Circumplex Model: Couple and Family Map

"The theory should be simple enough for the average therapist to understand. When important issues are clearly understood, the therapist is not distracted by clients who are experts in complexity and obfuscation."

-Jay Haley, Leaving Home.


Couple and Family Map

The adaptability and cohesion scales from the PREPARE/ENRICH Inventories are derived from the Circumplex Model of Family Systems developed by Drs. David H. Olson, Douglas Sprenkle and Candyce Russell. This chapter provides an overview of this Model including descriptions of the basic concepts and hypotheses that form its foundations. For more details about the Circumplex Model, the book entitled Circumplex Model: Clinical Assessment and Treatment of Families by Olson, Russell and Sprenkle (1989) provides more in-depth information on the clinical and research applications.

The Circumplex Model of Marital & Family System identifies 16 types of couple and family relationships. It was developed in an attempt to bridge a gap that typically exists among research, theory, and practice. One major approach used to bridge this gap has been the systemic development of self-report scales based on the Circumplex Model. The self-report scale for Family-of-Origin in PREPARE and PREPARE-MC and Type of Marriage scale in ENRICH, have been developed to describe adaptability and cohesion in these relationships.

In using the Circumplex Model with couples and families, we refer to the 16 types with couples as the Couple Map and the Family Map when working with families. This simplified terminology helps couples and families more easily understand and relate to the ideas in the Circumplex Model.

A variety of hypotheses have been developed and tested using the Circumplex Model. While some of the research has attempted to look at the relationship between family symptoms and types of family systems, some of the recent studies are investigating changes in family types before and after treatment and also during the process of therapeutic intervention. Currently, over 800 research projects focus on a variety of theoretical and clinical issues related to the Circumplex Model.

In addition to its value in research projects, the Circumplex Model is very useful in clinical practice where it can be used for assessing marital and family relationships and for planning treatment intervention (Walsh and Olson, 1989).

Family Adaptability, Cohesion, and Communication are three dimensions of family behavior that emerge from a conceptual clustering of over 50 concepts developed to describe marital and family dynamics. Although some of these concepts have been used for decades (power and roles for instance), many have been developed by individuals observing problem families from a general systems perspective.

After reviewing the conceptual definitions of many of these concepts, it became apparent that despite the creative terminology, the terms were conceptually similar and dealt with highly related family processes.

The first family dimension focused on the extent to which the family system was flexible and able to change‐Family Adaptability; the second dealt with the degree to which an individual was separated from or connected to his/her family system‐Family Cohesion; and the third focused on communication among various family members.

Family Adaptability is defined as the ability of a marital or family system to change its power structure, role relationships and relationship rules in response to situational and developmental stress.

Adaptability measures the ability of a relationship to adjust to change. Marriages and families can range from having a rigid and authoritarian leadership to being chaotic with erratic or limited leadership.

In order to describe, measure and diagnose a couple on this dimension, a variety of concepts have been taken from several social science disciplines. These concepts include: family power (assertiveness, control, discipline), negotiation styles, role relationships and relationship rules.

A rigid relationship is where one individual is highly controlling. The roles are strictly defined and the rules do not change.

A structured relationship is overall less rigid. Leadership is somewhat less authoritarian and controlling but is shared between the parents. Roles are stable but there is some sharing of the roles. There are a few rule changes but not a lot of change.

A flexible relationship is more open to change., Leadership is more equally shared. Roles are sometimes shared and rules could change.

A chaotic relationship has erratic or limited leadership. Decisions are impulsive and not well thought out. Roles are unclear and often shifted from individual to individual.

Adaptability focuses on the ability of a couple and family system to balance stability versus change. Very high levels of adaptability (chaotic) and very low levels of adaptability (rigid) might be problematic for a marriage and family. On the other hand, relationships having moderate scores (structured and flexible) are able to balance some change and some stability in a more functional manner. Although there is no absolute "best level" for any relationship, some relationships have problems if they always function at either extreme of the Model (rigid or chaotic).

Family Cohesion is defined as the emotional bonding family members have toward one another.

Within the Circumplex Model, some of the specific concepts that can be used to describe, measure and diagnose a couple on this dimension are: emotional bonding, boundaries, coalitions, time, space, friends, decision-making, interest and recreation.

Cohesion measures the amount of togetherness in a relationship. Marriages and families range from being very close or enmeshed to being very distant or disengaged from each other.

A disengaged relationship often has extreme, emotional separateness. There is little involvement between the couple or a family member and a lot of personal separateness and independence. Individuals often do their own thing and have separate interests.

A separated relationship has some emotional separateness but is not as extreme as the disengaged system. While time apart is important, there is some time together and some joint decision-making. Activities and interests are generally separate but a few are shared.

A connected relationship has some emotional closeness and loyalty in the relationship. Time together is more important than time apart. There is an emphasis on togetherness. While there are separate friends, there are also friends and interests shared by a couple or family.

An enmeshed relationship has an extreme amount of emotional closeness and loyalty is demanded. Individuals are very dependent on each other and reactive to one another. There is a general lack of personal separateness and little privacy is permitted. The energy of the individuals is mainly focused inside the marriage or family and there are few outside individual friends or interests.

