to have a grip
on us. Once again, if sexual involvement becomes the overriding concern, it
can lead to the demise of a relationship.

In thinking about premarital sexual involvement, a due amount of attention
should be given to the matter of sexual lust and sin. We must neither ignore
the subject nor overly concentrate on it. When Paul speaks out against
fornication and immorality, he does so in a list of sins that includes greed and
overeating. Some people make the mistake of magnifying sexual sin out of
proportion. To them it is the great unpardonable sin, but this is not the
biblical view. Others yield to the ethics of secular society and minimize

sexual sin. It is not easy being single in a sexually oriented society that
promotes norms beyond biblical teaching. Single people need to be enfolded
into family and community life in ways that accept them as sexual persons
with needs for love and intimacy. In turn, they have much to contribute to the
community, as they struggle along with everyone else to realize the full
potential of their humanity, which includes their God-given nature.

In a mature relationship, there is a mutual responsibility for sexual
behavior. This mutuality helps each partner set limits on sexual expression.
Leaving the matter up to chance is irresponsible. Although chronological age
does not guarantee maturity, it is a general indicator of one’s development
and differentiation. The younger the person, the more underdeveloped his or
her sexuality, and the more confusing sexual involvement can be. Few
teenagers are mature enough to sustain a relationship as demanding as
marriage. In fact, statistics show a high percentage of teenage marriages in
the United States end in divorce. Many who engage in premarital sex do so
for the wrong reasons, such as using sex as a substitute for emotional
intimacy, to keep a relationship going, or to satisfy a partner. Although sex
may offer physical pleasure, fixation on the external act does not satisfy the
deepest internal cravings for an intimacy based on covenant love.

In contrast, mutual commitment allows single adults to respond to each
other with maturity and respect. A mature sexual relationship incorporates
the elements of covenant, grace, empowerment, and intimacy in an ever-
deepening cycle that continues throughout life. People who achieve authentic
sexuality do not separate sex and personhood but understand that their
sexuality is an integral part of who they are. Lauren Winner (2005) argues for
the importance of premarital sexual chastity by stressing that sex is communal
rather than private—“doing sex in a way that befits the Body of Christ, and
that keeps you grounded, and bounded, in the community” (123).

Masturbation (self-pleasuring) seems to be a nearly universal practice for

both males and females. In the past, various attempts were made to
discourage people from masturbating. Folk wisdom claimed that
masturbation had unpleasant consequences: hair loss, warts, pimples, even
blindness or impotence. Many young people live with intense guilt over this

How are Christians to view masturbation? What should parents teach their
children about it? Obviously, parents should alleviate the fears and guilt that
the myths of the past may have perpetuated. It is natural for children to
explore their physical bodies and come to have an awareness of their
anatomy. They need to feel positive about their bodies and the sensations they
experience when they touch themselves. Healthy attitudes about sexuality
begin in the home. Children who get a good start there will grow up with an
appreciation of God’s gift of sexuality.

It is important to recognize that the Bible is silent on the topic of
masturbation and that any case a person builds either for or against it is
based on inference. There are three major opinions about the place of
masturbation in a Christian’s life. The restrictive position is that
masturbation under any circumstance is sinful. The permissive position holds
that masturbation under any circumstance is healthy and morally permissible,
harmful to no one, and a good way to be aware of ourselves as sexual beings.
The moderate view holds that masturbation can be both healthy and morally
appropriate but also has the potential to be unhealthy and morally
inappropriate as well.

We hold this moderate position as most reasonable. Masturbation can be a
healthy way for a person without a marital partner to experience sexual
gratification or release. God has created humans as sexual beings, so
masturbation is one means for them to be in touch with their sexuality. Some
common reasons people masturbate are associated with relieving sexual
tension, relaxation, or lack of available partners. Sexual pleasuring may be a
positive option for married persons who experience separation or the death
of a spouse. Accordingly, many Christians need to be freed from the guilty
feelings they have about masturbation.

But masturbation is not always psychologically and morally healthy.
Compulsive masturbation can lead to addictive, self-defeating patterns.
Within marriage, masturbation can be a negative factor if it deprives one’s
spouse of sexual fulfillment or is used as a way of evading relationship
problems. When married partners have different desires regarding the
frequency of intercourse, however, masturbation may be a healthy outlet and
a loving solution. The relationship must always take priority as the couple
faces their sexual differences rather than escapes them.

Another issue to contemplate is the connection between masturbation,
fantasizing, and lust. Jesus teaches about this in Matthew 5:27–28: “You have

heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that
everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery
with her in his heart.” Lusting after a particular person may lead to acting out
one’s desire. This is adultery, and adultery is sin. Lusting should not
necessarily be equated with fantasizing, however. Most people fantasize
about future possibilities, and masturbation with one’s spouse or future
spouse in mind can be a helpful way to remain celibate and faithful.

Lusting has more to do with inordinate, inappropriate desire and finding
ways to fulfill it. In fantasy, by contrast, one’s wish is more general, and
there is usually no specific attempt to achieve it. The one who is doing the
lusting or fantasizing is usually aware of the difference. The person, for
example, who masturbates while fantasizing about having sex with a
neighbor’s wife turns the lust into action when he makes an advance to her. In
this case, fantasy is a precursor to a sinful act. It behooves us to pay attention
to our fantasies, so that we can keep them within God’s intended purpose.

It may be that a person who craves power fantasizes about sexual
conquest. Bringing such a fantasy to awareness makes it possible to consider
whether this is God’s intended purpose. This particular fantasy disregards
God’s commandment to love others and not do them harm. In the same way,
people who masturbate while viewing erotic pictures ought to consider the
moral question of sexual exploitation and consider whether the dehumanizing
aspect of the erotic material is in keeping with God’s intention for humanity.
The rising concern about pornography involves these issues, since the
distorted attitudes about women and sex in our culture may lead to an
increase in rape and other violent crimes. Again, the Bible admonishes us to
cherish and value one another.

These are the kinds of issues for Christians to consider when trying to
decide what one is free to do and what is good to do. Each one of us must
determine the appropriateness of our fantasies and the effect they have on our
whole life. It is possible to monitor our thoughts in the area of sexuality, just
as it is possible to make choices about other things we allow to affect us. A
person who reads a novel or sees a movie and experiences a romantic
fantasy needs to consider if it takes away from the spouse and the marital
relationship or increases responsiveness to the spouse in a positive way. The
single person needs to decide whether a particular fantasy enhances the hope
for a future relationship with a partner whom God has intended or idealizes a
phantom person in a role that no ordinary person can fill. The important thing

is that we are able to admit when our fantasies are not in keeping with God’s
intention and to change them to conform to God’s plan for us.

In the past, the Christian community has magnified the sins of the flesh out
of proportion to other wrongs and given the erroneous impression that sexual
sins are far worse than any other sins. It is important to remember that we
have been created in the image of God, and we are the children of God who
have been made righteous through the blood of Christ. All our sins are
forgivable. Regardless of what our past sexual life has been, we can come
before God, ask forgiveness, and claim sexual purity in Christ. At the same
time, we are responsible for our behavior and must earnestly seek God’s
help to become whole persons in every aspect of our lives, including

Sexual Identity
Sexual attraction is a natural part of a person’s sexual development, as

well as somewhat of a mystery in terms of who people find attractive. Part of
God’s design in creating us as sexual beings is that our attractions draw us
into deeper personal relationships with others. The vast majority of people
identify as heterosexual with opposite-sex attraction. A host of studies have
suggested that the percentage of people who identify as gay is much lower
(2–3 percent). Contemporary Perspectives on Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual
Identities (Hope 2009) estimates that 2 percent of men and 1 percent of
women are exclusively same-sex attracted, and 1 percent of men and women
are exclusively same-sex in behavior. However, it is estimated that over a
lifetime, 6–8 percent of men and 9–10 percent of women have experienced a
degree of same-sex attraction, and 5 percent of men and 2 percent of women
have engaged in same-sex behavior.

Researchers consistently find no conclusive evidence as to why certain
individuals develop same-sex attraction or identity as homosexuals. Eleanor
Whiteway and Denis Alexander (2015) state that “no single cause can
explain the variety or form of same-sex attraction across genders and
cultures” (70). Instead, studies indicate a combination of interrelated bio-
social-cultural influences, as well as multiple pathways that lead to same-sex

A common experience among homosexuals in childhood or adolescence is
that of not conforming to traditional gender traits or behavior. The fear of
exposure and being labeled “queer” by classmates and family members

makes this a confusing and painful time. The attempt to hide same-sex
attraction is understandable in a society that exhibits considerable contempt
for homosexual and bisexual persons. Ignorance and intolerance
unfortunately can lead to homophobic reactions along with acts of hatred and
even murder. Hatchel et al. (2019) found that LGBTQ youth were more than
three times more likely to have attempted suicide compared with non-
LGBTQ peers, and female youth in the psychiatric inpatient facility in the
study were twice as likely to have attempted it as male patients. It is
reasonable to expect that there is a personal cost to one’s mental well-being
when living with the fear, hatred, and shame associated with sexual identity.

Believing that God intended heterosexual union as the created norm (Gen.
1–3; Rom. 1:26–27; 1 Cor. 6:9–11), the Christian community has
traditionally condemned homosexuality. More recently, alternative responses
have emerged in light of the recognition that same-sex attraction is not a
choice. Therefore, it is not the orientation that is condemned but the behavior.
This has led to the expectation that those who have same-sex attractions
choose heterosexual relationship or celibacy. An alternative response is the
acceptance of committed, same-sex monogamous relationships. Some
advocate for legalization of marriage, ordination, and leadership in the
church. Whatever the response, Christians and churches across
denominational lines are challenged to be a reconciling force in relating to
the gay community.

In doing extensive counseling with the LGBTQ community, Mark Yarhouse
(2010), Regent University professor of psychology and director of the
Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity, believes it is helpful to distinguish
between attractions, orientation, and sexual identity, which he considers to
be at the heart of the matter. The first tier, attraction, is a descriptive term in
which the person has no control over the fact that they are attracted to a
person of the same sex. The second tier, sexual orientation, is a same-sex
attraction that is felt as persistent and durable. Finally, the third tier, gay
identity, is prescriptive. It involves describing oneself with a label that
involves cultural meaning—a formed sexual identity and not just a
description. He contends, “Public sexual identity is how you identify your
sexual preferences to other people or how other people label you, whereas
private sexual identity is how you identify your sexual preferences to
yourself” (39; italics in original). A person with same-sex attractions and
orientation may choose an “identity in Christ” as an alternative script that

guides life choices. This means following the teachings of Jesus as the model
for their lives.

Yarhouse (2010) explains: “I work on what most people can manage and
experience change in: I look at how identity develops over time and how it
can reflect a person’s beliefs and values. I want to help people live their
lives and identify themselves in ways that are in keeping with their Christian
beliefs and values” (91). He reminds Christians to be humble, to listen
carefully and compassionately to the person’s developmental story, and to
refrain from placing unrealistic expectations on them.

Many deeply spiritual gay Christians wish to be accepted and affirmed in
their attraction/orientation/identity. They are looking for churches that offer a
safe place of worship, fellowship, and service.

We began this book with our theology of relationships, built on the premise
that the original intention of God’s creation was heterosexuality. In the
Genesis account, the ideal is male and female differentiation and unity: we
become one flesh for the purpose of intimacy and procreation. However,
since the whole human race is fallen, none of us achieves sexual wholeness
in accordance with God’s high ideal. Everyone falls short. Homosexuals and
heterosexuals alike must strive to find wholeness in their lives in a less than
ideal world. Each of us struggles in our own ways for sexual authenticity. In
their struggle, some gay Christians believe that God’s plan for them is to
commit themselves to a lifelong, monogamous homosexual union.

We advocate compassion and support for all people as they move in the
direction of God’s ideal, and our hope is that God will lead each one of us
closer to sexual wholeness. Authentically living out God-glorifying sexuality
is a spiritual service to God. This will, of course, be a more painful and
difficult process for some than for others. By balancing truth and grace, we
are called to be a place where the world knows we are Christians by our
love. Christ is willing to grant to everyone the privilege of walking through
that process of finding sexual wholeness.

Marital Sexuality
Sexuality is only one aspect of the marriage relationship. It is authentic and

healthy when it is well integrated into a comprehensive pattern of intimacy
between the partners. Authentic sexuality is a characteristic of the
differentiated unity of marriage. Several principles will prove helpful for
couples who want to achieve authentic sexuality in their marriage.

First, the foundation for authentic sexuality in marriage is mutuality. This
idea is presented in 1 Corinthians 7:4–5: “For the wife does not have
authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband
does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive
one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves
to prayer, and then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you
because of your lack of self-control.” Here we see that the Bible urges full
mutuality. “By agreement” is a translation of the Greek phrase ek
symphomnou, which literally means “with one voice” (compare the English
word symphony). The mutuality mentioned in verse 5 is consonant with
Ephesians 5:21, which tells husbands and wives to “be subject to one
another out of reverence for Christ.”

Authentic marital sexuality can be achieved only if husband and wife are
in agreement about their sexual interaction. There is no room for the
misguided view that the husband initiates and dominates while the wife
submits in obedience. Rather, 1 Corinthians 7:4–5 and Ephesians 5:21
assume mutual desire for and interest in sexual expression. This requires
sensitive communication between the couple about their sexual desires. Just
as an orchestra plays “with one voice” when each instrument contributes its
own unique part and the music is brought together in harmony, so a married
couple reaches sexual harmony through communication and sensitive
understanding of each other’s needs.

Second, the husband and wife need to verbally communicate their sexual
feelings and desires. Each spouse needs to know what the other desires
sexually; this is not the time for guessing games. Sexuality becomes an
expression of emotional intimacy and knowing the other. It is important for
couples to communicate about how they can best fulfill each other’s sexual
needs and desires. Guiding each other through touch and brief words of
encouragement during the sexual encounter can be helpful. However, it is
also essential that the couple take time to talk about their sexual relationship,
so they can evaluate how each is feeling and what may need changing. Open
discussion about sexual matters contributes to sexual enjoyment. Obviously,
the couple will need to invest time and effort in working together on matters
that will enhance the sexual relationship.

Third,there must be no deception or hiding in the sexual encounter. Total
openness is essential. There must be no hiding of one’s true sexual feelings
and desires for the sake of personal advantage. An individual who does not

feel attractive may continually bait the partner into affirming him or her in
this area. Another kind of game playing is alternately showing signs of sexual
interest and disinterest in one’s partner. The need to be pursued or the desire
to be in control of the relationship often motivates this behavior. Yet another
form of game playing is sexual teasing. One partner teases about desiring sex
and then resists or is very passive when the other responds with sexual
advances. These games end up having a negative impact on the relationship.

Fourth, marital sexuality should include an element of playfulness and
spontaneity. A sexual relationship benefits from a sense of uninhibited
engagement and non-self-conscious interaction. One of the benefits of
playfulness is that it prevents couples from making a production out of sex.
Controlling the sexual encounter in such a way that it becomes contrived and
serious makes it impossible to respond to each other freely. A spirit of fun,
however, keeps the sexual encounter spontaneous and relaxed. A healthy
view of oneself and one’s body and feelings of comfort with one’s partner
are vital ingredients of freedom in a sexual encounter. Accordingly, the level
of fun in a relationship is often a good measure of the degree of intimacy.

Fifth, it is essential not to become spectators in the sexual encounter. When
partners assume a spectator role during coitus, they tend to lose sight of each
other. This is a particular problem in a technologically oriented society that
emphasizes the importance of using the right methods. This attitude reduces
sex to little more than an exercise in techniques. When this happens, sex is
like the once-popular paint-by-number kits. The detailed instructions of a sex
manual virtually dictate a couple’s lovemaking. Just picture a scene in which
the wife turns to her husband during lovemaking and says, “Turn back a page,
Henry! We must have missed a step because I’m not feeling anything.” The
whole experience is inauthentic because there is no creative and spontaneous
interaction between the spouses. In a very real sense, the personhood of each
spouse is lost in the effort to make love by the book. An effort to be
technically correct has replaced naturalness between lovers. In authentic
sexuality, by contrast, the spouses allow natural feelings, inclinations, and
actions to occur without a conscious evaluation of the performance. Both
husband and wife are spontaneously engaged in the sexual encounter. Both
partners are giving and receiving as they encounter each other in the moment.

Sixth, the greater the sensory pleasure in a relationship exclusive of coitus,
the greater the sexual adequacy. This principle refers to the pleasure derived
from foreplay. Touch communicates tenderness, affection, desire, warmth,

comfort, and excitement. When a couple takes time to touch in ways that
invite and increase responsiveness, they find more mutual satisfaction.

Seventh, the more secure the partners feel in their commitment to each
other, the more complete their sexual response. Research shows that women
and men are most able to invest themselves sexually when they feel secure
about the relationship. Inversely, when trust is in question, spouses are less
able to achieve an adequate sexual response. Men as well as women desire a
sexual involvement that makes them feel warm and secure. Here again we
see that trust helps bring about sexual responsiveness and authenticity.

Our discussion of marital sexuality calls to mind our theology of
relationships: unconditional love and trust is the foundation of healthy
sexuality; acceptance and ability to extend forgiveness in sexual matters is an
expression of grace; empowering each other as sexual persons brings mutual
regard; and person-centered sexual expression leads to deeper levels of
knowing and being known. These four principles will move the couple ever
closer to God’s ideal of authentic sexuality.


The Heart of Family Life

This section deals with the important dimension of communication.
Communication is the heart of family life in that family members interact
through verbal and nonverbal exchanges to express their thoughts, wishes,
and core emotions. Through their honest expressions of thoughts and
emotions, family members come to know one another in very personal ways.
When family members communicate and express themselves in their own
unique ways, family relationships grow and deepen.

Without the ability to communicate effectively, the family unit quickly
becomes a mere collection of individuals whose thoughts, feelings, and
desires are nobody’s but their own. With an increased ability to
communicate, however, the family can become a vibrant system whose
members learn to engage in meaningful interaction. In this sense,
communication is truly the heart of family life, where members have both the
freedom and the skills to deepen their relationships.

Chapter 13 begins with a discussion of why the expression of love is so
important to family intimacy. We follow with a section on why expressing
love among family members is essential in deepening levels of knowing and
being known. We then conclude with the important topic of conflict in family
life. Conflict is indeed a normal part of family life, yet there are destructive
and constructive ways to work through problems. We describe the five major
styles people tend to use when they engage in conflict to help family
members recognize the pros and cons of their unique styles. Effective

families learn to respect one another’s styles but at the same time adjust their
ways of dealing with conflict for the good of the relationships. This creative
effort is the difference between a satisfactory resolution that connects family
members and an unsatisfactory one that distances them.


Intimate Communication
Expressing Love and Anger

Intimacy, and specifically intimacy via communication, sets the stage for this
chapter. Being able to share thoughts and feelings is crucial to effective
family living. By expressing emotions and sharing needs, family members
develop an emotional attachment and create opportunities for mutuality and
interdependence. The expression of emotions—anger, hurt, love, joy,
sadness, or affection—is essentially how family members become more
intimately acquainted. Expressing and resolving conflict fosters deeper

Building intimacy in family relationships is one of the most important, yet
one of the most challenging, tasks to do well. A recent approach to
understanding the role of emotions in communication is emotional
intelligence (EQ). Bar-On (2000) describes how EQ is made up of
emotional, social, and personal qualities that allow individuals to identify
their emotional experiences and those of others. Further, EQ influences how
effectively individuals communicate with one another. Higher levels of EQ
allow individuals to manage their emotions while effectively communicating
with others. A recent study finds that improvements in EQ levels increased
family communication and family satisfaction (Platsidou and Tsirogiannidou

For a person to share honestly about what is going on internally places one
in a vulnerable position. Therefore, the family must be a safe place for
members to share. If it is unsafe, members will feel personally threatened
and guard others from knowing their true feelings or expressing their real
needs. This is especially true of dealing with anger. Anger is a potentially
scary emotion, and an unsafe environment will only discourage family

members from expressing themselves. And anger expressed in unsafe ways
increases feelings of being threatened, and individuals will become more
guarded and careful in responding. When the fear of being ridiculed or
rejected is more than members can risk, they will undoubtedly protect
themselves by keeping their feelings and thoughts to themselves. This creates
a distrustful atmosphere in which no one knows what the others are thinking
and feeling. Many misunderstandings result from this state of affairs, which
stymies family members’ interactions. As members keep their distance and
remain self-contained, the capacity for significant bonding becomes
increasingly remote.

We believe that intimacy is desirable in marriage and family relationships
not only as a refuge from the impersonality of society but also as a reflection
of the biblical ideal. Genesis 2 describes a pre-fall condition in which
intimacy—knowing and being known—brings a deep sense of relationship
joy and mutuality. The trinitarian concepts of relationship unity and
particularity provide a model for family members to make room in their
hearts and lives for each unique family member and their emotions, needs,
desires, and thoughts. Dialogue, mutual regard, interest, and engagement lead
to increased understanding and interdependent unity. These values are
especially important for anger and conflict resolution.

The Effects of Expressing Love
You may ask why it is so important to express to other family members the
affection you feel. It assures them that they are lovable and encourages
relationship bonding. Humans need to hear and to receive overt expressions
of love from the time they are born until the day they die.

