Failure to launch (FTL) is popularly defined as “the inability to be independent and self-reliant.” Matthew McConaughey starred in a movie entitled Failure to Launch about a young adult who was living the good life at home with his parents and exhibiting no particular need to move out or on. His desperate parents tried to hire a professional “launcher,” for lack of a better way to describe her, and she ultimately failed and fell in love with him.
Living at home and taking advantage of the parent’s goodwill while playing video games, not working, and not helping around the house is only one example of a failure to launch. But FTL is not just about becoming independent and self-reliant. My definition includes a failure to become emotionally independent from a parent. Let’s take a look at different versions of “failure to launch” as well as what constitutes a successful launch. Incidentally, living outside the home is not a necessary criterion for independence, although our Western culture seems to value this quite highly. In many other culture’s young adults, even married young adults, live in multigenerational households.
Failure to Launch – Dependent Type – Positively Stuck (See Quadrant 1 Below)
The first version of FTL is when the young adult lives at home, does not have a job, has no physical or mental health challenges but is enjoying the good life – paying no rent, playing video games, physically and financially dependent on the parent’s good graces (The McConaughey character). The parents may or may not have a concern or desire for this person to move out. This would also include a young adult who is living outside the home but extremely dependent on the parents. This person relies upon the parents’ financial and other help and, may have trouble making decisions without the parents advice or approval. In both cases, the parent’s resistance to letting go may contribute to the failure to launch.
Failure to Launch – Dependent Type – Negatively Stuck (See Quadrant 2 Below)
A second version of FTL is when the young adult is living at home or outside of the home, working and self-sufficient, but contentious, making living together and connecting in a positive way difficult. Neither parents nor the young adult are happy about the antagonistic quality of the relationship. This person may be independent and self-sufficient but is clearly emotionally not emancipated. Both parties are negatively fused to each other.
Failure to Launch – Independent – Disconnected (See Quadrant 3 Below)
A third version of FTL is the young adult living outside of the home and responsibly independent but refuses to have a relationship with their parents. Sometimes this estrangement comes about because the parent has cut all communications with the young adult. These estranged relationships between parents and young adults are some of the more heartbreaking situations. Both parents and the young adult suffer and carry the wounds of this breach throughout their lives.
Young Adults with Special Needs – a Caveat
It is important to note that there may be unique circumstances that limit the young adult’s progress toward responsible independence through no fault of their own. The young adult may have serious mental or physical disabilities that interfere with their progress toward independence and self-sufficiency. Having a disability is not a basis for the label “failure to launch.” That said, these young adults could fall into one of the three FTL categories above. Even with these limiting factors, most young adults strive to be as independent as possible and parents should support this. Parents with whom I have worked, where there are special needs, worry about how their young adult would survive if something happened to them. All the more reason to help these adult children attain as much independence and self-sufficiency as possible.
The Launched Young Adult – (see Quadrant 4 Below)
A young adult is fully launched when they are responsibly independent and relate amiably to their parents. The young adult may be living at home or away from home but pursues a positive relationship with parents. If living at home, the young adult contributes to the household by paying rent and other costs, helping around the house and being responsible for their needs
(e.g., doing laundry, cleaning the room, car expenses, etc..). If living outside the home the young adult and parents have regular contact of an adult to adult nature.
The diagram below illustrates three different versions of failing to launch as well as that of a successful launch. These categories are not necessarily discrete. For instance, many parents, as they are able, will provide some help to their young adult living outside the home with educational expenses, wedding costs, a down payment on a home or an unusual expense (e.g., a medical bill). There may also be times when the young adult temporarily returns home, as my daughter did in her last year of college, to save money and prepare for her wedding.
What Parents Need To Do
As parents we need to strive to develop relationships with our young adult children that support their responsible independence while maintaining an amicable relationship with them. We do this by demonstrating love and supporting their autonomy. Failure of the young adult’s attainment of quadrant FOUR (above) will be detrimental to all. Both parties suffer when there are unresolved issues between parents and young adults and these wounds have repercussions for other relationships. Parents unresolved conflicts with young adults often strain the marriage. Young adults who carry these open wounds of unresolved conflict with parents risk the health and sustainability of other relationships they may pursue. See “Can Parents Ever Really Let Go.”
Although we may not be able to control their attitude or actions toward us and may experience hurt and rejection, it is up to us to take the high road and continue to reach out in love and compassion. We may not receive appreciation for our efforts in the short run, but we will never regret such efforts. If you doubt this statement, consider lying on your death bed and thinking back to difficult times with a son or a daughter. What will bring you the most peace? That you held your ground, you proved them wrong, distanced yourself with anger or hurt or you showed love, compassion, forgiveness and made every effort to reach out and mend the relationship. We need to be the bigger people and do our part to resolve any conflict and close any gap that might exist between us for both our sake and theirs.