Systems Therapy: Change One Thing, Change Everything

By Pierre Araman

What is Systems Therapy?

Systems therapy aims to help each member of a group gain insight on their role as well as on the role of their peers in order to maximize the healthy functionality of the whole. Systems therapy can be utilized with families, couples, communities, or organizations so as to resolve conflicts and/or other relational issues.

The theory behind Systems Therapy is based on the idea that the environment (in this particular case family and/or community) is primordial for the psychological health and recovery of clients. Changes made to one component of the environment can affect the whole system for the better or for the worse depending on the system.

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A famous branch of Systems therapy is known as Family systems theory which was developed by Dr. Murray Bowen in the late 1960s. In Family systems therapy, participants are encouraged to be themselves in order for the therapist as well as other members of the family to see the cause and effect of certain behaviors. When the negative behaviors have been identified, participants can realize the impacts they may have on the system and modify the negative behaviors into healthy behaviors for the benefit of the entire family as well as for themselves.

Other forms of family therapy branching from Bowen’s Family systems theory and that you may have heard of are: Intergenerational family therapy, Structural family therapy, and Strategic family therapy. If you would like to learn more about these therapies, click on the images below.

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Dr. Murray Bowen developed eight concepts which can be identified and worked on during Family therapy. The concepts are:

  • Emotional Cutoff – When a member distances themselves emotionally/physically from their family in order to reduce stress/tension.
  • Family Projection Process – When parents’ issues are transferred unto the child/children. Common issues are emotional concerns, anxiety, and relationship difficulties.
  • Nuclear Family Emotional Process – Four areas identified by Bowen where families tend to have the most difficulties: problematic behaviors, impaired functionality in children, intimate partner conflict, and emotional distance.
  • Differentiation of Self – Bowen’s core concept – The ability of a person to differentiate themselves from their family in order to achieve their life goals. A low level of differentiation means that the person has difficulties maintaining individuality and can experience emotional fusion with others. A high level of differentiation means that the person can maintain healthy emotional contacts with the group while keeping their individuality.
  • Sibling position – The belief that the youngest, middle, and oldest children have specific roles within the family system due to different factors such as discipline, expectations, etc
  • Emotional Triangle – When anxiety is introduced to a dyad, a third person is used as a resource to reduce the anxiety. It is common for emotional triangle to become unhealthy as two sides are in harmony and one in conflict. An example of an emotional triangle would be a child included in a parental dispute.
  • Societal Emotional Process – When instability is present within the emotional system of society, it can reverberate and have a negative impact on the emotional system of the family (e.g. natural catastrophe, periods of regression, etc).
  • Multigenerational Transmission Process – Bowen’s belief that individuals seek partners with the same level of differentiation which is then passed on to their children. When the level of differentiation is increased, the pattern can be broken and as a result, increase the level of differentiation of the next generations.

screen-shot-2016-11-30-at-10-46-40-amOverall, Family system therapy can be overwhelming although extremely rewarding. Once the system has been reorganized, it benefits the whole. The role of Systems therapist is to identify concepts described above and to modify the unhealthy behaviors into positive and rewarding attitudes. The process can be short or lengthily depending on the resilience of the members of the system.

If you would like to learn more about Systems therapy, here are two research papers on the effectiveness of family and relationship therapy:

 Systems Therapy at Sofia University

If Systems therapy interests you and you would like to learn more and to gain some experience within that field, Sofia University offers the unique experience of participating in group therapy with your cohort as well as covering the different theories in class. Check out our Masters in Counseling Psychology program which incorporates interactive learning through role play, giving you the tools necessary to carry you through different systems therapies such as family therapy, couple therapy, group therapy, and more!

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