Cohesion focuses on the ability of the couple and family system to balance separateness and togetherness. Very high levels of togetherness (enmeshed) and low levels of togetherness (disengaged) might be problematic for a marriage and family. On the other hand, relationships having moderate scores (separated and connected) are able to balance being alone together in a more functional manner.

Although there is no absolute "best level" for any relationship, some may have problems if they always function at either extreme of the Map (enmeshed or disengaged.)

Communication is considered a facilitating dimension. Communication is considered critical for facilitating couples and families to move on the other two dimensions. Because communication is a facilitating dimension, it is not graphically included in the Circumplex Model. Couple communication is assessed by the separate communication scale in all three Inventories.

There are two types of communication skills‐positive and negative.

Positive communication skills (i.e. empathy, reflective listening, supportive comments) enable couples and families to share with each other their changing needs and preferences as they relate to adaptability and cohesion.

Negative communication skills (i.e. double messages, double binds, criticism) minimize the ability of a couple or family members to share their feelings and thereby restrict their movement on these dimensions.

Another way to consider the Circumplex Model is as a map of 16 types of couple and family relationships. In other words, a Couple Map and a Family Map. The Couple Map is used to describe 16 types of marriages and is incorporated into the ENRICH Inventory. The Family Map describes an individual's family-of-origin and is incorporated into the PREPARE and PREPARE-MC Inventories.

The Family Map in PREPARE is important because individuals often tend to recreate their past family system in their marriage. Individuals either recreate the type of family system they had as a child or they react by doing the opposite. Thus, if a couple came from two quite different family systems, on either adaptability or cohesion, this may cause some conflict for them as a couple.

The Type of Marriage, as summarized in the Couple Map, is important for the development of a couple. A couple needs to balance their levels of stability-change on adaptability and their levels of separateness-togetherness on cohesion. These levels can be adjusted by a couple to achieve a level that is acceptable to each partner.

There are a few ways a couple can have difficulty in balancing these levels of adaptability and cohesion.

First, couples might disagree on how they actually view their marriage. One partner might view it on cohesion as disengaged and the other partner might view it as connected. In terms of adaptability, one partner might view their marriage as rigid and the other partner might view it as flexible. If a couple disagrees too much, it will often reflect dissatisfaction with their current relationship.

Second, one or both partners might not like the levels of adaptability or cohesion they currently have in their relationship. One partner might feel the relationship is too low on cohesion (disengaged type) and the other partner might feel their partner is too controlling (rigid).

Couples can make deliberate attempts to change their marriage on adaptability and cohesion. This is important to do to keep a marriage more satisfying. A couple needs to discuss how they each view their relationship and explore possible directions for change. This will enable a couple to have some goals to make their marriage more mutually satisfying.

One of the assets of a theoretical model is that hypotheses can be deduced and tested in order to evaluate and further develop the Model. Several hypotheses have been derived from the Circumplex Model. A number of studies have provided empirical support for their validity (See Olson, 1989 for a review of research findings).

An important distinction in the Circumplex Model is between balanced and extreme types of couple and family relationships. Balanced relationships are either structured or flexible on adaptability and either separated or connected on cohesion. The four types of balanced relationships are located graphically at the center of the Model.

  • structurally-separated
  • structurally-connected
  • flexibly-separated
  • flexibly-connected

Extreme couples or families are either rigid or chaotic on adaptability and either disengaged or enmeshed on cohesion. The four types of extreme relationships are, in fact, graphically represented at the four extreme corners of the Model.

  • rigidly-disengaged
  • rigidly-enmeshed
  • chaotically-disengaged
  • chaotically-enmeshed

Hypothesis 1:

Couples or families with balanced (two central levels) adaptability and cohesion will generally function more adequately across the family life cycle than those at the extreme of these dimensions.

An important issue in the Circumplex Model relates to the concept of balance. Even though a balanced family system is placed at the two central levels of the Model, it should be assumed that a family system can experience the extremes on the dimension when appropriate. However, they do not typically function at these extremes for long periods of time.

Families in the balanced area of the cohesion dimension allow family members to experience being both independent from and connected to their family. Both extremes are tolerated and expected but the family does not continually function at the extreme. Conversely, extreme family types tend to function only at the extreme and are not encouraged to change the way they function as a family. This leads to Hypothesis 2.

Hypothesis 2:

Balanced family types have a larger behavioral repertoire and are more able to change compared to extreme family types.

Hypothesis 3:

If the normative expectations of a couple or family support behaviors extreme on one or both dimensions of the Circumplex Model, they will function well as long as the couple or all family members accept these expectations.

Although a curvilinear relationship is generally predicted between these dimensions and successful functioning, some important qualifications must be made in terms of the normative expectations and cultural bias of Hypothesis 1.

The normative expectations in our culture provide two conflicting themes that can create problems for couples and families. One theme is that family members are expected to do things together as a family. Yet, the second theme encourages individuals to "do their own thing" and "develop yourself." The theme of independence becomes more prominent as children approach adolescence and has taken on greater importance for an increasing number of women in our culture. As a result, many American families find that a balance of the two themes has become a difficult issue.

