Structural Family Theory Applied to Wilson’s “Fences”

Understanding the family dynamics and the nature of issues in the relationships between its members is crucial to developing an approach for addressing the observed issues. Misunderstandings between family members, as one of the core issues that most people encounter in their lives, represent the focus of multiple movies and books. August Wilson’s “Fences” represents peculiar family dynamics worth discussing and viewing through the Wheel Theory of Love lens. Although the dysfunction observed within Troy Maxson’s family can be ascribed to the protagonist’s personal flaws stemming from his trauma, the sociocultural effects of the environment, namely racism, drive the family dynamics, causing Troy to become the stumbling block in the development of the family bond.

Troy Maxson’s family is quite large, yet the relationships within it are far from having any semblance of coherency. Specifically, the family consists of Troy Maxson, the husband, his wife Rose, their children, Cory and Raynell, as well as Lyons, Troy’s son from a previous marriage, and Troy’s brother Gabriel (Wilson, 1985). The relationships between the specified characters are quite messy due to the inherent problems within the family. Specifically, troy is represented as a highly damaged character, his life has been heavily affected by racism (Wilson, 1985). As a result, Troy struggles with the concept of intimacy in his relationships with his family members, especially his wife, which leads to him getting into an affair (Wilson, 1985). In turn, Rose struggles to maintain a motherly attitude to her children and support them (Wilson, 1985). As for the children, the eldest son has been torn between following his calling and meeting Troy’s standards, whereas Cory develops resentment toward Troy and eventually has a massive conflict with him.

The family in question can be considered nuclear since it represents a standard structure of two parents and their children. However, calling the specified hierarchy of relationships a family would be in name only since the relationships between its members, especially between troy and others, are highly toxic.

Unfortunately, Troy’s family can be regarded as rather realistic since it represents the scenario that happens quite often. Specifically, the problem of a husband and a wife becoming emotionally disengaged in each other’s life and drifting apart, as a result, is a rather common occurrence (Seccombe, 2017). Moreover, according to the available statistics, extramarital affairs caused by the described rift in the relationships of a couple also happen quite often, making the situation aggravated (Seccombe, 2017). Furthermore, conflicts between parents and children, the former being unwilling to recognize the latter’s autonomy, take place undeniably often (Seccombe, 2017). Indeed, research proves that the failure to handle the process of young people developing independence from their parents is rather common (Seccombe, 2017).

Finally, the phenomenon of parents disowning children due to the presence of seemingly unreconcilable differences can be seen as a rather rare situation. Specifically, recent studies assert that the decision to destroy the relationships with children completely does not often occur in typical families and usually suggests a drastic misalignment between the children’s choices and the values and standards within a family (Grey et al., 2021). Therefore, the situation observed in “fences” cannot be regarded as a typical family issue. At the same time, the problem of parents failing to build functional relationships with their offspring is, unfortunately, quite common, as the latest research on the subject matter confirms (Seccombe, 2017).

Overall, “Fences” provides a rather accurate description of what takes place in some families. Specifically, with one of the family members, especially a parent, representing a narcissistic, disruptive force, all of the participants of the familial relationships are under a threat of becoming damaged due to the mismanaged representation of the family dynamics and the poorly designed power structure and hierarchy within it (Seccombe, 2017). Additionally, the case at hand indicates that even a single family member can disrupt the relationships within it drastically, thus, causing a severe misalignment between the needs of the individual in question and the needs of a family (Seccombe, 2017).

In order to explore the relationships in “Fences,” a framework for embracing sociocultural factors must be introduced to gauge the extent of the adverse impact that racism and prejudices have had on Troy’s ability to build an intimate connection with his wife and children. Specifically, the Wheel Theory of Love will be used as the framework for the assessment of the family dynamics within the book. Created by Ira Reiss, the Wheel Theory of Love implies that the relationships within a family thrive on mutual support and commitment from all participants (Seccombe, 2017). Therefore, if at least one of the family members becomes a disruptive force, the entirety of the relationships within it collapses (Seccombe, 2017). Due to the opportunity that the wheel theory provides for examining the unique conflict between the socio-cultural and the personal as the source of family dysfunction, it will be applied to the case of Troy Maxson and his relationships with his family members.

Specifically, the theory in question posits that the phenomenon of love within a family occurs in four specific stages, moving the relationships forward and ensuring that the family members receive the required amount of support from one another and offer reciprocity. The stages in question include the establishment of rapport as the basis on which further relationships develop (Seccombe, 2017). At the specified stage, mutual love and respect are formed. Afterward, self-revelation occurs, which means that family members share personal and quite intimate information, thus, reinforcing the bond; the following stage f mutual dependency involves creating a sense of dependence on one another, followed by the personality needs fulfillment. The latter stage incorporates the emergence of social exchange and the development of support for one another within the family structure (Seccombe, 2017).

