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(p. 265) Integrative and Disruptive Factors in Family Life 

(p. 265) Integrative and Disruptive Factors in Family Life
(p. 265) Integrative and Disruptive Factors in Family Life

Donald W. Winnicott

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Subscriber: null; date: 13 December 2018

Originally published in Canadian Medical Association Journal, 15 April 1961, 84(15), 814–815, as ‘Integrating and disruptive factors in family life’. Also published in The family and individual development (pp. 40–49). London: Tavistock, 1965.
Originally a lecture on the subject of ‘The Family’, given at Goldsmith’s College, London, October 1957. It was given as ‘What Makes a Family Tick Over?’ to The Association of Child Care Officers Conference, Derbyshire, May 1958, and again at McGill University, Montreal, Canada in October 1960 as ‘Integrating and Disintegrating Factors in Family Life’.

It would be a truism to say that the family is an essential part of our civilization. The way we arrange our families practically shows what our culture is like, just as a picture of the face portrays the individual. The family continues to be important all the time and accounts for much of the travelling we do. We burst out, emigrate, go from east to west or from south to north, because of the need to break away, and then we periodically travel back home just to renew contacts. And we spend a lot of time writing letters, sending telegrams, telephoning, and hearing about our relations; moreover, in times of stress, most people become loyal to the family setting and suspicious of the foreigner.

Nonetheless, despite this common knowledge, the family is something that deserves our detailed study. As a psycho-analyst, studying individual emotional development in great detail, I have learned that each individual needs to make the long road from being merged in with mother to being a separate person, related to mother, and to mother and father together; from here the journey goes through the territory known as the family, with father and mother as the main structural features. The family has its own growth, and the individual small child experiences the changes that belong to the family’s gradual expansion and to its troubles. The family protects the child from the world. But gradually the world begins to seep in. The aunts and uncles, the neighbours, the earliest sibling groups, leading on to schools. This (p. 266) gradual environmental seeping-in is the way by which a child can best come to terms with the wider world, and follows exactly the pattern of the infant’s introduction to external reality by the mother.

I know that our relations are often a nuisance, and that we are liable to grumble because of the burden of them. We may even die of them. Yet they are important to us. One has only to look at the struggles peculiar to men and women with no relations at all (as, for instance, in the case of some refugees and some illegitimate children) to see that the absence of relations to grumble about, to love, to be loved by, to hate, and to fear, constitutes a terrible handicap; it leads to a tendency to suspect even quite friendly neighbours.

What do we find when we begin to dissect some of the very real stresses which we encounter as soon as we begin to look below the surface?

Positive Tendencies in the Parents

There comes a time after the marriage ceremony when it is very convenient if children begin to appear. If children come immediately they can very well be unwelcome, because the two young people have not yet passed through the initial stage in which they mean everything to each other. We all know of first children who by being born broke up the relationship between their fathers and mothers, and suffered on account of this. We also meet very many family settings in which children do not appear. Let us consider those cases in which children do appear and are a natural consequence of the relationship between the father and mother. Let us assume that the children are healthy. It has very often been said as a joke and with truth that children are a nuisance; but coming at the right time in a relationship they are the right kind of nuisance. There seems to be something in human nature that expects a nuisance, and it is better that this nuisance should be a child than an illness or an environmental disaster.

The existence of a family and the maintenance of a family atmosphere result from the relationship between the parents in the social setting in which they live. What the parents can ‘contribute in’ to the family that they are building up depends a great deal on their general relationship to the wider circle around them, their immediate social setting. One can think of ever-widening circles, each social group depending for what it is like inside on its relationship to another outside social group. Of course the circles overlap. Many a family is a going concern, yet would not stand being uprooted and transplanted.

But the parents cannot be considered simply in their relationship to society. There are powerful forces creating and binding the family in terms of the relationship between the parents themselves. These forces have been studied in great detail. They belong to the very complex fantasy of sex. Sex is not just (p. 267) a matter of physical satisfaction. I want especially to emphasize that sexual satisfactions are an achievement of personal emotional growth; when such satisfactions belong to relationships that are personally and socially agreeable they represent a peak of mental health. On the reverse side, disturbances in the sex field are associated with all manner of neurotic disorders, psychosomatic troubles, and wastage of the potential of the individual. However, although sex power is vitally important, complete satisfaction is not in itself an aim when the subject of the family is considered. It is worth noting that a large number of families exist and are counted good though they are built on a basis of not very powerful physical satisfactions on the part of the parents. The extreme examples of physical satisfaction perhaps belong typically to romantic love, which is not necessarily the best basis for home-building.

