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Family Systems Theory
Family systems theory places primary focus on exchanges of behavior that take place in a
given moment of interaction between members of the family. The theory maintains that
patterns of interaction between family members call forth, maintain, and perpetuate both
problem and nonproblematic behavior. Nonpathology-oriented, family system theory seeks to
identify and bring forth reconstitutive behavioral exchanges between family members.
Emphasis is placed on identifying and interrupting repeating sequences of behavioral
exchanges of which the problem behavior is a part. When these problem-perpetuating
patterns are successfully interrupted, the problem behavior dissipates and
treatment is complete.
General Discussion of the Theory
From the perspective of family systems theory, the family is seen as the primary relationship
context in which individual character traits and ensuing patterns of behavior are learned and
reinforced. Family systems theory (FST), and the therapies derived from it, view the
symptoms of an individual as occurring within sequences of family interaction. An explicitly
held conceptual precept that is accepted across family systems theoretical approaches is that
there is a relationship between the identified patient's symptom(s) and the total family
interaction. Systemic family theory and therapies pay close attention to repeating transactions
that connect the problem behavior of one person with the behavior of other people within the
family or other primary group.
In contrast to individually oriented theories of behavior, which focus on what is happening
inside the individual as a primary point of reference, family systems theory intentionally
shifted from a lineal causal to a circular conception of causality that connects the problem
behavior of one person with the surrounding behavior of the other family members. This
intentional shift in primary data from the individual to observable behavioral exchanges
between members of the family makes explicit the quid pro quo quality of such repeating
transaction exchanges such that the nature of the self-perpetuating pattern in which problem
behavior is manifested becomes observable. These repeating patterns of interaction are the
focus of family systems theory.
Reprinted from S. Smith (Ed.), (2016). The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Family Studies, New York, NY:
Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, Vol. 2, pp. 782-787.
The two presuppositions of FST are that (1) one cannot not communicate, and that (2) people
are constantly attempting to define the nature of their relationships. Using these concepts as
cornerstones, FST consistently emphasizes paying attention to sequences of interactions
taking place between members of the family: who is doing what to whom, where, when, and
in what way is it a problem?
Listening to what family members say (content) and, more importantly, noting the
relationship definition implications revealed in how one family member says what he/she
says and how other family members react is central in FST. What is most relevant in FST is
tracking how the behavior of one member of the family influences and, usually outside
conscious awareness, restricts the actions/utterances of other family members. Fleshing out
these patterns in which problem behavior is embedded is essential in family systems theory.
When human behavior is conceptualized using an FST perspective, the nature of the
recurring way members of a family interact allow the theorist/therapist to understand the
family as a mutual causative system, whose complementary communication reinforces the
nature of their interaction. The family systems theorist can then look for rules that govern this
system. Intervention to promote constructive change then consists of the therapist behaving in
such a way as to change the rules. When the patterns of interaction within the family change,
then, theoretically, symptomatic behavior is no longer necessary.
From an FST perspective, a primary goal of therapy is to break up patterns of interaction that
reinforce and perpetuate problem behavior, allowing different, nonproblematic behavior to
develop (Minuchin 1974; Haley 1976; Bowen 1978; Jackson 2005).
Family systems theory emphasizes the vital relevance of context(s) to ascribing meaning to
behavior and introduced the use of such relational constructs as:
1. intentionally shifting the primary focus of attention to what transpires between people in
interpersonal exchanges as an effort to define the nature of the relationship;
2. underscoring such paradigm-shifting ideas as “observer-imposed punctuation” and
“circular” or “recursive” causality;
3. focusing on three-person dynamics using the concept of “triangle”;
4. emphasizing what is now referred to as a second-order cybernetic perspective, FST
underscores the importance of remaining constantly mindful of the extent to which the
researcher's own perspective, utterances, and actions are as much a part of what happens next
as anything else. Comprehending patterns of interaction within the family that bring forth and
foster symptom behavior (first-order cybernetics), while simultaneously being alert to the
effects of the therapist's presence (second-order cybernetics) allows a therapist to see and
make use of these patterns to comprehend the way behavior emerges from ongoing
interaction within the family. Together the interrelated constructs of FST reveal the vital
relevance of interactional dynamics to understanding human behavior qua behavior, in
distinct contrast to individual, psychodynamic, genetic, or biophysiological theories that
focus on processes presumed to be taking place inside the individual as motivating behavior.
