What is family systems theory?

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Family systems theory grew out of the fields of psychoanalysis and developmental psychology. There are several different types of family therapy, all stemming from family systems theory. Family systems theory explores relationships between family members, familial multigenerational behavioral patterns, and how families work together.
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Family systems theory developed from several prominent influences during the 1950s. These influences include general systems theory (GST), psychoanalysis, developmental psychology, and the disruption of family relationships during World War II (and their subsequent rebuilding). Austrian-born biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy developed general systems theory, which later influenced the development of family systems theory. Von Bertalanffy examined scientific and social phenomena holistically (exploring the whole) as opposed to using a reductionist or mechanistic approach (emphasizing the parts). In other words, he explored how parts of an organization or system interact and connect with one another to form a holistic working system.

American psychiatrist Murray Bowen is one of the foundational theorists of family systems theory. Bowen was born in the small town of Waverly, Tennessee. He was the oldest of five children and frequently had difficult relationships with his family members. Bowen readily drew on his own problematic family experiences in developing his systemic view of families. Bowen believed that the primary source of human emotional experience is the extended family unit. He believed that family members are emotionally interdependent and functional in reciprocal relationships with one another. Bowen’s family therapy is often referred to as Bowen family systems theory or Bowenian therapy.

Argentine psychiatrist and family therapist Salvador Minuchin is another foundational family theorist. Minuchin examined the structure of the family and the way the family system interrelates. He believes that the way in which a family deals with stressors indicates whether a family system is functional or dysfunctional. He especially explored how family members developed appropriate social boundaries with one another. Minuchin pioneered such techniques as joining, whereby the family therapist enters into the family system and joins it so that it can be positively restructured or so that the family system can be a catalyst for positive change. Minuchin is credited with developing structural family therapy. He continues his work in family therapy through the Minuchin Center for Family Therapy.

American psychotherapist Jay Haley was also an influential figure in founding family therapy. He was the founding editor of the family therapy journal Family Process, and he significantly contributed to and shaped the empirical study of psychotherapy and family systems theory. He is credited with coining the term “strategic therapy” to describe a new type of family therapy, which differs from Bowenian family therapy. He worked with Minuchin and was involved in the evolution of structural family therapy.

American Virginia Satir is also credited with significantly shaping the family therapy movement. Satir studied how self-esteem develops in families and influences interpersonal relationships and relationship choices. For example, she asserted that in choosing romantic partners, individuals often choose a partner who matches their level of self-esteem, low or high. She called her system the human validation process model and incorporated humanism (a philosophy that affirms the dignity and worth of all people) and existentialism (a philosophy that focuses on the holistic experiences of an individual—thinking, feeling, and sensing) into her family systems work. She was often criticized for her humanistic focus by other family therapists. Although Satir made important contributions to the family therapy field, she eventually stopped doing family therapy because she was not embraced by her family therapy colleagues.

Theoretical Overview

In general, all family theorists subscribe to some basic beliefs. One significant belief is that the family is an interconnected unit or system wherein the actions of one family member affect all members in the family system. Family systems theory examines the organization, structure, and complexity of families and familial relationships. Family theorists explore patterns in families over generations, which in Bowen’s family therapy is known as the multigenerational transmission process. An example of a multigenerational pattern might be if a grandfather, a father, and his son are all alcoholics. The substance abuse experienced in this family over generations would be considered a multigenerational pattern. Most family theorists also explore family members’ emotional, social, and psychological boundaries with one another. Minuchin’s work with families frequently focused on familial boundaries. Boundaries are respectful limits or social rules that govern the development and maintenance of interpersonal relationships. In family systems theory, healthy interpersonal boundaries permit appropriate degrees of emotional intimacy between two people. Families with few boundaries may be considered enmeshed or so deeply involved with one another that individual family members have difficulty establishing individual identities separate from their families. Family therapists often examine healthy and unhealthy boundaries within a family system.

Although family systems theory does explore past family history within a family system, its focus is primarily on the present. Family systems therapy can be done with individuals, couples, or the entire family. Families can be broken down into subsystems, which are often organized hierarchically, by gender or by generation. Family therapists explore relationship patterns among familial subsystems as well as how these subsystems affect the entire family unit. The two most popular forms of family systems therapy are Bowen family systems therapy and structural family therapy.

