Cybernetic Control Cybernetic control is somewhat more complex. Here an output from the
system feeds back to a monitoring unit within the system, which sets in motion a systemic adjustment to the original output. Perhaps the best example of cybernetic control is the self-monitoring action of a thermostat. On a cold winter day, we may set the thermostat at 70 degrees. When the room temperature gets below a certain point (say 68 degrees), then the needle in the thermostat makes electrical contact and the heater turns on. The heater will stay on until the needle rises to the point (say 72 degrees) where it loses electrical contact; then the heater turns off. This is cybernetic control because the heating system has a built-in mechanism to control itself. Cybernetic
control functions around a homeostatic balance—optimal functioning occurs within a range. For example, the thermostat may have a five-degree range in which it will not start the furnace or shut it off.
Family life can be understood in much the same way. Families have rules or norms that define expected behavior for each family member. Each of these rules has a tolerance limit beyond which one cannot go without the family as a system taking some counteraction. In our thermostat analogy, the tolerance limits were 68 and 72 degrees. The family will need some flexibility in setting its tolerance limits, for if they are set too rigidly, there will be a constant need to correct, and normal family living will be impossible. For example, imagine what would happen to the heater if the tolerance limits were set at 69.999 and 70.001 degrees. The heater would be turning on and shutting off constantly, and all the energy would be exerted in that endeavor.
Consider a family that has a rigid rule that everyone must be home and be seated at the table at exactly 6:00 p.m. for the evening meal. The family may be willing to wait for about thirty seconds for Maria to get off the phone so they can begin, but they most certainly will not tolerate a five-minute delay. The system will draw on its storehouse of memories and choose an action to correct the undesirable behavior. It may be that Maria’s siblings will pressure her to hang up or that her parents will warn her that she won’t get anything to eat unless she hangs up immediately. In either case, the system works as a whole to shape her behavior.
All families have rules that each member obeys for the good of the whole. The system monitors deviance from these rules. Cybernetic control is the action the system takes to maintain the rules or status quo (referred to as homeostasis in systems-theory language). In other words, families exert a certain amount of social pressure (called homeostasis in systems-theory language) to maintain the current levels of family functioning. For the most part, individuals in the family are able to develop competencies as long as these competencies do not require the family’s nature or structure to change. Adding a child, for example, means that the structure of the family needs to change. New rules and communication patterns are needed as the new family member is cared for. As the child develops, more and more competencies are acquired. These new competencies will eventually require a change in the nature of the family’s relationships—parenting strategies of teens should be very different than for younger children; the parents’ relationship needs to
change to accommodate a teen; the family’s relationship with the social world needs to change as well. The ways in which families respond to these changes vary dramatically. Sometimes problematic responses to these changes become homeostatic, meaning that the family becomes resistant to trying a different coping mechanism to deal with the changes. This is known as reification in family therapy. These reified functional patterns, sometimes called overfunctioning/underfunctioning reciprocity, limit the effectiveness of the individual and family development (Bowen 2004).
On the one hand, cybernetics is ultimately functional—concerned with the accomplishment of tasks in the family. Function allows family members to be responsive to one another while addressing inputs from the outside environment. Sometimes, these functional changes incorporate more acute challenges from outside the family, allowing children and more vulnerable members to cope with the challenges. On the other hand, function may become a more persistent pattern. In family therapy language, these functional responses are reified and become the homeostatic balance in the family. The issue here is that these challenges prevent others from developing needed competencies themselves.
Morphogenesis Families often go beyond cybernetic control, however, for they are
continually redefining and changing their rules, regulations, and procedures. The system’s rule changes often result in a change of form or function (morphogenesis) in the family. Expanding our illustration, let’s suppose that the family is determined not to begin eating without Maria and that none of their tried and proven techniques succeed in getting her off the phone. A system that functions only at a cybernetic level can do absolutely nothing. It must either resort to a past response or not respond at all. However, a system that operates on a morphogenetic level is capable of generating or creating new ways of responding to the situation. New responses are created whenever tested methods no longer work or the system is facing a situation for the first time.
One advantage that effective family systems have over ineffective family systems is the ability to operate at this higher level. The overly rigid family is usually incapable of morphogenetic responses because the family lacks flexibility. However, chaotically structured families with few rules or
boundaries have similar difficulty because they do not possess the cohesiveness to act in a united way.
The family is usually required to generate new response patterns whenever unpredictable or unexpected changes occur. For example, when a member of the family loses a job, gets sick, or dies, new response patterns are demanded. This is also true for positive life-cycle changes, such as the birth or adoption of a child into the family, a wedding or anniversary celebration, or an unexpected inheritance of money. The family will be challenged to form new response patterns to these events as well. For instance, when we (the Balswicks) adopted our nine-year-old Korean son, each family member (sister, father, and mother) needed to make space for and welcome him into our family of three. Joel, in turn, needed to make space for us as he came to know us through interactions as a brother and son and the newest family member. We each were challenged in different ways as individual family members through the process of becoming a newly formed family. In the Frederick family, we also had to make changes with the adoption of a new pet. The process is the same in this more lighthearted example. Each member of our family provided input into the decision to adopt a kitten, we discussed the impact this would have on our daily schedules, and we devised a chore list with everyone contributing.
