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Friday, 12 December 2014

The modern western family and its crucial dilemma

The most obvious challenge within modern families, where both parents work or study, is often referred to as “work-life-balance” and solutions are sought after from governments and employers. There is no doubt that both of these groups of decision- and policymakers can be more supportive than they are at the moment but I doubt that they will feel the urgency to act as long as they do not fully understand the implications of their slow approach as well as more pressure from voters and employees. I will get back to this macro perspective later in this article and begin by dwelling with one of the most disturbing problems in the micro universe of each family.

The question asked is very often, “How can we as man and woman get more time and energy for our adult life?” i.e. how do we balance our roles and interests as parents and partners and lovers?

In order to give a complete answer to this very important question, which is splitting so many families who did not manage to find an answer they could live with, I must shortly describe the background as well as offer a definition of the emotional and existential phenomenon of family.

So, if you are looking for a “quick fix” or five easy suggestions on how to solve your dilemma, this article will most likely disappoint you.

This dilemma has existed for generations but has never been dealt with before in our history and therefore very few of us have role models. The man and father’s work took precedence and free time was an unknown concept. Over just two generations the cornerstones of the traditional family has been removed from under our homes. One of these is the man, husband and farther as the sole provider and ruler of the family. Another is the submission and silence of mothers, wives and women. The third is the idea, that children should been seen but not heard and finally marriage is no longer a social and moral necessity.

Focus is now on existential and emotional issues. How do our children feel about their lives within as well as outside the family? Is my partnership actually enriching my life or has in been reduced to routines? Do I have time and energy to enjoy my individual life, to relax, educate myself and be with good friends?

Nothing in today’s media, lifestyle, trends or fads address these questions in any substantial way. Somehow we are just supposed to figure it out for ourselves and if we cant the pharmaceutical industry is ready and willing to provide us with anti depressants, which numbs our emotions and other drugs, which will lower our anxiety or shutting our children up after they have been diagnosed. And then there is alcohol and Botox of course. If we cannot compete and win and have perfect homes, children, jobs and sex we are losers and our children risk being bullied by their schoolmates and ignored by teachers.

So we need guidance and inspiration. We need dedicated friends, open-minded partners, coaches and people like me in order to survive and make better choices. And – Eureka! – we need our children to challenge us with their needs, dreams, shortsighted wishes and annoying behavior and our partners to do the same. Challenges and trouble enhances the quality of our lives and makes us develop as human beings, mothers, fathers, executives and colleges. So does days of harmony but they are merely well deserved pit stops.

Family is often described by the age and roles of its members - parent(s) and children – and mostly we still think in terms of the nuclear family as the average ideal. Since partnership and marriage has become more of an emotional choice it has become poignant to look at the existential and emotional definition. In this sense family is defined by the quality of the emotional interaction between all members and with the relationship between parents as the defining and decisive factor.

It is not an easy phenomenon to concretize but we all know the experience. When we are invited to somebody’s home we immediately feel how the relationship between the adults are at this particular hour on that day. However much the host and hostess would like to appear happy and open they never succeed. Dozens of subtle nuances in language, tone of voice, body language and posture tell us the truth. This does not mean that their relationship is “bad”. It is what it is and there is no need to judge or categorize it and we have no obligation to share our real feelings with friends or houseguests.

In the same way the atmosphere in the whole family depends on the present quality of the relationship between the two parents or the mood of a single parent. So when modern parents neglect their well-being as a couple in favor of spending time with the children for example, they are by no means giving their children a valuable gift.

It’s crucial for parents to know and remember that children (0-13) know what they want or wish for, but have no experience or conscious insights into their basic needs. A very real example is that they might want to eat pizza or cakes all the time but they need proper nutrition. In a similar way they fully enjoy all the parental attention they can get and will even crave it. They do not have the wisdom to say, ”Dear Pappa, as much as I would love to spend time with you now, I really think that you should go and be with Mamma tonight. That would make me happy!”


Unfortunately children neither think nor talk like this and when the start thinking it around the age of 8-9 they hesitate to say it out loud. Younger children often react by becoming impossible and wanting to be the center of attention all the time whereas older children and teenagers tend to withdraw from their parents. They will even do this to a point where they stop talking about troubles and worries they have because they don’t want to burden their frustrated parents. Some kids react the opposite way – they have aches and pains, troubles and worries constantly – and thus try to remove the spotlight from the adults and their troubles.