Studies of infant development suggest that babies who do not receive
expressions of love will be less able to receive or express love to others
during their lifetimes. Children who lack sufficient affection (physical touch
and nurture), even though they may receive adequate physical care, suffer
greatly. Marasmus, a disease in which the body simply wastes away, is
prevalent among war victims and orphans. The child fails to develop
socially, psychologically, and physically, and death is a frequent outcome.
What is important for our purposes is to recognize how essential it is for
children to be held, cuddled, caressed, kissed, and hugged as well as to have
their physical needs met.

It is well established that children develop self-image based on their
perceptions of how others view them. Children are able to love themselves if
their parents have expressed love to them both verbally and physically. No
one ever outgrows the need for affection and love. As we mature from
infancy to adulthood, we have an increased need for verbal affirmation and
physical expressions of love.

It is emotionally rewarding for all people to engage with others at a
personal and emotional level. Doing so indicates the desire for interaction
and interdependency. Psychologically speaking, keeping emotions to yourself
actually puts you at risk of losing touch with yourself and others, inhibiting
the potential for developing a close, emotional connection with those you

Naming and expressing our emotions helps us to communicate directly
with those we are in relationship with. This is important because nonverbal
communication is ambiguous at best. Using words aids in developing a
mutual understanding between relational partners that then interprets
nonverbal cues in communication. Additionally, direct communication of
emotions helps teach children to name and understand their subjective
experience. As they increase in their ability to name their feelings, they are
better able to empathize with others. Practicing the expression of emotions
increases EQ, which increases intimacy in relationships.

Expressing love is important for all relationships. Just as mutual
commitment (covenant) is the basis of secure bonding, communication is the
basis for intimacy. Communication is a two-way street. Some family
members make valiant efforts to engage but find themselves in a dead end if
the other member is unwilling to respond or reciprocate. Some people
explain away the problem of expressing themselves with dismissive
statements such as “He is just like that” or “She is shy” or “It’s in the genes,
so I can’t expect much.” While personality and even shy genes may be part of
inexpressiveness, the fact remains that lack of emotional sharing develops
into patterns of stifled communication. The possibility of intimacy is crushed,
and the relationship stagnates emotionally.

Nonverbal Expressions of Love
Expressions of love can be communicated nonverbally as well as verbally

(Chapman 2009; Turner and West 2002). A person can show affection
through a hug, a pat on the back, a wink, or some other symbolic gesture. The

fact is that we do communicate through our facial expressions, posture, and
general body movements. Researchers note that people indicate open- or
closed-mindedness through body language. A person who assumes an open
and relaxed body posture is likely to be open-minded about the ideas the
family is discussing. A family member who sits stiffly upright, tense, with
legs crossed and arms folded, is likely to be closed-minded and defensive.

Body language, however, can be misread. The receiver of the message
may wonder, “What does that gleam in her eye really mean?” Physical
expressions can be misinterpreted as well. A parent may question, “Is my
daughter hugging me so tightly because she loves me or because she wants
me to delay her bedtime hour?” Symbolic expressions may conjure up
suspicion: “Why did he send me these flowers today? Did he just have his
secretary order them, or has he really gone out of his way to pick them out?”
or “I wonder what’s behind all this special attention I’m getting from her
tonight.” The point here is to take the crucial next step of clarifying the
intended meaning so the nonverbal message is crystal clear.

Authentic communication occurs when verbal and nonverbal
communication messages are congruent and clear, aiding the development of
self-worth and satisfaction for all family members.

Obstacles to Expressing Love
Fear is perhaps the number one reason family members fail to express

their love to one another. When we express ourselves freely, we become
vulnerable to the other’s response. It is not just our feelings that we reveal,
but our feelings for the other person. When we communicate love, we place
ourselves in an exposed position. It is as if we are emotionally naked, having
stripped off our protective armor as we bare our feelings of love. When we
let another person know of our love, we may fear he or she won’t accept it or
reciprocate it. It is a source of dread to be ignored, discounted, or, worst of
all, rejected. Past experiences of rejection make it difficult to freely expose
ourselves in the present. Acts of love are usually expressed naturally when
people spend quality time together. Cultivating intimacy within which love
can be expressed comfortably takes much time and intentional effort. Making
family time a priority is especially an issue in our increasingly technological

Sometimes social and cultural expectations inhibit people from expressing
emotions. Norms regarding appropriateness of expression are part of the

socialization process. Inborn tendencies (for example, shyness) are
reinforced by cultural and gender norms. These expectations become part of
the child’s self-image and a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Males in many societies learn to value so-called masculine expressions of
feelings and to eschew expressions of femininity. They are taught that
tenderness and gentleness are feminine. So when a young boy expresses
sensitive emotions by crying, his parents may be quick to assert, “You’re a
big boy, and big boys don’t cry!” or “Don’t be such a sissy; be a man!” As
the boy moves out from the family and into the sphere of male peer groups,
the taboo against displaying vulnerable feelings is reinforced. Males should
be encouraged to express their vulnerability without facing judgment or
ridicule, and females should not bear the burden of drawing out or pursuing
males in order for them to express themselves.

On the other hand, females in most cultures are given permission to
express languages of love. Female expressions of anger, however, are
discouraged because anger is an emotion more acceptable for males. When a
woman asserts herself, she is accused of being aggressive; when she gives a
strong opinion, she is judged as bossy; when she expresses anger, she is
labeled as unfeminine and out of control. These messages that tie certain
feelings with gender stereotypes restrict a person’s full range of expression.

The important thing is to help both males and females identify their
feelings and be able to express them in ways that enhance relationships.
Emotional expression is different for females and males, yet it is crucial to
building intimacy. It is through expressing our feelings that we learn how
others respond to important experiences in their lives. Emotional expressions
allow us to gain insight into the character of the other (Roberts 2007).

The Expression of Love in Family Relationships
The emotional bond between child and parent is the most important

dimension of child development. Children who are denied a strong emotional
bond with their mothers and fathers must go through life compensating for
this lack. The most extensive problem for both boys and girls is the lack of a
strong emotional bonding with their fathers.

In keeping with their distinct societal roles, mothers and fathers differ in
relating to their children (Bi et al. 2018; Schoppe-Sullivan and Fagan 2020).
Evidence suggests that these differences begin early and increase through the
child-rearing period. Studies show, for example, that mothers tend to engage

their babies directly to stimulate responses and to display affection, while
fathers tend to read to or watch television with their children. Mothers are
also more likely than fathers to hold, smile at, and speak to their infants.

The pattern that seems to emerge from the research on parenting is that
mothers are more evenhanded in the affection they show daughters and sons,
while fathers treat sons and daughters according to sexual stereotypes.
Further, while the disparity in the father’s approach toward sons and
daughters begins when the children are infants, it increases as they grow
older. By the time children reach their teenage years, a father usually views a
daughter as someone to be treated in a gentle manner, while a son is treated
in a more distant way. It is not surprising that more daughters than sons rate
their fathers high in nurturing and giving affection.

These patterns are often maintained into adulthood. Males and females
interact differently emotionally, and this often affects marriage. Males who
have had more distant fathers may not have the emotional skills to share with
their female partners. Females, on the other hand, may experience this as
distance in the relationship.

A couple’s ability to identify and communicate emotions is related to
marital adjustment. Regardless of the total amount, similar levels of self-
disclosure point to a healthy marriage. Emotional sharing and intimacy also
affect the couple’s experience of sexual satisfaction (Yoo et al. 2014).
Dissatisfaction and other problems are likely to emerge when there is an
imbalance in the amount of self-disclosure.

Although the husband is typically less expressive than his wife, some
factors work against a wife’s being open and sharing. For instance, the wife’s
verbal expression of love will diminish over time if her expressions of love
are not reciprocated by the husband. When there is an uneven vulnerability in
sharing, she will undoubtedly hold back and share less often. In their
research, John Gottman and Joan DeClaire (2001) find that one spouse will
offer a statement to the other as a bid for greater intimacy—for instance, “I
feel like I don’t know you.” When one spouse reveals himself or herself in an
intimate way and the other stands aloof, not responding to the invitation for
deeper connection, the spouse who reached out will cease taking steps
toward greater intimacy.

Sometimes, expressiveness or non-expressiveness can become a power
issue in marriage. If either spouse hides feelings to have more power or if
withholding affection becomes an effort to control the other, both spouses

lose. Tactics like feigning interest in the relationship in an attempt to gain
power will ultimately lead to distance and dissatisfaction in marriage
(Gottman and DeClaire 2001). Reduction in marital self-disclosure can
occur throughout the relationship’s life cycle. Events like the birth of a child
bring change. Carrying this additional emotional burden, the wife may
express herself less to her husband. As time passes, the child may be able to
fill some of the emotional needs of the mother. It is natural for a mother to
express herself to a child who returns love, in contrast to a husband who
rarely returns affection. It behooves a couple to keep their spousal
relationship a priority during transition times in a marriage.

Emotional expression in marriage is key to longevity and satisfaction.
Males and females may have learned different ways to express their
emotional sides growing up, but marriage affords both partners an
opportunity to learn new ways of relating to others. For males, marriage
encourages the increasing disclosure of emotional experience. For females,
marriage provides a place where they can relate as a peer to another
emotional being, sharing but not being responsible for their partner’s
emotional experience.

Our differentiation in Christ (DifC) model indicates that authentic
expression of experience is crucial for facilitating intimate relationships. Our
identity as Christians is based on our adoption into God’s family. This
adoptive relationship grounds our experience and empowers our expression
and relationships with others. DifC facilitates two important dimensions of
authentically relating to others. First, DifC allows us to actively reflect on
and manage our experiences. We are able to gain insight into ourselves, both
good and bad, and bring this all to Christ for confession and forgiveness.
This aspect of DifC is similar to the emotional regulation aspects of
emotional intelligence described above in that it enables us to honestly and
authentically develop insight into our sinfulness and confess this to Christ in
order to experience his forgiveness more deeply. Second, DifC allows us to
live out our core identity as Christ’s brother or sister in relationship with
another. In other words, DifC means authentically living out our identities by
relating with others. We share the good and shameful aspects of ourselves
with our spouses, and we look to them to do likewise. Authentic sharing and
practicing forgiveness draw us deeper into relationship with Christ.

Expressing Anger: Negotiating the Inevitable Conflicts
Expressing anger and resolving conflict provide opportunities for practicing
intimate and respectful communication. Strong families are not those that
never experience conflict but those that successfully manage conflict when it
does arise. Most families, however, approach conflict as a threat to the
family system rather than an opportunity for growth. Family conflict
resolution can be a significant challenge, and it is to this pressing topic that
we now turn.

Simply put, a conflict is a difference in opinion. Family conflict can be
individual (i.e., between two family members) or collective (i.e., between
two sets of family members). Most family conflict is systemic in nature,
centering on changes within and between family systems. Marital conflict, for
example, is most likely to occur during the initial years when the spousal
system is being formed or during transitional periods involving family
restructuring or re-forming. As would be expected, parental conflict has the
most negative effect on children when focused on parental differences in

Regardless of the marital stage, conflict is greatest when spouses are
under stress (Timmons, Arbel, and Margolin 2017). Parent-child conflict is
less likely when the parental and sibling subsystems are on solid footing, and
more likely when these two subsystems are in flux, such as when children
reach their teenage years, when stepfamilies are formed, and so on. Conflict
generates more threat and self-blame when there is little family

It should also be noted that conflict between subsystems can cause
secondary conflict between individuals in the subsystems. For example,
parent-teenager conflict can intensify conflict between the husband and the
wife around issues of discipline. In stepfamilies, conflicts between child and
stepparent bring added tension into the spousal subsystem. Externally, an ex-
spouse’s dealings with children can cause havoc in the remarriage. However,
conflict between subsystems can also unify a subsystem, such as when
conflict with parents leads children into coalition or when the remarried
couple joins forces to present a united front when dealing with their children
or ex-spouses.

A conflict between two family members frequently entangles others
(triangling). Strong emotional ties and investment in the outcome make it
difficult for the others to stay out of the skirmish. A triangle is formed when

noninvolved family members are brought into a conflict to help one member
gain power. This side-taking complicates the situation since the matter of the
third party’s loyalty now intensifies the relationship dispute.

A Destructive Approach to Conflict: Denial
While conflict is neither good nor bad, the way in which it is handled can

be destructive or constructive. Denying or failing to deal with conflict is
invariably destructive to family relationships. Denial of conflict is like
sweeping dirt under a rug. It only appears to eliminate the problem; it does
nothing about the behavior that brought about the conflict in the first place.
The problem, like the addictive use of drugs, intensifies because the conflict-
producing behavior never changes. Denial is destructive on not only the
relational level but also the personal level, since those who deny the conflict
are also forced to deny their feelings of hurt, disappointment, and anger.

Family members can deny conflict in several ways. One common method
is displacement: a family member angered or disturbed by another
conveniently vents frustrations on a third member. Powerful family members
use displacement to take out their frustrations on the less powerful. The
younger members on the receiving end often come to the mistaken belief that
they are bad and deserve punishment.

Another common form of denial in the family is disengagement. In this
case, family members avoid conflict by sidestepping sensitive and
controversial issues. Disengagement might be initiated by a burst of anger
followed by withdrawal, such as when a husband gets mad at his wife,
storms out of the house, and drives away in the car, only to return two hours
later as if nothing had happened. The husband and the wife never talk about
what caused the blowup, and together they collude in the cover-up.
Disengagement serves as a barrier to growth in the relationship, and the
unresolved conflict may well lead to a severe crisis later.

A more subtle form of denial is disqualification, a quick discounting of
one’s angry reaction. A mother may get mad at her children only to disqualify
the legitimacy of her angry feelings by reasoning that she would not have
gotten mad if she had slept better the night before. Disqualifiers tend to cover
up angry emotions rather than admit them. Like the other forms of denial,
disqualification is a barrier to growth and destructive to family relationships.

Constructive Approaches
The first step in dealing constructively with conflict is to admit that the

conflict exists. The second step is to decide how to handle the conflict. We
will present some basic rules and then discuss conflict resolution and
conflict management.


The first rule of dealing constructively with conflict is to identify the real
issue. This can be a very difficult task because most family conflicts involve
more than a single issue. It is also likely that family members will differ as to
what the central issue really is. Little progress can be made until each person
involved knows how the others define the conflict. When there are multiple
issues, the first tasks are to agree on which one to tackle first and to try to
understand how they are all interrelated.


Once conversation has begun, it is essential to stick to the issue. This may
be hard to do, especially when someone brings up a related point that
distracts. Tangential issues serve to sidetrack the major issues and only
muddy the water, forestalling resolution of the problem.


When the family gathers to work out a conflict, it is important that
everyone is given the opportunity to participate. The group has come together
to listen to each member and to try to understand one another’s involvement
in the conflict. Each person needs to ask how he or she is contributing to the
problem and what can be done individually and collectively to solve it.

If time is available and if emotional intensity is low, some conflicts can be
constructively resolved when they arise. In most cases, however, family
members need a period for cooling off and must schedule a time for talking
that is mutually convenient for everyone involved. If a sixteen-year-old
arrives home at midnight, one hour past curfew, the parents would be well
advised to wait to deal with the issue until the next day, for they will be tired
and angry. This plan accounts for emotional overload and how individuals
process emotions, allowing for purposeful and honest communication without

the need for defensiveness or disrespect. Then, choose a neutral place, free
of interruptions, to resolve the issues. It should be a place where all
members feel safe and on an equal footing. Every effort needs to be made to
take each family member seriously. Everyone has a valid point and should be
given a space to express their point of view, even young children. Parents
need to be in charge to see that these rules are followed.


The discussion will proceed much more smoothly if one begins by offering
positive affirmation. For example, Manuel has become forgetful about
clearing his plate after dinner. However, he has been very good recently
about doing his homework without parental prompting. Manuel’s parents
could directly confront his failure to complete his after-dinner chore:
“Manuel, you have not done you dinner chore for the past three days.” This is
usually where parents give a short lecture on how hard mom works to
prepare the meal and how much the parents sacrifice to give Manuel and his
sisters a good home. Approaching Manuel in a confrontational manner like
this increases anger and blame. But if Manuel’s parents begin with a positive
affirmation about how they have appreciated his responsibility with his
homework, this can help him hear the feedback about his after-dinner chore.
There is no need to berate him for the infraction of the rule, and the positive
stroke may well elicit a positive feeling and response.


In the heat of an argument, it is tempting to dredge up past hurts and
complaints. Some people have a habit of storing up anger and frustrations,
and they are ready to dump them out when conflict occurs. The experience of
being dumped on is devastating and will, in fact, negate any progress toward
conflict resolution.


Name-calling is a sure way to antagonize another person and destroy any
chance of reasonable discussion. Examples include calling another person
stupid, ignorant, silly, dumb, square, childish, spoiled, compulsive,
conceited, or some other derogatory adjective. Using such labels traps

people in categories from which they cannot escape. It is disrespectful and
prohibits any serious efforts to deal with conflict.

Blaming or accusing others is off-putting. Pointing the finger at others is
often a way to avoid personal involvement. Even asking others to vindicate
themselves is counterproductive because more often than not, asking “Why
did you do it?” is really an attempt to place blame. Verbal attacks on areas
of personal sensitivity are never warranted. Each of us has emotionally
vulnerable areas, and family members generally know one another’s
sensitive areas. For example, referring to someone’s weight or stinginess is a
personal attack. Ridiculing or laughing at another family member sends the
message that the other’s opinion is not worth considering.


Passive-aggressive behavior, which aims at getting back at another person
in indirect, devious ways, is one of the more effective methods of sabotaging
a relationship. Picture a Sunday morning, as Mom and Dad are trying to hurry
family members so they won’t be late for church. Dad has managed to herd
everyone to the car except Greg, who happens to be mad at his parents. In
response to Dad’s call, “Hurry up or you will make all of us late!,” Greg
very slowly walks to the car, placing one foot in front of the other as if they
were made of lead. This is an example of passive aggressiveness—denying
one’s anger while acting it out in an indirect manner.

Another form of passive-aggressive behavior is feigning weakness,
inability, or neediness in order to have an advantage over others. It is a
maneuver to play the “poor me” position to get sympathy rather than to take a
responsible stance in an argument. If one cannot express anger openly, no
resolution is possible, and the anger continues to be acted out in passive
ways. The person who behaves in this manner wields a great deal of control
in the family.


Suppose thirteen-year-old Kathy and fifteen-year-old Chad are arguing at
the supper table. Kathy turns to her mother for support: “Isn’t that so, Mom?”
She has just attempted to entangle her mother in the argument she is having
with her brother. If the mother is wise, she will not allow herself to be drawn
into the argument. It is a common practice for two people who are fighting to

attempt to bring in a third party to gain an advantage in the argument. In some
homes, this has developed into a fine art that thoroughly disrupts the family.

A Biblical Perspective on Anger
It is important to remember that the Bible does not say that anger is a sin.

Ephesians 4:26 reads, “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on
your anger.” There are two ways, however, in which our anger can become
sin. First, if we deny our anger or hold it in, never expressing it, the anger
will smolder and build within us. This allows the anger to become sin.
Unexpressed anger can lead to resentment, hate, and revenge. Second, anger
becomes sin when expressed in abusive ways, either verbally or physically.
Physical abuse is, without doubt, sinful behavior. But verbal abuse is also
psychologically damaging and sinful. The familiar saying, “Sticks and stones
may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” is clearly not true, for
abusive words certainly do hurt. The book of James warns that although the
tongue is small, its offenses can have disastrous consequences (James 3:1–

When anger twists into sin, it is a corruption of the heart. In the Ten
Commandments, we read, “You shall not murder” (Exod. 20:13). Jesus
transforms this command from a behavioral matter to one of the heart when
he teaches about anger: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient
times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to
judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you
will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be
liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell
of fire” (Matt. 5:21–22). The emphasis here is on acting out of hatred or spite
and disrespecting another who is made in God’s image (DeYoung 2018).

In our differentiation in Christ (DifC) model, authentically living out one’s
identity is a core feature of our relationships. Conflict is going to occur.
However, having one’s identity based in one’s relationship with God through
Christ forms the basis of values-based engagement. Assertiveness and
awareness of one’s needs, one’s sins, and one’s motivation to act in a
Christlike manner inform how relationships function. This reflects the
conflict-management literature, which emphasizes assertiveness and concern
with individual well-being. Having accepted Christ’s forgiveness of our sin,
we relate to others in grace and forgiveness. This notion of grace is reflected
in the role of empathy and understanding the other in conflict-management

literature. DifC facilitates working together based on the desire to live
authentic, gracious, Christ-centered relationships. Finally, DifC allows us to
know and be known in more and more intimate ways as conflict management
reveals our desires (good and bad) and teaches us about the other. Respectful
collaboration and learning more about the other are keys to conflict
resolution and management.

Conflict Resolution
Research on conflict resolution suggests that it is a process that moves

through several stages. In applying this research to the family, Kathleen
Galvin, Carma Bylund, and Bernard Brommel (2018) identify six stages:

1. prior-conditions stage: the problem arises;
2. frustration-awareness stage: a family member comes to realize that

another family member is blocking satisfaction of some need or concern;
3. conflict stage: the exchange of a series of verbal and nonverbal

4. solution (or non-solution) stage: the problem is resolved (or an

impasse agreed on);
5. follow-up stage: the conflict re-erupts, or hurt feelings and grudges

develop; and
6. resolve stage: the conflict no longer affects the family system.

