Family Systems Theory

I’m an advocate of a systems theory approach to understanding the family. And by a “family” system, I mean any meaningfully significant relational system from natural families to religious congregations to close-knit coworkers within which a person is embedded.

The idea behind any systems theory is that a thing is what it is and does what it does within the context of a system of other things. Trying to understand the individual unit in isolation from the system is pointless. The system is greater than the sum of its parts. When the parts are in proximity, a system is formed and takes on a life of its own.

Family systems theory was pioneered by Murray Bowen. My inroad to understanding it came through the writings of one of his disciples, Edwin Friedman who was a rabbi, family therapist, and leadership consultant. Friedman’s major works are Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue and A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.

Friedman spoke in evolutionary terms and concepts when explaining his view of family systems theory. However, I find his evolutionary milieu to be incidental, non-essential, and merely reflective of the pervasive paradigm outside of his primary field of research. I’m confident there’s a properly Christian (creationistic) perspective on family systems and the reactivity and interactivity of the people embedded in those systems. I’m also confident this perspective is deeply premodernist rather than modernist, simply because it’s a systems theory and because it’s not mechanistic or materialistic.

Family systems theory is not a methodology. If anything, it’s an anti-methodology, since it views techniques, overwhelming libraries of specialized data, personality types, and other such things to be extraneous distractions to the truly meaningful issues at work in family systems. In short, all family systems operate in the same basic fashion and are relatively simple. However, it’s more of an art than a science to grasp.

The first thing to know about a family system (especially for a pastor or any other world-be counselor) is that anyone who wants to influence a family system has to accept the necessity of being an involved participant in the system. This is a system; people have to participate to interact and produce change. Prepare to get your hands dirty to one extent or another; there’s no avoiding it.

Many of the basic concepts have been expressed by way of analogy from cellular biology, and several key terms require tweaked definitions in this context.

Start by thinking of protoplasm, just living stuff. The first rule of protoplasm is that all protoplasm is attracted to all other protoplasm, whether we’re talking about microbes or human beings. Here, attraction means being drawn to some form of interaction (the formation of a system) when in each other’s presence. It can be casual or constructive interaction. Even being fearful and standoffish is a type of systemic interaction.

The second rule of protoplasm is that it’s an emotive existence. Here, emotive doesn’t mean feelings or affections. Rather it means a rejection of the false dichotomy between physical and spiritual reality. Protoplasm reacts or responds with its whole being; it’s particularly inclusive of what we generally mean by emotion.

The third rule of protoplasm is that it needs a good immunity to survive in a system. The essence of immunity is the ability to distinguish between self and non-self, where one ends and another begins — membranes (boundaries), functions (responsibilities), etc. Healthy self-differentiation exists in between fusion and deterioration. Microbes without an immune response either fuse together or wither and die in the mere presence of larger microbes. Humans aren’t all that different when they lack a good sense of self.

Now, relational systems are not all healthy and perfectly functioning. In fact, given the Christian belief in the radical corruption of human beings due to Adam’s transgression, no family system is pristinely healthy. Family systems are infected with chronic anxiety. Here, anxiety is something broader than what is normally meant by bouts of anxiety in individuals. This anxiety is stress throughout the family system.

Systemic anxiety manifests in countless ways throughout family systems, e.g. squabbling between husband and wife or parent and child, acting out in any number of destructive ways, feuds between congregants, backstabbing and undermining between colleagues. One important note is that any given symptom-bearer in a family system is not the source of everyone else’s grief; the whole system has a problem that’s manifesting most visibly in one member. Engaging with anyone and everyone in the family system has an impact on the whole system and brings influence upon symptom-bearers.

Because no one ever achieves perfect self-differentiation, we form relational triangles between ourselves and others to stabilize the system. A family system looks like a huge interlocking network of triangles between people, other people, and issues. Two people form a relational triangle either toward or against another person or an issue to help stabilize their own interrelationship.

The only useful thing a person can do for himself and anyone else in a family system is regulating personal reactivity to the systemic anxiety. Generally, this means learning to be less reactive to all of the manifestation of the systemic anxiety. The art of masterfully influencing a family system is pretty much entirely bound up in this endeavor. (And I’m certainly no master of the craft. I’m just thankful someone pointed me to this systems theory approach!)

This is where presence and process matter. How a person is being present, how he or she is regulating himself or herself through the course of a relational process is what results in real change for everyone. Process generally matters more than content. An apparent issue usually isn’t the real issue.

We can’t save other people by trying to save them. (And I could tell you horror stories about trying to do so!) We can only learn to have a good presence in a system with other people in order to bring life and health to the system, which resonates with everyone in the system.

On a personal note, my limited experience with exercising a good presence has been most noteworthy in the areas of ongoing depression and spiritual doubt in the lives of friends. I’m very confident that trying to fix depressed and doubting people by trying to fix them head on is deeply counterproductive and anxiety-inducing. It requires being the sort of presence who people want around them in their doubt and despair, the sort of person that brings no additional anxiety upon them.