Very often when we meet these children and teenagers they tell us that their parents “never have time” or are “not interested”. Again – if children were able to articulate their existential experience and simply confronted their parents directly, “Tell me Mom and Dad, do you have any time to talk with me about things, which are important to me and my life?” a lot of parents would respond in kind. But they don’t and the estrangement grows.

For me as a family therapist it has been wonderful to witness how warmly children are treated within their families and how much space and encouragement to express their thoughts and feelings the often get from their parents. There is no doubt that this has meant a major improvement of family life compared to two generations ago. I am however not so happy when children become the absolute center of attention and all planning and activities are revolving around their desires and wants. When this happens the child or children become responsible for the happiness and well-being of the whole family and this is too much for a child to carry.

Why do we do it like this? In my experience there are two main reasons. One is a positive will and desire on the parent’s part to give their children a good, safe and warm childhood. The other is bad conscience or even feelings of guilt because parents do not feel that they have enough time and energy to give their children what they believe they need.

The first group of parents and their children are doing well as long as they remember that the relationship between man and woman is their first “child”, which needs as much care, time and attention as their real children. Some times a child or an adult feels neglected and must struggle for closeness and attention but over time everybody gets what she or he needs. When they constantly prioritize the needs and wants of their children, their partnership will suffer and again – so will their children.

The second group of parents create trouble for themselves individually as well as for the whole family. Just imagine a sign on their front door saying: FAMILY MÜLLER, POWERED BY GUILT.

Parents in these families constantly doubt themselves, which of course is destructive for their self-esteem, self-confidence and self-image and lowers their ability to feel joy, satisfaction and success as well as their ability to enjoy their children and be present in the moment. Even if only half of this is true in a family, work can become a refuge and the negative spiral can develop. Parent from the first group will sometimes experience that they are busy and that family life is demanding. Parents from the second group often suffer from severe stress.

For children it is very difficult to have one or two parents who are constantly plaguing themselves with bad conscience and worries about their own capabilities. They sense as well as hear the message from their parents and come to the conclusion that something must be wrong with them. (“If my mother does not feel good about herself, I must be a bad child”). The consequence is that guilt, bad conscience and low self-esteem is passed on yet another generation.

My best advice is to look your self in the mirror and say out loud, “I’m the best parent my children can have at the moment and we will all survive with less than perfection. I forgive you my friend…..for not being perfect!” By doing (and meaning!) this you will feel better about your self, your competence and your limitations and will be much more fun for everybody to be with. In case this exercise does not ease the burden you put upon yourself look for help.


There is no doubt that time or lack of time is a core issue for a lot of modern families but why is it really that time is so important. With a minimum of planning it is not a question of having half an hour to help your child with his homework, one hour to make love to your partner or an hour to cook a delicious Sunday lunch. That is all about time as a quantitative phenomenon.

Spend time with your child! Play with your child! Invite your wife for a monthly dinner date! Remember that grandparents and friends are important for your child and don’t forget to exercise, ride your bike, take yoga classes and Pilates. Take a class, improve your skills! Raise your salary!

These are all time-consuming activities and each of us has to consider how essential they are to our lives and/or life-style. Are they enriching our life as a whole family or do they merely satisfy our wish to fit into whatever segment we are supposed to belong to?

It does involve some creative planning but first and foremost it is an existential choice. Personally I never met a retired woman or man who regretted spending too little time at work.

Where we choose to spend our time and energy depends – apart from economic necessity – on where we feel of value to others. The need to feel of value to somebody ( a single loved one, society, the world) is perhaps our most essential need throughout life and work is frequently where this experience comes most frequently and uncomplicated.

I know that I’m valuable to my company, my clients, my patients, my football club, the homeless or whatever I commit my energy to. In my partnership and my family I often doubt myself or get criticized. I feel more confident at work. Sometimes when we don’t feel valuable to the members of our family it is actually because we are not – or rather not as valuable as we would like to be. There is a very significant difference between social skills, professional skills and life-competence and the latter is often our weakest.

Nobody can answer all these questions on your behalf, but it might be a good idea for you, your partner and children to evaluate your behavior from time to time. Ask everybody the same question, “If you could do magic what would you change in this family?” Spending time with our thoughts around this gives a lot of positive energy to a family whereas complaining, critique, worrying and accusations kills creativity and love.