Although conflict resolution is a worthy goal, it is part of a difficult
process. It is important to remember two caveats. First, conflict resolution
focuses as much on the process as on the resolution itself. This means that
some conflicts may only resolve themselves after a lengthy process. Second,
some conflicts are unable to be resolved in an equitable manner where
parties contribute equally to the resolution. A resolution may require one
party to sacrifice his or her preferences to maintain the relationship (e.g.
whether to have children or the final number of children). These types of
conflicts are zero sum; one partner “wins” and the other “loses.”

Conflict Management
While some conflict can be resolved, there are perpetual issues in

marriage and family that are never really resolved. Conflict management is

one of the most realistic approaches to handling conflict. Family life is too
complex to understand in neat cause-and-effect terms. And conflict is so
much a part of this system that it cannot be viewed simply as something that
arises within and is then purged from the family. Rather, conflict continually
feeds back into the system as a whole. It is, therefore, more realistic to think
of conflict as a process to be managed rather than a situation to be resolved.

There are five major styles of conflict management: (1) Avoidance, which
involves a low degree of both cooperation and assertiveness, is
characteristic of individuals we might describe as withdrawers.
(2) Accommodation, which involves a high degree of cooperation and a low
degree of assertiveness, is characteristic of yielders. (3) Competition, which
involves a low degree of cooperation and a high degree of assertiveness, is
characteristic of winners. (4) Collaboration, which involves a high degree
of cooperation and assertiveness, is characteristic of resolvers.
(5) Compromise, which involves negotiation, cooperation, and assertiveness,
is characteristic of compromisers. It should be noted that these five styles of
conflict management are basic theoretical types. In the real world, styles of
conflict management may incorporate many aspects of the different styles.

Each style of conflict management entails specific levels of concern for
oneself, for other family members, and for family relationships. The style of
conflict management that evidences little cooperation and little assertiveness
(avoidance) shows little concern for self, others, and relationships. The style
with a high degree of cooperation and a low degree of assertiveness
(accommodation) shows high concern for others, less concern for
relationships, and little concern for self. The competitive approach shows
high concern for self, less concern for relationships, and little concern for
others. Collaboration and compromise show high concern for relationships
and, accordingly, a balanced concern for self and others.

Most of the research on conflict management has been based on
organizations and businesses that are larger and far less personal than a
family. Two questions need to be asked at this point: (1) Are the data
consistent with the biblical view of how to handle conflict? (2) Are the data
applicable to family conflict?

In answer to the first question, we believe the data on conflict management
to be consistent with what the Bible says about how Christians are to handle
conflict. The Bible most directly addresses this issue in Ephesians 4:25–29:
“So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our

neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do
not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the
devil. . . . Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful
for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those
who hear.” Contained in these verses is support for being assertive. We are
told that when there is conflict, we should speak truthfully about it. The
implication is not to withdraw (“Do not let the sun go down on your anger”)
or become aggressive (“Be angry but do not sin. . . . Let no evil talk come out
of your mouths”). The text lends support to a direct style that shows concern
for self, the other, and the relationship.

The verses also point toward unity as the ideal for Christians—we should
speak the truth because “we are members of one another.” If there is anything
that should be characteristic of the body of Christ, it is a spirit of unity or
harmony. First Corinthians 12:12 reiterates this idea: “For just as the body is
one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many,
are one body, so it is with Christ.” We believe that the Bible stresses both
assertiveness and cooperation. The best way to deal with conflict, no matter
what your natural style, is for both persons to work together with equal
concern for self, the other, and the relationship.

Each style of handling conflict has both advantages and disadvantages and,
depending on the situation, may be more or less appropriate. As we discuss
each style, we will give an example of Jesus using that style. He was,
variously, a withdrawer, a yielder, a winner, a resolver, and a compromiser.


Although avoidance was not the usual style of Jesus, he did withdraw
when necessary. When he healed the man with the shriveled hand on the
Sabbath, he greatly angered the Pharisees, who “conspired against him, how
to destroy him” (Matt. 12:14). Jesus surely could have confronted the
Pharisees, as he had on other occasions. But instead, when he became aware
of their plotting, he departed (v. 15). There was a similar reaction during the
final hours before his arrest, when Jesus anticipated the upcoming conflict.
As he and his disciples went to the Mount of Olives, he said to them, “‘Pray,
that you may not come into the time of trial.’ Then he withdrew from them
about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed” (Luke 22:40–41). We are
also told in Luke 5:15–16 that when crowds of people pressed on him with
their needs for healing, Jesus would withdraw to deserted places to pray.

There will be times when family members need to withdraw from a
conflict to think more clearly about the issue. Sometimes emotions run so
high that conflict resolution is impossible. At other times, trivial conflicts
need to be set aside for the sake of more pressing family matters. Avoidance
can be destructive, however, so the person who withdraws for a time needs
to be accountable by promising to come back to deal with the conflict after
taking the needed break. In the absence of such a promise, withdrawing sends
a signal that the individual does not care enough to work out conflicts.


In the greatest conflict Jesus had to experience in his life on earth, he
yielded himself to be arrested, falsely convicted, and finally crucified. His
yielding is evident in the account of his arrest in Matthew 26:50–53. After
Jesus had been arrested, one of his companions struck the servant of the high
priest and cut off his ear. At that point, Jesus stepped forward saying, “Put
your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the
sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once
send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (vv. 52–53).

Yielding may be appropriate when an issue is far more important to one
family member than to the others or when it threatens a relationship. Yielding
can also be a self-giving act of putting another person’s wishes ahead of
one’s own. However, when yielding is motivated by a desire to show others
how self-sacrificing one is, it can be a form of manipulation. Similarly,
yielding out of a fear of rejection or a need to be liked can be detrimental.
Yielding to another may also not be in the best interest of that person. The
parent who gives in to a child’s demands for more candy or to stay up late
may be doing the child a disservice.


At times Jesus adopted the approach of a winner. This can most clearly be
seen in Matthew 21:12–13: “Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all
who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of
the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them,
‘It is written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer”; but you are
making it a den of robbers.’” In this situation, there was no withdrawing,
yielding, or compromising. Rather, Jesus acted authoritatively and

decisively. The reason for this action, as Matthew makes clear, was that the
law of the Lord was being violated.

There will be times when family members disagree on the basis of their
principles and assume that the family is strong enough to survive the
competition. The danger here is that the real issue may get lost in the battle
over principles, and the conflict may degenerate to a personal level at which
each party feels the need to win the point to save face. Such competition
between family members escalates rather than decreases conflict. It takes a
strong family system to survive. Winners often win the battle (the point) but
lose the war (the relationship) in the process.


During his earthly ministry, Jesus elicited strong reactions. Toward those
who reacted against him, such as the scribes, priests, and Pharisees, Jesus
assumed a confrontational style. Toward those who reacted positively, he
assumed a collaborative style, best seen in his long-term commitment to his

Since family relationships are long-term commitments, most family
conflicts can best be dealt with through collaboration. The advantage of this
style is that it offers maximum satisfaction to everyone. The disadvantage is
that collaboration takes a lot of time, effort, and emotional energy. It also
affords the advantage to a family member who is verbally skilled. In
conflicts between siblings, the elder may be able to manipulate the younger
one. Five-year-old Carol may be able to resolve a conflict by offering three-
year-old Eddie five big nickels for his four small dimes.

In general, family systems benefit from having at least one resolver around
who will see to it that conflicts are not swept under the rug. The resolver is
often very intense in working through conflicts and will be frustrated when
others do not cooperate or have the same amount of determination to settle
things. There may be family disruption if the resolver is unable to rest until
there is closure on an issue. When the resolver pursues the issue too intently,
the others will distance themselves and intimacy will be impaired.


We tend not to see Jesus as a compromiser. Yet when the Pharisees sought
to trap him by asking if it was right to pay taxes to Caesar, Jesus replied,

“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God
the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21).

Compromise can be the best way to handle conflict when there is
inadequate time to work out a collaborative effort. When used too often,
however, compromise is too easy an out, leaving all family members less
than satisfied. Some family conflicts can be handled best by compromise,
such as disagreements about when to serve the evening meal, where to go on
vacation, and what television programs to watch. On other issues,
compromise is not the best solution. For example, the Kakimotos are
planning to move to a different region of the country. Annette wants to live in
the heart of the city, where they both will work, while Duane wants to find a
twenty-acre plot of land in a rural area some distance from the city. To
compromise by living in the suburbs would leave both spouses unhappy.
They will need to work together toward a resolution that will afford both of
them the essential advantages they are seeking. It will take some creative
thought to find such a solution.

Each one of the five styles of handling conflict will prove, at one time or
another, to be the most appropriate. It is imperative, then, that family
members do not get locked into any one particular style and thus lose their
flexibility and capacity for finding creative solutions.

To this point, we have considered individual styles of conflict
management. This has been necessary because individual family members
differ in the ways they handle conflict. Family conflict must be understood,
however, as involving not only the individual members but also the entire
family system.

At times, the needs of the family will be met at the expense of the needs of
individual family members; at other times, the needs of the individuals will
be met at the expense of the needs of the family. Families characterized by
compromise and collaboration are the most successful in balancing the needs
of individual family members with the needs of the family as a whole.
Healthy families also have the combined strengths of flexibility and structure,
separateness and connectedness, as well as open and clear channels of
communication that permit them to alter their approach to fit the situation.


The Social Dynamics of
Family Life

The issues of stress, conflict, work, and violence continue to be social
dynamics that are part and parcel of family life, and they have been
vigorously studied. In this section we turn our attention to the social
dynamics of family life. Stress within the family, work and family conflict,
and divorce will be the major topics of concern.

In chapter 14 we will examine the relationship between work and family
life and how this contributes to burnout.

Family stress is the topic addressed in chapter 15. Every family
encounters stress in one form or another. We present a model for
understanding stress and demonstrate how family members can work together
to solve problems and cope with catastrophes. Christian beliefs and values
are crucial resources in times of family stress, providing hope in the midst of

Divorce is a stressful time for families. The high divorce rate in America
means that millions will experience the pain and loss that divorce entails.
Some of the factors that contribute to this breakdown in family life are
discussed in chapter 16. We address the effects of divorce on both couples
and children, concluding this chapter with a discussion of the single-parent
family. Chapter 17 is devoted to complex families in contemporary society
that result from remarriage and blending families. We conclude with a plea
for compassion for those family members who attempt to rebuild their lives,
noting that Christianity offers the survivors of divorce the hope of restoration
and renewal.


Work and the Family
Conflict or Collaboration?

Work and family are the two main domains in which individuals spend most
of their lives. These two domains provide both stressors and resources that
often spill over from one domain to the other. This idea of spillover is
especially relevant as technology has allowed for the blurring of the
boundary between work and family spheres. This chapter will offer a brief
discussion of the development of the idea of separate spheres of family and
work domains. Next, we will review some of the research that indicates how
burnout is a symptom of the conflicts between work and family domains.
Third, we will describe a Christian understanding of calling, which provides
rich resources for the integration of the boundary between work and family.
Finally, several suggestions will be offered incorporating our differentiation
in Christ (DifC) model.

The Separate Spheres of Work and Family
In premodern societies, one’s life course was primarily determined by
gender and class. One of the most poignant examples of this is the choice of a
marriage partner. Marriages were arranged for the benefit of the male’s
family (Clapp 1993; Quale 1988; Yalom 2001). One would not think of
choosing one’s own marriage partner but would submit and be obedient to
the wisdom of the older generation’s choice.

The premodern family was seen as an economic center of production.
Families in the premodern world functioned to (1) produce goods and
services others in the community needed and (2) train children in the skills
needed to further that production (Sweet 2014). In premodern families and in

more agrarian ones, the family business, whether carpentry or tailoring, was
intimately tied to family well-being, as it was housed at the residence.
Families taught their children the family trade, and consequently there was no
division between the work and family.

The Industrial Revolution profoundly reorganized work and family life.
The site of work was divested from the family. Individuals found work at
factories and other locations well removed from their place of residence.
Consequently, the ideal developed that individuals are capable of earning
enough money to reside outside of one’s family residence. One implication of
this change in work is the idea that remuneration is based on time rather than
product (Sweet 2014).

These changes were driven by technological advancements (Frederick and
Dunbar 2019). Workers in this historical period began using raw materials in
production (coal, oil), and they saw rapid mechanical developments like the
steam and internal combustion engine. These technological developments
facilitated the creation of a highly trained, specialized workforce. Individual
workers were needed who could use and repair the technology beginning to
drive the economy outside the family. Thus, workers required more education
and skills to fit in to the workforce, meaning that more investment was
needed for developing workers with the necessary skills. Not only did
technology develop rapidly and demand specialized skills, but capital was
increasingly available through familial inheritance and property. An increase
in available funds allowed for increased investment in industries and
technology. Higher skills meant greater compensation for workers, which
ultimately benefited their families.

Rodney Clapp (1993) describes six principles of family life that came into
prominence during the Industrial Revolution: (1) the home and family became
a place of refuge from the work world; (2) concern for children’s well-being
increased, especially regarding education and development; (3) the family
became the center for identity and value formation; (4) marriage and mate
selection were increasingly motivated by love instead of arrangement; (5) the
meaning of the marital relationship transformed; and (6) a gendered division
of work and family tasks developed, especially the male breadwinner and
female domestic roles. These are modern family values because they
distinctly separate the spheres of work and family, they place individual
choice and preference at the foundation of family formation (e.g., mate

selection), and they describe both spouses as rational individuals who are
capable of making the best possible choices for their future lives.

With the advent of industrialization, families began to be viewed as a
domestic haven against the cruel world of work (Quale 1988).
Simultaneously, the view of the family changed from being an economic
contributor to a consumer (Sweet 2014). An individual, usually the husband,
could be paid enough to support his nuclear family; his children and spouse
would no longer need to work outside the household in order to survive. The
household would not need to be self-sufficient, because the working man
could make enough money to purchase those goods that he and his family
needed for survival.

As consumerism and economic resources allowed for the family to be
separate from work, gender ideology and work and family gender roles
shifted, leading men and subsequently women to increasingly define
themselves as economic consumers instead of producers (Cushman 1996).
The Industrial Revolution facilitated a profound shift regarding the cultural
framework for both the family as well as masculinity and femininity.

What can be called the domestic framework for gender roles began taking
prominence. This framework holds three overlapping sets of entitlements
(Williams 2001). Based in gender essentialism, this framework assumes men
are better in the work world due to their competitiveness, while women are
better suited for domestic labors due to their ability to care for others.
Employers began to demand ideal workers who are willing to work long
hours and eschew familial responsibilities like housework and child-rearing.

The second and third entitlements associated with the domestic framework
are the male expectation that they can fulfill the ideal worker role and the
female expectation that their lives be defined through caregiving (Williams
2001). Only clearly separating work and domestic domains by gender allows
males to identify as ideal workers. By entering the workforce as ideal
workers, males identify themselves as breadwinners facing a cruel and often
hostile world. Breadwinners are expected to take sole responsibility for the
economic well-being of their families, and therefore they cannot be expected
to also share domestic responsibility. As females remain in the domestic
home, they are expected to provide care for husbands/males and children.
They are responsible for making the home into a haven for male

Because work and family belong to separate spheres, people experience
conflict from both as job demands and family demands increase. In many
ways, people are paid for their time away from their families, as exemplified
by hourly pay rates. During this paid time, the job or career places many
demands on the individual, which often involve the worker applying
resources in order to complete tasks. At the same time, the family also makes
demands. Parents are expected to attend every recital and basketball game
and enroll their children in as many enriching experiences as possible, all the
while ensuring their children complete their homework!

Work and Family Conflict Related to Burnout
Work and family conflict (WFC) may culminate in burnout due to the
competing demands placed on individuals from both spheres. Burnout was
originally defined as the stress response to long-term emotional and
interpersonal job stressors (Maslach, Schaufeli, and Leiter 2001). The
emphasis in this definition is on the personal or individual’s experience of
burnout, usually characterized by exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.

As more research pointed to the organizational contributions to burnout,
the definition was expanded. Burnout results from a “major mismatch
between the nature of the job and the nature of the person who does the job”
(Maslach and Leiter 1997, 9). This definition expands on the intrapersonal
experience of burnout to include aspects from the organization that contribute
to this mismatch, including (1) work overload, (2) lack of control over work,
(3) lack of reward, (4) lack of community, (5) lack of fairness, and (6) values
conflict (Maslach and Leiter 1997). Higher amounts of things like conflict
over organizational values and work overload along with lower levels of
personal control, perceived rewards for work, and fairness contribute to
higher levels of burnout. One challenge here is that burnout is conceptualized
as an experience instead of a discrepancy in social domains. That is, people
understand burnout as the experience of exhaustion and often do not focus on
the causes in work and family spheres.

The literature on the work-family interface has relied on several
overlapping relational concepts. The first one understands the relationship
between work and family as characterized by conflict (Allen and Martin
2017; Greenhaus and Beutell 1985). WFC focuses on conflict due to the
incompatible demands of role pressure and high expectations from both work

and family. A recent study of the relative effects of WFC by Pattusamy and
Jacob (2016) found evidence that the negative spillover from work to family
is larger than the negative spillover from family to work. However, this
effect is mediated by perception of work and family balance. In other words,
the effects of WFC on family and job satisfaction are offset by positive
perceptions of work and family balance.

The relationship between work and family can be positive, not only
negative (Allen and Martin 2017). Both work and family may provide
positive and mutually enhancing, enriching resources for individuals. Of
course, enrichment can be initiated from either domain: work to family or
family to work. Greenhaus and Powel (2006) identify five types of resources
that work-family enrichment provides: skills and perspectives, psychological
and physical resources, social-capital resources, flexibility, and material
resources. These resources are both instrumental (skills and abilities that are
directly transferable across domains) and emotional. This means that
individuals learn important skills and gain emotional resources in one
domain that may spill over to enrich the other domain.

Work-family balance (WFB) has also been used to describe this
relationship (Allen and Martin 2017). Following Kalliath and Brough
(2008), we understand WFB as one’s perception of the compatibility and
mutual enrichment of both work and nonwork activities in accordance with
one’s values and preferences. This could be thought of as an authentic
perception of role salience and satisfaction. This means that, to the extent that
one is perceiving the relationships between work and family as
predominately compatible and mutually enhancing, one experiences
balance between the two spheres, despite the actual balance between the two
spheres. That is, one will perceive and experience greater WFB to the extent
that work and family activities are viewed as compatible and to the extent
that the individual is able to prioritize his or her role in each domain based
on values and preferences. For example, Wolfram and Gratton (2014)
conducted a study looking at the effects of WFC on role importance and life
satisfaction. They discovered evidence that the most significant negative
effects of WFC on life satisfaction occurred when an individual experienced
negative WFC and also prioritized one’s role in the family.

Greenhaus and Powell (2006) describe two pathways in which skills are
transferred between work and home: an instrumental and an affective path.
The instrumental path focuses on the direct transference of enrichment

domains such as compromise. The affective path emphasizes the positive
effect of resources on happiness or contentment and how positive affect in
one role influences the other. For example, individuals learn the skill of
flexibility when transitioning from home to school as children. This transition
grows an individual’s ability to take turns and compromise with others.
Flexibility learned at home and reinforced at school becomes an essential
skill for working adults. For instance, Sandage and Harden (2011) describe
how differentiation of self (DoS) is associated with higher levels of
openness to multiculturalism, which plays an important role in compromise
and engagement with others. The skills learned at home and at school pay
dividends as the individual enters work.

DoS provides the psychological ability to cope with anxiety and stress,
and it is established in the family. Family members look to each other to
manage and respond to anxiety and stress. These resources focus on
functional relationships and togetherness as well as emotion regulation and
goal-oriented behavior (Bowen 2004; Jankowski and Sandage 2012;
Murdock and Gore 2004; Titelman 2014; Papero 2014). As an example,
Murdock and Gore describe how DoS mediates the relationship between
resources and coping with stress. In their study, individuals with lower
levels of DoS experience more stress, and they have fewer resources for
coping with stress. Lower levels of DoS impact the relative amount of
anxiety experienced as well as diminish the psychological resources
available to cope with that anxiety.

Families characterized by lower levels of DoS engage “instinctual,”
automatic, and habitual coping patterns, which lead to increased stress and
anxiety (Papero 1990, 2014). Families characterized by lower DoS react to
stress in rigid, inflexible patterns like (1) triangulation, (2) conflict,
(3) distance, and (4) over- or underfunctioning reciprocity. These functional
patterns become habitualized and prevent a response to stress based on one’s
values and goals.

Differentiation of self (DoS), as we have described throughout this book,
is arguably the most important family resource for spillover into the work
domain. DoS provides the emotional resources that enable an individual to
objectively determine the salience of the demands made by a given role. That
is, individuals need to objectively and calmly determine which demands are
more pressing at a given time as both domains make emotionally charged and
pressing demands. Higher levels of DoS allow the individual to respond to

demands in a values-based manner (Frederick and Dunbar 2019).
Additionally, DoS enhances one’s ability to derive personal satisfaction from
each domain. This means that emotional strength and confidence are not
completely dependent on either domain. The individual has enough of a solid
or authentic sense of self that challenges in either domain are not emotionally
devastating to the individual (Frederick and Dunbar 2019). In these ways,
DoS provides both instrumental and affective paths for resources to spill
over between the two domains.

Calling and Differentiation in Christ
Differentiation in Christ (DifC) could be described as the authentic
expression of one’s identity based in Christ. This definition emphasizes the
correspondence between one’s behaviors and relationships and one’s identity
in Christ. In terms of identity, being adopted into the family of God via
Christ’s saving work on the cross is the core self. Living out Christian
relationship principles like covenant, grace, empowerment, and intimacy
becomes the value base for meaningful action.