Families in our culture still vary greatly in the extent to which they encourage family closeness and individual development. Although most parents would prefer their children to develop values and ideas similar to their's, most parents also want their children to become somewhat autonomous and differentiated from the family system.

A growing minority of families however, have normative expectations that strongly emphasize high family togetherness. Their family norms emphasize emotional and physical togetherness and they strive for high levels of consensus and loyalty.

Some ethnic groups in our country have high expectations regarding family togetherness versus independence of family members. These expectations are also common but less predominant in many other American families regardless of ethnic or religious orientation. Many of these families could be described as extreme on the cohesion dimension (i.e. enmeshed) and they function well as long as the couple or all family members are willing to go along with those expectations.

Communication is a critical dimension to the Circumplex Model because it facilitates movement on the two dimensions. This leads to two specific hypotheses linking communication to balanced types and change on adaptability and cohesion.

Hypothesis 4:

Balanced couples/families will tend to have more positive communication skills than extreme couples/families.

Hypothesis 5:

Positive communication skills will enable balanced couples/families to change their levels of adaptability and cohesion more easily than those at the extremes.

In general, positive communication skills are seen as helping marital and family systems facilitate and maintain a balance on the two dimensions. Conversely, negative communication skills impede from moving into the two central areas and thereby increases the probability that extreme systems will remain extreme.

Positive communication skills include the following:

  • sending clear and congruent messages
  • empathy
  • supportive statements
  • effective problem-solving skills

Negative communication skills include the following:

  • sending incongruent and disqualifying messages
  • lack of empathy
  • non-supportive statements
  • poor problem-solving skills
  • paradoxical and double binding messages

Although many studies have investigated communication and problem-solving skills in couples and families, these studies have not specifically tested the relationships of these skills to hypotheses derived from the Circumplex Model.

Hypothesis 6:

To deal with situational stress and developmental changes across the family life cycle, balanced families will change their cohesion and adaptability, whereas extreme families will resist change over time.

This hypothesis deals with the ability of the family system to either deal with stress or to accommodate changes in family members. The Circumplex Model is dynamic in that it assumes couples and families will change types and it hypothesizes that change can be beneficial to the maintenance and improvement of family functioning.

When one family member desires change, the family system must somehow deal with that request. For example, increasing numbers of married women want to develop more autonomy from their husbands (cohesion dimension) and also want more power and equality in their relationships (adaptability dimension). If their husbands are unwilling to understand and change in accordance with these expectations, the marriages will probably experience increasing levels of stress.

Another common example of changing expectations occurs when a child reaches adolescence. Similar to the wife in the previous example, adolescents often want more freedom, independence and power in the family system.

The Circumplex Model allows one to integrate systems theory with family development, a proposal made more than a decade ago by Reuben Hill. Building on the family development approach, as described by Hill and Rodgers, it is hypothesized that families must change as they deal with normal transitions in the family. It is expected that the stage of the family life cycle and composition of the family will have considerable impact on the type of family system.

It is hypothesized that any stage of the family life cycle there will be a diversity in the types of family system as described in the Circumplex Model. In spite of this diversity, it is predicted that at different stages of the family life cycle many of the families will cluster together in some types more frequently than in others. For example, it would be predicted that premarital couples would tend toward the high range on cohesion (enmeshed and connected) and toward the lower range on adaptability (structured and rigid). In other words, they would be located in the lower right quadrant of the Circumplex Model.

The Model is dynamic in that it assumes change can occur in family types over time. Families are free to move in any direction that the situation, stage of the family life cycle or socialization of family members may require. A case example about a couple illustrates the dynamic nature of the Model:

Case Example:

Steve and Sally were married and developed a flexibly enmeshed marriage. Three years after their marriage they became parents. Sally resigned from her teaching job. Because of the dependency needs of their child and their own desire for mutual support in this transition period, their family became structurally connected.

When their child became a teenager, their family moved to being flexibly separated. First, the family moved from connected to being more separated on cohesion. Sally started pursuing a career and both she and Steve experienced a good deal of "consciousness raising" about sex roles through the media and through involvement in several growth groups. Because of their teenager's needs for more autonomy at this age, as well as the parents' separate career interests, they began operating at a lower level of cohesiveness.

The family power structure shifted from being husband-dominant to a more shared pattern. They moved on adaptability from a structured type to flexible. Sally exercised much more control in the relationship than previously and they were struggling, almost on a weekly basis, to redefine the rules and role definitions that would govern their relationship. Although they occasionally yearned for the security of their earlier, more structured relationship, both like the challenge in this more flexible relationship style.

This brief case history illustrates the dynamic nature of the Circumplex Model which allows for movement within reasonable limits. It also seeks to recognize diverse values and legitimize the diverse types of systems. The four balanced types in the inner circle of the Circumplex Model are more functional than the extreme types, especially with adolescent-stage families.

Final Comments

For more details on clinical and research applications of the Circumplex Model, see the book entitled Circumplex Model by Olson, Russell and Sprenkle (1989).