Some people have but a poor capacity for the enjoyment of sex. Some frankly prefer auto-erotic experience, or homosexuality. However, it is obviously a very rich experience and fortunate for everyone concerned when the parents are able easily to enjoy the potency that belongs to individual emotional maturity. On top of this, we know that there are other things in the relationship between the parents which tend naturally towards the establishment of the family unit, such as the parents’ deep-rooted wish to be like their own parents in the sense of being grown-up. We remember also the imaginative life, and such things as an overlap of cultural interests and pursuits.

Let us pause for a moment to consider that which I call ‘the fantasy of sex’. Here I have to refer to matters that appear in the unusual frankness that belongs to psycho-analytic work. Psycho-analysis makes one wonder how a correct and adequate history of a marital case can be taken except as a by-product of a psycho-analytic treatment, or of the special conditions that go with psychiatric social work. The total sex fantasy, conscious and unconscious is almost infinitely variable, and has vital significance. It is important to understand, among other things, the sense of concern or guilt that arises out of the destructive elements (largely unconscious) that go along with the love impulse when this is expressed physically. It can be readily conceded that this sense of concern and guilt contributes a good deal to the need of each parent, and of the parents together, for a family. The growing family better than anything else neutralizes the frightening ideas of harm done, of bodies destroyed, of monsters generated. The very real anxieties in the father at the time of the mother’s parturition reflect as clearly as anything else the anxieties that belong to the fantasy of sex and not just to the physical realities. Surely a great deal of the joy that the baby brings into the parents’ lives is based on the fact that the baby is whole and human, and furthermore that the baby contains something that makes for living—that is to say, living apart from being kept alive; that the baby has an innate tendency towards breathing and moving and growing. The child as a fact deals, for the time being, with all the fantasies of good and (p. 268) bad, and the innate aliveness of each child gives the parents a great sense of relief as they gradually come to believe in it; relief from ideas that arise from their sense of guilt or unworthiness.

It is not possible to understand the attitude of parents to their children apart from a consideration of the meaning of each child in terms of the parents’ conscious and unconscious fantasy around the act that produced the conception. Parents feel quite differently about, and act quite differently towards, each child. Much depends on the relationship between the parents at the time of conception, during the mother’s pregnancy, at the time of the birth, and afterwards. The effect of the wife’s pregnancy on her husband comes into this: in some extreme cases the husband turns from his wife when she becomes pregnant; sometimes he is drawn more closely to her. In every case there is an alteration in the relationship between the parents, often a great enrichment and a deepening of the sense of responsibility that each has for the other.

We hear it said that it is strange that children can be so different from each other when they have the same parents and are brought up in the same house and in the same home. This leaves out of account the whole of the imaginative elaboration of the important function of sex, and the way that each child fits specifically, or fails to fit, into a certain imaginative and emotional setting, a setting which can never be the same twice, even when everything else in the physical environment remains constant.

There are many other variations on this theme. Some are complex but some of them are obvious: for instance, whether the infant is a boy or a girl may profoundly affect the relationship between the parents. Sometimes it is a boy that is wanted by both; sometimes the mother feels frightened of her love of a boy baby, and becomes unable to allow the pleasure of the intimacy of breast-feeding on this account. Sometimes the father wishes for a girl and mother wishes for a boy, or the other way round.

It must be remembered that the family is composed of the individual children, each of whom is not only genetically distinct from the others but is also very much indeed influenced in his or her emotional growth by what I have referred to as the way in which the new child does or does not fit in with the parents’ fantasy, which enriches and elaborates the physical relationship that they have, each in relation to the other. Always the most important thing in the whole of this is the tremendous reassurance that the live human infant brings through being a fact: real, and, as I have said, for the time being, neutralizing fantasy and eliminating expectations of disasters.

Those who have adopted children will know how such children can fill the gap in the imaginative needs arising out of a marriage. And married people with no children can and do find all sorts of other ways of in fact having a family; they may be found sometimes to have the largest families of all. But they would have preferred to have had their own born children.

