Intentional Family: How to Build Family Ties in Our Modern World

Intentional Family: How to Build Family Ties in Our Modern World

by William J. Doherty

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We reinvented family life in the twentieth century but never wrote a user's manual. Have no doubt about the reinvention. This century has witnessed a revolution in the structures and expectations of family life. The changes in family structures are by now familiar: A child is as likely to grow up in a single-parent family or stepfamily as in a first-married family; an adult is likely to cohabitate, marry, divorce, and remarry; and most mothers are in the paid labor force.

The revolution in expectations of family life is less widely recognized. A scene from the 1971 film Lovers and Other Strangers captures this cultural shift. Richie, the adult son of Italian immigrant parents, tells them that he and his wife are divorcing. The stunned parents want to know "What's the story, Richie?" When he tells them he is not "happy," the answer does not compute. "Happy?" the father retorts, "What? Do you think your mother and I are happy?" A startled Richie asks, "You mean you and Mom aren't happy?" The parents look at each other, shrug, and with one voice respond, "No. We're content." Richie storms off with the testimonial of his generation: "Well, if I'm not going to be happy, I'm not going to stay married." But the memorable line from this vignette comes from the mother, played by Beatrice Arthur: "Don't look for happiness, Richie; it'll only make you miserable."

These fictional immigrant parents represented the remnants of the Institutional Family, the traditional family based on kinship, children, community ties, economics, and the father's authority. For the Institutional Family, the primary goals for family life were stability and security; happiness was secondary. Ending a marriage because you were not "happy" made no sense. An elderly British lord expressed the values of the Institutional Family when, upon learning that I was a family therapist he commented: "A frightful mistake so many people are making these days [is] throwing away a perfectly good marriage simply because they fall in love with somebody else."

The Institutional Family was suited to a world of family farms, small family businesses, and tight communities bound together by a common religion. The dominant form of family life for many centuries, it began to give way during the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century, when individual freedom and the pursuit of personal happiness and achievement began to be more important than kinship obligations, and when small farms and villages started to give way to more impersonal cities. During the 1920s, American sociologists began noting how an historically new kind of family -- what I term the Psychological Family -- was replacing the Institutional Family of the past. This new kind of family was based on personal achievement and happiness more than on family obligations and tight community bonds. In the early twentieth century, Americans turned a corner in family life, never to go back.

By the 1950s, the Psychological Family had largely replaced the Institutional Family as the cultural norm in America. In ideal form, the Psychological Family was a nuclear unit headed by a stable married couple with close emotional ties, good communication, and an effective partnership in rearing children in a nurturing atmosphere. The chief goals of this kind of family life were no longer stability and security. Instead, the overarching goal was the satisfaction of individual family members. Men's and women's roles ideally were "separate but equal," with men being experts on the "world" and women being experts on the home.

Current social debates about the Traditional Family generally center around this Psychological Family, which did not come into full flower until the 1950s. Its supporters praise its traditional values, while its critics decry its conformity and unequal gender roles. Both sides miss an important point: the Psychological Family was radical in its own right when it supplanted the Institutional Family as the dominant family form. Its emergence threatened historical family values by reversing the importance of the individual and the family. The family's main job now was to promote the happiness and achievement of individual family members, rather than individual family members' main job being to promote the well-being of the family unit. To paraphrase: Ask not what you can do for your family; ask what your family can do for you. No more radical idea ever entered family life, but it is one we now take for granted in mainstream American culture.

If you doubt this shift in family values, try to imagine a contemporary American man choosing a wife because his family thinks the match would be good for the family. Or imagine a young woman announcing that she will never marry in order to stay home to care for her aging parents. Or a young adult deciding not to have sex before marriage in order not to bring embarrassment to his or her family. Most of us would assume that there was much more to these stories; someone was not telling the truth, or there was some personal or family pathology at work. We would have trouble imagining that a healthy adult would sacrifice important personal goals for the sake of family duties. Although most Americans continue to assume that parents, especially mothers, should place family needs over personal needs while the children are being raised, all bets are off for young people's obligations to their parents and extended family. And the perceived absence of happiness in marriage is a widely acceptable reason to divorce and try again for the kind of satisfying intimate relationship that has become a cultural birthright.