“Fences” features quite a number of prominent scenes that help recognize the nature of the dysfunctional dynamics between Troy’s’ family members and identify the source of the conflict. Among the key situations depicting the dysfunction within the Maxsons’ family, as the Wheel Theory suggests, one must mention the scene in which troy confesses to Rose that he has an affair. While having an affair is not a sign of healthy relationships within a family, in general, the couple’s interactions at the specified point in the story prove further that the dynamics within it is expressively unhealthy. Namely, during the scene in question, Troy expresses no remorse or regret to his wife, merely stating the fact of him having an affair with another woman: “I’m talking, woman, let me talk. I’m trying to find a way to tell you… I’m gonna be a daddy. I’m gonna be somebody’s daddy” (Wilson, 1985). The specified attitude is indicative of the fact that Troy launches the process of destruction within his family, as well as the fact that he stops the development of love within the family at the very first stage, namely, the development of rapport. While other items mentioned in the Wheel theory are present in his interactions with his wife, the absence of rapport immediately devalues the fact that Troy can be completely open and honest with Rose, even in matters as serious and dramatic as his affair.

Indeed, in the scene under analysis, the phenomenon of self-revelation, as the second stage to which Troy strives to move his relationship with Rose is unattainable since Troy has not reached the first one, to begin with. With the rapport between Troy and Rose either having disintegrated over time without the necessary support or being nonexistent at all, progressing to the second step of being fully open with each other and at the same time being understanding of the partner is impossible. The traces of a similar phenomenon are visible once Cory, Troy’s son, reveals the fact that he wants to abandon the career of a baseball player and focus on his calling instead. The specified revelation would have been possible in the context where the first stage of the wheel had been achieved, yet, with no rapport, the described statement would only become the premise for an aggravated conflict (Seccombe, 2017). Therefore, the scene under analysis proves that Troy has failed to build “a deep and lasting relationship” with all of his family members, including his wife and his brother (Seccombe, 2017, p. 121). In other words, the failure to pass the very first stage of rapport between the family members, which Troy causes with his disruptive behavior, affects the overall quality of their relationships and the further development of deeper love for each other, effectively canceling any emergence of a more profound affection. Remarkably, the scene under analysis is indicative of the fact that Rose does not lose the feeling of interdependency immediately as a response to Troy’s confession about his affair. Instead, it is made evident that the feeling of being distanced from her husband has been building for years and has finally culminated in the sense of complete loss of connection after hearing about his betrayal. For instance, Rose mentions that she would not be surprised to hear about Troy having an affair in the future: “Why, Troy? Why? After all these years to come dragging this into me now. It don’t make no sense at your age. I could have expected this ten or fifteen years ago, but not now” (Wilson, 1985). The described response proves that Rose’s trust in Troy was quite shaky even before his confession. Furthermore, aligning the described scenario with Reiss’ theory of Love, one will notice that none of the characters reaches the satisfactory point of personality needs fulfillment. Specifically, while Rose is evidently the one affected by Troy’s deception, her husband does not reach the state of self-fulfillment, either. Quite the contrary, as Troy’s resentment for others and overall resentment toward others shows, he is far from having reached the final stage of Reiss’ framework, which indicates that he is also longing to create a support system where he is accepted and loved. However, out of deep fear of possible failure, troy rejects any opportunity to start Reiss’ cycle, therefore, preventing the rest of the family from gaining an opportunity to connect and become a strong unit bound by mutual love, trust, and support.

Another scene worth considering as an example of the family’s dysfunctional dynamics undermined by Troy’s inability to develop a sense of trust and respect toward the rest of his family is the fight between Troy and his son, Cory. In the specified context, Cory finally develops the sense of agency and independence needed to oppose his father and his selfishness, allowing Cory to follow a unique path and become an independent, self-sufficient person. In the scene under analysis, the fact that neither of them have gained mutual dependency becomes apparent even though Troy desperately tries to undermine Cory’s sense of self-sufficiency: “I don’t want him to be like me! I want him to move as far away from my life as he can get. You the only decent thing that ever happened to me. I wish him that. But I don’t wish him a thing else from my life” (Wilson, 1985).