The Bowen family systems theory explores how individual family members differentiate themselves from their families of origin. The differentiation process is how individuals can remain a member of a family system and still be a separate individual, emotionally and psychologically. Bowen also explored relationship alliances in families, called triangles. Triangles are the basic building blocks of an emotional system and begin with a relationship alliance between two people. Bowen believed that when there is tension or stress in the relationship between these two people, a third person or thing is brought in to relieve this tension. This is known as triangulation, where two individuals are on the inside and another is on the outside of the relationship. For example, if a married couple is having difficulty with each other, they may focus on their children instead of confronting the problems within their marriage. Another example of triangulation is if the couple introduces their children into their marital conflicts so that the couple does not have to face their problems with one another. Bowen frequently drew family diagrams to examine relational patterns, identify family members, and highlight important family history and events. These diagrams are known as genograms and are still considered an important technique in family therapy.

At the heart of Bowen’s work was his idea that within the nuclear family, relationships are shaped by how family members deal with anxiety within (and outside) the family. When families experience stress, members sometimes draw closer to one another or distance themselves. He describes the distancing as an emotional cutoff. Sometimes individuals who experience high levels of family conflict may cut themselves off from family members when they become adolescents or adults.

Minuchin’s structural family therapy (SFT) differs from Bowen’s family therapy in that Minuchin focused more on the social contexts in which families exist and the structure of families. Structural family therapy has its own unique terminology. Minuchin formally introduced the concept of exploring family subsystems. He stresses the exploration of boundaries within the family system in structural family therapy. Minuchin believes that family relationships are frequently organized by power hierarchies. For example, in a nuclear family, the parents may have the most power. This is usually considered an appropriate family structure. Healthy families show some flexibility in boundaries over time. For example, when young children become adolescents, they are usually allowed more freedom in making decisions than they were as children. However, dysfunctional families tend to be inflexible and unchanging over time. Minuchin believed that dysfunctional families develop inappropriate coalitions (alliances) among familial subsystems, which disrupt appropriate family hierarchies or subsystems. An example of this would be if a mother and daughter align themselves against the father. In such a case, Minuchin’s goal would be to restructure the family system so that the mother and father develop a healthy coalition, which would rebalance the family system. In doing so, the appropriate hierarchy between parents and children is maintained. Minuchin would use the technique of joining or becoming a part of the family system so that it can be restructured.

Structural family therapy restructures families by unbalancing the current family system. Minuchin would often intentionally cause the family conflict and upheaval, which requires the family to change. In family therapy sessions, Minuchin would frequently isolate family coalitions from one another (either physically in the room or by asking family members to leave the room), deliberately break family rules, or have some family members watch other members in session, from behind a two-way mirror. These interventions were specifically designed to restructure unhealthy family patterns into more healthy ones.

Some key concepts of structural family therapy include family rules, family homeostasis, quid pro quo, the redundancy principle, symmetrical and complementary relationships, and circular causality. A structural family therapist would examine the covert and overt rules that govern the family. Minuchin believed that it was critical to understand a family’s rules so that the therapist can then join the family system. Families tend to remain in the same pattern of functioning over time unless challenged to change. This is known as homeostasis. When structural family therapists unbalance a family system, they disrupt homeostasis. This is disruptive for families but allows them to be restructured. Family members often treat one another in the ways in which they are treated. This is known as quid pro quo. Families behave in repetitive ways over time (redundancy principle). Structural family therapy describes relationships between family members in terms of power. Symmetrical relationships occur between equals (mother-father), and complementary relationships occur between unequals (parent-child). Finally, the idea that events are interconnected and that behaviors are caused by multiple factors is known as circular causality. Structural family therapy is considered brief therapy (about ten sessions). It focuses on what needs to be changed and what solutions the family has already tried.

Treatment Success

Almost all family therapy is based on family systems theory. Family therapy has been successfully used with several different clinical populations, including families with members who have substance abuse issues, anorexia, schizophrenia, developmental delays, autism, and mood disorders. Family therapy is also successful with nonclinical populations and helps families adjust to changes, crises, and other problematic issues that develop within them. Family therapy is frequently considered the treatment of choice for these sorts of issues. Family therapy has expanded its focus from the nuclear family to explore nontraditional families, such as those with stepparents, stepsisters, and stepbrothers.

African American family therapist Nancy Boyd-Franklin has criticized traditional family therapy approaches that did not incorporate cultural sensitively within their treatment frameworks. Training of family therapists has come to incorporate multicultural family therapy approaches, which emphasize understanding how culture and ethnicity influence concepts such as differentiation, the multigenerational transmission process, and other traditional family therapy concepts. Boyd-Franklin highlighted the necessity of incorporating woman-led (single-mother) families and families in which extended family members are as important as the nuclear family into family therapy treatment frameworks. Some family therapists are also trained to work with families in which there are one or two gay parents.


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