Theology provides an important framework for understanding calling, an
aspect of Christian identity. There have traditionally been four main
definitions of calling (Stevens 1999). The first definition of call is effectual
and focuses on becoming a Christian. This understanding of calling is
synonymous with conversion to Christianity, and the example of the apostle
Paul is viewed as paradigmatic (Peace 1999). The effectual call is the
primary definition of calling from a Christian perspective.

Second, a providential call is embedded in the station, situation, or
occupation one is in. In other words, God providentially places individuals
in particular locations in order to accomplish particular goals. The stories of
Joseph gaining leadership in Egypt (Gen. 37–50), Daniel ascending to a high
position in Nebuchadnezzar’s court (Dan. 1–5), and Ruth working in the
fields of her kinsman-redeemer, Boaz (the book of Ruth), are Old Testament
examples of God placing individuals in certain social and political stations
for his kingdom purposes (Stevens 2012).

Charismatic calling is the third definition. God gifts or empowers people
to accomplish specific tasks (Stevens 1999). These gifts (or charismata in
Greek) focus on spiritual empowerment for specific situations; examples
include being able to speak in a different language (see Acts 2) or healing.

These Spirit-provided gifts include talents and abilities as well, meaning that
God distributes talents and abilities for humans to work.

The final aspect of calling entails desire or motivation. God’s heart
calling (Stevens 1999, 82) orients one to pursue life paths based on their
motivation or desire. Humans have an inner desire to accomplish certain
tasks based on the calling of their hearts. In other words, the heart calling
fulfills an inner desire or personal motivation to accomplish a task, fulfill a
responsibility, or have a certain occupation or station that accomplishes
God’s purposes.

These definitions have been summarized by Oz Guinness’s (2003)
description of calling as primary and secondary. Calling is a person’s
response to the current circumstances of life (relationships, employment,
etc.); that response expresses and develops one’s abilities and talents with
the goal of advancing the kingdom or reign of God. Primary calling focuses
on identity—effectual call and discipleship. Secondary calling describes the
physical locations and activities in which one’s primary calling is embodied,
the social contexts where responsibilities are maintained, and one’s
opportunities to express gifts and talents.

Frederick and Dunbar (2019) define it this way: “Calling as we define it
is finding one’s identity in Christ, and then engaging the world in activities
that bring liberation, redemption, and/or stewardship in order to reflect
the Kingdom of God here and now” (74; italics in original). In other words,
calling is an expression of differentiation in Christ. Basing one’s identity
on Christ provides the primary calling in one’s life. This solid identity based
on our adoption into God’s family provides resources for managing our
emotions and responding to others. Further, we embody this identity in our
relationships with others as spouses, parents, children, and coworkers. Our
secondary callings are the authentic expressions of our primary calling as a
member of God’s family.

Christian calling as our primary identity provides the internal resources
needed for developing satisfaction in our roles and relationships. To begin
with, our sense of self-efficacy and satisfaction is based on our relationship
to God in Christ. We are adopted into God’s family, and this means that God
loves us and is pleased to call us his children (1 John 3:1). This satisfaction
allows us to face anxiety, worry, and stress without becoming overwhelmed.
That is, our identity in Christ facilitates our emotion regulation so that we can

engage in values-based action. Identity is not derived from satisfaction from
either work or family roles.

Calling as a secondary expression of identity focuses on role salience.
Calling allows individuals to identity the relative importance of demands
made from different roles. These demands are able to be objectively
evaluated, and the individual is able to respond to them in a values-based
manner. The demands are not experienced as overwhelming or pressing,
because one’s identity is not based on satisfaction from either domain. If one
bases identity on satisfaction in a domain, then conflict between domains is
experienced as a threat to identity. Responses to this conflict are laden with
anxiety, and these responses become habitual patterns. This limits our ability
to objectively discern the importance of the demands and determine how God
is calling us to respond to the specific circumstances of our lives. The
secondary sense of calling provides important resources for discerning
which life domain takes precedent, and it facilitates positive spillover from
one to the other.

Calling and Image Bearing
Chapter 1 emphasized how the doctrine of the image of God is reflected in
vocation. Humanity, as God’s image bearers, works to fill the earth, steward
its resources, and be fruitful and multiply (Gen. 1:26–28). This image
bearing could be viewed in terms of status or ontology (Strachan 2019).
Humanity “is the representative of God on earth; to see a man or woman is to
see the only living creature made in the image of God” (Strachan 2019, 29).
Our actions should reflect our status as image bearers. Or, stated differently,
image bearing should be an authentic expression of our identities.

Vocation as an authentic expression of bearing God’s image has focused on
three different aspects of God’s work in the world. James Fowler (1987)
describes three main ways in which callings represent authentic expressions
of image bearing. First, governance is described along stewardship and
cultivation lines. Humanity is called to tend the earth and develop the culture.
Part of this governance is reflected in the naming of the creatures in Genesis
chapter 2. Further, there is a sense that the garden scene is primordial in
nature or naive (Wolters 2005). This is evidenced by the overarching
trajectory of the Bible, which begins with a garden and ends with a city—the
city of God. Humanity engages in governing practices by being responsible

with one’s resources and fostering practices that seek the benefits of one’s
creations. Bosses are supportive and encouraging in the development of their
employees. Parents encourage the development of their children. Humans
reflect God’s nature by caring for the created world and responsibly
cultivating human production, developing culture and technology that are an
important aspect of governance—caring for creation. Donald Capps (2000)
reminds us that care’s foundation is empathy. We understand the effect our
actions have on others, and we respond accordingly. Stewardship as
cultivation reflects how we care for the fruitfulness of our labors. Care is
reflected in our roles as parents, expressing both grace and empowerment.
As people identify with Christ and his sufferings, we develop empathy for

Image bearing as liberating and redeeming, Fowler’s second aspect of
calling, focuses on being for others. “To be part of the liberative and
redemptive work of God means entering into solidarity with Christ and his
suffering” (Fowler 1987, 51). Just as Christ entered the human world to
defeat the powers of sin and darkness and to reestablish humanity’s
relationship to God, calling allows us to follow Christ’s example to be “for”
others. “There is a God, there is a future healed world that he will bring
about, and your work is showing it (in part) to others” (Keller 2014, 15).
Authentic image bearing reflects redeeming and liberating principles at work
and home. We work here to right wrongs and address human problems. Being
for others means engaging in practices that foster human flourishing, and this
dimension of call focuses specifically on redressing hurt, trauma, and issues
that thwart human fecundity.

Partnership or connecting is the third way in which image bearing is
expressed. It is fundamental in supporting and upholding the governing and
redeeming aspects of work from the Christian perspective. The image of God
connects our partnership with God to the world. Connecting is both an
internal process and an external focus. Internally, it orients us with our true
desires and our sense of God and our relationship to Christ. We live out our
inner desires and motivations as a reflection of God’s pulling on our heart
strings. Partnership uncovers the underlying motivations for our work: Do we
labor in response to our God-given commission or do we work out of a
desire for personal gain or glory? Externally speaking, we image God in
relationships; a key manner in which work expresses this is via collaborative
partnerships. Partnering with our spouses and children to develop families

characterized by Christian principles reflects this principle of connecting and
relationship. These relationships form the covenantal basis of our being, and
they express our need for others. Further, collaborating with coworkers and
others allows us to reflect authentic relationships at work and utilize these
relationships to cultivate culture, create meaningful products, and provide
services that will enhance God’s kingdom.

The four relationship principles—covenant, grace, empowerment, and
intimacy—express these aspects of image bearing as calling: investing in and
cultivating the fruits of one’s labor. Two of these relationship principles
speak directly to expressions of care—grace and empowerment. First,
relationships must exude grace. Grace through forgiveness allows relational
partners to embody care—I care for you, I want the best for you. Sometimes
one’s actions have unintended consequences—I hurt you, you hurt me—but
we engage in forgiveness. Further, care is mutually empowering.
Empowerment as an expression of care allows relational partners to develop
important self-knowledge (primary calling). Based on this self-knowledge,
one can develop abilities, skills, and talents to thrive in different life areas
(secondary callings).

Partnership is based on the type and depth of the relationships that make up
marriage and family interactions. Covenant speaks to the depth of one’s
commitment to the other. This is the “till death do us part” Christian idea.
Our commitment to be with and for the other provides the basis of care. Next,
intimacy is the ultimate result of care as expressed in covenant, grace, and
empowerment. Intimacy deepens as I learn more about my identity and the
best ways to express that identity. This type of partnership is the bedrock of
Christian marriage and family relationships, and the identity developed in the
family spills over into one’s identity at work.

The theological understanding of differentiation in Christ provides the
foundation for a Christian perspective on calling. Identity based on adoption
into God’s family provides the primary calling in life, which is expressed
secondarily in family and work-related roles. These roles are authentic
expressions of our primary calling as they reflect God’s commission to us as
image bearers to govern, redeem, and partner with others.


Work and family spheres are often fraught with conflict and tension. In a
society that is based on productivity, balancing the demands of spouses,
children, and bosses presents innumerable challenges. The family provides a
unique psychological resource, differentiation of self, that offers both
specific skills as well as emotional hardiness, allowing individuals to
navigate tensions between work and family life.

Differentiation in Christ is most accurately described in the notion of
calling. Calling is illuminated by the doctrine of the image of God, whereby
humanity is God’s visible representation on earth. This image bearing entails
primary calling, which is based on one’s identity as a child of God. One’s
self esteem is based on being a child of God in Christ. Further, being a
member of Christ’s family provides a meaning-making system that finds its
authentic expression in work and family domains. Identity in Christ is
expressed as we authentically live out our roles as parents, spouses, and

The primary vehicle for negotiating work and family conflict is role
salience and satisfaction. Role salience provides a framework for
understanding the relative importance of a demand that comes from either
work or family. Role satisfaction, on the other hand, measures the relative
personal meaning and well-being derived from either the family or work
role. Individuals who are able to derive satisfaction from both roles
experience satisfaction spillover, in which the spheres of family and work
are mutually enriching.

Calling allows individuals to address both role satisfaction and salience.
First, primary calling provides satisfaction and security. This satisfaction is
not changeable based on variations in satisfaction from either work or family
spheres. Additionally, primary calling provides emotional regulation
resources so that one is not reacting to perceived threats to role-derived
satisfaction. Second, calling, in a secondary sense, allows one to objectively
discern which role is more salient at a given time. This discernment allows
one to respond to demands based on one’s primary calling. In these ways,
calling is an important resource for negotiating work and family conflict.


Through the Stress and Pain
of Family Life

Any group whose members have a strong attachment to one another, interact
on a regular basis, and go through various changes together can expect to
experience stress. The family is such a group. Family stress can be viewed
as any upset in the regular routine of the family, which varies from a minor
irritation over someone being late for dinner to a major crisis, such as the
death of a family member. While family stress itself tends to have an adverse
effect on family life, it is also true that stress external to the family can spill
over and negatively impact family life. For instance, Buck and Neff (2012)
report that couples who must cope with external stress are depleted of time
and energy needed to negotiate the day-to-day tensions and adjustments in
their own marital or family relationships.

When not dealt with effectively, family strain can have a cumulative,
destructive impact. Not surprisingly, family stress correlates with behavioral
problems in children (Tan et al. 2012). Many parents who abuse their
children were themselves the victims of abuse when they were growing up.
Although this finding does not excuse the abusive behavior, it drives home
the point that unresolved feelings of powerlessness in parents can take a
secondary toll on their children. A related finding, based on the study of
caregiver strain in family caregivers of patients with advanced cancer,
revealed that hopelessness was related to higher levels of strain (Lohne,
Miaskowski, and Rustoen 2012). However, similar events can trigger
completely different reactions in different families and their members. What
may seem a minor irritation in one family can be a major event in another. It’s
also the case that families handle stressful situations differently, and
neurological research has found that stress can impact each family member in
different ways. Even more startling is the finding by Gunnar and Quevedo

(2007) that stress in the parent-child relationship can shape a child’s
neurological system in such a way as to render the child more susceptible to
long-term mental and physical health consequences.

A Model for Understanding Family Stress
Attempts to study stress in American families can be traced back to the
Depression of the 1930s and to World War II, when millions of fathers were
separated from their families. Reuben Hill (1949) proposes that family stress
can best be analyzed by considering the interaction of three factors: (1) the
stressful event itself; (2) the resources or strengths that a family possesses at
the time the event occurs; and (3) the family’s perception of the event. In a
sense, the event itself (e.g., the war) is the necessary cause but is not
sufficient in and of itself to cause family stress. For example, if the alcoholic
father is a source of tension in the home, his separation from the family may
be perceived as a relief. This is especially true if the mother has sufficient
resources to carry out the functions usually performed by the father.

Most models of family stress elaborate Hill’s seminal work about how
these three factors interact. A good overview of these models can be found in
chapters 9 and 10 of Family Communication (Segrin and Flora 2005). The
major refinement in these models has been an endeavor to understand the
coping abilities of the family when confronted by a stressful event. This has
placed the focus on the family’s recoverability instead of its troubles, and on
the family’s resources instead of the crisis. A model of family stress that
focuses more on the effects of serious individual trauma on the family, such
as death, murder, or terrorism, can be found in two books by Don Catherall:
Handbook of Stress, Trauma, and the Family (2004) and Family Stress:
Interventions for Stress and Trauma (2005).

Stressful Events
Before we consider how families cope, it is important to gain an

understanding of the various types of stressful events that affect most
families. A major distinction can be made between predictable events
(usually transitions to new stages in family life) and unpredictable events
(unexpected and unplanned events). Happy and anticipated events can also
be stressful (weddings, births, adoptions, forming new families, leaving
home, etc.) because they usher in emotional and physical changes that must

be dealt with. Although it is true that the predictability of an event does not
eliminate stress, families can make the needed effort to prepare for changes.
Transitions in family life not only change each member but the family itself
also changes with the entrance and exit of members. These events challenge
the family—a system of maturing and changing individuals. The stress
generated by the family system causes stress to individuals, and likewise the
strains on individuals introduce tension into the family system.

Among the unexpected events that have a devastating impact on families
are environmental disasters such as floods, hurricanes, fires, famines, and
earthquakes, as well as societal afflictions such as war, terrorism, and
economic depression. Individual families have little control over such
adversities. These unexpected disasters take a great toll because families and
communities are powerless against them. Help is needed from outside
sources on a national and international level (Wadsworth 2010).

In a study of experiences that disrupt life in general, not just family life
(Holmes and Rahe 1967), forty-three stress-producing events were ranked on
a scale from 0 to 100, with a score of 100 representing the greatest amount of
stress. It is noteworthy that eight of the twelve most stressful events directly
involve family life. The twelve events are death of a spouse, divorce, marital
separation, detention in jail or other institution, death of a close family
member, major personal injury or illness, marriage, being fired, marital
reconciliation, retirement, major changes in the health or behavior of a family
member, and pregnancy. Obviously, the major source of personal stress for
most people is the family.

A series of stressful events can have a cumulative effect on the family
system, especially if the family is unable or unwilling to deal with each event
as it occurs. Stress can build up, and eventually a relatively minor incident
can burst the floodgates. For example, a teenager who has been irresponsible
at home may easily meet his parent’s fury when he comes home drunk. A
family under financial strain may react out of all proportion to their teen’s
minor accident because it puts undue stress on the budget.

A family’s ability to cope with stress relates directly to the resources it

possesses. Some of these resources are personal in that they reside in the
individual family members. An obvious example is the ability to earn an
income. Education is a resource that contributes to one’s earning power,

enhances prestige, and instills self-confidence. Personal maturity coupled
with a good education can provide helpful skills in such areas as problem-
solving, goal-setting, and strategic planning. Physical and mental health is
extremely valuable in times of stress; it provides the needed strength to
handle the stressful situation. Characteristics such as self-esteem, a positive
disposition, and clearheadedness are resources that can make a difference in
a crisis.

The most important resources in coping with family stress, however, are
those that reside in the family system. Effective family systems are well
connected, have sufficient structure, and yet are flexible enough to adapt to

Clear and open communication is an important strength that families can
draw on during times of crisis. The family that can honestly express ideas
and feelings openly can work together to make the needed adjustments.

Some families possess many resources, but the shock of a crisis leaves
them stifled and ineffective. They need time and hope offered by others so
they can marshal their resources to move forward. The external networks the
family has established are the support systems—friends, neighbors,
coworkers, church and community groups—they can draw on in times of
special need. The necessity of cultivating such outside resources is the
reason geographical stability is so important to the family system. A family
without such resources is highly vulnerable.

Family Responses to Stress
Families respond to stress in two general ways: coping and problem-
solving. Although the literature on coping is more directly related to the issue
of family stress, we believe that the literature on problem-solving is
invaluable because it conceptualizes the family’s response to stress as taking
place in stages.

Coping refers to what the family and its individual members do with their

resources in the face of stress. Sociologist Reuben Hill (1949) developed a
model indicating that stress is the result of the interaction among the event,
the family’s resources, and their perception of the event. Since the degree of

success in coping with stress varies significantly from family to family, the
following strategy has been proposed.

The first step is to marshal all available resources. Coping strategies may
consist of direct action aimed at changing the stressful conditions, a
rethinking of the whole situation (including how the stress might be turned
into a benefit), or a combination of both of these processes. Take the case of
an elderly grandmother who is no longer able to live independently. First, the
family considers all the family and community resources available to help
with this crisis: retirement homes, elder-care facilities, moving in with a
relative, health program options, and so on. While they must consider the
initial stress and the adjustment to be made by everyone involved, they also
take into account the family strengths and the resources that family members
have to offer. It can be a wonderful opportunity for members to extend
themselves in new ways. They also see Grandmother as a resource for the
family and recognize all the ways each member will benefit from her

If family members are depleted because of other mitigating circumstances,
they are not in a position to be a resource in this crisis. For instance, if the
husband is frustrated in his job, the teenage daughter is acting out, and the
family dynamics are disruptive, they are in no position to take on
Grandmother. This would be a poor environment for the grandmother and
would likely cause inordinate strain to the family system.

Irving Tallman and Louis Gray (1987) present five stages involved in

family problem-solving.
1. The family becomes aware of and defines a situation as a problem. The

greater the threat to the family’s welfare, the more the situation will be
perceived as a problem. Families that consider themselves effective problem
solvers are quick to perceive threatening situations and deal with them,
whereas those that lack confidence in their ability to deal with problems are
more likely to deny the seriousness of the situation.

2. The greater the family’s confidence that they can solve the problem, the
greater will be their motivation to act. In general, families are less likely to
recognize and act on problems when stress is either very low or very high.
Under very high stress, families tend to engage in defensive avoidance
instead of constructive problem-solving. Selective inattention, forgetfulness,

missing warning signs, and wishful rationalizations minimize the severity of
the problem. Very often, this is the time when the family requires assistance
from professional external resources.

3. The family searches for and processes information relevant to
effectively solving the problem. On the basis of the information gathered, the
family decides which among the many options would be the most effective
way to resolve the problem. Unfortunately, they may select the solution that
entails the least inconvenience—that is, the least time, money, energy, and
resources. Thus, the family may not search for the best possible solution but
rather for a satisfactory one. Taking the time to find the very best option leads
to the best outcome.

4. When the selected solution has been tried, the family evaluates its
effectiveness. They may decide that the chosen strategy should be continued,
revised, or discarded in favor of an alternative strategy. It requires patience
and determination to give solutions enough time to work. It is helpful to
remember that stress is usually heightened, rather than reduced, during the
problem-solving process. However, making needed adjustments to ensure a
good solution is also a wise strategy.

5. At this point, the family knows either that the problem has been solved
or that the family needs to go back to the drawing board and try another
solution. Flexibility ensures that families make needed adjustments or
discard what isn’t working and try something new. They stay with it until a
satisfactory solution is working.

Coping with Catastrophes and Ambiguous Loss
A catastrophe is a stressful event that is sudden, unexpected, and life
threatening. The circumstances are beyond the family’s control and leave
them in an extreme state of helplessness. Because catastrophes occur
infrequently, most families are not prepared to cope with them. Wars,
terrorist attacks, hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, or pandemics can wipe
out whole segments of a population without warning. Survivors are
devastated by the sudden losses.

Catastrophes differ from other stressful events in a number of ways (Figley
and McCubbin 1983): (1) a family has little or no time to prepare for a
catastrophe; (2) the family has no previous experience to help it deal with the
situation; (3) there are few resources to draw on to help manage the resulting

stress; (4) few other families have experienced a similar disaster and can
provide suitable support; (5) the family is likely to spend a long time in a
state of crisis; (6) the family experiences a loss of control and posttraumatic
stress syndrome resulting from a heightened sense of danger, helplessness,
disruption, destruction, and loss; and (7) a number of medical problems
(physical and emotional) are likely to occur.

Ambiguous loss is a phrase coined by Pauline Boss (2000, 2010) to refer
to unresolved grief that lingers in a family when there is no closure. She
describes ambiguous loss as frozen sadness, what a family feels when it
cannot really know what it has lost. There are two types of ambiguous loss:
one involves a family member who is missing, but there is no proof of death
or even knowledge of where the person may be, if still alive; the other
involves a person who is present in body but whose mind is not, such as is
the case with severe dementia, depression, mental illness, or addiction
(Boss, Roos, and Harns 2011).

