This is Chapter 3 "A Family Model" in Families and Family &Therapy by Salavdor Minuchin, 1974, Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts. I scanned this chapter so there may be some errors.
3 A Family Model
Man survives in groups; this is inherent in the human condition. An infant's most basic need is for a mother figure to feed, protect, and teach him. Beyond that, man has survived in all societies by belonging to social aggregates. In different c ultures these aggregates vary in their level of organization and differentiation. Primitive societies rely on large groupings with a stable distribution of functions. As societies grow more complex and new skills are required, societal structures are diff erentiated. Modern urban industrial civilization makes two conflicting demands on man: the ability to develop highly specialized skills, and the capacity for rapid adaptation to a constantly changing socioeconomic scene. The family has always undergone ch anges that parallel society's changes. It has taken over or given up the functions of protecting and socializing its members in response to the culture's needs. In this sense, family functions serve two different ends. One is internal-the psychosocial pro tection of its members; the other is external-the accommodation to a culture and the transmission of that culture.
Urban industrial society has intruded forcefully on the family, taking over many functions that were once considered the family's duties. The old now live apart, in old people's homes or in housing developments for senior citizens. Economic support is provided by society through social security or welfare. The young are educated by schools, mass media, and peers. The value of what used to be women's work has been drastically curtailed by modern technology, which has changed tasks necessary for t he survival of the family unit to drudgery that a machine can do better. Conditions that allow or require both spouses to work outside the family create situations in which the extrafamilial network may heighten and exacerbate conflict between the spouses .
In the face of all these changes, modern man still adheres to a set of values that belong to a different society, one in which the boundaries between the family and the extrafamilial were clearly delineated. The adherence to an outmoded model leads to the labeling of many situations that are clearly transitional as pathological and pathogenic. The touchstone for family life is still the legendary "and so they were married and lived happily ever after." It is no wonder that any family falls short of thi s ideal.
The occidental world is in a state of transition, and the family, which must always accommodate to society, is changing with it. But because of transitional difficulties, the family's major psychosocial task-to support its members-has become more impor tant than ever. Only the family, society's smallest unit, can change and yet maintain enough continuity to rear children who will not be "strangers in a strange land," who will be rooted firmly enough to grow and to adapt.
THE MATRIX OF IDENTITY
In all cultures, the family imprints its members with selfhood. Human experience of identity has two elements: a sense of belonging and a sense of being separate. The laboratory in which these ingredients are mixed and dispensed is the family, the matr ix of identity.
In the early process of socialization, families mold and program the child's behavior and sense of identity. The sense of belonging comes with an accommodation on the child's part to the family groups and with his assumption of transactional patterns i n the family structure that are consistent throughout different life events. Tommy Wagner is a Wagner, and throughout his life he will be the son of Emily and Mark. This will be an important factor in his existence. That Mark is the father of Tom i s an important factor in Mark's life, as is the fact that he is the husband of Emily. Every member's sense of identity is influenced by his sense of belonging to a specific family.
The sense of separateness and individuation occurs through participation in different family subsystems in different family contexts, as well as through participation in extrafamilial groups. As the child and the family grow together, the accomm odation of the family to the child's needs delimits areas of autonomy that he experiences as separateness. A psychological and transactional territory is carved out for that particular child. Being Tom is different from being a Wagner.
But every individual's sense of identity is influenced by his sense of belonging to different groups. Part of Mark Wagner's identity is the fact that he is the father of Tom and the husband of Emily, as well as the child of his parents. The components of an individual's sense of identity change and remain constant. As Roger Barker put it, "the psychological person who writes essays, scores points, and crosses streets stands as an identifiable entity between unstable interior parts and exterior contexts , with both of which he is linked, yet from both of which he is profoundly separated."' The psychological person who is a separate entity is linked with exterior contexts.
Although the family is the matrix of its members' psychosocial development, it must also accommodate to society and ensure some continuity to its culture. This societal function is the source of attacks on the family in modern America. American society is changing, and many groups within that society want to hurry the change. These groups see the family, quite correctly, as an element of conservatism and a source of stasis. Attacks on the family are typical of revolutionary periods. Christ told his dis ciples to leave their parents and families and to follow him. The French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions all undermined the traditional family structure in those countries in an attempt to speed the progress toward a new social order. The Israeli kibbut z is another example of the same social process.
Russian laws bearing on the family during and after their revolution illustrate this process. In the 1920s, laws regulating marriage, divorce, and abortion tended toward the dissolution of the family. But in the 1930s, when Russia was moving toward the crystallization of its newly established societal norms, laws were changed to support family continuity. Similarly, the Israeli kibbutzim are now tending to increase the functions of the nuclear family within the kibbutz. In many of them, infants now sta y in their parents' room, and children live with their parents for a longer time before joining the children's home.
