Chapter 1 starts with Philip Culbertson stating that family can have a broader meaning that includes people other than moms, dads, siblings, and so on. According to Culbertson, in “communal societies,” family is defined as a “larger social unit.”
Bringing it back to Christianity, Culbertson weaves in another religious thinker, Anne Borrowdale, to discuss how family functions within Christianity. There’s “blood” family, family as “social organization,” and family as “idealized fiction.”
According to Culbertson, family as “idealized fiction” is particularly inimical to the aims of pastoral care and counseling theory. For Culbertson, the family is a complex matrix that shouldn't be simplified in order to conform to a reductive political or social ideology.
Next, Culbertson defines “the nuclear family.” He says the family may provide comfort, or it may not. He also dispels the idea of concrete “family values.” While "the Christian Right" speaks with certainty about “family values,” Culbertson wants the reader to question any one-size-fits-all definition of this term.
Culbertson discusses the different lenses with which one can view the intricacies of family dynamics. These include seeing the family as a “battlefield” or viewing the family as a collection of “subunits.”
Speaking of subunits, Culbertson touches on the roles that people tend to play in families. There’s the good child, the clown, the lost child, and so on. These roles can be influenced by the family system and/or external cultural forces. Women, notes Culbertson, have traditionally been placed in the role of self-sacrificer.
For Culbertson, Family Systems Theory is a way to think about the patterns that have developed within families. Its focus on the history of a given family can serve as a tool to “protect generations from some of each other’s dysfunction.”
Delving into the specifics of Family Systems, Culbertson mentions the importance of narrative and triangulation. The latter refers to the belief that there is an inherent instability between a two-person relationship. When such a relationship is threatened, they can become closer, grow apart, or stay as they are. In healthy triangles, no one person bears too much of the stress.
Then Culbertson tackles differentiation and individuation. Individuation is important because it allows a person to see problems as a result of the intrinsic limitations of personhood. Once both people realize that their respective limitations have equally contributed to the problem, they can, ideally, solve it.
After discussing a theory about siblings, Culbertson wraps up this section by noting the different ways Family Systems Theory can be applied in real life. A counselor can work one member of the family, multiple members of the family, or the entire family unit.