Family Therapy: It’s all about the Relationships

Psychology is all about the “self.”  That should not be surprising because even though Freud—the progenitor of psychoanalysis—included in his notion of the self the “superego,” which is Freud’s acknowledgement of environmental impact upon thought processes, the primary focus was not upon society, but the individual and their neuroses.  Since that time, psychology has been mostly an individual affair until following WW II when a group of thinkers began to embrace the insights of systems theory forcing them to think outside of the box of individualism.  Systems theory privileges one’s environment over the individual.  That is to say, the individual is not the author of its environment; the environment is the author of the individual. 

This may seem like a subtle shift, but it had landmark implications and the ones who drew upon the insights of this new orientation were loosely referred to as “family therapists.”  Built upon the observation that when one child’s behavior changed for the better, the behaviors of other children in the family deteriorated, family therapists began to understand that family dysfunction was due to the family system more than just one individual member of the system.  Quite often it would seem that one person was the problem because the family would scapegoat a family member as the culprit.  “Fixing” the family member did not fix the problem leading those of us who teach family therapy to warn that “very often, the problem is not the problem.”  Interestingly, this is as true of couples as it is families and so the principles that apply to family systems also apply to a couples.  Indeed, in all of this, systems thinking turned attention from individuals, or more abstractly “things,” to relationships.

In order for families to “work,” they must be shaped by rules that bring meaningful order to what would otherwise be chaos.

Let’s talk about this for a moment.  What does it mean to say that relationships as opposed to things or individuals are primary?  The first thing we must note is that this not the reduction of psychology or family therapy to some type of strict behaviorism.  Behaviorists such as John Watson and B.F. Skinner were asking similar questions to those in systems theory but were using different conceptual frameworks.  Taking on Freudian psychotherapy, these practitioners claimed that we can know nothing of the subjectivity of a person.   Rather, all we can know about a person is their behavior and by stimulating behaviors in certain predictable ways, we can modify or change them (operant conditioning).  So, if we associate a bell with the feeding time of a dog, when we ring the bell dogs will begin to salivate whether we feed them or not.  While human beings aren’t dogs, behaviorists found that conditioning worked nearly as well for human beings as it did for dogs and that much of what human beings do are based upon habitual routines conditioned by the environment input of one’s surroundings.  We may not know what a person is thinking, but we can observe their behaviors and by inserting certain stimuli and rewards into the context of their routines, we may not change the way they think, but we can change the way they behave.

How is this different from systems theory and family therapy?  The common ground is found in a shift of focus from the individual to an individual’s environment.  Behaviorism is all about the manipulation of environmental factors to shape the behavior of the individual.  Systems theory is all about examining the “rules” of the system in an attempt change the rules to change the function of the system.  When this happens, everything defined by the relationality of the system also changes. In other words, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”  This may sound subtle, but the implications are profound and to understand this, we need to think a little more about the interrelationality of the whole.  Communication theory is helpful at this point.

Have you ever looked at a television that has no signal?  The screen is just a confusing mess of tiny little dots resembling a nondescript, grey-colored cloud.  If you so desired, you could stare at this screen for hours, but the cloud of dots would never become a picture.  The TV screen is in a maximal state of information.  All its circuits are on transmitting information without boundaries.  Nothing on the screen creates boundaries that allow it to transmit pictures.  There are no boundaries creating letters forming words.  This is the curious thing about communication; when data is transmitted without boundaries, the amount of data transmitted can be mind-boggling, but the transmission is devoid of meaning.  We need boundaries to bring focus to the data being transmitted, which will focuses the data into a significant form of transmission, a transmission that brings meaning.  So, when a picture is transmitted on a TV screen, not all dots are transmitting at their optimum capacity,  Some are green, blue, red, etc. in an effort to create boundaries so that the picture (meaning) can be transmitted.  In order to develop meaning, data must necessarily be limited by boundary conditions and boundaries are lines of demarcation in relational matrix that allow perception to be focused upon a particular type of meaning or function.  What’s more, these boundaries are developed and shaped by particular rules on how data should be shared.  If the rules are corrupt, data transmission will overpower boundary formation and chaos (meaningless will result).

Families, family therapists contend, work in much the same way.  In order for families to “work,” they must be shaped by rules that bring meaningful order to what would otherwise be chaos.  Without going into detail, let me briefly describe a family I worked with that was similar to the grey cloud of the TV screen.  There were five kids in this family ranging in ages from two to ten.  The father was mostly absent from the family system (in family systems theory, absence is still a presence because it denotes a type of negative relationality) and the mother had less than a high school education.  She lived in a basement apartment with only two bedrooms.  Since she had little support from her husband, she not only worried about how to pay the bills, but how to make her children “happy.”  As often happens, the path to happiness for her was to allow them to do whatever they wished, which normally did not entail happiness, but battles over the possession of toys and struggles for their mom’s attention.  Her way of trying to bring order to this was to scream at her kids and threaten spankings.  It didn’t work.  The family was in chaos.  In one of our first meetings, I didn’t intervene at first, but just watched.  The poor mother, overcome by the lack of boundaries and meaning rules eventually sat on the floor with her back to the wall, knees elevated and simply buried her face in her hands.  This is a family functioning like a TV screen without a picture, and if one were to try and fix one of the kid’s behaviors would have done little to fix the family because the rules remained the same.  To fix the family system would mean to dismantle (unbalance) the dysfunctional family rules and reintroduce new, more meaningful rules that would shape a happier and more meaningful family picture.  That is the work of family therapy.

This also happens when working with couples.  One couple I worked with illustrates this well.  He was a slender man and she was a rather full-figured woman.  I had not met with them before and I watched as they entered my office (watching how people enter the office along with how they arrange themselves tells you almost as much about their problems as do their words).  One sat on one side of the couch and the other sat on the other side of the couch with about three feet between them.  “What brings you here today?” I asked.  It was not long before I witnessed what brought them here.  It was the TV screen without a picture.  One said something causing the other to become defensive and in a short while, they sat on the couch and yelled at each other.  Wondering how long this would go on, I simply watched.  I think it may have continued through the whole session if I had not eventually intervened, but I saw what the problem was.  It was the chaos of poorly defined boundaries based upon dysfunctional rules that brought no meaningful focus to their relationship.  The work of couple’s therapy is to help them formulate meaningful boundaries based on functional rules that will help develop a more meaningful picture.

In all of this, the emphasis is not upon the family members or the individuals who comprised the marriage.  It was on the relationship(s) as defined by the system.  To be is to be in relationship and if we hope to exist in a meaningful way, the relationships we keep, those things that bring focus to ourselves as well as each other, must be relationships defined by meaningful boundaries and functional rules so that we can feel good about ourselves and each other.

There is a lot of difference between psychoanalysis and family or couple’s therapy.  Whereas the former’s emphasis is upon the individual and different psychopathologies, the latter emphasizes the systemic relationships that comprise the family and the relationship between couples.  Because the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, you just can’t fix the family by fixing an individual.  It doesn’t work that way.  “It’s all about the relationships, man,” to use the colloquialism of years ago.  It’s not about the individual.

Published by Harold W. Anderson, Ph.D.

I am a retired United Methodist Minister and recently closed my practice as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, retiring with my wife to Rancho Murieta, CA. Now I have a blog and several hobbies that take up my time. We enjoy traveling and occasionally spending time at our cabin in the mountains of Colorado.

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