Thoughts on family therapy…
I’m confident that family sessions are the bane of many therapists’ practices. And for good reason, as no doubt there is a long list of sessions that have gone array over the many years the art of family therapy has been practiced. If I were to guess, one of the many factors contributing to sessions falling apart would - ironically enough - be the therapist’s deep desire to keep them together. At least if we were to define “keeping it together” as containing the cumulative emotions of the family members. And rightly so to some extent, since no session is of benefit when screaming, aggressive accusations, and non-stop tears are the product.
However, my belief is that when the session goal is to curtail emotions – whether this goal is held by the therapist or by one or more of the family members – we actually add anxiety and tension to the experience, which inevitably evokes the chaos that is sought to be avoided. And it’s only by approaching each and every family session with an openness to the potential expression of feelings, that members are provided the invitation to be genuine, and in turn, are able to facilitate solutions to the problems being addressed. Because more often than not, family members being disconnected from their real experiences, and these experiences being especially unknown to others in the family, is what permits the problem to take hold in the first place, regardless of how it’s manifested.
It seems to me that families assign roles to their members, whether such members are parents, teenagers, or children. These roles are often quite suitable and fitting, such as when a teen presents as the jokester, or when a parent models as nurturer. These roles will often perfectly reflect a member’s natural inclination or skill base, and will predictably stir little resentment or discomfort for them. However, we have to be aware of the capacity of such roles to at times be constraining to those that bear them, or be insufficient contingent on the context or the phase of life. For instance, the teen that has been assigned the role of quiet one and has been encouraged by his parents to model this trait, can come to feel quite resentful and limited should he at times want to be spontaneous or chatty.
A family’s ability to introduce flexibility to roles (and rules) for all its members, and to facilitate authentic sharing of feelings about the experiences and expectations that members have, will play large roles in determining peace and happiness. When emotional expressiveness is not encouraged or liable to occur in a safe, effective manner, and when there is significant inflexibility in the family’s role assignment (commonly referred to as morphostasis), disharmony is common and is liable to worsen when left unaddressed. In meeting with families, I seek to join with their respective members’ experiences so as to come to comprehend rather than judge them, and gradually help grant them the voices that might otherwise be suppressed, and have them understood - if not accepted - by fellow family members. This experience opens effective discussion and affords the family opportunities to better relate to one another and collaboratively find solutions to the problems that have hindered them.
This then, is the true goal of my family consultations: to walk with families in order that through therapeutic mediation, they be enabled to be real and open with their experiences and needs so that as a whole, they will have access to the innate problem-solving skills each unit has at its disposal.