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Family Systems Theory

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Family Systems Theory
Family Systems Theory
Family systems theory is a body of knowledge
that has arisen out of the observations of clinical
& counseling psychologists as they work with
individuals and their families.
The theory suggests that individuals cannot be
understood in isolation from one another—
families are systems of interconnected and
interdependent individuals, none of whom can
be understood in isolation from the system
What does it mean to say a family
is a system?
To understand this better,
consider the example of a
When you move any one piece
of a mobile, all the other pieces
move too! They do not exist in
isolation from one another, and
“movement” in any one part of
the “system” will affect all the
rest of the parts of the system.
Terms from Family Systems Theory
that you’ll want to understand
Family Roles
Family Rules
Terms from Family Systems Theory
that you’ll want to understand
Family Roles--what is expected of each family
– The most basic types of roles are “father,” “mother,”
“aunt,” “daughter,” “son,” “grandmother,” etc. What is
expected from people in each of these roles?
– But there are also roles beyond this most basic level.
For example, one person may be the “clown” of the
family. Another person may be the “responsible one.”
One person may be the “emotional one.” Another role
might be “crazy uncle Joe” who everyone knows is
going to act odd in his own unique way. There are a
lot of different roles in families.
Terms (cont.)
Family Rules are rules about how the family operates; these
rules are often unspoken. For example…
When people are angry at each other, do they express
this or keep it to themselves?
How affectionate or emotional are family members
expected or allowed to be with each other?
How do decisions get made in the family? Who has input
and who is expected to “just go along”? How is the final
decision made?
Are there limits on “how much” or in what ways kids can
argue with their parents?
How much are family members “allowed” to talk to people
outside the family about family problems?
Families tend to develop patterns about these sorts of things (&
other similar types of things). These patterns become
“unspoken rules.” Family members may see these things as
“just the way it is,” but different families do these things
differently from one another.
Reflecting on Family Roles &
Family Rules
Take a minute to think about how
you would answer the questions on
the preceding slide with regard to
your family!
Terms (cont.)
Systems develop typical ways of being which are reliable
and predictable. Family roles & family rules are examples
of what I mean by “typical ways of being.”
Whether these roles & rules are adaptive or not, there is a
pull from the system NOT to CHANGE—but to continue
functioning as things have always been.
Think of the mobile. If you move one part, the other parts
move. But if you let go of that one part, the whole
“system” (i.e., the parts of the mobile) will “pull each other”
back to the way they were before that one part moved.
This tendency of systems to keep doing things as they’ve
already been done is known as homeostasis or the
system’s equilibrium.
Some examples of family patterns:
Distancer-Pursuer Dyad
Often the roles that various family members take on
are related to one another. For example, consider
the distancer-pursuer dyad (a dyad is just a group of
two people).
Sometimes in a relationship, there may be one
person who seeks out closeness with the other
person (the pursuer) while his/her partner (the
distancer) wants more space or independence and
pulls back from the relationship.
This pattern might occur in the marital relationship
but might also occur in the parent-child relationship.
Outside the family, you might see this pattern in
dating relationships or even in close friendships.
Distancer-Pursuer Dyad
& Circular Causality
As you might imagine, as the distancer & pursuer act
out their “roles” within the relationship, a cycle can
– The pursuer pushes for closeness while the
distancer pulls back.
– The pursuer then feels “abandoned” and thus
feels even more even more of a need for
connection & so pushes even harder for
– As a result, the distancer feels “smothered” and
pulls away even more…
– …and so on & so forth…..a cycle!
Distancer-Pursuer Dyad
& Circular Causality
One might ask: How do they get in the cycle? Who
starts it?
Family systems theory sees this question as like the
question: “What came first? The chicken or the
Just as the “chicken & the egg” question is
impossible to answer, it may impossible to say
whether the “distancer” or the “pursuer” started it!
But in the cycle, BOTH patterns cause the OTHER
Family systems theorists refer to this concept as
circular causality.
Distancer-Pursuer Dyad
& Circular Causality
Circular causality refers to the fact that in
family systems, each family member’s
behavior is caused by and causes the other
family members’ behaviors. They are each
impacting the other, in a circular manner.
Some examples of family patterns:
Overfunctioner-Underfunctioner Dyad
Another example of circular causality is the
overfunctioner-underfunctioner dyad
In the overfunctioner-underfunctioner dyad, one member
of the couple (the overfunctioner) is very responsible.
This person wants things to be planned out. In contrast,
the other member of the couple (the underfunctioner)
may be less responsible, more fun-loving, more
spontaneous, etc.
Imagine a married couple as they deal with finances in
the family. The overfunctioner thinks that its important to
budget and to stay within a budget. The underfunctioner
thinks that sometimes you just have to be willing to
splurge and enjoy!
Some examples of family patterns:
Overfunctioner-Underfunctioner Dyad
The overfunctioner tends to see the
underfunctioner as irresponsible and immature.
The underfunctioner tends to see the
overfunctioner as controlling & rigid.
Just as we saw in the distancer-pursuer
relationship, the more the overfunctioner
overfunctions, the more the underfunctioner (in
reaction) will tend to underfunction, AND VICE
The causality is circular! Once the cycle has
started, each person’s behavior contributes to
the other person’s behavior.
Circular causality
The distancer-pursuer and overfunctionerunderfunctioner are just two examples of
the sorts of circular patterns that can
develop in families. There are many other
A good clue to a “circular” pattern is when
people tend to respond in predictable
ways to each other, and their responses
may become more extreme or even
“stubborn” over time.
A Question to Ponder
What “circular” patterns have you seen in your
own family or other relationships?
Homeostasis & Equilibrium
Remember that we talked about how “systems”
are resistant to change?
According to systems theory, this is true EVEN
IF the change might seem to be a desirable one!
For example, if the “distancer” within a
relationship tries to work at taking the initiative to
seek out connection within the relationship, the
“pursuer” may --in perhaps unintended,
subconscious ways---sabotage the distancer’s
attempts to change.
Family Systems & The CulturalSystemic Approach
In conclusion, the Family Systems approach
suggests that sometimes our behavior may have
AS MUCH TO DO with the “systems” (groups) of
which we are a part—and the patterns that get
established within these systems-- as it may
have to do with the personality of each person
within the system.
This is a very different explanation to what
shapes human behavior than many of the other
perspectives we have looked at in class thus far.
Applying what you’ve learned!
Remember….to take the Jenzabar quiz
before class on Wednesday Oct. 12!
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