(p. 269) What I have said so far, then, is that the two parents need the actual children in the development of their relationship each to the other, and the positive drives generated in this way are very powerful. It is not enough, for our intended purpose, to say that parents love their children. They often do get round to loving them, and they have all sorts of other feelings. Children need more of their parents than to be loved; they need something that carries over when they are hated and even hateful.

Disruptive Factors Coming from the Parents

In considering the difficulties of parents, it is always valuable to remind ourselves that parents are not necessarily fully mature just because they have achieved marriage and the establishment of a family. Each member of the adult community is growing, and continues to grow, we hope, throughout life. But the adult has great difficulty in growing without throwing away the achievements of earlier stages of growth. It is easy for us to say that if people are mature enough to marry and have children they ought to be content to stay where they are and to cut their losses if they are not happy about themselves. Nevertheless, we know that in fact men and women have much growth to achieve in the decades that follow the time of their marriage if they marry at all early. Early is the best time for marriage, in terms of the establishment of a family. Children thrive best on parents who are twenty or thirty years older than themselves, and who are not too wise; such parents learn from their children and this has a lot to be said for it. Shall we hope that men and women will wait to marry until they are rich and perhaps smug? It is true, surely, that in the majority of cases men and women need to establish a platform (such as being married and having a family), and from this platform they eventually make further personal growth. They are often willing, easily willing, to wait for a number of years while their children are needing them for the family setting, and then they spurt forwards. Sometimes, however, there is a period of great strain before eventually the parents, or one parent, may re-start a new phase of growth.

It is indeed difficult to achieve full growth during adolescence. Society does not like free experiment among adolescents, and there are always those who like children to be nice. ‘Nice’ in adolescence means ‘not thoughtlessly forming relationships’. The word ‘thoughtlessly’ here refers to careless pregnancies and illegitimate children. Many children pass through their adolescence in a somewhat inhibited way. In the case of immature men and women who marry, many find great relief and enjoyment in the establishment of a family; but we must not be surprised if ultimately the growth of their own children challenges them to go further with their own growth, which was held up at the time of their adolescence.

(p. 270) A social factor operates here. Big changes have taken place recently all over the world. If we are to have no more wars, then we will no longer have the distraction from adolescent problems that wars provided. So we find everywhere that adolescents are establishing adolescence as a phase in development that must be taken into account. It is essentially a phase of difficulty, a mixture of dependence and defiance, and the phase passes as the adolescent becomes adult. (Let us not be misled by the fact that new adolescents come along to keep the pot boiling.)

I would say that a great deal of what we see complicating family life is that which parents do when they come to the end of their ability to sacrifice everything for their children. Delayed adolescence in one or both parents is beginning to make itself felt. Perhaps this refers especially to the father because the mother so often discovers herself in the unexpected physical and emotional events that belong to motherhood. She too, however, may come at a later date to a tremendous need to experience romantic or passionate love which she avoided earlier because she wanted the right father for her children.

What now happens to the family? I am aware that in the vast majority of cases enough maturity exists in the parents for them to be able to make sacrifices themselves, as their parents did for them, in order to establish and maintain their family, so that the children may not only be born into a family but may grow and may reach adolescence in the family, and may in relation to the family pass right through to achieving an independent and perhaps married life, each one. But this is not always possible.

We should not, I think, despise those who were not very mature at the time of marriage and who cannot afford to wait indefinitely, and for whom the time comes when they must make new spurts forward in personal growth or else degenerate. Difficulties occur in the marriage, and the children then have to be able to adapt themselves to the family disruption. Sometimes parents are able to see children through to a satisfactory adult independence in spite of the fact that they themselves have found a necessity for breaking up the framework of a marriage, or perhaps have found a need for remarriage.

In a proportion of cases, of course, young married people deliberately avoid having children, knowing that, although they have reached something valuable by getting married, this is an unstable state of affairs; and knowing, each of them, that they may have to make new experiments before being ready to establish a family, which they intend to do eventually. They intend to establish a family partly because this is natural and partly because they hope to be like other parents and so to become socialized and integrated into the community. But a family is not the natural result of a romantic love affair. In the more unfortunate cases there is a state of chaos arising from difficulties of an extreme kind between the parents, difficulties which make it impossible for them to cooperate even in the care of children of whom they are fond.1

(p. 271) In this account I have deliberately omitted the disruptive effect of physical or mental illness2—but I have attempted to show how important is the study of the integrative and disintegrative factors making for family life or for its disruption: factors that come from the relationship between a man and a woman who have married, and from the conscious and unconscious fantasy of their sexual lives.