Substantial research has examined the various emotional stages that a
family in crisis goes through. Best known is Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s (1970)
five-stage process an individual or a family typically goes through when
confronted with a loss through death—denial, anger, bargaining,
depression, and acceptance. Although there is agreement that these stages
don’t always go in order and one must consider the unique grieving process
of each family member, it is still helpful to consider these components of
grief. Denial is often the initial stage, usually characterized as a state of
shock in response to the unexpected loss. Family members may appear calm
and collected, exhibiting emotions that are even somewhat inappropriate
given the severity of what has happened. There can be immediate and acute
underlying feelings of numbness. As family members get in touch with the
reality of what has happened, they may experience anger. To the outside
observer, the increased emotional intensity characterizing this time may
appear regressive. In truth, it is an honest reaction and a healthy step along
the road to emotional healing.

There can be a time of bargaining during the crisis. Unable to accept the
magnitude of the loss, persons may try to minimize or think a bargaining
tactic may change things (e.g., a family that has suffered financial bankruptcy
may promise to give more to the church if only God will restore a portion of
what has been lost). However, as family members come to realize the full
extent of the particular loss, they can become more depressed about what has

happened. Often, this is the lowest emotional point. Depression is actually an
expression of deep sadness and grief about what was lost. Persons can go
back and forth through many different emotions (fear, guilt, anxiety, conflict,
meaninglessness, feeling out of control, loneliness) in the final move toward
acceptance, which is known as the angle of recovery. The angle can be
depicted as a very steep incline, pointing to a speedy emotional upturn, or as
a gradual slope, representing a long, drawn-out recovery period. The angle
of recovery depends on the resources the family has at its disposal.

On reaching acceptance, the family may be quite different than it was
before the painful event occurred. Reaching acceptance does not mean that
family members no longer feel any of the emotions of the other stages of
grief, but they are not so immobilized by them. Having been empowered, they
can experience increased self-reliance as they make the needed adjustments
and plan for the future. The case of ambiguous loss can severely hamper the
possibility of a family moving toward recovery.

A crisis can happen to an individual in the family or to the whole family.
What is most important is to give help in a way that empowers rather than
keeps others dependent. One must treat the person/family with deepest
respect rather than taking over, under the assumption that the victim is totally
incapable and helpless.

When an entire family suffers a crisis, its members often draw closer
together through the common experience. In such a situation, each member
mutually gives and receives support. The isolated nuclear family is
especially vulnerable during such times, and the Christian community can be
invaluable. The challenge is for us to be family to one another so that we can
offer Christ’s love and support in emotional and physical ways during times
of crisis.

Families in Pain
Sometimes, a family feels the disruptive effect of an event so deeply that the
term stress is an inadequate description. When family members have been
hurt to the core of their being, they are in pain. Such pain has a far-reaching
impact on the life of the family and, if not addressed, may continue from one
generation to the next in even greater tragic scenarios.

Like the disciples who asked why the man whom Jesus was about to heal
had been born blind, families today often ask similar agonizing questions

about their pain. Jesus firmly answered that the man’s blindness was not a
consequence of anyone’s sin. Jesus then took action by responding to the
needs of the man in pain (John 9). Like the blind man, we need the One who
has the power to heal our deepest hurts. We need God’s strength to offset our
vulnerability. We need a belief in the God who gives meaning and a
perspective to help us survive and eventually get beyond the pain. We need to
feel God’s compassionate presence suffering with us and lighting the way
through our darkest hours.

By banding together, families can constructively work through the deep
hurts of life (Balswick and Balswick 1997). In 1 Corinthians 12:26, Paul
says that all believers are part of the body of Christ; thus “if one member
suffers, all suffer together with it.” It works this way in the human family too.
When one person suffers, the entire family suffers. The responses of all the
family members and the interactions among them during a family crisis need
to be acknowledged and reckoned with. A family must not only look for their
collective strengths in times of trouble but also deal with those weaknesses
that prevent them from helping the hurting one.

Working together and placing Christ at the center, family members can
begin a process that will help them regain wholeness:

1. Each family member should gather the courage for self-examination of
his or her feelings, thoughts, and behavior under the trying

2. The family should ask honest questions about how each member is doing,
how each one is affecting the others, and how the family is coping as a

3. Every family member must be allowed to feel the painful experience; the
emotions of anger, sadness, and fear about what has happened must be
acknowledged rather than denied.

4. Grieving over the losses that have occurred, the family must find the
strength to relinquish the concerns they cannot control and to let go of
past injuries in order to focus more fully on the present.

Families will be empowered to take responsibility for their behavior once
they understand clearly how past events and injuries have contributed to the
present pain. Family members often see how their behavior tells a story of
unmet needs, fears, and resentments they are trying desperately to resolve.

When appropriate, forgiveness will complete the healing and lead to
substantial restoration of relationships. Although forgiveness can take many
forms and serve different purposes, it should never be superficial or offered
lightly. As part of the healing process, forgiveness helps us release the
bitterness, anger, and hurt that stifle healing. In some instances, forgiveness
of self is the hardest part. Although forgiveness may seem quite an
outrageous idea from a human point of view, with God’s strength and mercy
it is not only possible but it will also prove to be exactly what is needed to
bring transforming power to anguished lives.

Christian Belief and Response to Stress and Pain
Our belief systems strongly influence our perceptions of stressful events and
our ability to cope with them. The particular influence that Christianity has
had in this regard varies over a broad continuum from passive resignation to
self-reliant attempts to achieve mastery over catastrophe. At one extreme is a
fatalistic view that misuses or misinterprets Paul’s teaching that Christians
should be content in whatever state they find themselves (Phil. 4:11). Most
Western versions of Christianity, in contrast, are very action oriented,
emphasizing the responsibility and capability of the believer to take
whatever action is needed to alleviate the threatening situation.

An example of the fatalistic view is the theology of positive thinking. It
comports well with the societal emphasis on each individual’s ability to
mentally create his or her own perfect world. Positive thinking comes close
to promising a life without any difficulties, but this is incompatible with the
reality of a world tainted by sin. To live in a fallen world is to experience
stress and pain. In our humanness, we are capable of causing all sorts of
burdensome situations for ourselves and for others.

Clichés that admonish us to “turn every stumbling stone into a stepping-
stone” and to “turn scars into stars” must not be used to deny the very real
disruptions families face. Rightly taken, however, a hopeful and positive
view can help reduce stress and keep problems in perspective. To view
scars as stars—that is, to change one’s perception of a painful event—is
healthy when combined with both an awareness of the potential damage the
crisis can inflict and a realistic assessment of how the family can manage
with the resources available. Such an approach enables the family to take
action rather than deny or be paralyzed.

The view that stress or pain is the direct result of a specific sin and/or can
be overcome instantaneously through an act of divine healing presents
another problem. In reality, most of the events and conditions that distress
families, including alcoholism, eating disorders, job loss, parent-child
conflicts, and illness, are caused by complex physical, social, and
psychological factors. In a general sense, of course, all these stressful
conditions stem from our living in a fallen world tainted by sin. But
insistence that the cure lies simply in taking action against the sin in
individual lives fails to comprehend the pervasiveness of evil and the role
that social structures play in producing stress and pain in the world.

True, to deal with stress and pain, we must take action against the sin in
our lives, but we must not ignore other realities, such as dysfunction within
families, unjust economic systems, the oppressiveness of poverty, and so on.
We must adopt a multifaceted approach that recognizes the complexity of the
anxieties and pressures of life in the modern world. Awareness of this
complexity will make us extremely cautious about claims of instant healing
for the deeply painful experiences in life.

In our pill-oriented society, we want instant relief and cure from all that
ails us. One aspirin advertisement promises relief “when you don’t have time
for the pain.” Our society promotes the quick fix over the long, hard work
required to overcome most of the stress in today’s world. To become whole,
a healing process must take place in the believer. This healing process,
which includes growth in faith and in our relationship to God and others,
usually works at a gradual pace.

To think that Christians are immune to stress and pain is not only an
unrealistic view but also bad theology. Scripture includes numerous
examples of disaster falling on the just and the unjust alike. We need look
only at the life of Job to know that evil circumstances come to the righteous
and that instant cure is not the norm. What is guaranteed is the compassion of
God in every circumstance. God will be present with us through the body of
Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit. This belief can bring deep
spiritual hope that helps not only the individual family member but also the
entire family. A study done on patients with advanced cancer, for example,
found that higher levels of hope were associated with lower levels of strain
on the part of family caregivers (Lohne, Miaskowski, and Rustoen 2012).

The two extreme responses to stress that we have examined lead,
respectively, to a theology of escapism, in which the Christian tends to

withdraw in the face of crisis, and to a theology of activism, in which the
Christian tends to be self-reliant to the point of rendering God a mere
bystander in the process. What is the biblical response? Scripture suggests
that when confronted by a crisis, Christians should not fatalistically resign
themselves. For example, when arrested, Paul did not meekly succumb.
Instead, he asserted his status as a Roman citizen. Examples from the life of
David point to a balance between passivity and activism in the midst of
stress. At times David fell on his knees before the Lord, acknowledging that
his situation was hopeless without divine intervention. At other times, David
took forthright action in the face of extreme difficulties. The balance between
passivity and activism can be seen in the story of David and Goliath. Fully
aware that without God’s help he had no chance against the Philistine, David
equipped himself with his sling and five smooth stones.

The same combination of passive reliance and active assertiveness can be
seen in the life of Jesus. Faced with imminent arrest, trial, and crucifixion,
Jesus retreated to the garden of Gethsemane. Distressed and agitated, he told
his disciples that his soul was “deeply grieved, even to death” (Mark 14:34).
In his despair, Jesus prayed to his Father, “Remove this cup from me; yet, not
what I want, but what you want” (v. 36).

It is important to recall that this very same Jesus had previously gone into
the temple and assertively driven out the moneychangers. Enraged at the
hypocrisy of the Pharisees, he called them whitewashed tombs, snakes, and a
brood of vipers. His language was equally severe when he called Herod a
fox, unreceptive audiences swine, and false prophets savage wolves. He did
not refrain from taking direct action against the social evils of his day.

Christians need an able response to crisis. An unavoidable part of living
in a fallen world, stress should be approached as a time to draw especially
near to God and others for support. Although God has not promised an
escape from stressful situations, he has promised to be our “refuge in the time
of trouble” (Ps. 37:39).

Stressful events often shake up the family system in a way that disrupts the
stagnant comfort of routine life. This can be an occasion for growth as
Christians. It can also be a time of increased intimacy among family members
and with the body of Christ as a whole. When people are vulnerable, they are
often more receptive to the support and love of others. It is essential, then, in
periods of adversity to choose a direction that, with God’s help, will lead to
deeper levels of intimacy, commitment, forgiveness, and empowerment. To

help achieve and maintain a balanced perspective, we might also keep in our
hearts the simple yet profound prayer of Reinhold Niebuhr (1987, 251):

O God, give us serenity to accept what cannot be changed,
courage to change what should be changed,
and wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.


Divorce and Single-Parent

Families are amazingly resilient. Even in the face of challenging external
pressures and intense internal conflicts, they are often able to adapt through a
built-in survival mechanism. From an outsider’s point of view, a given
family may face insurmountable challenges, and yet the members consider the
family their primary source of identity and security. The basis of this support
and identity is the stability of the parents’ relationship. Waite and Gallagher
(2000, 323) conclude, “There is substantial evidence that, on the average,
being in a satisfying marriage enhances the physical, psychological, social
and economic well-being of adults, and that divorcing may involve
considerable risk.”

There is a concerted effort to emphasize the benefits of marriage even
when trouble exists between spouses. In a study released in 2002, Waite and
five colleagues analyzed data from the University of Wisconsin’s National
Survey of Family and Households. They discovered that adults who said they
were unhappily married and got divorced were on average still unhappy or
even less happy when interviewed five years later, as compared to those who
stayed in their marriages. Most of those who stayed in their marriages had on
average moved past the bad times and reached a happier stage. After
controlling for race, age, gender, and income, the researchers found that
divorce usually did not reduce symptoms of depression, raise self-esteem, or
increase a sense of mastery over one’s life. These findings have been
reinforced since 2002 (Kalmjin, 2015). The general conclusion is that
divorce does not make unhappily married people happier.

A point does come, however, when spouses divorce because life together
is no longer a viable option. This often occurs after a fairly long period of
disillusionment or denial, when spouses have ignored or exacerbated their

problems. Eugene O’Neill’s play Long Day’s Journey into Night provides a
good look at a family engaged in collective denial. They keep talking about
each other in totally unrealistic terms. Such defense mechanisms deflect
debilitating conflict for the time being but ultimately keep the family from
instituting needed change. When built-up anger and bitterness disrupt into
violent, abusive interactions, marriage is no longer a safe haven. Without
help, the spouses will likely divorce.


Among developed countries, the United States has one of the higher

divorce rates. The annual divorce rate in the United States steadily rose from
a low of 1 divorce for every 1,000 married couples in 1860, to a high of 22.5
in 1979. Immediately following World War I, the divorce rate rose
noticeably; similarly, following World War II there was a dramatic rise in the
divorce rate. These increases reflect both the stress placed on marriages by
forced separation and the large number of unstable marriages contracted
during the wars. The drop in the rate during the Depression years reflects the
costliness of legal divorce. The most dramatic rise in the divorce rate
occurred between 1965 and 1979. It was especially pronounced among
people under age forty-five. Since that time, the rate of divorce has declined
moderately to an estimated rate of approximately 17 divorces for every
1,000 married couples in 2013. This trend has roughly remained steady
through 2019 (US Census Bureau 2021).

Since 2000, the rate of divorce has dropped from roughly 4.0 per 1000 to
approximately 2.7 per 1000. This reflects a drop from 944,000 divorces
from states that report divorce and annulments in 2000 to 746,971 in 2019
(Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, n.d.). The best estimate is that
approximately four to five out of every ten current marriages will end in
divorce, with the likelihood of divorce being lowest among those who have
been married the longest. The average length of marriages that end in divorce
is seven years; the rate of divorce is highest for marriages of two to three
years’ duration.

Although the decline in the divorce rate since 1980 is encouraging, it
should also be noted that the number of people choosing to cohabit rather

than marry explains this trend in part. Although a high percentage of
cohabiting couples separate, such breakups do not affect the divorce rate.
The later age of first marriage (twenty-six for women, twenty-eight for men)
also contributes to the declining divorce rate. Although it is hard to
document, we believe that the positive marriage movement emphasizing the
importance of premarital counseling and marital enrichment also accounts for
the declining rate of divorce.

Although there is no sure way of predicting whether a marriage will
succeed, research has found correlations with a number of demographic
factors, such as ethnicity, income, occupation, social class, and level of
education that may have a bearing. In 2001, Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention reported that 20 percent of first-marriage divorces now occur
within five years. Those who marry young, especially in their teens, are much
more likely to divorce than those who marry in their twenties. A number of
interrelated factors may also be at work here. Couples who marry young are
typically from a lower socioeconomic class (which increases the probability
of financial difficulties), and they marry after a very short engagement and
perhaps because of a pregnancy. Given their stage of individual
development, most teenagers are socially and psychologically unprepared for
a relationship as demanding as marriage. These trends have continued
through 2021.

Next to teenage marriages, the most unstable marriages are those of people
who marry after age thirty. Among these divorces, the most common
complaints are a lack of agreement and the tendency of the spouse to be
domineering and critical. The underlying dynamic here is perhaps that those
who marry late in life have become set in their ways and have a hard time
adjusting to the expectations of a spouse.

The divorce rate is low among men with little education, increases among
those who have had some high school training, and declines among men who
have a college degree. In terms of ethnic differences, the divorce rate is
highest among Blacks, moderate among Whites, and lowest among other
ethnic groups, particularly those of Far Eastern origin. In terms of religion,
divorce rates are lowest among Jews, moderate among Catholics, and highest
among Protestants. Divorce is more likely when there is a sizable age gap or
differences in religion, social class, or ethnic origin.


There is no single cause of divorce. The reasons are multiple and
complex. Some relate to the idiosyncrasies of the individuals; others involve
social and cultural factors, such as the demographics we have just noted.
Other things being equal, the lower the quality of the marriage, the greater the
likelihood the couple will divorce. In other words, low levels of marital
satisfaction usually translate into divorce. Therefore, absence of any of the
requisites for a strong marriage (e.g., commitment, family support,
differentiation, adaptability, forgiveness, mutual empowerment, and
intimacy) discussed in prior chapters could contribute to marital failure.
Couples who learn conflict-management skills are more likely to work out
their differences and stay married.

A seminal work by John Gottman (1994; Gottman and Levinson 2000)
projects which couples will likely divorce based on one interview. Gottman
tells us divorce is more likely to occur should partners engage in four types
of negative communication strategies: criticism, defensiveness, contempt,
and stonewalling. Couples that use these negative communication strategies
are significantly more likely to divorce. Further, these result in negative
affect, which lowers marital satisfaction; lower levels of positive affect also
contribute to divorce. This means that couples who divorce tend to
experience low levels of positive experience and higher levels of negative

The most frequent motives given for divorce center on relational issues,
behavior problems, and problems about work and the division of labor in the
home. A recent study in Denmark confirms that similar factors lead to
divorce across cultures: lack of love/intimacy, communication problems,
lack of sympathy/respect/trust, and growing apart (Strizzi et al. 2020).

A number of factors at the sociocultural level may contribute to a culture
of divorce and a divorce-prone society. Based on their research on divorce
in the Netherlands, deGraff and Kalmijn (2006) observe three important
trends in modern societies: the normalization of divorce, the
psychologization of relationships, and the emancipation of women. Other
factors contributing to a culture of divorce include a decline in viewing
marriage as an unconditional commitment, a decline in the social stigma of
divorce, the liberalization of divorce laws, increased opportunity for males
and females who work together to become romantically involved, and
changing gender roles that make wives less dependent economically on their

When it comes to those who identify as Christian or non-Christian, there
seems to be little difference in the prevalence of divorce. However, it does
seem to matter when it comes to how devout these people are. A study of
over fifteen thousand subjects in Great Britain found that “frequent Christian
attendees were 1.5 times less likely to suffer marital breakdown than non-
affiliates, but there was no difference between non-attending Christian
affiliates and those of no religion” (Village, Williams, and Francis
2010, 327). Bradford Wilcox (2010b, 687) found that “individuals who
embraced norms of marital permanency and gender specialization and were
embedded in social networks and religious institutions enjoyed high-quality
stable marriages.” He also found that “couples’ in-home family devotional
activities and shared religious beliefs are positively linked with reports of
relationship quality” (2010a, 963). In her article “Research Disputes ‘Facts’
on Christian Divorces,” Adelle Banks (2011) pulled together research
evidence indicating that the rate of divorce among Christians is significantly
lower when persons attend worship regularly. Couples that regularly pray
and worship together tend to have more stable and satisfying relationships.

David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead (2003, 2004, 2005) of the
Institute for American Values believe that the cumulative effect of divorce
has eroded the foundation of American society. They believe the impact of
the no-fault divorce policy has made it far too easy to divorce and
contributes to a culture that is comfortable with divorce. In addition, the
modern/postmodern preoccupation with individualism and self-fulfillment
places inevitable tension on marriage today as contrasted to values of
covenant commitments and personal sacrifices. Also, unrealistic
expectations, lack of egalitarian practices, loss of a community base to
support family life, and the emergence of materialism as a dominant value
take a toll on marriages. Clearly, there are a multitude of reasons, some
direct and some indirect, some conscious and some unconscious, some
personal and some societal, that explain why people divorce.

The Process
The divorce process can be a stressful and conflict-ridden time. Any

antagonistic or abusive pathology that has previously existed is likely to
escalate during and immediately after divorce proceedings, increasing the
threat of harm to the children. Divorce and custody proceedings are often
accompanied by destructive and adversarial—even abusive—behavioral

patterns. The initial phases of divorce and separation are the most dangerous
for domestic violence victims. Divorce tends to bring out the worst in

From a legal standpoint, divorce is enacted on a specific date; however,
the ending of a marriage typically stretches over several years. As both a
public and a private process, divorce is a crisis-producing event. It involves
the death of a relationship, and as with most deaths, pain and crisis are
common by-products. Although both suffer immensely, generally the man is
affected most negatively in the sociopsychological sphere and the woman in
the economic.

The divorce process typically follows a four-stage sequence. The first
stage is the period before separation, sometimes referred to as the emotional
divorce or the erosion of love, which conjures up feelings of anger,
disillusionment, and detachment. The second stage is the point of actual
separation, which often is accompanied by bargaining tactics, sadness,
regret, and depression. The third stage, the period between the separation
and the legal divorce, involves legal issues, economic readjustments,
continued mourning, coparenting arrangements, reorientation of lifestyle, and
a focus on one’s own identity and emotional functioning. The fourth and final
stage of personal recovery includes a restructuring and restabilizing of lives,
opening up to new possibilities and goals. This time may include a “second-
adolescence” phase of being single and being involved in the dating scene

The emotions people experience in the four stages of a divorce are like the
emotions experienced during the stages of coming to grips with the death and
dying of a spouse. Although the marriage has ended, the two individuals are
still alive, however, and their relationship with their children has not ended,
keeping them involved with each other after the divorce.

