FAMILY SYSTEMS THEORY :
FAMILY SYSTEMS THEORY was developed by the American psychiatrist, Murray Bowen (1913-1990). The theory proposes that :
a) The family acts as a highly complex system
b) This system is made up of family members who are emotionally intertwined
c) The ‘units’ of the system (i.e. the emotionally intertwined family members) interact in highly complex ways
d) Family members, through emotional interaction, affect each other’s thoughts, behaviors and emotional states (though are often unaware of the degree to which this process is taking place)
e) Some family members are more emotionally interconnected than others, but all are emotionally interconnected to some extent.
THE EFFECTS OF ANXIETY PERMEATING THE FAMILY SYSTEM :
When one or more of the family members become anxious, the anxiety becomes ‘contagious’ and ‘infects’ other members of the family. As the level of anxiety increases, so, too, do the emotional interactions between family members become correspondingly, increasingly stressful.
Eventually, a particular family member (the most sensitive and vulnerable) starts to absorb the majority of the anxiety produced by the family system which puts this person at risk of developing various forms of mental illness including depression and anxiety disorders. In this way, this individual acts as a kind of ‘container’ or ‘vessel’ into which the lion’s share of the stress and anxiety generated by the entire family system is poured ; this process, in turn, can result in him/her becoming the ‘family symptom bearer‘ and/or ‘family scapegoat’ (see related article recommendations below).
I provide an example of how this can play out below :
Let’s take a hypothetical family consisting of four members : mother, father, oldest son (age 16), and youngest son (age 14). Now, let’s imagine the following scenario :
The family functions relatively well until the parental marriage comes under strain. The stress and anxiety generated by this marital friction permeates the whole family.
In response to the increased anxiety in the family home, the father spends much more time at the office, becoming a workaholic; the mother, to distract herself and bolster her self-esteem and self-image, throws herself into charity work and religious activities; the oldest brother cuts off from the family, spending his time in his bedroom listening to music or doing homework (when he is not bullying his younger brother); the youngest son responds by getting drunk, taking drugs, getting into fights and becoming involved in petty crime.
The family then identify the youngest son as being at the root of the family problems and decide they should all attend family therapy sessions.
However, the family therapist points out that the youngest son is NOT, in fact, the source of the family’s problems, and that therapy can only work if all family members face up to their own specific problems.
However, the father, mother and older brother do not wish to entertain the idea that they might have anything to do with the way in which the family has become dysfunctional, insisting, instead, that it is the youngest son who needs to be ‘fixed’, certainly not any of them!
Having made their feelings on the matter abundantly clear, the family then terminates the family therapy. Permanently.
Because the family is still convinced that the youngest son is, as it were, ‘the root of all evil’, the family pack him off to a psychiatric hospital for a couple of months.
Due to the fact that the youngest son is now away from the malign influence of the family atmosphere (rather than due to any treatment the hospital attempts to provide proactively) the youngest son’s psychological condition improves considerably. Eventually, therefore, his family (magnanimously, in their own grossly distorted and self-serving view) grant him permission to return home.
However, when the son does return home, because the other family members have failed to acknowledge, let alone address, their own issues, the youngest son’s psychological condition deteriorates again and things go from bad to worse…
In other words, it is the system as a whole that needs to be ‘repaired’, not just one part of it (i.e. the family member displaying the most inconvenient, and least socially acceptable, symptoms / psychological defenses).
You may like to read two related articles from this site (see immediately below) :
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).