From its beginning, the Psychological Family was germinating the seeds of its own destruction. It harbored a profound contradiction: the value of individual happiness for both men and women, coupled with the value of family stability. For marriage, this meant commitment based on getting one's personal needs met in an equal relationship -- a dicey combination for couples that lacked the skills required for such unions. When the feminist and sexual revolutions exploded in the late 1960s and later joined with the "Me Generation" of the 1970s, the Psychological Family began to fracture. The power of high expectations for marriage overwhelmed couples' abilities to cope at a time when divorce was losing its social stigma. The divorce rate skyrocketed along with nonmarital births and single-parent and stepfamilies. The cultural image of the two-parent nuclear family from cradle to grave splintered into a montage of family forms.

The eclipse of the shared cultural ideal of the Psychological Family gave rise to the Pluralistic Family, which has dominated the last three decades of the twentieth century. Unlike the Institutional and Psychological Families, the Pluralistic Family does not offer an ideal for what constitutes a good family. Instead, the working assumption is that people create, or find themselves in, a wide variety of family configurations. No family form is inherently better than another, and all should be supported by the broader society. The traditional two-parent family becomes one lifestyle alternative among others, including cohabitation, single parenting, remarriage, and gay and lesbian families. The Pluralistic Family ideal is to let a thousand family forms bloom as families creatively respond to the modern world.

The Pluralistic Family carries forward the Psychological Family's emphasis on personal satisfaction but adds the new value of flexibility: to be a successful sailor in the seas of contemporary family life requires the ability to shift with the winds that come your way and the willingness to change boats when necessary. Essentially, you can never tell which kind of family structure you or your children may end up in, so be flexible.

There is intense debate over the merits of the Pluralistic Family ideal in contemporary society. These cultural debates reflect a struggle between adherents to the Psychological Family and the Pluralistic Family. (Hardly anyone wants to go back to the Institutional Family because the value of personal satisfaction in family life ranks high among virtually all groups in American society, with the exception of recent immigrants.) But the very existence of the cultural debate shows the strength of the idea of the Pluralistic Family: the two-parent Psychological Family competes as just one lifestyle ideal among others. We now have the first society in human history without a clear social consensus about what constitutes a "real" family and "good" family. And I don't see one emerging anytime soon.

Following these staggering twentieth-century changes in family life, we now live in the best and worst of times for families. The worst of times because families have historically followed the guidance of their community and culture in shaping marriage, childrearing, and the countless other elements of family living; and now the community and culture are unable to provide a coherent vision or set of tools and supports. Families are left to struggle on their own. We also live in the best of times because we understand better what makes families work, and because now we have unprecedented freedom to shape the kind of family life we want, to be intentional about our families.


Sometimes with my therapy clients, I use an analogy of the Mississippi River, which flows just a couple of miles from my office. I say that family life is like putting a canoe into that great body of water. If you enter the water at St. Paul and don't do anything, you will head south toward New Orleans. If you want to go north, or even stay at St. Paul, you have to work hard and have a plan. In the same way, if you get married or have a child without a working plan for your family's journey, you will likely head "south" toward less closeness, less meaning, and less joy over time. A family, like a canoe, must be steered or paddled, or it won't take you where you want to go.

The natural drift of family life in contemporary America is toward slowly diminishing connection, meaning, and community. You don't have to be a "dysfunctional" couple to feel more distant as the years go by, or a particularly inept parent to feel that you spend more time disciplining your children than enjoying them. You are not unusual if you feel you have too little time for meaningful involvement with your community. Lacking cultural support and tools for shaping the kinds of families we want, most of us end up hoping the river currents carry us to somewhere we want to go. In the "anything goes" world of the Pluralistic Family, where specifically do we want to go, and how in the world do we get there?

