A friend of mine asked me to write about the changing dynamic and the constant evolution of western family life in the 21st century. So, here goes. I must first mention that my understanding of the title is this; The way relationships are in the context of western family life this century and the ever changing dynamics within them. I think that's what you mean, my friend.
I am a psychotherapist with a developmental model in body and mind. I have Relational and Gestalt leanings so my viewpoint may not be a political one, rather, it is a humanistic one. What dynamics are changing in our families these days? Are we evolving towards a new family paradigm? In Western family life, consumerism, materialism and individualistic ideals create pressure for us to aspire to goals of self-worth that that depart from humanistic values. We spend hours on social media viewing and sharing images of ourselves depicting what we want others to see of our lives instead of experiencing in the moment what we wish to portray.
We complain bitterly that screen time keeps us from relating with our children and each other but we were probably no better at that than before screens came along. Children have been marginalised for centuries, being expected to be seen and not heard, dismissed or otherwise made peripheral by a society that doesn't prioritise their needs. We can blame technology for our lack of patience and understanding of our offspring but actually we could do better.
From a Relational perspective, if we can change how we relate to ourselves we can then relate better to our children. We have relational needs that go unmet through mis-attuned parenting which can be relived in adult life, making us needy and looking outside ourselves for gratification, validation and recognition. Mirroring is one particular relational need we require as infants to create a healthy self0esteem. That thing where the mother copies her baby's expressions, showing the baby that she understands and has empathy. We need to start having actual face to face time instead of screen time otherwise we are going to lose our ability to empathise and feel for another.
So what is happening to our families? We seem to be evolving into groups of people who are connected but not related. Blended families are more commonplace now and estranged partners are, more than ever, remaining friends to make functional family systems work between them. Fatherhood is changing radically as men do more and more of the child care while women are at work. I see more men now than ever on the school run, which is changing the way our children are being brought up.
So what is the purpose of a family? Is it soley to raise children? Or do families have a purpose beyond that? It seems to me that when children reach crucial ages they impact the family dynamic. Of course they do. Any parent of a teenager will attest to this. The specific dynamic changes can be rooted in the unresolved issues of the parent/s, often through generationally unresolved issues being unconsciously handed down the line.
Couples often split when their children are toddlers, teens or have left home. The demands of such developmental milestones can expose unmet needs in the parent/s, which alters the status quo and can destabilise what was once a good relationship. Then the couple, if unsupported, might split up and attempt to have their own unmet needs fulfilled elsewhere. There are more single people around now whose children are grown up than a decade ago.
So I think we are evolving into a new kind of family, one that we can choose. People are deciding not stay in unhealthy relationships and similarly, people are opting out when they need not. Maybe they are unaware or unconscious of their internal struggle or the possibility that things could change. Either way, people are making choices that are changing the shape of the 21st Century Western family.
I work in Maidstone, Kent where I see families and children for private psychotherapy.