Family Systems Therapy By: Robyn Huntley, LMFT

Oct 17, 2014

Family Systems Therapy is a model which many therapists (especially Marriage and Family Therapists) use that helps them understand and treat their clients and the problems they face.  Therapists who utilize this model will often say they use a “systemic lens” to look at their clients and the issues that they are seeking to resolve in therapy.  This systemic lens is based on the assumption that individuals cannot be understood in isolation from one another. Each of us belongs to a number of “systems” – groups of interconnected and interdependent individuals. Our stories, our lives, our problems, are interconnected; they do not exist in a vacuum.  They develop out of the context of the systems in which we are embedded. A family is just one type of system we can be a part of.  We may be a part of multiple “systems” at any time, for example, at school, in the workplace, or other organizations in the community; however, our families are often the primary, most significant systems that influence our development, functioning and overall well-being. This is why the term “family systems therapy” is used.  So although it is primarily focused on families, it can be applied to any group of individuals functioning together.

Why is it important to use this systemic lens in therapy?

When a client comes to therapy, often the problems and symptoms he or she is seeking help for are ones that have arisen from problematic patterns, unspoken “rules” and roles that have been playing out in the client’s family system.  All systems of individuals functioning together naturally develop relatively consistent patterns of interaction.  The individuals in the system tend to take on roles (e.g., “the good girl,” “the screw up,” “the caretaker”) that influence the ways they act with others in the system. (Oftentimes these roles also extend outside of the group, in other contexts.) This actually serves a pretty helpful purpose in that the expectations that roles and patterns carry “bring regularity and predictability to complex social situations” (Nichols and Schwartz, 9).  Regardless of whether these patterns and roles are seemingly positive or problematic, they all developed out of the family’s need to be able to function/survive.  Every single role, behavior, and pattern of interaction, even the ones we’d label as “bad” or “problematic” came into being and continue to exist because, on some level, they serve a purpose in keeping the system functioning.  At the same time, this tendency toward predictable patterns and roles is also the thing that can keep people stuck in self-defeating, problematic patterns of behavior.  It is human nature for family systems to seek homeostasis – a balanced, steady state of equilibrium.  Families often resist change – even when the change is positive. That is because all change is anxiety provoking.  It can be hard on family members if one person makes progress, because he or she no longer acts in the predictable ways the family has gotten used to.  When one person changes things up in the family system, it requires everyone else to shift with him/her.  The whole system kind of gets shaken up.  Because of this, families can tend to resist even positive change, sabotage progress, and cling to old patterns.  For example, the symptom and/or the symptomatic person gives other members of the family something besides their own problems/insecurities to focus their attention and energy on.  Without having that, the others kind of don’t know what to do with themselves.  Sometimes, the sense of identity and significance in other family members is even threatened  when the symptomatic person gets better – particularly with those who are used to seeing themselves as caretakers of the symptomatic family member.

It’s hard for most people to see the patterns that bind them together.  Most people are not aware of the unspoken “rules” of the system, the patterns, dynamics, roles people take on, and the functions their symptoms serve.  However, awareness and understanding of these things are often crucial to being able to make and sustain positive change in our lives.  The therapist’s job is to help clients become aware of these patterns, rules and roles, understand how their symptoms fit into the context of it all, and then begin to make the necessary changes to the dynamics that have been keeping the client stuck, so that the client is actually able to let go of the symptomatic patterns of behavior and function in more adaptive, healthy ways.  It is often preferred to have other members of the system participate (which constitutes family therapy), as this helps everyone in the system be on the same page, working together to change unhelpful patterns.  However, this is not always possible.  Even so, when this is the case, using a systems perspective in individual therapy can still be effective in preparing the client to integrate back into the system without being as vulnerable to being pulled back into old patterns.

For more information regarding Family Systems Therapy:


Nichols, M and Schwartz, C. (2007). The Essentials of Family Therapy, Third Edition. Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.

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