The origin of family therapy can be traced back to a period in the mid-1900’s when focus shifted from individual psychoanalysis towards the correlation of psychological problems and family structure and relationships. It began when the psychoanalytical setting became insufficient to address some cases where the involvement of other members of the family was a greatly influential factor.
It has long been established that humans as social beings are greatly affected by these interpersonal relationships. For instance a significant amount of visits to psychotherapists are due to marriage and family problems. When mental illnesses are present with no biological of such, it is also the family that is first assessed. Freudian theories focus very much on familial relationships as well. All of these developments offered new suggestions for therapy (Long, 1996).
One technique that arose, for example was the “conjoint family therapy”. Here, sessions are videotaped or observed behind one way screens. Another was holding meetings with other families, called “multiple family groups”. Eventually, these gave birth to family therapy, which is now only about forty years old. The family, as a person’s immediate environment, was therefore presented as the most basic social unit. Since each one has its own set of values, rules and principles, we can analyze the role and interactions within the family, and use this analysis in a broader context- the community.
Underneath the light and conversational tone that Napier and Whitaker (1988) use in their book, The Family Crucible, are fundamental concepts and approaches that can be helpful in understanding family therapy. It narrates the story of how the Brice family’s conflicts were resolved by encouraging interaction among all five members and solving issues in the parents’ marriage.
The Brice family is composed of David, the father who is a VIP lawyer, Carolyn, an angry mother, their teenage daughter Claudia, and their two other children, Laura and Don. The story was also able to present the way some problems may dynamically affect each member of the family- a misunderstanding or imbalance of family roles, for example, or excessive child focus that may lead to a couple’s unhappiness. Among other concepts presented too are blaming, family life cycle stages, polarization and reciprocity.
For some time, the idea that Whitaker’s charismatic personality, and not really his theory, seemed accurate in the solving of the family problem. Without a formal education or training in therapy, Whitaker started developing his theories as he began a research on how to treat schizophrenia using “aggressive play therapy”, after which he invested in developing other methods that could be applied in cases other than schizophrenia.
For example, he used a form of pyknolepsy, where he would dream about himself and his patient during a session. This would show what their relationship was like and would be used as part of the therapy (Whitaker, 1981). He also said that in using a technique, a therapist also develops himself, with the patient as a conciliator.
However, some of the points in the book can definitely suggest otherwise. For example, spontaneity in the family was seen as a sign of trust and good communication lines, an element that family therapy aims to measure. Where there is a free exchange of ideas, it becomes easier for members to bring up and solve issues, which, if swept under the rug, can only pile up and become a cause of angst.
In another book by Whitaker (1981), he emphasizes how normal families should not add up to each other’s stress. Another characteristic of a family in good shape is a certain freedom or flexibility in roles whenever certain changes occur. A member’s role should not be one that is strictly defined, but rather one that results from the conditions that the family is in, including their values, culture and needs, which can change at a given time.
I personally saw their insistence that all members of the Brice family be present during the therapy as impressive. When Carolyn, the mother, started showing signs of impatience about their son Don’s tardiness, she wanted to begin the therapy without him already. However, the therapists saw the need to treat the family as a whole, especially since their “demand to have the whole family in” is the start of their “battle for structure” (p. 204).
Family therapy has developed is a clinical methodology that revolves around the hypothesis that psychological distress can be assessed through the observation of human relations. It also capitalizes on the assumption that every member of the system affects or influences each other and the system. And while other cases may require individual therapy based on the individuality of the patient, some cases need to involve the whole family when the nature of the issue is much connected with it. Even though Carolyn insists that “. . . Don isn’t the problem. The problem has to do with Claudia (p. 6)” or Claudia identifies herself as “it”, the fact remains that as a family, Claudia affects her siblings and parents, just as much as she affects them.
Furthermore, the purpose of family therapy, like all other forms of therapy, is to create a therapeutic experience, and that experience will not be felt as a family if one is absent. The therapists constantly created activities like playing for the children in order to create such an experience and to later on suggest and have improvement. Later on, even the grandparents become involved in the therapy. They were asked to come as consultants during sessions, especially since they have know the Brice family better and can help in observing or assessing them.
I believe that the intervening approach used by Napier and Whitaker proved to be appropriate for the Brice family. The way confusion, awkwardness and silence were utilized to “unbalance” the family was also impressive. When the question “When did you divorce your husband and marry the children?” was straightforwardly asked to Carolyn, Whitaker also displayed a sense of professionalism in the sense that he put the method of using Carolyn’s “unbalance” over the want to be liked by the client.
Perhaps this emphasizes that during therapy, the therapist’s self-development and maturity is essential as well. Observable too is the movement of the therapy from one stage to another, where the need for structure was identified and addressed during the first one, role playing and interaction were done during the second one to improve relationships especially that of the parents’, and finally, the therapists saw the family functioning independently as one unit.
However, it is also important to note that while these techniques were effective for the Brice family, they may not have the same results on other families. For example, the technique of “unbalancing” the family, though seen as an unnecessary stressor, is a risky step to take. If the purpose of such straightforwardness is not seen by the client, or if the dislike towards therapist grows to deter the progress of the session, unwanted consequences could arise. A thorough initial assessment of the family, therefore, is necessary.
Using the technique of co-therapy also seemed successful here, mainly due to the fact that Napier and Whitaker, after having been together in other cases, know how to work efficiently already. They even called this co-therapy a “professional marriage”. Nevertheless, the need for initial assessment is again emphasized as having to share your problems with two therapists can appear to be intimidating to some families, and can stir up some hesitation.
Long, P. W. (1996). Family therapy. Retrieved June 18, 2009 from http://accg.net/family_therapy.htm
Napier, A. Y. & Whitaker, C. (1988). The family crucible: The intense experience of family therapy. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.
Whitaker, C. A. (1981). Symbolic-experiential family therapy. In A. S. Gurman, & D. P. Knistern (eds.), Handbook of family therapy. New York: Brunner/Mazel.