How systems therapy helps re-establish the family as a psychological and emotional safe haven.
Kirsten Webb | October/November 2011 Issue
Eliza Howland (not her real name) wanted to see her kids more. Her divorce had been bitter and difficult and, like many divorced parents, she and her ex-husband (we’ll call him Chuck) were fighting for custody of their three young children.
“We were so rigid on letting each other see the kids,” she recalls. “I’d call him up and ask if I could have them because my parents were in town or if we could trade for a time when I wasn’t working, and he was having a really difficult time letting me do that.”
The tug-of-war became so intense that Chuck suggested they attend family systems therapy, a form of counseling that involves the whole family at once. When the therapist suggested they try to be more lenient with each other, Chuck just looked at her and said, “I would like to, but I don’t know how.”
Says Eliza: “It was a major breakthrough for him to admit that he was stuck. And he asked for help.”
After that, their relationship transformed. “We were able to relate as human beings again,” says Eliza. Once their parents found common ground, the kids could relax more, too, as they transitioned back and forth between the separate houses. In admitting his truth, Chuck set off a ripple of change within their family.
Individuality has long been a hallmark of Western culture. Yet events such as the natural and nuclear disasters in Japan and the global economic crisis (not to mention the ecological one) prove that what happens to one part of the world happens to all parts. Nature is made up of interrelated systems. Why wouldn’t human beings be, too?
Family systems therapy of the kind Eliza and Chuck experienced is designed to heal at the most complex and crucial level of our personal and communal system—the family. For family systems therapists, “the emotional well-being of an individual is related to how well the larger social system to which he or she belongs is functioning,” explains Stephen Buglione, a clinical psychologist and systems therapist who works with individuals, couples and families in private practice in Scarsdale, New York. “After the individual, the next larger social system is the family, and after that, the community. Family systems therapy is an attempt to intervene in the next level up.”
The family is our most ancient and enduring social unit, but it faces some peculiarly 21st-century challenges. Families are more dispersed than ever before due to globalization and the ease of travel. New kinds of family units—multicultural families, second and third families, families led by lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender parents—are changing our understanding of family. The economic crisis has put enormous pressure on families’ financial and time management. Some 50 percent of marriages in both the U.S. and Europe end in divorce. “Families should be havens where people feel protected and safe,” says Buglione. “But the stress families feel is making it harder for them to do that job.”
The goal of family systems therapy is to re-establish the family unit as a psychological and emotional safe haven. According to systems therapy, the family isn’t a collection of separate individuals but an interconnected organism that can only be understood through the relationship of its parts. Unlike other forms of therapy that focus exclusively on the individual, systems therapy deals with the family as a group, exploring ways each family member’s experience and behavior affects the others.
By observing and interacting with many family members at once, systems therapists receive important clues about a family’s patterns. Who really enforces the rules? Who tends to hold back their opinions? Systems therapists try to draw attention to and, where necessary, change those patterns through role playing, coaching or simply witnessing and giving constructive feedback. “With one person in the room, you can talk about the system,” says Richard Wampler, a family systems therapist and director of the couple and family therapy doctoral program at Michigan State University, “but it’s more powerful to have the system in the room. That way, you don’t have to hear someone’s report. You can see how the system works.”
Many families enter therapy when one family member exhibits problems. The real issue, however, often lies elsewhere. More often than not, that person is reacting to—and acting out because of—the family’s deeper dissonance.
Sarah, a bright 10-year-old, started feeling anxious about going to school. While an individually focused therapist might have worked with her on anxiety-reduction techniques and talked about what was going on at home, the systems therapist Sarah’s parents chose involved the whole family. In talking to family members, the therapist discovered that the parents hadn’t been getting along and slept in separate bedrooms, that Mom saw Dad as a workaholic, that Mom had recently lost her own mother and been overprotective of Sarah as a result. All this fed into Sarah’s separation anxiety. Over many sessions, the systems therapist helped show Mom how to pull back gradually and helped Mom and Dad address their issues. Now Sarah is excited about school again, and the family as a whole is healthier.
When a family seeks therapy, it is often stuck or unbalanced. The system may be functioning, but it’s rife with destructive patterns and miscommunication. The role of the systems therapist is to help the family achieve a new balance. The real challenge, according to Buglione, is “how well the family can adapt, reconfigure and cope.” If someone loses a job or becomes ill, for example, a healthy family can rearrange its roles and responsibilities to find a new, mutually supportive balance. An unhealthy family could implode.