A person’s belief as to which people form his immediate family. Normally the primary family for a person changes as their circumstances change. In childhood, the primary family is the child’s parents and siblings. When the person leaves home, he/she becomes his/her own primary family. Once married, the primary family is the person’s spouse and any children they have. When the marriage ends, whether through divorce or death (and once any children have left home), the person becomes their own primary family again.
However, Diamond’s finding is that often the person’s life does not follow this pattern. Instead, throughout life their primary family is (usually unconsciously) believed to be exclusively their mother. This belief has no bearing to the reality of their lives. For example, the person may be married and have children of their own, and their mother may have died, but they still unconsciously believe their mother is their primary family. This effectively inhibits them from fully maturing emotionally and thus compromises their relationships.
The problem has its roots in infancy, and usually reflects the child’s mother’s relationship with her own mother. It is common – in fact, most people have it to some degree – but because of its fundamental nature, it is often hard to overcome.
The impacts of the problem are potentially serious. It is a major, if little recognized, factor in marital, parental, and other relationship difficulties, and Diamond also sees it as an important factor in the psychopathology of many illnesses.
Timeline: Diamond developed the concept in the late 1990s and it has been central to his work since.
- Video: “The Primary Family Problem”