1:  Family Systems Theory

January 12, 2019 – 12:08 am
The haunted Lamb Inn, Old Market, Bristol

This chapter will look at the family system theory.


People do not exist in a vacuum. They live, play, go to school, and work with other people. Most anthropologists agree that, next to their peculiar tendency to think and use tools, one of the distinguishing characteristics of human beings is that they are social creatures. The social group that seems to be most universal and pervasive in the way it shapes human behavior is the family. For social workers, counselors, and psychologists, the growing awareness of the crucial impact of families on their clients has led to the development of family systems theory.

Family systems theory is more than a therapeutic technique. It is a philosophy that searches for the causes of behavior, not in the individual alone, but in the interactions among the members of a group. The basic rationale is that all parts of the family are interrelated. Further, the family has properties of its own that can be known only by looking at the relationships and interactions among all members.

The family systems approach is based on several basic assumptions:

  • Each family is unique, due to the infinite variations in personal characteristics and cultural and ideological styles;
  • The family is an interactional system whose component parts have constantly shifting boundaries and varying degrees of resistance to change;
  • Families must fulfill a variety of functions for each member, both collectively and individually, if each member is to grow and develop; and
  • Families pass through developmental and nondevelopmental changes that produce varying amounts of stress affecting all members.

These assumptions are diagramed in figure 1. The components and their relationship to the whole system are as follows:

  1. Family structure consists of the descriptive characteristics of the family. This includes the nature of its membership and its cultural and ideological style. These characteristics are the input into the interactional system. They are the resources and the perception of the world that shape the way in which the family interacts.
  2. Family interaction is the hub of the system. It is the process of interaction among family members that determines the rules by which the family is governed. This is the family’s level of cohesion, its adaptability, and its communication style. Finally, these interactions work together to serve individual members and collective family needs.
  3. Family function is the output of the interactional system. Utilizing the resources available through its structure (input), the family interacts to produce responses that fulfill its needs.
  4. The family life cycle introduces the element of change into the family system. As the family moves through time, developmental and non-developmental changes alter the family structure and/or the family’s needs. These, in turn, produce change in the way the family interacts.

Figure 1. What is a Family System?

Understanding something as complex as a family unit is not an easy task. What does it mean to say that the family is a system? Webster (1979) defines a system as a "regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole." Certainly members of families are interrelated and interdependent parts of a whole.

Many writers in discussing the family as a system use the analogy of the heating system of a house. As Haley (1963) explains it, the furnace responds to the signal from the thermostat, but the thermostat responds to the temperature of the room which responds to the heat from the furnace. Each element serves a function in the total heating system. The elements are interdependent. For example, when the air becomes "too cold" the thermostat signals the furnace to give more heat, and when the air is "warm" the thermostat signals the furnace to shut off. The temperature in the house fluctuates within a narrow range around the setting of the thermostat.

The heating system has a kind of balance, or homeostasis, and all of the elements of the system (the furnace, the thermostat, the room temperature) are involved in maintaining that balance. As long as the setting remains the same, the temperature remains stable. Even when the setting is changed the elements of the heating system still relate to each other in the same way. There are rules which govern this process, and all parts of the system work to maintain the rules, in this case, the setting.

This analogy is comparable to the family system in which the elements, the family members, are dependent upon one another. In a similar manner, families develop a kind of balance in their relationship patterns.

The family is not just a collection of individuals. It is a whole larger than the sum of its parts.

A Delicate Balance

All family members have a stake in maintaining the delicate balance in their relationship patterns. The action of one member affects all others, and that member is in turn affected by the reaction of others. This can be seen at times of change when the established balance is threatened.

Something as seemingly simple as a change in working hours can have implications for the relationships of everyone in the family. For example, a father is suddenly changed to the day shift on his job after working for years at night. What happens when he is there in the evening to interact more closely with the other family members? Will the children see his increased attention as interference in their established patterns? If they object to this change, he may interpret it as lack of respect or rejection.

On the other hand, the father may see problems that he has not noticed before because he was home during hours that the children were in school. His wife may have become involved in evening activities that she may not want to give up to be with him. She may resist his involvement with the children after enjoying a "power" position over the years. He might decide that it would be best to immerse himself in TV or outside activities as a way of avoiding some of the issues that the increased opportunity for closeness with the family present.

A change in the family situation means readjustment of the total system and can pose problems and challenges for every single member.

A Stable But Open System

When individuals live together in an intimate environment, such as a family, they begin to set limits on each other. There is a range of behavior that is acceptable and a certain amount of deviation that is tolerated. When individual behavior threatens to violate the limits that have been agreed upon, members respond by trying to reestablish the limits and to preserve the stability of the family system.

All members of the family system participate in this process of maintaining stability. For example, a child, upset after witnessing the fighting of his parents, may begin to have problems in school. He notes that when his parents focus on his problems, they spend less time fighting. In a sense, the child is able to unite them in concern over him. Even though they may eventually express anger towards him, absorbing their anger is better than having them separate. The parents, too, may take note of the fact that they get along better when the child is having problems and may begin, at some level, to reinforce the child’s difficulties.

Source: dss.mo.gov

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