~Family Systems Theory~


Historical Perspective



Case Study

Genogram Chart


About the Author




Because there is no one specific theory of Family Therapy, I have chosen five very influential therapists within this theory to elaborate and expound upon. A brief explanation of their therapeutic style is provided, goals of their therapy and techniques unique to their respective discipline. In addition, web links have been inserted to assist the reader with further explanation and insight into each therapist's point of view, background and contributions.

Murray Bowen
Murray Bowen developed one of the first approaches within the field of Family systems Therapy. It is referred to as Multigenerational Family Therapy and is sometimes called Transgenerational or Intergenerational Family therapy. The name itself implies the importance that he attributes to understanding present family dynamics by taking a good look at previous generations. He believes that one need look back at least three generations to discover predictable patterns of development and interaction. His basic assumption is that in order for one to develop a mature and unique personality, unresolved emotional fusion must be addressed (Corey, 2001). Because "Bowenians" believe that these interaction patterns will not change until relationship patterns in family past and present are understood and challenged, two goals direct their therapy style. First, lessening anxiety and providing symptom relief is critical. Second, each member of the family must work to increase their level of "differentiation of the self". Differentiation of the self refers to the psychological separation of intellect and emotion and independence of the self from others in the family unit, (Corey, 2001). Bowen utilizes Genogram work which looks at and charts multigenerational patterns and influences that are key issues.

Virginia Satir
Virginia Satir began a new approach to Family therapy and called it the Human Validation Process. Her emphasis was on enabling family members to realize and tap into their potential through communication and emotional experiencing. Techniques were not as important as the therapeutic alliance established with the family. This rapport was key to effecting change. When a change was introduced into the family system, it often put the family unit in a state of chaos while various members tried to adapt to this change (Corey,2001).So then the task of therapy was to train family members how to embrace change and implement more positive ways of responding to each other and events within the family.  This process had three goals of therapy at its heart. Each member deserves the right to communicate thoughts, feelings, perceptions honestly, decisions should be made within the family through conferencing and negotiations and these differences should be openly explored and seen as opportunities for growth (Corey, 2001).Family Sculpting was an often used tool to enable family members to convey how they felt others viewed them in the family. Positioning members in certain positions to emphasize interaction and position would give others a more keen awareness and understanding on other's perspectives.

 Carl Whitaker
With a strong inclination towards interactions based on the here-and-now as opposed to exploring a client's past experiences and events, Carl Whitaker adhered to a more experiential/symbolic approach to the Family Systems movement. Thus the term Experiential Family therapy evolved and has become a very practical, almost anti-theoretical movement. Whitaker stressed the role of the therapist client interaction in directing the client to explore choices, self-determination, growth and actualization. The central goal of Experiential Therapy is to encourage individual autonomy and a sense of belonging in the family operating on assumptions that if individuals become more aware and open to experience, the family will begin to experience a healthier intimacy (Corey, 2001). Whitaker believed that families are doomed to repeat old patterns and stay the same unless the interaction patterns within are rocked or disturbed. Although he did not use any specific techniques or activities, his emphasis was on being apart of the family and change was effected based on the genuine rapport client's had with the therapist. It was this strong belief that the caring, firm, yet unpredictable relationship of the therapist with the client was a much more powerful force than any techniques or exercises.

Salvador Minuchin
Understanding the structure or organization of the family unit by studying their interaction patterns is the view that Salvador Minuchin brings to the arena of Family Systems Theory. Structural therapists pay close attention to whom, where, when, and how members relate to one another as they insist that most dysfunction within the family unit is a result of structural failings (Colapinto,2000). These structural changes must take place before a family can begin to heal or symptoms can be reduced. The goals of this approach are that through reducing or eliminating symptomatic behavior/processes, structural change takes place. Family rules and stereotypes are amended thereby creating more realistic and healthier boundaries. Minuchin was big on Family Mapping. This involved drawing a family map that distinguished clear, fuzzy, healthy or unhealthy boundaries within the system and then referring to this map for client clarity. Also Minuchin would ask family members to act out conflict situations that would occur at home in order to draw conclusions or better understand home-life dynamics. Appropriate interaction patterns would be discussed and also enacted or experimented with encouraging family members to get comfortable with these new interactions.

Jay Haley
Jay Haley developed. Strategic Family Therapy, which is a bend of strategic and structural techniques in the field (Corey,2001).This approach has more to with behavioral change than any of the aforementioned approaches, seeing at the heart of family conflict, behavior that needs to be change. Presenting problems are resolved by focusing on behavioral sequences (Corey,2001). Haley 's main emphasis within this approach is getting people to change behavior rather than focusing on why people act as they do. His stance that if behavior changes, then feelings and thoughts will as well, is a fundamental premise among behavior therapists and therefore is considered a behavior therapist within the field of Family System Therapy. Techniques used amongst this intervention are to track behavioral sequences in order to understand how certain behaviors contribute to the presenting problem. The use of Directives, through coaching and giving ordeal- therapy assignments is an often used technique. Assignments are given during an ordeal with intentions to change the system and eliminate the problems (Corey,2001).  Paradoxical Interventions are relied upon especially with client's who are resistant to therapist's help and suggestions. Using paradox, or implying client's act on behaviors that are contrary to common sense puts them in a double bind and often moves the family towards therapeutic change by usurping the power balance in the family.

Another interesting approach and one that is gaining momentum within the field of Psychology is Narrative Therapy, also known as Family Interpretive Systems. Leading proponent in this view, Michael White, believes that families can be helped by reexamining the negative stories they've told themselves over and over again. These stories then shape their lives and give birth to thoughts and actions that need to be changed (Corsini,2000). The therapist then aids the client through a process of "re-authoring their lives" According to Howard (1991, p194), this approach can be summarized as

  • Life- The stories we live by;

  • Psychopathology-Stories Gone Mad;

  • Psychotherapy-Exercises in Story Repair.

Family Interpretive Systems or Narrative Therapy can be further examined at