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What Is a Family Life Cycle?

Amanda R. Bell
Amanda R. Bell

The family life cycle consists of five different stages that the majority of people go through between childhood and old age, each of which teaches a separate set of life skills. The independence stage occurs when a child leaves his or her family of origin to start adult life. When he or she decides to partner with another adult and start a family, he or she enters the coupling stage and then the parenting stage. When these children leave the family home, entering their own independence stage, the adults continue through the last two stages of the family life cycle: empty nest and retirement.

As a child begins to support himself or herself emotionally and physically, he or she enters the independence stage. At this point in life, a person typically begins to discover different parts of himself or herself outside of how he or she was raised, and begins to learn how to develop close, healthy relationships outside of the family. Once a person begins to support himself or herself, his or her work ethic is typically developed.

A family in the parenting stage.
A family in the parenting stage.

When a person decides to join his or her life with another, he or she enters the coupling stage of the family life cycle. Developing another family unit, outside of one’s family of origin, typically teaches each person in a relationship how to work closely with another and aids in developing an ability to look out for others first, rather than focusing entirely on one’s own personal needs. Learning these skills tends to prepare a person for the following stages in the family life cycle.

Parents my experience the "empty nest syndrome" when their children leave home.
Parents my experience the "empty nest syndrome" when their children leave home.

Large portions of couples decide to raise children, entering both parties into the parenting stage. This lasts from the time a couple gives birth to or adopts a child to the time those children enter their own stage of independence. Both parenting small children and teenagers gives each individual an opportunity to learn new life skills, such as how to take into account the needs of the entire family rather than just the individual and his or her partner. This stage also tends to reconnect an individual with his or her family of origin, developing a new extended family dynamic.

Once the children go off on their own, an individual enters the empty nest stage. At this juncture in the family life style, an individual typically focuses on his or her career and learns to adjust to his or her home life without children. It is also common for an individual to reconnect with his or her family of origin again, as the older generation of a family usually requires help with daily life. During the empty nest stage of the family life cycle, learning how to develop a relationship with the people one raised is also common.

The final stage of the family life cycle is the retirement stage. At this point, most individuals place a large amount of focus on enjoying or adjusting to life after work and often deal with potential or existing health issues. During the retirement stage, it is also common for individuals to look back on past stages and combine all of the skills and knowledge learned.

Discussion Comments


@bythewell - Whether or not someone is following the nuclear family option, they could still use the family life cycle theory to help them see stages in their lives. Even if you don't move away from your parents, you could still reach a point where you are essentially independent of them and certainly once you get married and have kids this will mostly be true.

The cycle doesn't have to necessarily describe your living conditions, but it does describe the relationships you have with others and those will be roughly the same across most cultures. People will grow away from their own parents and become parents themselves, and then eventually grandparents and they will retire from actively making a living. It's not a perfect description of every life, but it definitely describes an average life.


@koiwiGal - From a conservation standpoint that actually makes a lot of sense as well. The classic nuclear family model really developed in the 50's and it came with a lot of expectation for material things like two cars and a house full of white-ware. These are expensive and resource heavy goods that could easily sustain more than just the 4-5 people involved in most stages of a family life cycle.


This is actually a fairly modern, Western-centric style of life cycle. And even here it's becoming less and less the norm. The big difference is that in a lot of places, people don't ever move out of the family home, or, if they do, they move back again when they have their own children.

And frankly, it makes sense from more than just a financial point of view. Grandparents are an invaluable resource for parents, both in terms of experience and just spare time to spend on the children. Humans have been living in small tribes for a lot longer than they have been living in nuclear family groups and clustering an extended family together emulates those conditions a lot more closely. I think it's definitely a good thing for the stages of the family life cycle to become more intertwined with each other.

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    • A family in the parenting stage.
      A family in the parenting stage.
    • Parents my experience the "empty nest syndrome" when their children leave home.
      By: Tatyana Gladskih
      Parents my experience the "empty nest syndrome" when their children leave home.