Only an Intentional Family has a fighting chance to maintain and increase its sense of connection, meaning, and community over the years. An Intentional Family is one whose members create a working plan for maintaining and building family ties, and then implement the plan as best they can. An Intentional Family rows and steers its boat rather than being moved only by the winds and the current.

At heart, the Intentional Family is a ritualizing family. It creates patterns of connecting through everyday family rituals, seasonal celebrations, special occasions, and community involvement. An Intentional Family does not let mealtimes deteriorate into television watching. It does not let adolescents "do their own thing" at the expense of all family outings. It is willing to look at how it handles Christmas or bar mitzvahs in order to make them work better for everyone. It has the discipline to stick with good rituals, and the flexibility to change them when they are not working anymore.

The Entropic Family

The opposite of the Intentional Family is the Entropic Family. Entropy is the term for the tendency of a physical system to lose energy and coherence over time, such as a gas that expands and dissipates until there is little trace left. Similarly, the Entropic Family, through lack of conscious attention to its inner life and community ties, gradually loses a sense of cohesion over the years. Its maintenance rituals such as meals and birthdays lose their spark, and then degenerate. Individual family members may have active lives in the world, but the energy of the family itself slowly seeps away.

Contemporary society creates Entropic Families by two means. First is our lack of support for couples to make marriage work and for parents to make childrearing work. We generate the highest expectations of family life of any generation in human history, but provide the least guidance as to how to achieve success in our contemporary family forms. We struggle as a society over the most basic kinds of family support, such as unpaid leave for caring for babies and sick family members. And we have barely begun to face our joint responsibility to help families learn the skills for parenting, partnership, and intimacy that most of us expect of family life. No wonder that the odds of a happy lifetime marriage are probably no more than one in four -- half of new couples divorce and another quarter are probably not very happy.

The second way that we collectively create Entropic Families is by putting up barriers to sustaining family rituals. Cars, televisions, busy work schedules, consumerism, and a host of other forces propel family members along fast-moving, diverging tracks. Family meals become casualties of soccer practice, violin lessons, work demands, and the lure of a favorite television rerun. Tired parents lack energy to focus the family on reconnecting at the end of the workday. The Christmas holidays appear before family plans are in place, and vacations are patched together at the last minute.

In Entropic Families, there is no less love, no less desire for meaning and connection than in Intentional Families. But their members gradually drift apart because they lack the infusions of bonding, intimacy, and community that only well-maintained family rituals can give. In the end, most families that are not intentional will follow the currents of entropy toward less closeness than they had hoped for when they started their family journey; the forces pulling on families are just too strong in the modern world. Ultimately, we must decide either to steer or go where the river takes us. The key to successful steering is to be intentional about our family rituals.


When you recall your favorite memories of childhood, probably they center around family rituals such as bedtime, an annual vacation, Thanksgiving, Christmas, or the weekly Sabbath meal. Your worst memories might also be connected with these family rituals. Interestingly, many family researchers and family therapists have learned only recently how significant a component family rituals are to the glue that holds families together. Previously, most researchers and therapists emphasized talk: how couples communicate, how parents verbally praise and discipline children. But as important as talking is, what professionals weren't considering was how we enact our family relationships.

Family rituals are repeated and coordinated activities that have significance for the family. To be a ritual, the activity has to have meaning or significance; otherwise, it is a routine but not a ritual. For example, most families' bathroom activities are routines rather than rituals because they do not have much symbolic importance, although such an activity can become a ritual. For example, one of my clients and his new wife took a shower together every morning, which became a ritual for them. To be a ritual, then, the activity must also be repeated; an occasional, unplanned trip to a cabin would not make for a family ritual, whereas an annual trip that family members look forward to would. Finally, a ritual activity must be coordinated; a meal that each person fixes and eats alone would not qualify as a family ritual, whereas a meal that everyone gathers deliberately together to eat would, if done regularly and with meaning.

A goal of this book is to show you how to transform some family routines into family rituals. Family rituals give us four important things:

Predictability. The sense of regularity and order that families require, especially those with children. Knowing that the father will talk to his child and read a story every night makes bedtime something to look forward to and savor. If bedtime talks and stories have to be negotiated every night¶ if there is no predictability¶then the ritual loses its power.