The Effects on Children
It is no surprise that parents’ conflictual relationships negatively impact

children. In fact, divorce is a very common adverse childhood experience
(ACE) that has long-term effects (Felitti et al. 2019). Divorce is reported to
diminish psychosocial well-being in children. This diminished well-being
tends to result in negative academic achievement (Potter 2010). Yu et al.
(2010) found that marital conflict and divorce can affect the quality of the
relationship between the mother and her children. The negative effect on

children’s development begins early, at the “in-divorce” stage according to
Kim (2011). Afifi, Schrodt, and McManus (2009) discovered that children
were emotionally affected by the fact that their parents talked negatively to
their children about their divorced spouse. Children of divorce also
experience more behavioral problems (Weaver and Shofield 2015).

There are factors other than divorce, however, that contribute to greater
problems for children of divorce. For example, Vousoura et al. (2012) warn
about the overall level of psychopathology in the family prior to divorce as a
stronger contributor to childhood depression than divorce. Some research
suggests that the economic effects of divorce have a greater effect on
childhood mental illness than the disruption of divorce (Auersperg et al.
2019; Strohschein 2012).

We acknowledge that when there is a high level of violence in the home,
divorce sometimes saves lives and the well-being of children. All things
being equal, however, we believe children need and deserve to grow up in a
family with two parents who love them and who love each other. Research
on two-parent families documents the positive advantage this arrangement
gives to children (Waite and Gallager 2000; Haskins 2013; Wilcox 2014).
Since divorce hurts the relationship between parents and kids, it must always
be a drastic last resort. Children must be a priority so we can protect them
and provide the attention they need when divorce does occur. The covenant
commitment extends to our children, a biblical truth that corresponds to the
finding that when children experience a positive attachment with their
parents, they have fewer adjustment problems and adjust better at each phase
of their parents’ divorce and eventual remarriage.

The crucial question is, What is in the best interest of children? The long-
term impact of divorce on children has been debated for the past forty years.
Some researchers are more optimistic than others about the adaptability and
resilience of children, while others point to the negative effect that divorce
continues to have on them. Up until the late 1970s, there was some attempt to
downplay the negative effects of divorce on children. This attitude was
based on research suggesting that children may be better off in a happy one-
parent home than in an unhappy two-parent home. The home supposedly
became a more stable, less disruptive environment once the neglectful or
abusive father or mother was removed.

At this time, research indicates that children from divorced homes fare
worse than children from intact homes. However, the reason for this can be

debated. One view is that the real harm to children comes from a conflicted
marriage, in which children have experienced trauma created by the
psychopathology of their parents. In support of this view are Robert
Gordon’s (2005) findings that the direct negative effect of divorce is more
short term, with children of divorce appearing less harmed after long-term
adjustment. Gordon believes that the impact of divorce on children is fleeting
and that the long-lasting psychological problems displayed by children of
divorce in adolescence and adulthood reflect more the preexisting marriage
and the continued conflict between ex-spouses. Lisa Strohschein (2005)
reports that even before divorce, children whose parents later divorce
exhibit higher levels of anxiety/depression and antisocial behavior than
children whose parents remain married. She did note, however, that there
were “divorce specific” increases in anxiety and depression. Another study
(VanderValk et al. 2005, 533) reports “a further increase in child anxiety and
depression but not antisocial behavior associated with the event of parental
divorce itself.”

Most researchers agree that the trauma created by the divorce itself and the
resulting anxiety and uncertainty is harmful to children. A well-documented
longitudinal study by leading divorce researchers Mavis Hetherington and
John Kelly (2002) found that the changes in everyday life following divorce
do have an initial negative impact on the children. The greatly altered
behavior of their parents during and soon after divorce (dating phase) is a
particularly difficult time. It takes most parents two or more years to
recuperate from divorce, and during this time of adjustment both parents
struggle with personal self-esteem needs. In the study, some spouses were
prone to sexual acting out, vengeful deeds against the former spouse,
emotional outbursts, periods of depression, and fearful concerns about their
future and their finances. This period of transition takes a toll on the children
because parents are often not available to help them make emotional

Children also have adjustment problems in the first year after divorce, and
they may exhibit acting-out or acting-in behaviors. Girls frequently recover
in the second year, while boys may continue to have adjustment problems
throughout adolescence, especially if they live with their mother in a single-
parent home. Though dependent on her, boys go through coercive cycles and
tend to be more aggressive and noncompliant. Single-parent mothers and
daughters tend to become very close emotionally until the onset of

adolescence, which brings conflict over sexual behavior and individuation
(Hetherington and Kelly 2002). When conflict between parents continues
after the divorce, children are often caught in the middle. Paul Amato and
Tamara Afifi (2006, 222) conclude that “research on divorce has found that
adolescents’ feelings of being caught between parents are linked to
internalizing problems and weaken parent-child relationships.”

The body of divorce research supports both views; namely, children are
harmed by what transpires in unhappy and conflictive marriages, but they
also suffer because of divorce itself. This means that both highly conflictual
marriages and families and divorce have the potential to seriously harm
children. The term double-exposure effect refers to how the divorce event
and parental distress contribute independently to child and adolescent
distress (Storksen et al. 2006). Regardless of the source of the harm, the
evidence indicates that children of divorced homes are burdened more than
children of intact homes.

Long- and Short-Term Divorce Adjustment
Hetherington and Kelly’s longitudinal project, which spanned three

decades, led them to conclude that divorce should not be viewed as a
momentary event but rather “as a lifelong process that has a continuing
influence throughout the stages of divorce, single parenthood, remarriage,
and stepfamily life” (2002, cover). They indicate that going through a
divorce takes a toll on all family members because of the many changes,
challenges, and losses they experience during that time. The years
immediately before and after the divorce especially carry high risks in terms
of emotional, personal, and health issues. It seems that the father’s absence is
more disruptive to boys than to girls, and the father’s withdrawal from child-
rearing may damage the child’s recovery.

Hetherington and Kelly report that by six years after divorce, over half of
the women and 70 percent of the men had remarried, with over three-quarters
of them believing the divorce had been the right thing to do. They contend
that the vast majority of children of divorce (75–80 percent) are resilient and
doing well. They criticize studies that take averages—for example, “20–25
percent of kids of divorced families have behavior problems compared to 10
percent of non-divorced”—because these studies capitalize on the “twice as
many” but fail to point out that 75–80 percent are not having problems, and
therefore the vast majority are doing well (Hetherington and Kelly 2002).

The evidence of both the long- and short-term effects of divorce has been
documented well by Judith Wallerstein (2005) and her colleagues. They
conclude that “stressful parent-child relationships in the post-divorce family
together with the enduring effects of the troubled marriage and breakup lead
to the acute anxieties about life and commitment that many children of
divorce bring to relationships in their adult years” (401). Later in life,
children of divorced parents seem to be at greater risk for divorce (Segrin,
Taylor, and Altman 2005). Nair and Murray (2005) report that mothers
raised in divorced homes had lower income levels and lower levels of
education compared with their counterparts from intact families and were
less likely to use authoritative parenting styles.

In light of the long-term effects of divorce, we would do well to heed
Connie Ahrons’s (2004) suggestion that “good divorces” allow adults and
children to continue to live relatively harmoniously as a family. She notes
that divorce reorganizes a family but does not destroy it. In fact, many
children of divorce believe that their parents’ decision to divorce was the
right one, and most do not wish their parents had remained married.
However, the ideal of a good divorce should be tempered by the study
(Amato, Kane, and James 2011) reporting only modest support for the good-
divorce hypothesis, with the greatest benefits being a smaller number of
behavior problems among children and closer ties to their fathers. In other
words, a good divorce means that children’s well-being is of paramount
importance during the divorce process.

Best-Case Scenarios
From a Christian perspective, we must ask what the best-case scenario can

be for spouses and children when divorce becomes a reality. Here we focus
on conditions under which divorce is least troubling. It has been established
that children adjust better when parents discuss the possibility of divorce
beforehand and continue to discuss the situation after the divorce occurs.
Obviously, the less hostility between the parents during the divorce process,
the better the child’s adjustment. Divorced parents who maintain an affable
relationship with each other and show continuous love and support of their
children lessen the disruptive effects of their divorce. The quality of the
parents’ postdivorce communication is essential to good adjustment in

Another key indicator of how well a child will adjust to divorce is the
custodial parent’s effectiveness in the role of single parent. When custodial
fathers expect obedience and good behavior and operate with mutual respect
and affection, children do better. Giving in to children and trying to make up
for the pain of the divorce leaves them less secure than when the father takes
a clear leadership role. It is vital that the parent who has not been awarded
custody spend quality time with the children.

Joint custody and split custody are two creative attempts to promote
continued involvement by both divorced parents in the lives of their children.
The results have been mixed, but for the most part when both parents take
cooperative and mutual responsibility, the children fare better. This
arrangement can work well when a couple maintains a good relationship, but
it does not succeed when parents continually fight and have disputes over the
children and custody arrangements. Although children in joint custody tend to
exhibit greater self-esteem than do those in sole custody, primary custody by
the parent of the same sex in most cases seems to be a more beneficial
arrangement for the child.

In split custody, each parent assumes the care of one child (or more). It is
sometimes reasoned that girls need to be with their moms and boys with their
dads. However, sibling separation and the formation of parent-child
coalitions may in the long run hurt rather than help the adjustment process.

A Christian Approach to Divorce
Divorce, while not condoned in Scripture, has become common in today’s
world. For this reason, we want to offer a Christian response. Throughout
this book, we emphasize that marriage and family relationships should be
based on a mutual covenant. God desires permanence in marriage, and
married Christians must do all that they can to uphold their marriages. This
ideal for Christian marriage is an honorable aspiration that can be achieved
by God’s grace and through the power of the Holy Spirit.

However, we would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge that there are no
perfect people and none completely live up to this ideal. All marriages are
composed of two imperfect people who fail each other to one degree or
another. All couples struggle with their relationships. While many learn to
deal successfully with marital conflict and find the healing needed through
therapy and community support, others are unable to overcome the obstacles

of violence, disrespect, abuse, bitterness, addictions, cold detachment, and
neglect. Brokenness heaps on brokenness and anger; hurt and bitterness begin
to take on a life of their own. These marriages tend to spin in reverse—from
conditionality to emotional distance to possessive power to conditional love
and an atmosphere of law—and eventually the marriage is severed.

Wherever Jesus talks about divorce (Matt. 5:31–32; 19:3–9; Mark 10:2–
12; Luke 16:18), the clear thrust is that marriage is of the Lord and not to be
broken (Wenham 2020). It is also important to acknowledge a range of
Christian views on divorce and remarriage. The highly accessible Divorce
and Remarriage: Four Christian Views, edited by Wayne House (1990),
presents the arguments on divorce and remarriage. Christ calls couples to
fidelity in marriage as a lifelong commitment; he does not have in view,
however, a marriage of legalism that entails only commitment to the
institution and not to the relationship. Marriage is a human structure, and we
must never focus more on preserving a structure than on caring about the
individual spouses. Jesus did not condemn the woman at the well for her
unsuccessful marriages and relationships but offered redemption and a new
beginning (John 4).

The New Testament focuses on grace and forgiveness and hope. The
message of restoration must be generously offered to those who have gone
through the pain of broken relationships. We advocate for the pastoral
support of Christians who have gone through divorce. As we have seen,
divorce negatively impacts everyone involved. The church should come
alongside those experiencing divorce, offering hospitality and encouragement
in word and deed. Romans 3:23 indicates that “all have sinned and fall short
of the glory of God,” meaning that we should not be judgmental of our
brothers and sisters who have experienced divorce. At the same time, there
is a real, tangible need for aid, especially in the first couple of years after

Single-Parent Families
Single-parent households can be defined as either mother or father living
alone with their children, bringing children into a cohabiting situation, or
sharing living arrangements with others (extended family or other single or
married people). The parent who lives in the same household with his or her
dependent children is referred to as the custodial parent, while the

noncustodial parent is the one who does not live with the children. There is
evidence that whether they live in the home or not, grandmothers especially
are becoming the default caregivers after divorce.

As trends of divorce have increased, so have single-parent homes. Every
year approximately one million children become part of a single-parent
home. The percentage of children under age eighteen living with a single
parent has risen from 9 percent in 1960 to 28 percent in 2004. The changing
proportion went from 22 percent in 1960 to 56 percent in 2004 among Blacks
and from 7 percent to 22 percent among Whites (Popenoe and Whitehead

These trends have continued into the later part of the 2010s (Centers for
Disease Control 2020). For example, about 15.76 million children lived with
single mothers. About 3.23 million children lived with single fathers. These
trends have been decreasing from the peak in 2012. It should also be noted
that due to remarriage, many children from single-parent homes eventually
become part of reconstituted families.

The first two years following a divorce can be an especially fragile period
in the single-parent home as both the custodial parent and the noncustodial
parent adjust to new roles. The degree of harmony or conflict between the
parents is the major factor in how stressful this period will be. The hurt,
anger, sadness, and depression that occur with a divorce affect the single
parent at an emotional level especially in the first few years, making it more
difficult for divorced parents to attend to the needs of their children. With
their security undermined, they can feel unsure of themselves in many areas.
Two major stressors accompany the adjustment to being a divorced person
with children: not enough time and not enough money.

Not Enough Time
The common complaint of not enough time only intensifies when the solo

parent is called on for double duty. At the practical level, this means
something has to give. Single parents lack the time needed to juggle work,
parenting, household tasks, and a personal life. Being deprived of a mate to
share the parenting responsibilities, the single parent often feels both lonely
and overwhelmed. Some single mothers give more to their children and take
less care of themselves, which explains the common complaint among single
mothers that they have little left over for themselves.

As hard as single parents try, their children are often shortchanged. The
term latchkey children describes youngsters who are on their own and lack
adult supervision for a large portion of time, even when living with the
custodial parent. Because of the difficult circumstances of single parenthood,
living in a single-parent home can be a lonely existence for children and
place inordinate responsibility on them. Given less attention and guidance
than they require, such children are disadvantaged when it comes to
educational, occupational, and economical provisions.

Noncustodial Parents
Potentially, but rarely in reality, the noncustodial parent equally shares

parenting responsibilities with the custodial parent. Those parents who truly
put the good of their children first find a way to overcome differences with
the ex-spouse and remain involved, caring, and supportive parents. Sadly,
face-to-face involvement by noncustodial parents in the lives of their
children consistently decreases with time. A major cause of the declining
involvement is often the development of a new relationship for the father.

Economic and emotional abandonment of children by their fathers may
cause many of divorce’s most damaging effects. Mothers rarely abandon their
children when they abandon marriage, but fathers often move away or fail to
pay child support. Since children ordinarily do not live with their father after
divorce, his absence can be detrimental to both sons and daughters. One main
issue with postdivorce father absence is reflected in nurturance and
involvement. Popenoe and Whitehead (2003) reported that only one in six
children saw their father as often as once a week in the first year after
divorce. Ten years after the breakup, more than two-thirds of the children
report not having seen their father for a year. Income for mothers and children
declines about 30 percent, in contrast to fathers, who gain 10–15 percent in
personal income.

These trends continue as children age. Fewer adolescents than younger
children belong to single-father households (King, Boyd, and Pragg 2018).
For adolescents in single-mother families, belonging and attachment to
mothers is reflected in lower levels of marijuana and tobacco use, lower
levels of alcohol use, fewer depressive symptoms, and less delinquency. In
other words, secure attachment between single mothers and their children is
associated with lower levels of drug use and delinquency as compared with
single mothers with less secure attachment styles. For adolescents living with

their fathers only, these teens experienced lower depressive symptoms,
lower marijuana use, and less delinquency compared with teens living with
mothers only. In other words, single father households are associated with
lower drug use and delinquency compared with single mother households,
even ones with more secure attachment patterns. The divorced father’s
closeness to the noncustodial mother did not provide the same level of
support for adolescent well-being as even single-parent families. That is, the
level of closeness between two divorced parents trying to coparent still does
not provide the same level of support as single-parent families where one
parent is no longer engaged in parenting. Fathers who stay engaged with their
children after divorce reap the benefits of a higher quality relationship with

Not Enough Money: The Link between Single Parenthood and
Although the lack of sufficient income adversely affects all types of low-

income families, the negative effect is especially pronounced among single-
parent families (Conger, Conger, and Martin 2010). Perhaps the greatest
difficulty experienced by single parents is a lack of economic resources.
Whatever the path to single motherhood (divorce, death of a spouse, unwed
pregnancy), it is estimated that approximately two-thirds of single-parent
mothers live below the poverty level. The Brookings Institution found that
finishing high school, getting married, and then having children has prevented
98 percent of the American population from experiencing poverty (Sawhill
and Haskins 2003).

It is sobering that the majority of those who divorce live below the
poverty level. Lack of sufficient education or skill often means that the single
parent’s employment demands physical and emotional energy with little left
over for the care of the children. As a way to alleviate economic stress, some
single mothers remarry prematurely, only to face a second divorce. Finding
employment, especially when one is not educated or trained, is an enormous
burden. On top of this, the single mother must deal with the logistics of
making ends meet, perhaps face the need to relocate, and take care of the
emotional and physical needs of the children, which means she has little time
to maintain a social life.

The discouraging evidence is that falling into single-parent family status
often begins a downward spiral to deep poverty that persists from one
generation to the next (Blalock, Tiller, and Monroe 2004). Such single-parent
families are caught in a culture of poverty, a concept denoting a way of life
that ensues when people are forced to adapt to poverty.

Poverty affects children’s physical and mental health. Children in poverty
tend to have more dietary concerns, stress, and lowered physical health
(Pascoe et al. 2016). These trends follow for lower educational outcomes as
well as mental illness. Children from families with lower socioeconomic
status had lower academic achievement, even in the earliest years of school.

One study found that married mothers had more education, were older
when giving birth to their children, showed better psychological adjustment,
were more financially secure, and had more social support than cohabiting or
single mothers (Aronson 2004).

This bleak account of single-parent families should be balanced by the fact
that, in spite of the extreme difficulty resulting from the lack of economic
resources and time, some single-parent families function quite effectively.
This is especially true when the noncustodial parent contributes financially
and takes an active role in the lives of the children. Single mothers also fare
better when grandparents step in to serve as surrogate parents to the children
(Harper and Ruicheva 2010).

Although the research presented above paints a grim picture, single-parent
families offer strengths as well. One of Tom’s most diligent clients was a
single mother trying to raise her son. Gabriella brought her son Juan into
treatment after increasing anger outbursts at school and home. Juan was
especially angry at his day care counselors and was slowly becoming angrier
and angrier at his mother and teachers. Prior to becoming so angry, Juan
described himself as wanting to be a good boy again, and he wanted to love
his mom and dad. One of the main issues was that Juan’s dad began making
and breaking promises after he divorced Juan’s mother. Juan had a hard time
understanding and dealing with these broken promises. Further, Gabriella
was trying to earn enough money to live on, and she was also trying to
support Juan’s education. During therapy, we implemented more proactive
strategies like setting boundaries with Juan’s father. We also processed
Juan’s anger and grief over the divorce. We practiced identifying patterns and
relationship triangles to increase Juan’s insight into his anger triggers. We
also implemented a school strategy where Gabriella would take the initiative

in reaching out to Juan’s teachers regularly for progress reports. We also
praised Gabriella and Juan’s resilience and strengths at coping with a very
difficult situation. Juan was able to see how well his mom supported him,
and he learned how to regulate his emotions and respond in a more
appropriate manner.

Family Values and Valuing Families: A Christian Response
The reality is that more and more children are growing up in single-parent
families. This is partly due to the decreasing number of individuals getting
married before having children and to the prevalence of divorce and
separation. As we have been describing, the effects of single-parent families
are challenging for children especially. A biblical ethic of family must
include the mandate that each member in society is to be cared for—that truly
none must be left behind. The radical redefinition of family by Jesus leaves
no room for an ethic that allows Christians to draw the line at caring only for
their own families. This is a reversal of Cain’s refusal to be his “brother’s
keeper” in Genesis 4:9. We are in fact called to care for our brothers and
sisters. The Christian community should be a resource for those in need,
especially for children in single-parent households that may be struggling
with tangible needs.

A disturbing finding by Marquardt (2005) is that children found the church
to be less than helpful in the divorce process. For those children attending
church at the time their parents divorced, two-thirds said that no one, neither
clergy nor congregational members, reached out to help.

Kristen Harknett (2006, 171) has identified private safety nets—“the
potential to draw upon family and friends for material or emotional support if
needed”—as a major advantage that some single mothers have over others.
She found that single mothers who do not have such safety nets are more
prone to depression and lack of self-esteem and self-confidence. The
Christian community can serve as a safety net for single-parent homes and
make a significant difference to these families.

Many families are doing well, even after the disruption that occurs as a
result of divorce, death, or abandonment. When both custodial and
noncustodial parents take seriously their covenant with their children, there
will be great reward for all concerned. Extended-family members and church
community members can take the role of mentor and empower children from

single-parent families. Other resources in the larger community can bring
needed support, such as Big Brother/Big Sister programs, after-school
activities (sports, music, art), church youth groups, and tutoring services.
Welfare agencies at the local, state, and federal level can also offer
substantial help that can make a difference in the lives of those family


Complex Families in
Contemporary Society

We can no longer assume that a family consists of two parents and their
children. Family types now include single parents living with their children
full- or part-time; stepfamilies with his, hers, and their children full- or part-
time; foster families; cohabiting couples with children; married or cohabiting
couples without children; households of singles and married people with or
without children; multigenerational family structures; and same-sex
marriages/partnerships. Holding a narrow definition of family undermines
the importance of these families. In this chapter, we examine the complex
dynamics that occur in newly formed families and note the important
qualities that keep them resilient. Diverse conditions (individual differences,
quality of relationships among members, family environments, unique
stressors, cultural and religious beliefs) affect the success or the failure of
these families to thrive.