Family systems theory's emphasis on interaction does not imply the negation of or being
unaware of genetic, physiological, and biochemical processes. Rather, by explicitly and
consistently shifting the focus of attention to behavioral exchanges taking place in a given
moment between family members, the relevant context in which symptoms would be the
“best choice” for the individual becomes visible in light of the relational and contextual
constraints by which it is called forth and perpetuated and which it in turn perpetuates.
During World War II and the following decades, scientists from multiple disciplines began to
work together in unprecedented ways. One such multidisciplinary group met in a series of
conferences funded by Josiah Macy to create and research the science of cybernetics. About
the same time, a number of multidisciplinary research teams working independently across
the United States, primarily with hospitalized, emotionally disturbed people, stumbled –
seemingly by accident or at least tangentially– onto the study of interaction within the family
as the context within which severe behavioral and emotional symptoms emerge.
As has often happened in the history of science, similar research into the family context of
emotional and behavioral problems was taking place in a number of locations independently
of one another. Some groups were studying a range of psychiatric problems, including
Nathan Ackerman, MD, in New York; Kalman Gyarfas, MD, and Virginia Satir, MSW, in
Chicago; and John Bell, EdD, of the US Public Health Service; and Eugene MacDanald, MD,
and his team in Galveston, Texas. Other researchers worked with hospitalized
schizophrenics, such as Gregory Bateson, Don D. Jackson, MD, Jay Haley, John Weakland,
and William Fry, MD, at the Menlo Park Veteran's Hospital in Palo Alto, California; Murray
Bowen, MD, and his group at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH); Lyman
Wynne, MD, and his coworkers also working at NIMH; and Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy, MD,
and coinvestigators at the Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute in Philadelphia. Still
others, such as Charles Fulweiler, PhD, in the San Francisco Bay area in California worked
with adolescent delinquents and their families, while Salvador Minuchin, MD, and team
worked with families of the poor in New York City.
In order to study the patient directly in relation to his/her parents and siblings, various teams
of psychiatric researchers began to bring emotionally disturbed patients and their family
members together for interviews and to observe them together over a period of time. When
these research teams began to talk directly to the patients conjointly with other family
members, family systems theory and treatment began to develop. Ultimately FST emerged
out of the research of all of these investigators, all of whom share a basic orientation toward
understanding and treating the family as a unitary system.
Principal clinical practice models of family systems theory include the Bowen family systems
theory (1978); the communication-based systems approach (Watzlawick, Beavin-Bavelas,
and Jackson 1967; Bateson 1972; Jackson 2005); Mental Research Institute (MRI) brief
therapy (Watzlawick, Weakland, and Fisch 1974); solution-focused brief therapy (de Shazer
1982); contextual family therapy (Boszormenyi-Nagy and Sparks 1973); family of origin-
oriented family therapy (Framo 1982); strategic family therapy (Haley 1976); structural
family therapy (Minuchin 1974); and Milan systemic family therapy (Palazzoli et al. 1978).
While emphasizing different ways of describing the family as a system, all of these
orientations explicitly shift from a lineal causal to a circular conception of causality that
involves connecting the problem behavior of one person with the surrounding behavior of the
other family members. Shifting primary focus from thinking about what might motivate
behavior to the effects of one person's behavior on the subsequent behavior of others, family
systems theory's emphasis on tracking the observable sequence of repeating transactions
makes comprehensible the nature of the self-perpetuating pattern in which problem behavior
becomes observable. In the Bowen family systems theory, for example, eight interrelated
precepts are used to conceptualize family dynamics: triangles, differentiation of self, nuclear
family emotional process, family projection process, multigenerational projection process,
sibling position, emotional cutoff, and societal regression. From the communication /
interactional systemic perspective, positive and negative feedback, oscillation, calibration,
emergent quality, holism (the whole is more than the sum of its parts), the observation that
one cannot not communicate, double-bind, report and command, observer-imposed
punctuation, symmetrical and complementary, exchanges of behavior, analogic and digital
behavior, first- and second-order change, shift in use of verb tense from “to be” to “to seem,”
and essential emphasis on first-hand observation are used to discern problem formation and
problem resolution processes. Mental Research Institute brief therapy developed directly
from the communication model of family systems theory, emphasizing that problem behavior
is inadvertently brought forth, maintained, and perpetuated by ineffective efforts to solve it.
