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Family Systems Therapy from a Christian Perspective

The following represents Arthur's opinions only and not necessarily those of Christie.

Psychoanalytic Therapy
Adlerian Therapy
Existential Therapy
Person-Centered Therapy
Gestalt Therapy
Reality Therapy
Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Feminist Therapy
Family Systems Therapy

Family Systems Therapy

            The umbrella of theories under the Family Systems Therapy group focuses on communication patterns within the family unit.  Systems theory is based on the family’s response to feedback from one another and the desire of the group to make changes to maintain homeostasis.  A number of theories exist based on various approaches, interestingly enough the field of systems therapy developed out of the study of schizophrenic patients and the family relationships they had.  A problem identified as the double bind led researchers to consider the impact of family interactions in individual development and mental health while in the context of the family unit.

            Alfred Alder was the first therapist to use family therapy in a systemic approach.  Following him, Murray Bowen developed and is known for his intergenerational approach to resolving problems in the family unit.  He focuses on differentiation of self for individuals to reduce the chance for enmeshment, which occurs when family members become attached and involved in each other’s lives to an unhealthy degree.  Triangulation is another unhealthy interaction of family members identified by Bowen.  In this situation, problems between two members of a family become too intense and a third family member is brought into the situation to redirect the tension.  This is often observed in counseling with a child being brought in as the identified patient when really he is acting out in response to the marital schism or marital skew of his parents. 

            Other aspects of Bowen’s theory of family systems include the family projection process where problems are redirected or projected onto a healthy family member.  Emotionally cutting off family members is another technique used by families as they try to maintain homeostasis and reduce the impact of either an overly dysfunctional or an overly healthy family member.  In either case, the family member who is not conforming threatens the family normalcy.

            Another contributor to the systems therapy approach is Salvador Minuchin who developed Structural Family Therapy.  In this theory, the focus is on establishing boundaries, identifying alignments, and determining coalitions as a means to explaining the structure of the family.  The determination of rules or boundaries determines how the family is organized.  Families who have permeable boundaries indicate an enmeshed system where rigid boundaries indicate a family that is disengaged and uninvolved. 

            An often-used technique of Bowenian therapy is genograms, which is also used in a less specific way in Structural Therapy.  This family mapping provides not only a diagram of family bloodlines, but also includes symbols to indicate present and past relationships between members.  Therapists also seek to accommodate and join the family in their struggles.  This technique helps to develop a sense of safety and security during counseling which allows family members the opportunity to open up and provide understanding about the family system.

            During family therapy, counselors often require all family members to be present from the start of therapy in order to avoid the use of triangulation, projection, and blaming as a way to avoid addressing the real family issues.  With all members in one room, reactions, opinions, and recollections are available for all to see and understand. 

            Jay Haley developed the Strategic approach to family therapy with a focus on power dynamics in relationships, communication, and symptoms.  The focus on symptoms differentiates this approach from the structural approach.  Goals are the focus of the strategic approach with the therapist being the final determinate of the purpose of therapy.  Techniques used include straightforward tasks to help develop success with solving problems and experiencing positive results.  Additionally, this therapy employs paradoxical techniques whereby the family is instructed to continue with their current behavior that ultimately leads to the change of the family interaction. 

            Virginia Satir, known for her creativity and warmth, focused on self-worth and bringing flexibility into rigid family structure to initiate change.  One of the contributions made by Satir was her identification of five styles of relating within the family unit.  Using these styles, Satir determined how members of the family contribute and maintain the dysfunction within the unit.  Sculpting is one of the techniques used with Satir therapy whereby the therapist has the family members physically move into the position that mirrors the discord or fights that occur at home.  An example of this is for a husband to stand over his wife as she cowers on the floor to show the actual effect of anger and yelling.  This sculpting provides awareness for the family of the effect of styles of relating and begins to bring change to the family structure.

            In general, family systems therapy works to reduce family stress, help members become more differentiated, and alter coalitions and alliances in the family to bring about change.  These focal points are determined through strategies to reach goals in addition to develop new styles of resolving problems.  Family systems theory believes as members become healthy and differentiated the family unit begins to change and adapt and in a healthy approach, this leads to better functioning and relating between members.

            A difficulty with Family Systems therapy is the lack of dealing with individual issues.  The problem is addressed from the perspective of developing and resolving interpersonal issues among family members.  This approach has the possibility to overlook issues that are unique to one individual.  A sense of personal perspective may be lost as the therapist looks to understand the dyads, and subsystems within the family unit.

Personal Evaluation

            This is one form of therapy I really find valuable.  It is broad enough to incorporate numerous techniques and does not formalize itself in any particular way except that it is family focused.  Because it emphasizes family units and the health of inter-family relationships, I find many elements of it quite compatible with Christian teachings.  While it may not be ideally suited for individual counseling, it is full of resources for issues where more than one family member may be involved.  Because so many marriages today end in divorce resulting in single parent homes, the family systems model of therapy is extremely relevant in modern culture.    

            One particular element that I believe is invaluable is the genograms.  I believe that being able to see the “big picture” of one’s family and all the connections between individuals is an extremely useful tool to aid in family healing.   Most people that I have asked do not really know much about their family history and rarely have ever constructed a genogram or even a family tree.    Understanding one’s place in the greater context of an extended family can be a powerful enlightener to individuals and provides a rich starting point when addressing maladaptive family dynamics.        Another aspect of the Systems approach I appreciate is its emphasis on group counseling.  So much of the counseling process is orientated to the individual, that the tremendous opportunities for growth that can come as a result of group interaction is often missed.  By having numerous group-centered techniques, systems therapy is a useful tool in enhancing effective communication, the common ground necessary for healing within the family unit.  As a Christian, I would utilize several components of this model in my counseling practice