In our postmodern era, newly formed families face unique challenges. The
ability to adopt creative living arrangements that meet the needs of each
family and its members is the key to successful integration. Postmodern
family life resembles a theme park. There are many different attractions
available, and they are all competing for the attention of each family member.

Embracing differences, irregularity, and diversity necessitates permeable
boundaries. Making room for each family member and his or her significant
relationships (coming in and going out) challenges the structure of these
families. Adapting to the changing needs of the members is quite a balancing
act. Establishing family identity in the midst of making space for noncustodial
parents and extended-family members and friends is not an easy task.
Increased family forms introduce increased stress among family members.

Our rapidly changing technological society impresses on us the need to be
proactive in keeping all families functioning at an effective level. When the
multifaceted interests, abilities, gifts, and talents represented by each
member become resources for the good of the whole, the family has achieved
a greater goal.

A View from Trinitarian Theology
The changing nature of newly formed family structures does not change the
interaction principles introduced in our trinitarian theology. Identity is the
core feature of the family, and it is the core feature of differentiation in
Christ. Our security as a child of God through Christ forms the basis for our
being (identity) and doing (relating). In the postmodern world, reciprocal
relationships may be more complex; however, they are more essential.
Foundational to all interactions, regardless of the family structure, are the
biblical relationship principles of covenant (establishing trust, belonging,
and security); grace (living in a constant state of acceptance and
forgiveness); empowerment (building one another up to reach God-given
potential); mutual interdependence (differentiated unity); and intimacy
(communicating in ways that establish deep connections and intimate sharing
among members).

As our identity in Christ forms the core of our identity, we are able to
make covenants with our partners and children. The main vehicle or mode of
living out our identity in Christ is our value base. This base leads us to form
covenantal relations typified by grace, empowerment, and intimacy. The
ultimate goal is to authentically reflect our identity in Christ via our
relationships for doxological purposes. In other words, we glorify God by
relating authentically—in congruence with our identity. Diversity and
distinction are exemplified in the Trinity. Further, the doctrine of the image of
God evidences God’s desire for diversity. It begins with the created order—
manifold expressions of flora and fauna—and it culminates with humanity
—“male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:26–28). Both fathers and
mothers must remain faithful in their covenant commitment to their children
even when the spousal covenant has been broken. Every family member
prioritizes the best interest of other members. The interdependence of
working together for the good of the whole strengthens newly formed

Interdependence means that new family members must learn to depend on
one another and work together. They will experience the benefits and
blessings when they feel part of and responsible for working toward a well-
functioning family. Indeed, grace (acceptance and forgiveness) must abound
during the process of coming together and then living together. Mutual
empowerment will become a primary focus as family members show respect
for differentiation as well as engage in cooperative efforts for the good of the
whole family. Interdependence will be achieved when each member
contributes rather than focusing on individual rights. Because all members
have an important place and purpose in the family, each one reaps the
benefits of intimate connection.

Newly Formed Couple
Although an estimated 80 percent of people who divorce eventually remarry,
the timing of remarriage is often delayed due to postdivorce cohabitation,
especially with multipartnered forms of cohabitation (Xu, Bartkowski, and
Dalton 2011). Although these marriages have a slightly greater risk of
dissolution than do first marriages (Bramlett and Mosher 2001), being
remarried seems to bring restoration and renewal to most. Linda Waite’s
research (Waite et al. 2002) indicates that those who divorce or are
widowed regain many of marriage’s benefits when they remarry. Although
parental remarriage can be difficult and even catastrophic for some children,
most divorced men and women hope to be in a committed relationship with a
spouse who loves, values, and supports their children.

An increasingly common pattern is for divorced persons to move into a
cohabiting relationship either instead of or before a second marriage.
Johnson, Anderson, and Aducci (2011) use commitment theory to explain
why some choose to remarry rather than cohabit. They found that those who
value interpersonal dedication move toward remarriage, while those who
adhere to constraint commitment (feeling “stuck in” rather than valuing the
relationship) choose cohabitation.

Second-marriage transition is a unique challenge for newly married
spouses, and many are ill prepared to meet it. Trust is often a casualty of
divorce, and individuals looking to enter into new relationships after a
divorce are often wary. Building trust is more difficult in second marriages
due to hurt that often lingers from dissolved first marriages. Those in second

marriages often identify lack of trust in their first marriage as an issue that
prompts them to increase trust while dating and establish trust in their
remarriage. The fundamental truth is that the newly formed marriage is the
most fragile relationship, yet the most important link, in forming the new
family. The newly married couple may feel shaky in light of several external
factors that have an immediate impact on them. Yet being prepared for the
reality of joining their two families means they must honestly anticipate the
common challenges and stand solidly together as they enter this new phase of

Dealing with Loss and Grief

Fear is often a by-product of loss.
Anger is often a by-product of fear.
Take time to talk about the losses.
Take time to grieve the losses.
Don’t shortchange the process—take all the time needed.

Janet, a widow of three years, began dating Terence, a widower of two
years, who fell head over heels in love with her. Their first marriages had
been strong, and each felt the profound loss of a beloved partner. They each
had children who would be part of the remarried family. As they began to
anticipate a future together, Janet noted that Terence had not fully grieved the
loss of his wife. “I can live with her memory but I cannot live in her
shadow,” she told her counselor. A new marriage was not possible until the
loss was fully grieved. She knew that living with an idealized ghost is a no-
win situation. Janet was astutely aware she could never live up to an image,
nor could she or would she want to replace the deceased spouse. Her own
differentiated sense of self gave her a solid place to stand on her beliefs. She
challenged Terence that he and his children had not sufficiently grieved their
loss, and until they did, they could never make room for her. Also Janet’s
younger son, Curt, had formed a special relationship with his mother since
his older siblings were in college. After his father’s death, he had played an
important role in his mother’s life and was not ready to relinquish it. Clearly,
he was not ready for a relationship with a stepfather. Working these issues

out in therapy gave this couple the best chances to take their time until there
was clear readiness for these two families to come together. Timing is

In a divorce situation, a major chapter has ended, and each family must
make numerous changes to separate from an old life and establish a new one.
Similar to the grieving process accompanying death, there is also a grieving
process of letting go of the past before one is able to embrace the future.
After divorce, spouses are acutely aware of the pain of a broken covenant
and the unfinished emotional business accompanying that relationship. The
high divorce rates for second marriages are enough to keep people from
entering a new covenant before they are ready. If the pain and grieving are
denied or dismissed in the throes of a new romance, however, people may
plunge into a new relationship before they are emotionally ready. This is a
disastrous step because without insight and changed behavior, problems will
only repeat.

Fortunately, many enter a second marriage after personal examination and
understanding about the past relationship that ended in divorce. They have
developed a differentiated self and can thus choose more carefully the
second time around. Instead of repeating patterns, they have done the
emotional work required to enter the new marriage with valued assets. In
cases of both divorce and death, the following reminders are helpful for
family members to keep in mind as they grieve their losses.

Second-Marriage Dynamics
Modern cultural ideology and norms about stepfamilies can have a negative
impact on relationships. The first five years of forming the new family are the
most troublesome, and during this time the couple is at greatest risk for
divorce. Therefore, it is important that the couple enter marriage with
optimistic strength to face head-on the realities of forming a new family.
Alert to second-marriage dynamics, they can avoid making common

Knowing the value of and being skilled in communication and conflict
resolution will put the couple on the right path of interpersonal relating. What
both spouses have learned in the former relationship will pay off in second-
marriage dividends. Such spouses are not foolhardy, approaching the
marriage with blinders on, but are realistic and have their eyes wide open,

aware of what it takes to make marriage work. Prior planning regarding
living arrangements (his, hers, or a new home), financial provisions, dealing
with one or more ex-spouses, and extended-family visiting rights will help
smooth a sometimes rugged path. In many ways, divorce prepares the newly
formed relationship to deal with the economic aspects of the relationship in
ways that first marriages are often unprepared for.

The marriage is the most fragile unit of the newly formed family and
therefore must be protected through a covenant commitment that builds
relationship security. It is particularly important that the new relationship
develops a sense of “we-ness,” which forms the basis of the covenant. In
other words, this new differentiated unity needs to form the core selves for
the spouses. Each partner needs to be honest about their wounds and
experiences in the previous marriage. Further, each partner needs to feel
secure in the new relationship. As this new relational identity forms, other
relationships will necessarily need to be modified. New partners will be
introduced to relatives, and the family of origin will receive a new extended
member. Additionally, new partners often immediately become parents,
which creates a need to engage with the previous spouse and their extended
family regarding child custody and child-rearing practices. The covenant
identity of the new relationship functions as a base of operations for each
partner in negotiating these new relationships.

Building a marriage grounded in sound biblical principles also renews
enthusiasm. The couple is well beyond the romanticizing of younger days and
brings both wisdom and knowledge to the family dynamic. Although living
alone may have led to independent living, their desire and choice is to bring
togetherness and separateness into a balanced interdependency.

Remarriage can be an incredible source of healing. Being accepted,
cherished, and nurtured by one’s new spouse enhances connection and is
reassuring. A new sexual relationship with a consistent partner, shared
activities, and a meaningful life are a great contrast to the lonely days.
Discovering a new couple identity and protecting it with all one’s might is
well worth the effort. Reaching out for support from family and friends helps
safeguard the sacredness of the new commitment.

Newly Formed Family

The terms blended, binuclear, reconstituted, and stepfamilies are used in
the literature to refer to homes in which children from a previous marriage
reside. Although we often refer to newly formed families as a way to
acknowledge a variety of families (foster, cohabiting, etc.), here we use
reconstituted and stepfamilies interchangeably as terms that have developed
over the years. Connie Ahrons (Ahrons and Rodgers 1987) coined the term
binuclear to give a positive view of being part of a reconstituted family.
Such a family has two nuclei, both of which are essential to the progress of
the family as a whole and the well-being of the children.

Regardless of the terms we use, a major challenge facing newly formed
families concerns ambiguity of status. A history of shared experiences that
maintained the first families is missing. The boundaries of reconstituted
families must be more permeable to include everyone invested and involved
in the lives of family members. Adding to the complexity of ambiguity of
status is the fact that parental authority and economic responsibilities shared
by two households open up emotional battles of divided loyalties and
affection. On the other side, second spouses may use this ambiguity to engage
in triangulation by attempting to connect with the child or children against the
ex-spouse. It is in the best interest of the children that parents do not use them
as pawns in a continuing effort to sabotage the other biological parent. Even
though family members yearn for less ambiguity, it is a condition that needs
to be accepted and lived with.

Ideas for Newly Formed Families

Discover an identity of your own as a family.
Create holidays and traditions unique to this family.
Plan fun times/vacations/activities together.
Experience faith practices and worship as a family event.

The lack of clearly defined norms regarding newly acquired relationships
can be daunting. Children can feel torn when living with a stepmother or a
stepfather while their biological mother or father lives elsewhere. Moreover,
ambiguity is also an issue for the former wife and her current husband (or a

former husband and his current wife), children’s grandparents, and family
friends with whom close ties have been established.

In research designed to identify resilience in remarried families, Greeff
and DuToit (2009) found the following eight factors associated with
resilience: supportive family relationships, affirming and supportive
communication, a sense of control over outcomes in life, activities and
routines that help the family to spend time together, a strong marriage
relationship, support from family and friends, redefining stressful events and
acquiring social support, and spirituality and religion within the family.
Further, stepfamily cohesiveness, expressiveness, and harmony are
associated with higher levels of relationship satisfaction. Stepfamily
functioning plays a stronger role than stepparent-stepchild relationship
quality in determining relationship satisfaction (Ganong et al., “Stepfathers’
Affinity Seeking,” 2019).

The task is to build a newly formed family with a distinct history that
includes fresh traditions, rituals, and experiences that become unique to them.
In the process of living together, the family creates an identity that becomes a
shared blessing.

Unrealistic Expectations
Another source of difficulty in any newly formed family is unrealistic
expectations. It is important to keep in mind the differences between first
marriages and families and repartnered marriages and stepfamilies. There
are five main dimensions of difference (Papernow 2018). First,
insider/outsider positions are emotionally intense and long lasting. That is,
individual roles are maintained, and they are highly emotional. For example,
fathers and mothers remain as parents, but they may remarry and bring in
other sets of in-laws that remain part of the stepfamily. Second, children in
stepfamilies struggle with loss and change, and their loyalty to each parent is
frequently strained during the divorce and remarriage. Remarriage may bring
up unresolved issues from the divorce, and children will also need to engage
with the parent’s new partner. These transitions may bring out many
unconscious conflicts, which may affect their relationships with new family
members. Third is consistent parenting, which will be discussed below.
Fourth, stepfamilies must build a new family culture while respectfully
navigating previously established cultures. In other words, stepfamilies need

to establish a unique identity. Finally, other parents outside the household
(ex-spouses) are part of the family, meaning that the parenting system
includes the biological parents and stepparents.

A natural source of difficulty is the tendency for stepchildren to be more
tolerant of the mistakes of their natural parents than of the mistakes of the
stepparents. Most likely, history with their biological parent gives them more
familiarity and confidence in that relationship. Of course, the child may also
have sustained serious damage by a biological parent, which keeps that child
skeptical and distant. But, in general, society conditions children to trust their
own parents, and therefore they will quite naturally be more suspicious,
overcautious, and even resentful of the stepparent or foster parent.

Unrealistic Expectations about Stepfamilies and Foster

Our stepfamily/foster family will function just like our first family.
There will be instant love among all family members.
Everything will quickly fall into place; adjustments will be easy.
The children will be as happy about the remarriage/new family as we are.
The stepchildren/foster children want a relationship and will be easy to get along

Themes in children’s literature put the wicked stepmother or stepfather in
a bad light. Less often do we read stories or see films about the positive role
a stepparent or a foster parent plays in the life of a child, so no matter how
loving and caring, stepparents are often rebuffed. Knowing this will keep the
stepparent/foster parent from trying too hard or pushing too soon for a
relationship. Patience is the key. Resist the temptation to move quickly into a
parental role and take time to be a friendly adult who cares about the
children. A stepparent can never win if he or she tries to compete with an
idealized parent who, in the eyes of the child, is perfect. The sidebar lists
some common unrealistic expectations that will add perspective. Most
important is learning how to get along with stepchildren/foster children and
taking time to develop a relationship with them.

It can be immensely helpful for couples to anticipate the tough emotional
and physical adjustments that are inevitable during the first few years. Rather
than crumble under the illusion of unrealistic expectations, the couple
establishes a united front to face the reality of the situation. Family cohesion
is not the first goal for stepfamily success. The ability to stay flexible is the
golden rule. This gives family members the necessary time to get used to one
another gradually, so that they can define their roles and relationships
accordingly. Family cohesion can be achieved only through the mutual
respect and regard that occurs when the newly formed family is living
together. Bartolomeo Palisi and his colleagues (1991) found that the couple’s
being realistic as well as possessing negotiation skills that lead to united
decisions regarding stepchildren are predictors of remarriage adjustment.

Parents Taking Leadership
How a family navigates structural change is influenced by cultural,
socioeconomic, religious, and cross-generational values and attitudes.
Regardless of these influences, family leaders must do whatever they can to
protect and provide for the children. Inevitable environmental and
relationship changes place the parenting roles in a continual state of flux.
Maintaining sufficient structure and stability counterbalances the frequent
moving between households. Although leadership of the family lies with the
biological parent(s) for the most part, stepparents or surrogate parents play
an essential part in leadership decisions.

Research indicates that it is extremely important for the biological mother
and father as well as the stepparents to be involved in the lives of the
children. Parenting values and practices are a key element to be negotiated in
newly formed families. The literature shows that quality and quantity time
spent with children has a positive effect on their overall health and
resilience. Establishing a foundation of trust and a sense of belonging are
crucial in the life of a child. Even after disruptions such as death or divorce,
a secure attachment established early in life gives children the capacity to
build on that initial bonding (Bell 1974; Bell and Ainsworth 1972).

Clear communication is crucial for creating a stepfamily. The biological
parent and stepparent need to create a new identity that incorporates the
losses associated with the divorce, especially for the children. Further, there
needs to be a frank discussion regarding how they will incorporate the other

biological parent as a parent. On top of this, a plan is needed regarding the
role of the child’s other family members from the other biological parent.
How will Christmas vacations be handled? When will the child visit his or
her grandparents from the other biological parent? These discussions need to
take place without the child.

The biological parent and the stepparent also need to establish an identity
with the child. This way, the child will be able to engage in a meaningful and
proactive way with each. The child may begin adopting the new identity as
he or she is part of this new, expanded family. This new identity provides a
secure platform for clear communication. This is crucial as clear
communication supports both relationship satisfaction and positive outcomes,
at least for teens (Pace et al. 2015).

Guidelines for Leadership

Be united in your leadership roles.
Don’t initiate major changes (rules and routines) too soon.
Establish clearly defined rules in a timely manner.
Be flexible and adaptable when possible.
Use a weekly family council time to negotiate family goals.
Stand together on goals and expectations decided in the family council.
Create strategies for making decisions, negotiating solutions, and resolving

Cooperation and collaboration place the emphasis on teamwork in
reconstituted families. The leaders set the pace for harmonious interactions.
Basic agreement requires constant communication, commitment, and mutual
accountability. Learning to work through differences takes persistence and
perseverance. Because children are often part of two family systems, they
must learn to cooperate and fit in as contributing members in both homes.
Teenagers may contribute by assuming a role in childcare, younger children
through performing household chores. The entire family may choose to
prepare meals as a cooperative venture, everyone pitching in to clean up, and
so on. Consulting with children and teens about family responsibilities and
rewards brings them into the process as contributing members who also

express their preferences and privileges. When family rules are determined
in a democratic way, each member has input and takes responsibility in the
cooperative venture. Schedules, lists, routines, and structure help organize
the family, while adaptations are made in response to the needs of its unique
members. Communicating individual and family needs becomes the joint
responsibility of every member and the family as a whole.

It will come as no surprise that the quality of the stepparent-stepchild
relationship greatly affects the couple relationship. Age is a moderating
factor; the younger the children are during the remarriage, the greater the
likelihood of success.

Children quite normally experience strain between loyalty to their natural
parents and to their stepparents. Stepparents who no longer live with the
children from their first marriage may also struggle with loyalty issues.
Perhaps moved by guilt to be better parents with the new family, they become
more intense, which actually hinders establishing a relationship with their

Balancing the demands of parenting and personal desire for adult
companionship and romance can be a tension for divorced parents. In their
study of divorced custodial mothers’ orientation toward repartnering,
Anderson and Greene (2011) found a continuum from more child-focused to
adult-focused mothers. They found that “mothers who are more adult focused
tend to be older, more educated, more likely to be employed outside the
home, and exiting marriages of longer duration” (741). Predictably, adult-
focused mothers report spending less time in joint activities with their
children and having lower rapport with them.

Many studies indicate that children can and do form close emotional
connections with stepparents. To be successful, stepparents must take
sufficient time to form relationships with each child (Ganong, Coleman, and
Jamison 2011). The transition experience provides a stabilization process in
which stepfamily members begin to think of themselves more as a family unit.
When studying thirty-two stepdaughters and seventeen stepsons, Ganong,
Coleman, and Jamison (2011) found that the degree to which stepchildren
engage in relationship-building and relationship-maintaining behaviors with

stepparents corresponds with their positive evaluation of the stepparents’

According to Mavis Hetherington and John Kelly (2002), making a good
transition into parenting involves the stepparents’ ability to consider
themselves initially as secondary parents. It is especially important for the
stepparent to be a warm and supportive friend and refrain from taking on a
strong disciplinary role in the beginning. The point is to let the biological
parent continue in the disciplinary role and to simply back this role rather
than be the one who determines it. The couple is the architect of the newly
formed family, and when the spousal relationship is well formed, their joint
leadership sets the right tone for the rest of the family. Agreement between
stepparents about the rules and roles is a solid building block for discipline
strategies and interaction with the children.

The positive stepparent-stepchild relationship keeps members connected
and united rather than distant and fragmented. Establishing appropriate
boundaries and working out a cooperative relationship with former spouses
also goes a long way in keeping the marital dyad strong. In contrast, highly
charged, conflicted, or negative relationships with former spouses negatively
affect the new couple’s relationship (Shafer et al. 2013).

In most cases, the mother brings children into the reconstituted family. Thus,
the most problematic relationship is usually between the stepfather and the
stepchildren. Stepfathers tend to be either very much involved with or
disengaged from their stepchildren. Stepfathers who build relationships with
stepchildren tend to have more cohesive relationships with the biological
parent as well as higher levels of relationship satisfaction (Ganong et al.,
“Stepfathers’ Affinity Seeking,” 2019).

Initially, both boys and girls tend to be somewhat resistant to a stepfather
coming into the home. Over time, he is likely to win them over, especially if
he does not take a strict disciplinarian role but works hard to build
relationships with his stepchildren. Hetherington and her colleagues (1982)
found that boys are generally more open to a stepfather, whereas girls tend to
resist his intrusion into their special mother-daughter relationship. Teenage
daughters of divorcées seem to have difficulty interacting in appropriate
ways with stepfathers, even though they desire and seek male attention.