Positive Tendencies in the Children

In considering the other half of the problem, that is to say, the integrative and disruptive factors relative to family life that come from the children, it must be remembered that each parent has been a child and to some extent is still a child.

It cannot be too strongly emphasized that the integration of the family derives from the integrative tendency of each individual child. Integration of the individual is not a thing that can be taken for granted. Personal integration is a matter of emotional growth. In the case of every human being a start has to be made from an unintegrated state. Much work has been done on this matter of the earliest stages in infant development, when the self is first becoming established and yet is still absolutely dependent on maternal care for making personal progress. In ordinary favourable conditions (which have to do with the mother’s close identification with her child, and later on with the combined interest of the two parents), the human infant becomes able to give evidence of an innate tendency towards integration, this being part of the growth process. The process of growth must take place in the case of each child. If conditions are favourable at the earliest stages of great dependence, and an integration of the personality occurs, this integration of the individual, which is an active process involving fierce energies, affects the environment. The child who is developing well, and in particular whose personality has been able to achieve integration from within by the innate forces belonging to individual growth, has an integrative effect on the immediate environment; such a child ‘contributes in’ to the family situation.

This contributing in from each individual child may be forgotten until one experiences the shock of a child who is ill or defective, and who for one reason or another is not contributing in. One then observes how the parents and family suffer in consequence. Where the child is not contributing in the parents are burdened with a task which is not altogether a natural one—they have to supply a home setting and to maintain this setting, and to try to keep up a family and a family atmosphere in spite of the fact that there is no help to be derived from the individual child. There is a limit beyond which parents cannot be expected to succeed in such a task.

(p. 272) Society depends on the integration of family units, but I think it is important to remember that these family units in turn depend on the integration which takes place in the growth of each individual member. In other words, in a healthy society, one in which democracy can nourish, a proportion of the individuals must have achieved a satisfactory integration in their own personality development. The idea of democracy and the democratic way of life arises out of the health and the natural growth of the individual, and can be maintained in no way except by the integration of the individual personality, multiplied of course many times according to the number of healthy or relatively healthy individuals that may exist in the community. There must be enough healthy individuals to carry the unintegrated personalities who cannot contribute in, otherwise society degenerates from a democracy.

It will be seen as a corollary of this that it is not possible to make a community democratic, since by undertaking the task of making the community democratic one is already applying a force from outside which is effective only if it comes from within, from each individual’s health. However, a healthy society carries a proportion of passenger members. A healthy family too can carry children whose integrative tendencies are weak.

Each individual child, by healthy emotional growth and by the development of his or her personality in a satisfactory way, promotes the family and the family atmosphere. The parents, in their efforts to build a family, benefit from the sum of the integrative tendencies of the individual children. It is not just simply a matter of the lovableness of the infant or the child; there is something more than that, for children are not always sweet. The infant and the small child and the older child flatter us by expecting a degree of reliability and availability to which we respond, partly I suppose because of our capacity to identify with them. This capacity to identify with the children again depends on our having made a good-enough growth in our own personality development when we were at the same age. In this way, our own capacities are strengthened and are brought out, developed, by what is expected of us from our children. In innumerable and very subtle ways, as well as in obvious ways, infants and children produce a family around them, perhaps by needing something, something which we give because of what we know about expectation and about fulfilment. We see what the children create when playing at families, and we feel that we want to make real the symbols of their creativeness.

Parents are often able to fulfil the expectations of their children in a way or to a degree that is better than that which they experienced from their own parents. There is a danger here, however, that when they do better than their own parents beyond a certain degree, they inevitably begin to resent their own goodness, and indeed they tend to break up what they are doing so well. For this reason, some men and women can let themselves do better with children who are not their own than with their own children.

