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Family Systems Therapy from a Christian Perspective

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
familys 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 others 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 Bowens 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 ones 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 ones 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.