Family Systems TherapyAn individual’s behaviour is informed by and inseparable from the functioning of his or her family of origin.
The family is an emotional unit and individuals cannot be understood in isolation from one another but only as a part of their family. Families are systems of interconnected and interdependent individuals, none of whom can be viewed in isolation from the system.
In a session with Annie she will ask about a client’s family, and create a map or genogram which shows details such as orders of birth, marriage and death. Also important is how the individuals interrelated and connected, and family traits.
A family can be defined as any close group, which may or may not be related by blood. A family is a system in which each member had a role to play and rules to respect. Members of the system are expected to respond to each other in a certain way according to their role, which is determined by relationship agreements. Within the boundaries of the system, patterns develop as certain family member’s behavior is caused by and causes other family member’s behaviors in predictable ways. Maintaining the same pattern of behaviors within a system may lead to balance in the family system, but also to dysfunction. For example, if a husband is depressive and cannot pull himself together, the wife may need to take up more responsibilities to pick up the slack. The change in roles may maintain the stability in the relationship, but it may also push the family towards a different equilibrium. This new equilibrium may lead to dysfunction as the wife may not be able to maintain this overachieving role over a long period of time. The theory is based on the work of Murray Bowen.
Annie often uses a Family Systems approach in order to defuse anxiety. A key generator of anxiety in families is the perception of either too much closeness or too great a distance in a relationship. The degree of anxiety in any one family will be determined by the current levels of external stress and the sensitivities to particular themes that have been transmitted down the generations. If family members do not have the capacity to think through their responses to relationship dilemmas, but rather react anxiously to perceived emotional demands, a state of chronic anxiety or reactivity may be set in place.
The goal of Family Systems therapy is to assist towards greater levels of differentiation, where there is less blaming, decreased reactivity and increased responsibility for self in the emotional system, and less anxiety in the individual.
While many therapists who practice the Bowenian approach are interested in decreasing anxiety and relieving its symptoms, even more, they aim at increasing each family member’s level of differentiation of self. If there is to be significant change in the family system, there is the need to open closed family ties. The techniques focus on ways to differentiate each family member from his or her extended family of origin system. The result is that family members have healthy self-concepts and are better able to deal with their anxiety in stressful situations.
The process begins with assessing the family. The information from the assessment is collected and organized in a genogram, which is a pictorial layout that covers at least three generations. This genogram gives more than just family history, but includes issues such as family conflicts and triangles. It helps both the therapist and the family to understand the significant turning points in the family’s emotional processes, and assesses each spouse’s level of fusion to each other, and his or her extended family.
Family Systems work often includes process questions which are designed to explore what is going on inside family members and between them. For example, Annie might ask, “When your husband ignores you, how do you respond to it?” Process questions help clients to think through the role they play in the interpersonal problem.
Annie will also use relationship experiments help family members to recognize that it is not just their actions, but how they respond to other people’s actions that cause the problems to persist. Clients recognize the own roles in system processes, and experience what it is like to act opposite to their usual automatic emotional responses.
Using the “I-position” question helps family members to say how they feel instead of what others are doing. This is an important way to break the cycle of reactivity in families. For example, there is a difference when a wife says to her husband, “You never help me with the children,” and “I wish you would help me more with the children.”
Annie uses Family Systems Therapy in conjunction with Family Constellations, Attachment Theory and Mindfulness. These, and her other modalities, all tie together to form a cohesive approach to each client’s difficulties and can be individually tailored for each client and each session.