Connection. The bedtime ritual may be the primary one-to-one time shared between a father and his child. For couples, bedtime rituals may also be an important opportunity to connect emotionally and perhaps sexually after a busy, distracted day. Couples who value rituals of connection generally make sure they coordinate their evening plans so as to go to bed together. Those who generally go to bed at different times are apt to lose connection over time, unless they have strong alternative rituals of connection.

Identity. A sense of who belongs to the family and what is special about the family. You may know who your core family members are by who is invited to the Thanksgiving meal; including nonrelatives in core family rituals makes them "family," too. Families who take interesting vacations together acquire the self-image of a fun-loving family. They will say 'We are campers" or 'We are hikers." For some couples, shopping for antiques becomes a ritual outing that helps form a couple identity as antique lovers.

A way to enact values. Values demonstrate what we believe and hold dear. Religious rituals are a good example, as is a family volunteering together for community work; or ensuring that the children join in regular family visits to a grandparent in a nursing home, thereby teaching that it is important to honor and support this elderly family member.

Types of Family Rituals

Family rituals by definition involve more than one family member, but not all family rituals necessarily involve the whole family. Some rituals involve just two members; say, a married couple going out to dinner or a parent reading to a child. Some involve subgroups, as when my father took my sister and me to Philadelphia Phillies baseball games. Some involve the larger extended family, such as family reunions and holiday rituals. Others include close friends of the family, and still others, a larger community such as a church or synagogue or a volunteer group to support the local children's museum. It is important to think of the different combinations of participants in family rituals. Successful Intentional Families learn to ritualize everything from pairs to communities.

I like to classify family rituals by the function they play for families; that is, by the needs they serve. Thus, there are rituals for connection or bonding, rituals for showing love to individual family members, and rituals that bind the family to the larger community.

Connection rituals offer everyday opportunities for family bonding, such as family meals, morning and bedtime routines, and the comings and goings of family members to and from work and school. They also involve family outings, from small trips to the ice cream store to major family vacations. The goal is a sense of family bonding.

Love rituals focus on developing one-to-one intimacy and making individual family members feel special. They can be subdivided into couple rituals and special-person rituals. Examples of couple love rituals are anniversaries, Valentine's Day, "dating," and sexual relations. Special-person rituals generally center around birthdays, Mother's Day, and Father's Day.

Community rituals have a more public dimension than connection and love rituals. They include major family events such as weddings and funerals that link families to their communities, as well as religious activities in churches, synagogues, or mosques. In addition, community rituals include conscious efforts to connect with a wider social network than the family, to both give and gain support. Too much writing about family life has ignored the public face of families and concentrated narrowly on the internal hearth and home. The healthiest families give to their communities and receive support back in good measure.

Thanksgiving and Christmas have evolved into a special category of family ritual, involving all three functions of rituals: connection, love, and community. They are the grand rituals of the calendar year for the majority of American families, Christian and non-Christian alike. And for many people, holiday rituals hold both the fondest and most depressing memories of childhood.

Historians have learned recently that community rituals, not "home" rituals, formed the linchpin of family life in the era of the Institutional Family. Before the mid-nineteenth century in Europe and America, family rituals hardly existed as we know of them today. Ritual activities occurred mostly in community settings such as churches and public commons, not inside the family itself. Families had daily routines, of course, but apparently they did not regard them as significant sources of family connection. They ate meals, but they did not think of family dinners as a special time separate from other times. Indeed, families prior to the late nineteenth century did not dwell much on their interior life. Christmas was celebrated with community festivals, not with family rituals of celebration and gift-giving. Families did not have birthday parties, and couples did not celebrate anniversaries. It was only with the passing of the Institutional Family and the gradual emergence of the Psychological Family after the Industrial Revolution that families began to think of themselves as separate from their communities and in need of special family rituals. As their urban environment grew more alien and as fathers went into the workforce away from home, families began to cultivate their inner world through special rituals. When communities broke up, families had to become intentional about their own rituals.