(p. 273) Disruptive Factors Coming from the Children

From this one passes on to a consideration of the disintegration of the family brought about by a lack of development in the individual child or by the child’s illness. In certain psychiatric illnesses of children there are tendencies of a secondary nature which develop and show themselves as an active need on the part of the child to break up anything that is good, stable, reliable, or in any way valuable. The outstanding example is the antisocial tendency of the deprived child who is most destructive of family life. The family, whether the child’s own or a substitute family or community, constantly comes under test, and when tested and found reliable becomes the target of the child’s destructive urges. This touches on the big problem of making provision for children with antisocial tendencies. It is as if the child is looking for something worth destroying. Unconsciously, the child seeks something good which has been lost at an earlier stage, and with which he is angry because it went. This is, of course, a separate subject, but it must be mentioned among all the patterns of disruption of family life that derive from the child’s lack of development or distorted growth.

Further Development of the Two Themes

There is much that could be said about the interplay of all these various factors, factors that concern the parents and their relation to society and their wish to have a family, and factors that arise from the innate tendency towards integration which belongs to individual growth, but which—at any rate at the beginning—depends on the provision of a good-enough environment. There are many families which remain intact if the children happen to be developing well, but which cannot stand the presence in the family of an ill child.

In assessing a child with regard to suitability for psychotherapy, we find ourselves thinking not only of the diagnosis of the illness and of the availability of the psychotherapist, but also of the capacity of the family to tolerate, and in fact to ‘hold’, the child who is ill, and to tolerate the child’s illness over the period of time before psychotherapy begins to take effect. In many cases it can be said that the family has to turn itself into a nursing home or even a mental hospital, in order to contain the illness or treatment of one of the children; and whereas many families are able to do this, in which case psychotherapy is a relatively simple matter, other families are unable to do so, and we then have to place the child away from the family. The task of psychotherapy in this case is very much more complex, and indeed it is exceedingly difficult to find suitable groups for the placement of children who are not able to contribute in. As the child has relatively little (p. 274) integrative tendency to bring to this group, the group must hold the child and the illness.

In many cases parents who are quite capable of producing healthy children and of giving them a good family setting do in fact find, for reasons which are not of the kind for which one could blame them, that they have in their midst an ill child, one who is anxious, or subject to psychosomatic disorder or to depression, or a child who is very much disintegrated in personality, or perhaps antisocial, and so on. It is then necessary either to ask the parents to nurse the difficult child while we try to help the child, or else, at the other extreme, to ask them to give up the task, letting them know in fact that although they can set up a home and maintain it for normal children, nevertheless the family that they have created is not able to tolerate this one particular child who is ill. They must be relieved of the responsibility for the time being. Often it happens that parents cannot stand being helped in this way, although they also cannot stand the alternative.

There are very difficult problems of management around this sort of case and these matters are mentioned here only to highlight the central theme, which is that it is something in the healthy development of every individual child that is at the basis of the integration of the family group. In the same way it is the healthy families, surely, that make possible the wider integrations, the wider groupings of all kinds, groupings which overlap and which are sometimes mutually antagonistic, and yet which can contain the germ of an ever-widening social circle.

The child cannot of course produce this family by magic—that is, without the parents and the parents’ wish arising out of their own interrelationship. Nevertheless, each infant and child creates the family. It is true that parents bring about the existence of the family, but they need something from each infant and child—that which I am calling the individual child’s creation. Failing this, the parents lose heart and will simply have a family setting unoccupied. They may of course adopt a child, or they may in some other way find indirect means of having the equivalent of a family. The strength of the family comes from its being a meeting-place between something that arises out of the relationship of the father and the mother, and something that derives from the innate factors that belong to the emotional growth of the individual child—factors which I have put together under the heading of a tendency towards integration.


1. In Great Britain, since the Children Act of 1948, the state makes itself responsible for every child in England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland who is deprived of a home life, and this service is established throughout the country. Children’s Departments seek first to maintain whenever possible each child’s home life for him or her, and where (p. 275) this is not possible to place children in foster homes or to provide residential care for those who have special needs.

2. The effects on the family of various types of mental illness are discussed in ‘The Family Affected by Depressive Illness in One or Both Parents’ [CW 5:4:17], ‘The Effect of Psychotic Parents on the Emotional Development of the Child’ [CW 5:5:21] and ‘The Effect of Psychosis on Family Life’ [CW 6:1:6].