Some of the dreams or suggestions might be possible others not but an hour spend on this issue can delete many of the “I have to”, “We must”, “No choice”, “My boss would fire me”, etc. with which we usually describe our feeling of being checkmate.

The same generation who invented the work-life-balance thing is also responsible for the phrase “quality-time” as in, “We work a lot but when ever we spend time with our kids it’s quality time!”. More often than not it means that we spend time with whatever our children prefer to do. At first glance it seems to be a fair enough deal. We have set the premises for 90% of the day, so our child can decide for the remaining 10%. This is a valid principle of democracy but it hardly meets the needs of anybody.

The kind of time we need in order to confirm, develop and strengthen our love-based relationships is unstructured time and at best minimum 2-3 hours. Parents know this experience from holidays, lengthy dinners in restaurants and other occasions without an agenda. Only then do we hear ourselves saying things, which are new to our selves and the other. Conversations like these create closeness. A similar thing happens when we spend time with our children individually. I can be in the kitchen, in bed, lying in the grass, fishing, walking in nature or sitting in a café. That is real quality time and like a satisfying erotic life it cannot be planned only made possible. We can plan to have sex but making love takes more of an effort and is more a consequence of closeness than desire end lust.

Real quality time enriches our personal lives as well as our relationships and they give us new energy. A lot of what parents today call quality time is exhausting and serves as a bandage on their bad conscience. It is, like in many divorced families, a way of compensation, which never really works as intended. It never depends on what you do together but how you feel doing it.

To find real quality time was also difficult for our parents and grandparents so the current generation of young parents have yet another important task to take care of. Each individual family can manage this within a relatively short time span but anchoring it in our family culture might very well take one or two generations. In the meantime please don’t blame each other or parents in general for not being successful every day.

Whether or not we have success depends to at large degree on our attitude towards time: is time something, which I take for myself or something, which others control completely? The difference is in our brains and therefor we can control it. It’s like many other phenomenon in life: we either feel and behave like victims or take charge. In many ways time is similar to family economy. We have the money we have and find the best ways to get value for our money or we keep thinking that everything would be better if we had more money. It is one of many personal choices we have the power to make.


As I mentioned earlier, the well being of families should also be much more of a concern for employers and states. It is simply a wise investment, which will become visible on the famous “bottom line” in the annual budget reports.

Our immediate family (or as research has shown recently: the absence of a family) is one of the most important contributors to our overall health. As we all know family can be the most constructive phenomenon in our lives and it can be the most destructive. With some modifications the same can be said about the places where we work, because also here the quality of interpersonal relationships and leadership plays an important role in maintaining, improving or degrading our overall health – physical as well as psychological.

Traditionally employers – public as well as private – have been thinking and acting almost as if the partner and children of the employee was a kind of competition, which would steal energy, focus and commitment from the workplace. What we know today is that the opposite is true. Adults living in healthy families are on average more productive, less absent, more creative and more responsible. Their children are less sick and do better in school. Divorce is very expensive for all workplaces.

Employees coming to work from a troublesome situation in their marriage or with a child will arrive with less focus and energy and in some workplaces even be a security risk, so it is a very profitable investment for the employer to support their employees as much as possible. This can be done in many ways. The company or institution can offer ongoing after-work-lectures on family life, communication with toddlers and teens, divorce etc. and or offer individual family counseling.

For larger companies and agencies it’s possible to organize and after-work-in-house-academy, which offers whatever is the most current issue among employees – pregnancy, divorce, teenagers, retirement etc.

There are several other ways to go – consult your employees! And depending on national and regional culture you will have to look into the often subtle difference between offering something valuable and crossing the boundary of privacy.

Similar factors are important on the political level in state and regions and therefore prioritizing maternity leave for both parents, high quality day-care for children and good schools should not be considered costs but sound investments in the general health and success of society. The awareness of this and the pressure to implement such a perspective must come from young parents and a new generation of politicians who will not be able to push the needs of their spouses and children quite as far in the background as their predecessors were.

Book suggestions:

J.Juul, NO! The art of saying no with a clear conscience.

J.Juul, Family Time

J.Juul, Here I am! Who are you? About boundaries, respect and closeness between parents and children

J. Juul, Family Life

All books available here

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