3 Family Styles: Which Best Describes Yours?

Consider ways in which your family uses time, space, and energy.

Posted Jun 30, 2018

Source: sathyathri/pixabay

My favorite book about families and their dynamics is David Kantor and William Lehr’s Inside the Family: Toward a Theory of Family Process. They propose viewing families through a single lens, that of implicit purpose or guiding value. Broad in scope, the theory shines light on the pursuit and consequences of each of three different styles of expressing core attitudes towards intimacy.

Kanter and Lehr labeled the three family styles “Closed”, “Open”, and “Random”, based on their “distance regulation” preferences. The following thumbnail sketches, elaborated with much more detail in the book itself and in the article (see reference below) that I authored with Sandra Scarr, summarize the three styles.

  • Closed family. Alicia and Warren, their children, and Alicia’s mother live in a traditional home with period furniture, doors that allow rooms to be closed off, and spaces that define activities and their participants. Their core value is “stability through tradition”, bringing along with it a reverence for authority, for discipline, and for preparation to fulfill roles that are predefined as acceptable or worthy. Relationships are marked by honesty and commitment, with prescribed rituals when a person joins or leaves the family, whether by birth, adoption, marriage or death. (Divorce is very unusual.) A world-view defined by certainty and clarity concerning agreed-upon goals provides indisputable meaning. Rules, schedules, and specific locations for designated activities are in place to support the goals and a steady pace is expected in their pursuit. History and rituals, often those that have been repeated since the parents themselves were children or perhaps across generations, define priorities for how time may be used, and genetic, cultural, and religious identifications help determine who can be considered “in” and who must be seen as “out”. Visible achievement in the world — observed through the acquisition of money or its symbols, or grades or trophies or other awards reflecting public recognition — is prized and activities in its pursuit are prioritized. Expectations or “standards” abound and life within home and community is orderly. Schedules are determined and followed. Senior members of the family call the shots. Play dates and social plans are organized, often made well into the future. Memories are preserved and showcased, frequently in photos that artfully decorate the tidy home. Participation in defined holidays and specific community groups or events is required.
  • Open Family. Illustrating the second style, Calvin and Lucinda prize emotional connections, the formation of relationships between people, and intimacy above all. Their home and their use of time and energy are likely to be highly flexible — rooms serving multiple purposes, schedules altered with ease, a high tolerance for shifts in passions for both activities and people. Friends and neighbors flow in and out with ease; casual and spontaneous gatherings are common. An extra person or two at the dinner table — or making or bringing or creating dinner — is common. Emotional intelligence runs high and sensitivity and responsiveness to one another are the glue that holds the family members together, the key to the consensus that allows the group to adapt to changing conditions both within its members and in their environment. Cooperation is valued and conflicts are meant to be resolved through respect for and responsiveness to the disrupting individuals. Personal differences are treated with respect, even embraced, as they contribute to the greater whole. Members applaud their own and each other’s integrity, balancing personal authenticity with a group “identity”.
  • Random family. Julia and Marie have created a random family style: needs of and support for
    Source: Greyerbaby/Pixabay
    individuals is paramount, even when at the expense of group cohesion. Their core purpose is for members to practice “exploration through intuition”, behaviors that yield creativity. They are comfortable alternating periods of intense closeness with those of serious distance, whether emotionally or in terms of space and shared activities or interests. This family is comfortable with the many moving parts that are required if the individuals are to have the freedom to maximize their personal potentials.  Space where members spend their time extends beyond the walls of a particular dwelling to wherever people may wind up in pursuit of their impulses or passions. They may pop in and out of the home as their non-family interests permit, and all are comfortable with spontaneity in organization, plans, investments of time and energy. The power to make decisions moves easily among various members as the nature of the issue changes, just as closeness between any two people shifts with their individual priorities. The sense of identity as a “group” resides in their ability to pursue the extreme, the adventurous, the whimsical. They embrace the diversity the members bring to the group. People within this family have a great deal of individuality, differing from one another with individual differences being respected, encouraged, and applauded. The group can be sacrificed for individuals as personal needs are honored above those of the larger entity, allowing everyone to understand and be comfortable with having people missing at the holiday table because they are pursuing opportunities that take them elsewhere. Autonomy is prized and periods of intense togetherness alternate with those of distance. Schedules can change with peoples’ needs; coordination becomes a challenge and an art. Separations demanded by work or personal development opportunities often take members to distant locations, and contact may be sporadic and spontaneous.   
Source: Greyerbaby/Pixabay

What does this mean for you?

  • First, understand that these portraits are extreme. Most families are blends and find ways to balance the needs for external rewards, relational closeness, and personal growth.
  • A family’s style can change, especially as the composition of the family shifts or as children grow. When a new member joins, he or she brings a whole history of style with them as well as newly extended family members who have shared that style. One’s family of origin can accommodate to the shift better or with more difficulty than another, depending on the similarity of the newcomer’s style to that of the receiving family and also the flexibility of the families.
  • The style that best benefits family members can ideally shift organically from closed to open to random as children grow. Small children respond best to structure and clear authority. Older ones thrive on emotional support and belonging to a community, with membership in the proverbial “village” it takes to raise a child. Adolescents and adults, with an increasing need to do what Murray Bowen called “individuate” from the family of origin, may do best when they have the freedom to alternate periods of intense closeness with those of separation. A random style may best benefit both the children who grow up and leave the nest and the parents who are left behind.
  • All members of a family may not thrive with the same style. I am a fan of considering temperament when looking at individual differences and relationships. Temperaments are fairly unique, and a family style ideally suited to one member may not be equally beneficial to all.
  • When children leave home and form their own families, they get to select how and with whom they want to live. Rather than expecting a repetition of the style that their parents provided, hopefully those who raised them will be grateful that their progeny have the courage and tools to make their own way in their inevitably different world.

What happens when the style of a family is unable to accommodate the needs of its members?  Kanter and Lehr argue that breakdown occurs in different but predictable ways, according to style.  More on that next time.

Can you identify the family style of your family of origin? The family that you have formed as an adult? In what ways are they similar? In what ways do they differ? How have the similarities affected the relationships? How have differences been dealt with? What best enriches your current family? If you take a step back, you can almost always find ways to appreciate the benefits of different styles for different people. Can you allow room for that tolerance and feel gratitude that choice is possible?

Copyright 2018 Roni Beth Tower


Kantor, D. and Lehr, W. (1975) Inside the Family: Toward a Theory of Family Process. Jossey-Bass.  Re-released in 2003 by Meredith Winter Press.

Kerr, Michael E. (September, 1988). Chronic anxiety and defining a self. Atlantic Monthly. pp. 35-38. https://www.endowedparishes.org/download_file/view/1561/ 

Tower, R. B. and Scarr, S. (1985-86).  The measurement of three lifestyle values: Resourcefulness, responsibility and relationships to others.  Imagination, cognition and personality, 5, 167-189. http://ica.sagepub.com/content/5/2/167.short