When the clients' efforts to solve the problem are successfully interrupted, the problem
quickly resolves itself. From the perspective of the closely related approach of solution-
focused brief therapy, this same kind of analysis of interaction is done by asking about and
attending to moments when exceptions to the problem happen. In another related model of
clinical application, strategic family therapy, assessment concentrates on discerning the
sequence or pattern of interaction between three or more people, then promoting family
members to behave in such a way as to interrupt the sequence, which usually results in the
elimination of the problem. Structural family therapy attends to boundaries, coalitions across
generations, and hierarchy. Contextual family therapy emphasizes such constructs as family
loyalty, reciprocity, accountability, and trustworthiness to comprehend family interaction.
A Case Example
A mother sought therapy for Joey, her 12-year-old son who displayed violent outbursts –
punching holes in walls and destroying valuable objects in the house. The mother was fearful
and helpless in the presence of Joey's outbursts. The father, mother, Joey, his 14-year-old
sister Jan, and his 17-year-old brother Bill attended therapy. All family members saw Joey's
outbursts as the only problem. Therapy focused on trying to help Joey control his angry
outbursts. With no progress after three sessions, the therapist consulted the authors.
Using family systems theory as a conceptual framework, the therapist was guided in asking
questions about where the outbursts occurred, who was present, and how the problem was
handled. Soon the interactional pattern around Joey's outbursts became clear. When asked
about Joey's outbursts, the father said, “He does not do that around me because I don't feed
it,” implying that Joey's outbursts were reinforced by his wife's incompetent parenting. When
the mother was asked to describe what happened when Joey had an outburst, Jan interrupted,
saying, “Mom calls dad because he knows how to handle Joey.” Inquiry revealed that, after
19 years of marriage, the father had moved out and the status of the marriage was uncertain.
Since leaving, the father would only respond to contact from the mother when it involved a
problem with one of the children. Asked what his worst fear was, Joey said, “Mom misses
dad and cries all the time; I am scared he will never come home.” During this exchange, all
family members were distraught and tearful. Joey's behavior was framed as allowing his
mother and father a face-saving way to stay connected during a time of uncertainty about
their relationship. Both parents were complemented for doing an excellent job of raising
loving children. Thus, Joey's disruptive behavior was not “pathological” per se but a self-
sacrificing way of ensuring that the family remained connected so that his worst fears did not
come to fruition. Behavior seen as deviant or pathological from an individual perspective is
immediately seen as logical and comprehensible from a systemic perspective.
The between-session assignment was for the family members to do nothing to help Joey
control his anger outbursts, thus prescribing a change in the interactional pattern by reframing
as contextually coherent behavior that had previously been viewed by the family as
problematic. During this period of uncertainty about what form their family might take in the
future, the entire family was expected to feel sad while the mother and father took whatever
time was necessary to clarify the direction of their relationship. Joey's outbursts desisted
almost immediately and did not return.
In family systems theory, the interactions between family members are viewed as essential in
understanding the behavior and emotions of individuals. For instance, avoidant behaviors
engaged in by family members are viewed in the context of family interactions, and emotions
such as anxiety in terms of broader family dynamics. Family systems theory also assists in
assessing the nature of a relationship by examining the interactions that occur between
individuals. Interactional processes such as triangles, coalitions, pattern, redundancy,
multiple levels of meaning, and observer-imposed punctuation can be observed as family
systems theory enables these relationship processes to be conceptualized.
See Also: Couples' Counseling; Family Counseling; Marriage Counseling in the United
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Benjamin E. Johnson, MA, Independent Scholar USA,
Wendel A. Ray, PhD., University of Louisiana at Monroe USA