Another important aspect of a more complex model is that people bring meaning to their behavior. We must do more than understand a person’s actions; we must pay attention to the beliefs (perspectives) of that person in relation to his or her behavior. So Maria may have a very good reason to ask the family to make an exception for her lateness; for example, she is working hard on an important project for school and needs the family to be flexible. If family togetherness is the mother’s priority, however, she and Maria will have to negotiate change according to the meaning each one brings to the issue. In general, there is no right or wrong way for a family to be organized, but the family must determine how its system will function by considering the best interest of each family member in addition to what is in the best interest of the family system itself. This is how the many levels of a system are embedded within and build on one another.
The tendency in most families is to respond in old, familiar ways to new situations (homeostasis). These old ways will likely be inadequate, and the family will become stuck in them rather than be motivated to operate on the morphogenetic level. It is also true that most families do not stagnate—
because changes are always occurring in the family, whether at an individual, a relational, or a family level. In other words, family members constantly need to be in tune with the complex changes happening at all levels as they make adjustments in their daily living. The effective family understands that flexibility in structure, as well as relational connection between family members, is needed to operate on the morphogenetic level. Members of these families are alert and responsive to one another in the realm of individual differentiation and in keeping family togetherness a priority.
A unique perspective on morphogenesis developed from family-systems theory is known as differentiation of self (DoS). DoS focuses on how families function over time in response to one another. As described above, families sometimes develop a cybernetic pattern of under- and overfunctioning. Challenges to this pattern that disrupt the homeostatic balance often require internal resources to change the rules of the system or engage in morphogenesis. DoS is an internal resource, as well as a relational strength, developed in families. DoS may be conceptualized as the balance between individuality and togetherness (Bowen 2004; Kerr and Bowen 1988). DoS provides the resources to live out one’s core values and beliefs (individuality) while maintaining relationships with others (togetherness). Challenges to homeostasis create intense anxiety, which exerts pressure to maintain the status quo in the family. DoS helps individuals to remain authentic to their values and beliefs while engaging in the change process, thus preventing rigid relational patterns like overfunctioning/underfunctioning reciprocity to develop while encouraging open and authentic intimacy to characterize the family’s relationships.
The following is a brief illustration of differentiation of self and work based in Tom’s clinical practice. Carlos was a typical teen, and he regularly questioned his parents’ desire and expectation that he would attend college in preparation for a career. Education was immensely important to his parents, Letty and Mario—they both graduated from college, Letty was a middle- school teacher, and Mario was an administrator for the local school district. To a large extent being in the Mendoza family meant that education was important. Carlos was questioning the family’s very identity by stating his desire to not pursue college. This questioning created a significant amount of stress and tension that challenged the family’s homeostasis. Both parents began to exert pressure on Carlos to be faithful to his Mendoza identity and attend college. Our clinical work focused on supporting the family while
making space for Carlos to explore the potential of not going to college. Differentiation helps each family member to maintain their relationships with each other while allowing each to solidify their core values and beliefs. For Carlos, this means that it is important for him to have space to ask the questions and clarify and choose his core values while remaining part of the family.
Reorientation The fourth and highest level of feedback is reorientation; here the family
changes its entire goal. In morphogenesis, new ways of responding are generated, but in reorientation, the goals themselves are changed. Reorientation involves a dramatic change in family life in which the entire system converts to new ways of thinking and behaving. For example, reorientation may occur when the family of an alcoholic comes to grips with an understanding of how every member contributes to the problem. Treatment affects not only the alcoholic but also each and every family member, so change occurs at all levels. Another example is a radical change in an entire family’s belief system, such as when an individual religious conversion spreads to all members, resulting in an entirely new pattern of family living.
Major systemic change is fairly rare, and most families operate out of morphogenesis (generating new response patterns) or homeostasis (maintaining the status quo). Reorientation is most needed when a family’s existing patterns of behavior prove to be totally unworkable and damaging to its members.
Biological Influences on the Family In their article “Biosocial Influences on the Family,” D’Onofrio and Lahey (2010, 762) state, “There has been a growing acceptance of the importance of biological factors in the study of family and social influences, as many researchers are now studying how biological and social factors act and interact.” Before the emergence of the social sciences, it was assumed that nature rather than nurture was primarily responsible for human behavior. Evidence for the importance of nurture ushered in a social determinism in the form of behaviorism—recall John B. Watson’s (1930, 82) famous boast, “Give me a dozen healthy infants, well formed, and my own specific world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him