According to research, girls make a better adjustment after divorce if they
are cared for by their mothers, and boys make a better adjustment if they are
cared for by their fathers. It seems that girls in the custody of their fathers and
boys in the custody of their mothers profit from remarriage. The arrival of
stepparents enhances their social development.

William Marsiglio (2004) did a conceptual analysis using in-depth
interviews, exploring stepfathers’ experiences in claiming stepchildren as
their own. Trying too quickly to construct an unrealistic “we-ness” or
isolating oneself in the outsider position hinders the process. Because of the
complexity of each situation, the stepfather needs to be wise in establishing a
quality, stable connection with stepchildren. In this study, the majority of the
men expressed a reasonably strong connection with their stepchildren and
took responsibility in practical ways in the home regarding money,
discipline, protection, guidance, childcare, and affection. “It was shared
daily contact and practical involvement in their stepchildren’s lives that
altered their views in almost imperceptible ways” (37). The feeling of “we-
ness” developed through joint activities in everyday situations. It seems
stepfathers grew closer to their stepchildren as time went on and as they
began to think of themselves in the fatherly role. Making an unconditional
commitment to the stepchildren and gradually spending time with them
helped the stepfathers see the stepchildren as their own.

Some important interrelated benchmarks that emerged in stepfathers
claiming stepchildren as their own concerned timing, degree of
deliberativeness, degree of identity conviction as a stepfather, having a range
of roles in their lives, being mindful of their needs, and seeking recognition
in public as a stepfather (Marsiglio 2004). The biological mother’s influence
is also important to the stepfathers’ success. When she encourages
connection and expects him to take responsibility for her children, it opens an
opportunity for him to develop feelings for them. In a real sense, she is
making it easy for the stepfather to have a relationship with her children
when she asks him to pick up the kids after school, help with homework, and
take part in the discipline.

Being a stepparent is an extremely demanding job. You must be relentless
in your compassion for the children and refuse to view them as “out to get
you.” Trying to create one big, happy family is an erroneous goal, so
stepparents should live with the realistic goal of doing everything possible to

live in harmony in the newly formed family. The perseverance, courage,
patience, and sacrifice usually offer great rewards.

Marital Tension over Stepchildren
The not-so-surprising news is that one falls in love with the person he or she
marries but not necessarily with his or her children. Thus, engaging each
other’s children may be the most difficult aspect of remarriage. Even when
you know you have a lot to offer as a parent, your confidence is easily
destroyed by the indifference or rejection of your spouse’s children. Often
the stepparent is seen as the unwanted intruder. Stepchildren may
automatically spurn and even ridicule your attempts at nurture. When children
have been emotionally hurt and disillusioned with life, they hold on to
unrealistic fantasies that parents will reunite and make everything better.
They can be fiercely determined to defeat the stepparent. This is new
territory for both parents and children. No one is ever prepared for such
disruption, which has the power to devastate the new marriage.

Such explosion over who has priority—the spouse or the children—
creates startling tension between the remarried spouses. Similar marital
struggles in a first marriage do not take on such emotional dimensions
because the children are the couple’s own. As good as the marriage may be,
guilt, anger, and trouble over children can take a serious toll on any marital

In a stepfamily situation with adolescents, a further complication is that
adolescents are entering the life stage when it is common to question, engage
in conflict with parents, and challenge authority figures. Under these
circumstances, adolescent stepchildren believe the new parent has no right to
discipline them. Every attempt must be made to neutralize the dichotomous
good parent/bad stepparent thinking so that stepparents can be effective in
their leadership.

Lawrence Ganong and Marilyn Coleman (2004) found that stepfamilies
are more complex than previously thought, and they can function successfully
in different ways. However, when stepfamilies are able to construct an
identity of their own, and the members can establish relationships with one
another, they are well on their way. The study shows that the nature and
quality of the stepparent-stepchild relationship depends on several factors,
such as the stepparent’s investment in the relationship, the stepchild’s

willingness for the relationship, the relationship with the nonresidential
parent, and time available.

Ronald Deal (2002, 70) uses the analogy of a Crock-Pot to describe the
stepfamily. He writes: “It takes time and low heat to make an effective
combination of ingredients. When ingredients are thrown together in the same
pot, each is left intact, giving affirmation to its unique origin and
characteristics. Slowly and with much intentionality, the low-level heat
brings the ingredients into contact with one another. As the juices begin to
flow together, imperfections are purified, and the beneficial, desirable
qualities of each ingredient are added to the taste. The result is a dish of
delectable flavor made up of different ingredients that give of themselves to
produce a wondrous creation.”

Stepfamilies are “a work in process”! The concept of differentiation helps
us put to rest the idea of a blended, bland family. Only when each member is
able to contribute his or her distinctiveness will there be a rich flavor to
taste. Relationships with stepchildren develop over time. They set a pace that
cannot be hurried.

Take it one small step at a time. It takes time for each family member to
adjust to new living conditions and new roles, rules, and responsibilities. It
takes time to get to know one another, develop trust, and begin a shared
history. It takes time to find a sense of belonging, interdependence, and
identity as a newly formed family unit. Learning to trust the time factor gives
spouses permission to relax, lower expectations, go with the flow, and enjoy
the moments of progress. Be patient. Be ready to listen with compassion.
Persevere, and remember to use humor, laughter, and play in developing
relationships with stepchildren.

All families struggle to rearrange busy schedules to be together, but it
takes an even more intentional effort for stepfamilies to make these
connections. It requires tremendous openness and flexibility to address the
unique needs and desires of each member in the midst of establishing family
routines and rituals that bond them together. A highly effective way to
formulate a family identity is to create family traditions, rituals, and
celebrations around significant holidays. When family members come
together for such events, they each bring a unique presence. Be it a birthday

celebration at a special restaurant, a church advent service, or an annual trip
to the beach or the mountains, it brings history and harmony to the newly
formed family.

Routines, Rituals, Traditions

Invite the children to help create traditions and rituals.
Welcome their ideas and follow their suggestions.
Give adolescents leadership roles.
Allow time for family ties to evolve.
Make weekly, monthly, and yearly opportunities for connection.

Learning to apply the concepts and principles discussed throughout this
book—empowerment, acceptance, grace, intimacy, and loyalty—will lead to
stepfamily growth. Showing empathy and tolerance for one another, putting
the best interest of others on a par with one’s own, and giving of oneself out
of care and concern for others develops not only character but also

The rewards are great when the members of the newly formed family can
establish meaningful relationships and join in cooperative projects. Finding
mutual meaning in spiritual life forges a bond that gives the family a
significant purpose beyond itself. See chapter 8, which discusses family
spiritual life, for more ideas about this process.


Family Life in
Postmodern Society

Any meaningful understanding of the family must integrate analysis at both the
micro and macro level. We have focused mainly on microfamily issues—
looking inside the family for an understanding of its dynamics. We turn now
to an analysis of macrofamily issues—looking outside the family to explore
the relationship between the family and the wider social context. Through
this exploration, we will see that many microfamily issues are, in reality, a
reflection of macrofamily issues.

In chapter 1, we developed a theology of family relationships based on the
biblical concept of covenant. Now we move beyond the family to examine
the broader social context. The contemporary family lives in a world of
urbanization, bureaucracy, and technology—developments that make
covenant commitment increasingly difficult. Modernity, first, and then
postmodernity have profoundly affected contemporary family life. Rather
than replacing modernity, postmodernity exists as a layer upon modernity, as
both interact in their effect on the family. Chapter 18 introduces major
aspects of modernization (an issue first addressed in the 1950s and 1960s)
and their profound negative influence on contemporary family life. Not only
has covenant commitment eroded within the family, but the very structures
intended to support and maintain this ideal have collapsed. In chapter 19, we
discuss postmodernity’s effects on family life and present a biblical response
to modernity and postmodern thought. We suggest ways in which broad social
structures can, and must, incorporate covenant commitment. Only by
recapturing the covenantal meaning of living in community, whether localized
or universal, can the family be strong. We need a family-friendly society.


Biblical Family Values in a
Modern and Postmodern


“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Charles Dickens’s
description of revolutionary change in eighteenth-century France aptly
characterizes the family in the United States and around the world today. It
truly is the best of times and the worst of times. The contemporary family is
an institution of contrasts and contradictions. Although the current divorce
rate in modern nations is virtually as high as ever, more married couples than
in the past report satisfaction in their relationships. At the very time that
millions of children are living in broken families, there is also an
unprecedented emphasis on love and intimacy in family relationships. And
just as some are celebrating the freedom and openness brought about by new
family forms, others are horrified at the decline of the family.

Don Browning, M. Christian Green, and John Witte (2006) document how
the major world religions are currently wrestling with questions of the
purpose and meaning of marriage and family life in modern society. In
focusing on the American family, Steven Tipton and John Witte (2005)
suggest that the family is indeed in trouble and can be rescued only by
reintegration into a just moral order of the larger community and society.
They argue that beyond merely upholding traditional family values, we must
come to terms with increasing family diversity. However, this poses a
challenge as family values do not necessarily integrate into larger community
and societal morals.

The successive effects of modernity and postmodernity have also led to
contradictions in the family. Our society has traditionally espoused a very
optimistic view of the future, based largely on faith in progress. However,

what once was heralded as the path to a utopian future is now being blamed
for the decline of the family and the quality of life in our postmodern world.
Along with this lament for the family, we must also be cautious when valuing
the family too highly. We are challenged to be creative in promoting biblical
relational ideals in family life.

Modernity Defined
A concept as inclusive and encompassing as modernity is difficult to define.
One line of thought ties modernity closely to technological development.
Renowned sociologist Peter Berger conceives of modernity as closely linked
to technology. His view has been summarized by James Hunter (1983, 6):
“Modernization is to be understood . . . as a process of institutional change
proceeding from and related to a technologically engendered economic
growth. . . . Modernity is the inevitable period in the history of a particular
society that is characterized by the institutional and cultural concomitant of a
technologically induced economic growth.” As a consequence of modernity
and increasing technological advances, Peter Berger (1990) describes how
sacred, religious understandings of the natural world are becoming less and
less meaningful. The “sacred canopy” of a religious worldview is
disappearing as humanity is able to exert increasing control and certainty
over the natural world through science and technology.

Other theorists understand modernization as social change in various
spheres. Neil Smelser (1973, 748), for example, sees modernization as
occurring “(1) in the political sphere, as simple tribal or village authority
systems give way to systems of suffrage, political parties, representation, and
civil service bureaucracies; (2) in the educational sphere, as the society
strives to reduce illiteracy, and increase economically productive skills;
(3) in the religious sphere, as secularized belief systems begin to replace
traditionalist religions; (4) in the familial sphere, as extended kinship units
lose their pervasiveness; (5) in the stratificational sphere, as geographical
and social mobility tends to loosen fixed, ascriptive hierarchical systems.”

The sociological concept of modernization reflects both evolutionary
theory and structural functionalism. Evolutionary theory assumes that a
society advances from a simple to a complex state. This process is usually
described as “development,” regarding traditional agrarian communities with
minimal technological innovation as undeveloped. Modernization, then, is

conceived as occurring in stages. We might imagine, for instance, a five-stage
progression beginning with an agrarian society, preconditioning for takeoff,
takeoff, drive to maturity, and finally high mass consumption.

Structural functionalism assumes that as economic development takes
place, new social and cultural forms must emerge. It argues that new
institutional forms are desirable and necessary in view of the changes in
economic life. Some Christians, who see God-given ideals behind traditional
social institutions, experience modernity as a threat. While the threat is real,
modernity also affords the opportunity to examine existing social structures
and re-create them in light of the biblical ideal.

The Crisis and Challenge of Modernity
A primary feature of modernity is the disintegration of traditional forms in

regard to values, behavior, and expectations. With this breakdown of
traditional forms comes the responsibility to create new institutional
structures. And with this opportunity come threats of social, moral, and
intellectual chaos, making the creative task of reconstructing institutions
overwhelming. This tension leads us to only see the threats of modernization
rather than to face up to modernity.

Social scientists continue to debate the origins and moving forces of
modernization. While some theorists believe that modernization is fueled
primarily by economic and technological forces, others point out that
ideological changes have made modernization possible. We believe that
modernization unfolds in a dialectical manner, fed by both material and
ideological aspects of life. No part of society and culture is autonomous; no
social entity develops purely in terms of its own internal organization. This
is true of every major structural unit of contemporary society—the church,
the family, the economy, education, and politics.

Although there is interaction among all the major dimensions of life, the
economic and technological are dominant in present-day Western society.
The other dimensions of life have been cast into a responsive, rather than a
leading, role. However, the various internal crises of modernization may
lead to changes in the current balance of power. For example, the issue of
moral legitimation in modern society may lead to a new role for religious
and moral institutions. Many question whether a society built on moral
pluralism and its attendant moral uncertainty can maintain itself. The crisis of

secularization may lead to an awareness of the need for a new moral, if not
religious, consensus in modern society.

In developing a framework to analyze the modern situation, we consider four
dimensions of sociocultural life: consciousness, communication,
community, and commodities. Modernization is rooted largely in economic
reality (commodities); changes at this level are reflected at the other levels
of sociocultural life. Each level also sends feedback to the others. The
dialectical model we are suggesting is similar to a general model of social
structure in which each part is conceived as influencing and being influenced
by every other part. We hasten to add that these dimensions should be
considered as analytical constructs only. They should not be reified and
considered separate components of reality.

In facing up to the challenge of being modern, we must address all areas of
life. We have chosen these four dimensions because they are the settings in
which major crises are occurring in our world today. We will first explore
the general dilemma posed in each of these layers of sociocultural life and
then turn our attention to the specific negative effects on the family.

Consciousness refers to the individual’s subjective experiences, including

thoughts, beliefs, images, and emotions. Crises in this area can occur both
within and between individuals—both subjectively and intersubjectively.

Within the individual, consciousness is fragmented among different
spheres of life. The individual must negotiate between the impersonal
competition of the marketplace and the intimacy of friendship and family,
between rationality in the school and faith in the pew, between the fast-paced
solutions of multimedia and the routine open-endedness of daily life. Under
such circumstances, even the best minds and the most stable personalities can
quickly lose a sense of centeredness, a clear grasp of meaning and reality.

This fragmentation of thought has resulted in a disjunction between faith
and life. We ask: How do our beliefs and values affect the structure of our
lives? Do competing values and beliefs shape different areas of our lives?
Do our commitments and beliefs as Christians distinguish us from others?
People in this era live in a state of cognitive dissonance. We have adapted to

apparently inconsistent beliefs and lack of congruency between values and
behavior. For example, interpersonal commitments and intimacy are highly
valued, but relationships are unstable. Many Christians speak about having
compassion for the poor but avoid people in need. To paraphrase the apostle
Paul, we are trapped in a sociological “body of death,” doing not the good
we want, but the evil we do not want—and we do not understand our actions
(Rom. 7:15–25).

A diversity of worldviews is available to us. The more modern we
become, the more we are aware of this diversity and the more relative our
views appear. Berger (1983) refers to this as the pluralization of
consciousness. For some, this opens the door for a challenging dialogue with
others to help in the construction of one’s personal value system. This can be
an awesome and lonely task. Others try to mold a new consensus, either by
creating a new synthesis through dialogue or by cutting the dialogue short and
imposing their own beliefs on the other participants. Another possible way of
proceeding is subjectivization. As Hunter (1982, 40) puts it, “When the
institutional routines and ideologies are rendered implausible, modes of
conduct and thought, morality included, are deliberated. If institutions no
longer provide consistent and reliable answers to such questions as ‘What do
I do with my life?’ ‘How do I raise my children?’ ‘Is it acceptable to live
with a member of the opposite gender outside of marriage?’ etc., the
individual must necessarily turn inward to the subjective to reflect, ponder
and probe for answers. The process of ‘turning inward’ is the process of
subjectivization.” As Hunter further suggests, the process of subjectivization
is not negative—it is simply a structural feature of modern society. It can,
however, foster “an incessant fixation upon the self . . . [an] abiding
absorption with the ‘complexities’ of individuality” (40).

Communication in modern society both shapes and reflects the

fragmentation, pluralization, and subjectivization of modern consciousness.
Significant symbols—terms that everyone understands in precisely the same
way—are the basis of communication. But in modern society, we cannot
assume that everyone understands a term in precisely the same way. Even the
words family and church have a variety of meanings that can arouse
emotional debate. The denotative, or referential, meanings of words vary
considerably; consider the multitude of meanings of the word love. The

connotative, or associative, meanings are even more diverse. Lack of
consensus on meanings creates a dilemma. On the one hand, our diverse
backgrounds and uniqueness as individuals make communication more
necessary than ever. On the other hand, our lack of significant symbols makes
communication equally problematic.

A variety of questions arise in the context of our attempts to communicate:
How can we communicate if we cannot assume that others will understand
our words as we understand them? How is dialogue possible if there is no
shared basis of interpreting language? Are our vocabularies authentic? How
free are we to create new vocabularies and to give new meanings to words?
What is the relationship between experience and language? Can we trust the
very process of communication? Will language become, like advertising, one
more technique to mystify and control others?

The difficulties of communicating are compounded today by the
proliferation of technical and professional languages, which mystify the
nonspecialist. We also see attempts to transcend the traditional means of
symbolic communication through various forms of nonverbal communication.
For the most part, everyday language and conversation are impoverished
because of the difficulty of capturing complex and confusing realities in
simple words.

Although the ideal of community and family life might differ in the various

faith traditions, modernity has fragmented the sense of community and family
life. Many people have lamented the breakdown of homogeneous and
geographically based communities as the major crisis of the modern era.
Without such communities, we have no means of social control and are thus
vulnerable to our own moral laxity. People are in search of a new home or
community so that they can find meaning and purpose. What is often forgotten
when we grieve the loss of traditional communities, however, is the
provincialism and lack of autonomy that characterize them. Isolated villages
and tribal groups are noted for their ethnocentrism.

Concurrent with the disintegration of community life is the centralization
of economic and political functions in corporate and governmental
bureaucracies. The picture that emerges is of the isolated individual and the
nuclear family confronted with the faceless image of mass society. The
community that once mediated between the individual and larger institutions

is no longer there. Judicial and political institutions are increasingly called
on to settle family, church, and community disputes. Government
encroachment into areas previously considered private or sacred has become
a serious social question to which there are no apparent answers.

Some social scientists have suggested that networks are the modern
substitute for traditional communities. Friends, coworkers, and social,
educational, cultural, and religious groups—together these networks can
satisfy all or almost all of the individual’s needs. However, networks tend to
be unstable and specialized and thus lack the virtues associated with
community: unconditional commitment and a sense of belonging that
encompasses the whole of a person’s life.

There is a wide range of responses to the disintegration of traditional
communities. At one extreme is the trend toward a self-contained
individualism that denies dependence on others and makes no commitment to
them. At the other extreme, people form communities around a common
value, such as economic sharing, family life, or religious devotion. Those in
the middle search for a sense of community in institutional contexts such as
the church, where the community metaphor is familiar, and in homogeneous
neighborhoods such as suburban housing developments, where names like
Homewood, Pleasantdale, and Community Heights imply commonality and

In advanced capitalism, the economic sphere has been largely secularized.

Economic life develops unguided by any particular religious ideology. This
differentiation of economic life is characteristic of modern institutions. The
fragmentation of consciousness, complexity of communication, and
disintegration of community make an integration of life around economics
seem viable. Remaining unanswered is the question of whether or not a
society based solely on economic and political consensus can maintain itself.

Economic principles do dominate modern social life. As the principles
and values associated with economic life enter other areas (political,
educational, and interpersonal), we see a pattern of the “commodification” of
social life developing, where achieving quality social relationships comes to
be seen as merely using the right techniques of relating. When emphasis on
commodities results in the alienation of the worker, the intrinsic meaning of
work is lost. When work becomes only a means to the end of making money,

it becomes a moral criterion for judging people. The twin phenomena of
careerism and consumerism, two evidences of these trends, are found at the
center of economic, church, and family life.

The Impact of Modernity on the Family
With this basic understanding of modernity, we can now examine the
dilemmas it poses for the family, as well as the false hopes it has generated
(see table 6).

TABLE 6 The Impact of Modernity on the Family:
Dilemmas and False Hopes

Impact of Modernity Dilemmas for the Family False Hopes

Fragmentation of Consciousness

Fragmentation of thought

Disjunction between faith and

Religious and moral pluralism


Crisis in morality and authority

Dichotomy between private and
public life

Traditionalism: restoring the
family of the past

Cult of the expert


Complexity of Communication

Decline of significant symbols

Mystifying technical language

Impoverished conversation

Diverse backgrounds and
linguistic styles

Generation gap

Overreliance on techniques of

Isolation of communication from
regular activities

Disintegration of Community

Impact of Modernity Dilemmas for the Family False Hopes

Disintegration of traditional
community life

Lack of social control

Individuals confronted by
bureaucracy and mass society

Government encroachment
into private matters

Isolated nuclear family

Lack of community support and

Increased family dependence on
mass institutions

Development of a youth culture

Little parental stake in children’s

Lack of ties between extended

Diminished parental authority

Equalization of power within the

The family as a self-contained

Extrafamilial care of children,
the elderly, and handicapped

Alternative family forms

Dominance of Commodities

Integration of society around
economic values

Separation of economic from
church life

“Commodification” of social

Dominance of technical means

The family as the unit of
consumption instead of

Separation of work and family

Individual and family worth
determined by economics

Assessment of the fair market
value of housework

Community through

The family as the center of
cottage industry

Full employment for both
husband and wife (careerism)

Fragmentation of Consciousness