There is no universal yardstick for measuring family rituals for all of our diverse contemporary families. Remarried families have different needs from first-married families, as do single-parent families from two-parent families. Different ethnic traditions require different degrees of flexibility or structure in family rituals. Some families are tied closely to their ethnic origins and to their extended families, and some have more independent lifestyles. Some families have young children, some have adolescents, and some have no children. Some families are experiencing peaceful periods in their life, and thus feel free to be creative with their rituals, while others are undergoing tremendous stress and need to just hang on to what they have. There is no ritual formula that applies to all this diversity. Indeed, the idea of the Intentional Family is encourage families to use their own values, histories, religions, and cultures to consciously plan their life together and in community.


Becoming a ritualizing Intentional Family means learning to manage the two principal drains on the energy of most American families: time demands outside the home and electronic technology inside the home.

Now that most mothers are employed, and fathers are working as much or more than ever, there is a net decrease in the amount of time parents have to spend with their children and with each other. Add to that the fact that jobs for teenagers are plentiful, and many of them are also employed during family dinner hours and on weekends. And middle-class families in particular now spend a huge amount of time driving their children to various lessons and practices, on top of attending their games and events. If time is the raw material of family rituals, we are suffering from its shortage. Many American families feel starved for time.

How can we become more intentional about family life in the face of this time shortage? Let's say you are already an overwhelmed single parent, or a married person who barely has time to talk to your spouse. Will thinking about enhancing your family rituals just serve to make you feel even more guilty than you already do? Two general strategies will be exemplified throughout this book. First is to make better use of the time you already spend on family activities. You have to feed your children, so start with improving the quality of those feeding rituals, without lengthening the time. You have to put your kids to bed; work on making it more pleasurable. You probably have birthday parties, holiday celebrations, and countless other family activities. You can enhance their quality while not adding to their number or extending their time requirements.

Disconnecting the Wires

The second general strategy is to experiment with carving out time from another activity that occupies more than its fair share of your attention. I recommend taming technology. We live in an era of the wired American family. The average American family has 2.5 television sets, and the average American spends over four hours per day watching television. That means television watching consumes half of our nonsleep, nonwork time. You can't tell me there is no surplus family ritual time to be carved out there! Add in CD players, telephones, and, increasingly, computers and the Internet. When we are in our cars, there is the radio and tape player. When we are out for walks, there are headphones. When we are running errands, more of us talk on cellular phones. We are always interruptible and distractible, two conditions that work against family rituals and intentional family life.

Believe me, I am not a Luddite, rejecting all modern technology. When my daughter was in Europe, the telephone and e-mail kept us in contact. And television watching can be a relaxing way for family members to unwind. But, for many of us, electronic technology is the pet that has taken over the house. That's the bad news. The good news is that taming it even a little, such as by turning off the television during meals, can free up time for family rituals. We trained our dog to stay out of our bedrooms, and we banned television from there as well. No one, including the dog, has suffered for it.

The idea behind the Intentional Family is that families can decide for themselves, based on their own traditions, values, and circumstances, how best to ritualize their lives. Most families have some rituals they enjoy, some they don't enjoy but feel stuck with, and some they could benefit from creating or refurbishing. As you read this book, I encourage you to develop an agenda of current rituals you might want to remodel and new ones you might want to try. But hold off on trying anything new on your family until you read the last chapter, where I discuss specific strategies for creating and modifying family rituals. Moving too quickly or unilaterally in the domain of family rituals is sure to result in your family members saying "No way!" to your creative ideas. Changing family rituals requires sensitivity, tact, timing, and diplomatic skills -- the very talents necessary to survive as an Intentional Family in an era of both unprecedented confusion and opportunity for families.

Excerpted from THE INTENTIONAL FAMILY: HOW TO BUILD FAMILY TIES IN OUR MODERN WORLD, by William J. Doherty, Ph.D., Copyright © 1997 by William J. Doherty. Excerpted by permission of Addison Wesley Longman. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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