Family Systems Theory
One of the central premises of family systems theory is that family systems organize themselves to carry out the daily challenges and tasks of life, as well as adjusting to the developmental needs of its members. Critical to this premise is the concept of holism. A family systems approach argues that in order to understand a family system we must look at the family as a whole. Two families living across the street from each other may each be comprised of a mother, father, and child. Yet it is in their rules of interacting with each other and their collective history that they are understood as uniquely different. In contrast, a nonsystems approach would attempt to understand each family by looking at the individual members separately. By studying them individually, the way they interact, their communication, or their humor, their uniqueness is lost or clouded. A common analogy often used by family systems theorists and practitioners is found in baking. The cake that comes out of the oven is more than the eggs, flour, oil, baking soda, and vanilla that make up the parts or elements of the cake. It is how these elements combined to form something larger than the ingredients that makes the cake. Such is true with families as well. It is more than "who makes up a family," it is how they come together that defines that family.
The concept of hierarchies describes how families organize themselves into various smaller units or subsystems that together comprise the larger family system (Minuchin 1974). Such subsystems are often organized by gender or generation. Practitioners generally have focused on three primary subsystems: marital (or couple), parental, and sibling. Each subsystem is distinguished by the members who comprise the subsystem as well as the tasks or focus of the subsystem. Families may organize themselves into subsystems to accomplish the tasks and goals of the family. When the members or tasks associated with each subsystem become blurred with those of other subsystems, families have been viewed as having difficulties. For example, when a child becomes involved in the issues of the marital subsystem, difficulties often emerge that require intervention.
Related to the concept of holism and hierarchies is that of boundaries. Families draw boundaries between what is included in the family system and what is external to the system. Boundaries occur at every level of the system and between subsystems. Boundaries influence the movement of people into and out of the system. Boundaries also regulate the flow of information into and out of the family. Although the concept of boundaries as applied to family systems is largely a metaphorical one, the permeability of these boundaries often distinguish one family from another. Some families have very open boundaries where members and others are allowed to freely come and go without much restriction, whereas in other families there are tight restrictions on where family members can go, and who may be brought into the family system. Boundaries also regulate the flow of information about a family. In more closed families the rules strictly regulate what information may be discussed and with whom. In contrast, information may flow more freely in families that have more permeable boundaries. Practitioners working with families often encounter families where they may find themselves being welcomed into the family and information about the family is forthcoming without limitations. In such families the practitioner's ideas and interventions may be accepted with only limited reservation. On the other hand, in more closed families, the practitioner may have a more difficult time being accepted by the family. Information about the family is more difficult to obtain, and ideas and interventions of the practitioner are met with resistance. It is important to also recognize that boundaries exist within the family system and help to distinguish the various subsystems that comprise the larger family system. Finally, the permeability of family boundaries will often change with the developmental age and need of the family members. For example, developmental needs of adolescents and young adults often press the permeability of family boundaries as new ideas and individuals become part of the young person's world. The concept of interdependence is implicit in the discussion of the organizational nature of family systems. Individual family members and the subsystems that comprise the family system are mutually influenced by and are mutually dependent upon one another (Bertalanffy 1975; Whitchurch and Constantine 1993). What happens to one family member, or what one family member does, influences the other family members. This is one of the primary concepts embedded in clinical models emerging from a systems perspective. Clinicians understand that to effectively work with families it is imperative to consider the systemic impact of any intervention.
A second central premise to family systems theory is that families are dynamic in nature and have patterns of rules and strategies that govern the way they interact. The dynamic nature of family helps to ensure that the family can meet the challenges associated with daily living and developmental growth of the family members. The concept of equilibrium explains how families strive for a sense of balance between the challenges they confront and the resources of the family. Families are constantly adapting, changing, or responding to daily events as well as more long term developmental challenges and changes. According to family systems theory, families strive for a sense of balance or homeostasis. When such balance is not found, the rules or dynamics of the family may need to be adjusted to restore this balance. The concept of morphostasis refers to the ability of the family system to maintain consistency in its organizational characteristics despite the challenges that may rise up over time (Steinglass 1987). Patterns of interaction emerge within the family that keeps demands for change in check. In contrast, morphogenesis refers to the systems' ability to grow systemically over time to adapt to the changing needs of the family. In all families there is an ongoing dynamic tension between trying to maintain stability and introducing change.
The concept of feedback loops is used to describe the patterns or channels of interaction and communication that facilitates movement toward morphogenesis or morphostasis. Negative feedback loops are those patterns of interaction that maintain stability or constancy while minimizing change. Negative feedback loops help to maintain homeostasis. Positive feedback loops, in contrast, are patterns of interaction that facilitate change or movement toward either growth or dissolution. Although the words negative and positive are used within systems theory, it is not meant to characterize the communication as good or bad. No value is implied in the labels. For example, in the Jones family, the father decides to return to school part time to complete his education now that their youngest child is preschool age. Negative feedback loops are associated with patterns of interaction and communication that keep the family system functioning in its current way. These patterns attempt to maintain the family system in the way it was before the father returned to school. The family members may continue to expect the running of the household and the availability of the father to remain the same, despite the fact that the father is now in the workforce and school. For example, the father may be expected to have the same level of availability to the children and his partner as before. In contrast, positive feedback loops would be patterns of interaction and communication that emerge as a result of the need for change associated with the father being in school. The family may reach an agreement that the father is not to be disturbed during certain hours of the day so that he may study. Alternatively, certain days of the week may be family time, whereas other days or times of the week are studying time.
As complex interactive systems, families are seen as being goal oriented. Families strive to reach certain objectives and goals. Through patterns of interactions, such as negative and positive feedback loops, the achievement of the goals becomes more or less attainable. The concept of equifinality refers to the ability of the family system to accomplish the same goals through different routes (Bertalanffy 1968). Equifinality proposes that the same beginning can result in many different outcomes, and that an outcome may be reached through many paths. For example, the Gonzales family has the goal of having each of the children obtain a college education. Academic scholarships are seen as the primary means of providing access to a college education for the children. Thus, the family may organize itself to foster academic excellence of the children by focusing on homework and providing challenging educational opportunities that push the children to excel. An alternate path may focus on developing the athletic skills of the children, which will provide a different avenue into the academic world. A third focus may be on one or more of the parents working extra hours or jobs to help finance the college education. Families may use one or more of these methods to achieve the same goal.