Problem at the Personal Level
Obstacle to Interpersonal Relationships
Behavior Perpetuating the Problem
Healing Behavior: The Cure
Lack of communication
Distrust of others Fear of being hurt by others
Open and honest communication
Hurting families are characterized at the individual level by their members not being in touch with their feelings. Their fear of rejection keeps them in denial of their emotions. What they need most is a safe atmosphere in which they can express their feelings, thoughts, wants, and desires and be heard and understood by the other family members. Open communication helps each person share more honestly rather than hide feelings and thoughts from others. In turn, this experience increases one’s capacity to be known by others and to know oneself at deeper levels.
A cure is needed to break the perpetual cycle found in hurting families. An individual who has been loved only conditionally needs to experience unconditional love in order to feel lovable enough to give love and to support others. The breakthrough comes when one receives God’s unconditional love. Being cherished by God gives a sense of self-worth and a new self-perception (“I am lovable”). Drawing on the Holy Spirit and maturing in the faith, the individual now has reason to follow God’s paradigm and to adopt healing behaviors.
We have seen that living in covenant love is a dynamic process. God has designed family relationships to grow from hurting to healing behavior—that is, to a maturity analogous to that of individual believers who attain the full measure of perfection found in Christ (Eph. 4:13). This maturing of relationships eventually enables family members to reach out to people beyond the boundaries of the family.
The Family as a Developing Biosocial System
Experience shows that it is possible to observe family life, or even be actively involved in family life, and yet be limited in our understanding of it. In fact, active involvement in family life may be the very reason we fail to understand it from a wider perspective.
In this chapter, we introduce two theoretical perspectives that family clinicians and sociologists have found helpful in gaining a wide-angle view of family life. The first one is called family-systems theory because it views family life not merely as the sum total of the actions of all the individual members but rather as the interactions of all family members operating as a unit of interrelated parts. Individuals are considered in the context of their relationships. We describe this theory at length. Parenthetically, it should be noted that by including biological factors relevant to family life, our focus is on the family as a biosocial system. The other theoretical perspective is family-development theory, which views the family as developing over time through natural life-cycle stages. Both family-systems theory and family- development theory emphasize the interrelationships between the individual’s bio-psycho-social development and the relationship context in which he or she is embedded. We explain these two perspectives, which will serve as a basis for focusing attention on family life as a whole.
Family-Systems Theory A major cultural theme in modern society is individualism. Individualism has caused us to focus on the individual’s needs and perspective rather than on relationships and groups. Current psychological approaches largely focus on individual differences or individual psychology as opposed to groups or
networks of individuals (which more correctly belongs in social psychology and sociology). The clinical profession is shifting the focus from the individual to the broader family system and beyond to include multileveled systems. This relational or systemic perspective allows clinicians to understand the embedded social dimension of human nature and flourishing. Both family therapists and sociologists now view family life from a broader systems perspective.
What is a family-systems perspective? Basically, it is a holistic approach that understands every component of family life in terms of the family as a whole. A system is by definition any identifiable whole composed of interrelated individual parts. To understand any system, one must begin by identifying the various levels within that system. Think of a series of concentric circles. At the core is the individual (bio-psycho-social dimensions); the next level includes the nuclear family (the family one lives within); then comes the extended family (grandparents, relatives, significant others); the next level includes school, work, friends, neighbors, and faith communities; and the final multicultural level includes socioeconomic, cultural, ethnic, racial, geographical, religious, and historical context. All these systems are interrelated. They influence and are influenced by one another simultaneously. The boundary around each of these multileveled systems involves belonging and membership. Western societies usually define the boundary of the family system as a husband, a wife, and their children. In many other societies, the extended family is considered the basic family system.
Resilience and constraints are embedded within the relationships among these levels. For example, a toddler is developing competencies related to walking, talking, and increasing personal autonomy (bio-psycho-social dimensions). This competence is supported and encouraged by parents (nuclear family). The nuclear family is also embedded in a context that supports their care and nurture (resilience factor) or constrains it (due to limited economic opportunities, high levels of crime, and/or high levels of divorce or out-of-wedlock childbearing). Finally, all the previous subsystems are embedded in a macrosystem that provides meaning-making, values, and spiritual perspectives either supporting the previous subsystems or constraining them. The impetus for change in order to accommodate various competencies can derive from any of the subsystems.
The fundamental concepts of systems theory are illustrated in figure 3. Notice that there are several semipermeable boundaries: (1) around the entire family, (2) between subsystems like the parents and children, and (3) around each individual. Anything within the boundary is considered part of the system, and anything that falls outside the boundary is identified as part of the environment. These boundaries indicate that inputs may come from outside the family as well as within each subsystem in the family. Input includes any message or stimulus that enters the system from the environment. Output includes any message or response from the system to the environment. Boundaries around a system can be relatively open or closed. In an open family system, boundaries are said to be permeable, allowing for significant input from and output to the environment. In a closed family system, boundaries serve as barriers to limit such interaction.
Parents form the leadership system that determines how open or closed the boundaries with the environment are. Once a boundary has been established, objects within the system are identified as units of the system. In the newly established family, there are two units (individuals), the husband and the wife, each with identifiable positions and roles within the family. As children enter the family, the system becomes more complex, since each new member (whether biological, adopted, or fostered) occupies a given position in the system and is assigned a role to play within it, and now subsystems are created.
A family that includes children has at least two subsystems: the parental subsystem, composed of the spouses or adult relationship partners, and the sibling subsystem, composed of the children (or, in the case of an only child, the child subsystem). Each sibling is also identified as an individual unit with unique traits, qualities, and biological makeup. An extended-family system includes grandparents, relatives, and nonrelatives who are considered part of that system. For example, when a divorced father of two children unites with a widowed mother of three, a broad definition of this family system includes relatives and friends from all sides of that family.
In most systems, rules of hierarchy exist between the subsystems. The major rule is that the adult subsystem (parents/adult members or nonfamily members) is considered to have authority and responsibility over the children in the home. It can be problematic when a child takes on a parental position in the home rather than remaining part of the sibling subsystem. In fact, the pattern of children becoming parents, or what we call parentified children or parentification indicates a serious concern with the family. When a child emerges as an authority and becomes the boss, an incongruent
hierarchy emerges. According to Nuttall, Valentino, and Borkowski (2012), a parentified child can experience problems after marriage when parenting their own children. This negative effect of parentification may depend upon the nature of the sibling relationships (Borchet et al. 2020). Older siblings can periodically take responsibility when parents aren’t present, but they relinquish that position after the parents return.
Multilevel systems theory developed in large part because of the inadequacies of a simplistic cause-and-effect model for complex social behavior, such as that of a family. The difference between a more complex system and a simplistic system can best be seen in the various ways in which behavior can be controlled, balanced, or changed through a feedback process. The many levels of feedback in a complex system, such as a family, are embedded within one another and build on one another. There are four major levels of feedback: simple feedback, cybernetic control, morphogenesis, and reorientation.
Simple Feedback Simple feedback is identical with a cause-and-effect model. For example,
to assist parents in toilet training a child, a behavior-modification therapist focuses on the behavior itself. Giving the child candy intermittently when the task is accomplished reinforces the desired behavior. By contrast, withholding the reward (candy) conditions the child to relinquish undesired behavior. Family members frequently use simple feedback as a stimulus for change. It is a simple exchange between the system and the environment.