Remarkably, the scene in question shows that, even though it is Troy who primarily drives the development of mistrust and resentment between him and his family members, the lack of trust is resent in the relationships between each Maxson. Specifically, even Rose, who is substantially more benevolent and loving of her children, fails to build a strong rapport with them (Wilson, 1985). The specified nuance also supports Reiss’ Wheel Theory of Love, which implies that the dysfunction and failure to build trust that one of the family members shows inevitably percolates into the connections between other family members, poisoning the well and leading to the further disruptions in the quality and quantity of interactions between the participants. Specifically, Reiss establishes that the development of healthy mutual dependency represents a core stage in the framework of family relationships and the process of fostering love within the family, which evidently misaligns with the dynamics observed in the Maxsons’ family. Furthermore, Troy demonstrates the lack of healthy dependency on Rose and his children, particularly Cory: “I guess you got someplace to sleep and something to put in your belly. You got that, huh? You got that? That’s what you need. You got that, huh?” (Wilson, 1985). At the same time, dissecting the specified interactions, one would be wrong to put the entirety of the blame on troy. While he is acting emotionally distant due to the failure to build a rapport with Cory according to Reiss’ theory and reinforce it further with the eventual step of personality need fulfillment, namely, supporting Cory in has endeavor to play baseball, Cory’s response also features the unwillingness to create a rapport and engage emotionally, which the first two stages of Reiss’ theory require: “That’s right. You always talking this dumb stuff. Now, why don’t you just get out my way” (Wilson, 1985). The act of distancing, which Cory undertakes in the specified scene, is emblematic of the absence of healthy interdependency within a family, which Reiss’ theory requires (Seccombe, 2017). Therefore, the Maxsons’ family appears to be fully dysfunctional, even though some of the family members, particularly Rose, evidently made efforts to restore or, at the very least, maintain the relationships.

Finally, the third scene to consider when examining the family structure and relationships within “Fences” is the one in which Rose takes responsibility of Raynell, thus, essentially, accepting her into the family. The specified decision indicates that Troy’s influence has not poisoned the family completely and did not make its members entirely distant from one another. In other words, the disintegration of relationships within the Maxsons did not reach its peak when Troy died. Moreover, the specified scene, namely, the fact that rose shows warmth and acceptance for Raynell, who would have otherwise become an orphan, supports the theory developed by Reiss. Specifically, the theory under analysis, which postulates that the presence of an adverse factor may disrupt the relationships within a family and, therefore, make its members fail to develop the necessary relationship framework, is proven correct due to the change in the family dynamics after Troy’s death. Having been the hostile element that disrupted the relationships within the family, Troy became the impediment to building the healthy cycle as Reiss introduced it (specifically, the rapport, self-revelation, mutual dependency, and personality need fulfillment). In turn, with Troy’s death, the factor contributing to the family members’ alienation, namely, his betraying Rose’s trust and dominating the development and self-actualization of his children, finally ends. As a result, the family dynamics shift, with rose being ready to relaunch the cycle of the Theory of Love by starting a rapport with a new family member, Raynell.

In other words, Rose’s willingness to accept Raynell into the family can be seen not only as the start of the healing process but also as the effort to restart the cycle and establish the healthy family model that Troy prevented her from the building. Therefore, Roee deciding to take care of Raynell represents another loop of Reiss’ Wheel theory of Love, with Rose starting at the beginning by setting the premise for establishing a rapport with the child. Therefore, the decision to care for Raynell can be seen as Rose recovering from the unhealthy relationship model foisted upon her family by troy and, instead, structuring a new pattern that could lead to the further development of self-revelation, mutual dependency, and, ultimately, personality needs fulfillment. Specifically, in Rose’s case, the need for love and affection will be pursued as she focuses her attention on Raynell.

Despite the fact that the dysfunctional relationships within Troy Maxson’s family can eb seen as the direct effect of his toxic personality, the impact of sociocultural factors, specifically racism, must also be taken into account, which, from the tents of the Wheel Theory of Love, implies that Troy, specifically, his trauma, becomes the main obstacle on the path to building relationships within his family. The book demonstrates quite clearly that Troy was damaged by racist attitudes that he had been experiencing throughout his entire life up until his death. The failure to build a proper coping strategy can be seen both as the cause of Troy’s failure to build a functional relationship with his family and a symptom of it. Namely, being affected in a profoundly adverse manner on a socio-cultural level, Troy fails to handle his family interactions and develop a proper bond. In turn, his inability to share a moment of vulnerability with his wife and his family members drives the wedge between Troy and his wife and children even further. Therefore, the book demonstrates a tragic yet accurate alignment with the principles of the Wheel Theory of Love.


Grey, B., Dallos, R., & Stancer, R. (2021). Feeling ‘like you’re on… a prison ship’–Understanding the caregiving and attachment narratives of parents of autistic children. Human Systems, 1(1), 96-114.

Seccombe, K. (2017). Exploring marriages and families (3rd ed.). Prentice Hall.

Wilson, A. (1985). Fences. Web.

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PsychologyWriting. 2023. "Structural Family Theory Applied to Wilson’s “Fences”." September 18, 2023.

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PsychologyWriting. "Structural Family Theory Applied to Wilson’s “Fences”." September 18, 2023.