Family Systems Theory

Family Systems is a look at the dynamics that go on within the whole family and the relationships in the family. Unlike Freud who sought to go inside the psyche of the individual, this therapy takes into account all the relations in a family and in the community. Murray Bowen is one of the fathers of Family Systems Theory. He noticed that in families anxiety controls and maintains the status quo of the family. Some families deal with conflict by moving closer and closer, creating what Bowen called “enmeshment.” Other families deal with anxiety and discomfort by a cut off. Cut off means disowning family members who don’t agree with the family rules, values and practices. Bowen also noted that individuals in families often deal with conflict by triangulation. Triangulation means, if George has a conflict with Jim, George speaks with someone else about the conflict rather than talking directly with Jim. This keeps the conflict going because those involved in the conflict never speak directly with each other. Bowen spoke about families rather than individuals because he saw families as objects of treatment. He coined the term “undifferentiated ego mass” to refer to family systems. Treatment from his point of view results in individuals becoming more differentiated. In becoming more differentiated family members are enabled to make decisions based on their own higher thinking rather than following the rules of the family.

I find this perspective extremely helpful in understanding the life of Jesus. Jesus was reared in a tradition with very strict and exacting rules. He sought to reform his culture by standing in it and speaking the truth about the social structure. His truth telling raised anxiety that eventually caused the system to put him to death.

In my family system it was understood early that children were not allowed to speak back to their parents. I felt that no one really cared what I thought or felt. The family system demanded that I meet the expectations of my parents and obey the rules and customs of our family. If I had gone for therapy with a Family Systems therapist, he/she would have discovered too many rules and expectations. First, my mother was reared in a Roman Catholic family that was wealthy and high class. She was sent to England for her schooling at the age of ten years; she lived in a convent with nuns and was educated by them through high school. She was taught that children are to be seen and not heard. Her perspective and values were transferred to our family. The Family Systems approach suggests that these values pass through one generation after another.

Biblically speaking, this perspective sheds light on how the sins of the fathers are visited on the second and third generations. When we look at these generational patterns, individuals can discover that their parents are not wholly to blame for the problem; they were unconscious victims of hand-me-down rules. They followed the patterns that had been handed down to them. In Family Systems Therapy the door opens so that different decisions about patterns of behavior are freely chosen or rejected. As members of a family differentiate, their decisions create a whole new family dynamic.