Events are studied within the context in which they occur while focusing on connections and relationships. Central to this theory is the idea that the whole is always considered greater than the sum of its parts, that each part can only be understood in the context of the whole, that any change in any particular part will affect all other parts (Hardy et al., 2020). The parts are constantly changing in order to keep the system in balance (just like a tightrope walker constantly moves his weight to maintain balance). The system as a whole retains its form as a standard of communication between changes in its parts. This concept of standardization and organization as a closed circuit, in contrast to the description of individual elements and the interpretation of phenomena from the standpoint of linearity, served as the basis for family therapy.
A concept of this kind means that no event or action entails any other event or action but is associated with many other events or actions in a closed chain. These events and actions over time form consistent, periodically repeating stereotypes, which maintains balance in the family and allows it to evolve from one stage of development to another. All behavior in general, including the symptom, establishes and maintains these stereotypes. This regulatory function is considered more important than the behavior or symptom as an actual entity in itself (Hardy et al., 2020). The main focus of the psychotherapist is the functioning of behavior and how the function of one action is linked to the function of another so that balance in the family is maintained.
In both sessions, the Brice family displayed individual expectations and beliefs about what is happening in the family and what needs to be done to balance and achieve well-being. The most intense attention was directed against Claudia; she was seen as the main problem. However, in the course of considering the holistic structure and intrafamilial patterns, it became apparent that family dynamics are much more profound and, thus, subject to a holistic conceptualization. That is why Don needed to be present at the first session since, without one element, the system is incomplete and therefore not subject to study and change.
In reality, Claudia’s problems were only symptoms, and it was necessary to consider the underlying structures and patterns in the family that are causing the symptom. In order to conceptualize group problems, Whitaker turned to triangulation between family members in diverse coalitions (Napier & Whitaker, 2011). In addition, the details of David’s affair and divorce were revealed, which were also the cornerstone of the dynamics within the family (Napier & Whitaker, 2011). These events were also subject to the conceptualization and ultimately labeled as the couple’s fear of dependence and addiction and a sense of enticement associated with the previous family. The behavioral cycle in every family is governed by a belief system, which consists of a set of attitudes, basic attitudes, expectations, prejudices, attitudes, and beliefs brought into the central nucleus of the family by each of the parents from the family where they were brought up (Napier & Whitaker, 2011). These personal convictions merge and form the guiding premises that govern the given family. What is important to the therapist is not the personal beliefs or attitudes of each parent but how they relate to each other, forming the rules of all family activities. Some of these beliefs are common, others mutually agreeable, which provides the basis for the initial mutual attraction of the parents.
During the early stages of marriage, a contractual process takes place around these beliefs, which find their expression in family themes. Further, critical behavioral sequences are organized around these themes, which often serve as metaphors for the selected type of symptom. The word “topic” means a specific, emotionally charged question around which a periodically repeated conflict is formed (Wampler, 2020). Since there are many such topics in every family, the therapist tries to find the most directly related to the symptom.
Thus, Napier and Whitaker (2011) holistically considered family problems, conceptualizing individual manifestations as part of a larger dynamic and ongoing process. Family members are viewed not as initially possessing specific innate characteristics but as exhibiting appropriate behavior depending on the behavior of others. Instead of immediately trying to understand the cause of the behavior, the therapist tries to find out the deviations in the stereotype from which the meaning of the given behavior stems.
The initial and essential intervention was planting the family nearby: how they sat down already had implicit patterns and dynamics in the relationship. The symbolic displacement of this structure through rearrangement of landing was already an essential step towards family change. The second step was to formulate a premise from which to start in therapy. Napier and Whitaker (2011) identified a potential source of problems as emotional expression. By involving all family members in expressing emotions, therapists allow each individual to be involved in experiential experiences. In this way, Napier and Whitaker explore family relationships and allow family members to express their feelings and experiences.
Also, therapists viewed parents as a subsystem of the family. When the subsystem is dysfunctional, the whole system cannot function positively (Wampler, 2020). Subsystem dysfunctions are passed on to other parts of the system, as in the case of the Brice family. Parents transmitted tension and struggles onto their children and the whole family structure and patterns. The therapist’s job is to identify a specific stereotype associated with a symptom and to figure out how that specific stereotype can be changed. Symptoms and the system are related and defined as serving each other. The therapist connects symptoms and systems to show that one cannot change without changing the other and presents the family with its dilemma. This dilemma of change and all the questions that relate to it become the focus of psychotherapy (Hardy et al., 2020). The central question of psychotherapy is not how to get rid of the symptom, but what happens if one does get rid of it; the therapeutic debate is shifted from questions about who is the carrier of this symptom, what causes it, and how to get rid of it, to questions how the family will function without it, what price will have to be paid for its disappearance, at whose expense it will happen and whether it is worth it.
The consequences of a system change and the resulting change in dilemmas become the main focus of the therapeutic discussion between the therapist and the family. This discussion contains several overriding redefinitions that change family members’ perception of a given problem and, therefore, their perception of a solution to a given problem. In the course of this discussion, all the questions of change that lie at the implicit level of the family – secret alliances, hidden coalitions, personal confrontations, and disguised preparations – all become apparent and associated with the symptom (Napier & Whitaker, 2011). As family members continually try to restore their premise by dissociating the symptom, the therapist continues to deny the premise by attaching it. When the family finally accepts the new premise, change may occur unexpectedly and in an unforeseen direction.
Hardy, N. R., Sabey, A. K., & Anderson, S. R. (2020). The process of change in systemic family therapy. The handbook of systemic family therapy, 1, 171-204.
Napier, A. Y., & Whitaker, C. A. (2011). The family crucible. Harper Collins.
Wampler, K. S. (2020). The Handbook of Systemic Family Therapy, Systemic Family Therapy with Children and Adolescents (Vol. 2). John Wiley & Sons.