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Communication theory, adapted from the field of cybernetics or systems theory, was formulated by Bateson, Jackson, Haley, & Weakland (1956). The idea was that schizophrenia in one patient arose because of the communication style that was characteristically carried out by the family over time. In this style of communication, family members communicated with the individual with schizophrenia in a way that used a "double bind." In this style of communication, individuals in the family communicated in a way that involved confusion and contradictions and in which there was no way of winning. Essentially, communication in these families resembled a catch-22 situation. For example, a parent might tell a child to be sure to tell people how she feels, but the child might be punished for admitting her true feelings. In this style of communication, the person simply can't win. Though schizophrenia has been shown to be likely be caused by genetic and other factors, this theory has affected family therapy and has emphasized the model of a family as a closed system.

The idea behind the communication theory, which has been a central tenet of family therapy, is that the family is a system. Therefore, dysfunction in one part of the system—such as confusing or unclear messages—can cause dysfunction in other parts of the system. In a more functional family, messages are clearer, and they are used in a consistent manner. However, in a family with dysfunctional communication, one or more family members may develop psychological or other problems.


Bateson, G., Jackson, D., Haley, J. & Weakland, J. (1956). Toward a theory of schizophrenia. Behavioral Science, 1, 251-264.

Nichols, Michael P. Family Therapy: Concepts and Methods, 10th Edition. Pearson, 2012.

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