Any study of the family must include its complementarily to society. The nuclear family, which in theory at least is the American middle class norm, is a recent historical development. Even today, it is largely confined to urban industrialized societie s. Concepts of family functions also change as society changes. Up to four hundred years ago, the family was not seen as a child-rearing unit, and not until much later were children recognized as individuals in their own right.3
Today the American family, like American society, is in a transitional period. And like the society it transmits, the family is under attack. For example, a twelve-hour public educational television program, "An American Family," followed the Lou d family through the routines of their life and their relationships with jobs, schools, in-laws, and friends. Some people hailed this presentation as a breakthrough in mass media communication, with significant anthropological value. Others criticized the dullness of the presentation of family life. One significant critical group was the Loud family itself. On independent television shows they tried to communicate to an audience of millions that they did not like themselves as they were portrayed. They po inted out that there was much more to them than was shown. What the American audience saw was in fact the producer's point of view. Influenced by current views of the family, he had selected and highlighted excerpts that exemplified these views. Similar d istortions were made by the cameramen and crew, who framed the shots, selected closeups, and pinpointed what they considered to be the relevant aspects of the family. Americans saw an American family presented according to cultural views of the family tha t are currently fashionable.
Attacks on the family are coming from many sources. Joining in are the intellectual leaders of the counterculture movement and groups of young people who have been experimenting with communal forms of family organization and child rearing. In the menta l health field, R.D. Laing and his followers have been influential in portraying the family as the malevolent programmer of psychosis and, even worse, of the "normal" adults that populate our world4. The new feminist movement has also attacked the family, describing it as an entrenchment of male chauvinism. They see the nuclear family as an organization that cannot help but produce little girls reared to be wives in the doll house, and little boys who will be just as trapped in outmoded pattern s.
The family will change as society changes. Probably in complementary fashion, society will develop extrafamilial structures to adapt to new currents of thought and new social and economic realities. The 1970s seem to be an interim period of struggle, d uring which changes are creating a need for structures that have not yet appeared. The large number of families in which both parents work outside the home, for example, has created a need for day care services on a large scale, which are not yet availabl e.
The generation gap is another example of unmet needs. The family is relinquishing the socialization of children earlier and earlier. The school, mass media, and the peer group are taking over the guidance and education of older children. But society ha s not developed adequate extrafamilial sources of socialization and support.
The Masai society had an adolescent peer group culture that was largely independent but was assigned certain specific tasks for the group to perform under the laissez-faire supervision of the tribe's warriors. The youths could thus carry out the age-ap propriate processes of separating from the family and becoming independent without becoming alienated from society at large. The youth groups of the Israeli kibbutzim perform a similar function. Western society does not have clearly differentiated functio ns for adolescents. When the family releases its children, it releases them to inadequate supporting systems. It is not surprising that adolescent crises of identity have resulted in a number of antinomian social phenomena.5
Change always moves from society to the family, never from the smaller unit to the larger. The family will change, but it will also remain, because it is the best human unit for rapidly changing societies. The more flexibility and adaptiveness so ciety requires from its members, the more significant the family will become as the matrix of psychosocial development.
As the family, in a generic sense, changes and adapts to historical circumstances, so the individual family constantly adapts. The family is an open system in transformation; that is, it constantly receives and sends inputs to and from the extrafamilia l, and it adapts to the different demands of the developmental stages it faces.
Its tasks are not easy. The Wagners, with all the difficulties they describe in family formation and the birth of their child, typify the stresses that any normal family encounters. But somehow, the prevailing idealized view of the normal family is tha t it is nonstressful. In spite of sociological and anthropological studies of the family, the myth of placid normality endures, supported by hours of two-dimensional television characters. This picture of people living in harmony, coping with social input s without getting ruffled, and always cooperating with each other, crumbles whenever one looks at any family with its ordinary problems. It is therefore alarming that this standard is sometimes maintained unchallenged by therapists, who measure the functi oning of client families against the idealized image. Freud pointed out that therapy changes neurotic patterns into the normal miseries of life. His comment is just as true for family therapy.
Since a normal family cannot be distinguished from an abnormal family by the absence of problems, a therapist must have a conceptual schema of family functioning to help him analyze a family. A schema based on viewing the family as a system, operating within specific social contexts, has three components. First, the structure of the family is that of an open sociocultural system in transformation. Second, the family undergoes development, moving through a number of stages that require restructuring. Th ird, the family adapts to changed circumstances so as to maintain continuity and enhance the psychosocial growth of each member. The interview with the Wagners was designed to uncover the second component of this schema, their developmental stages, with t he commentary presenting more generic aspects of family development. Family structure and family adaptation require further discussion.
Family structure is the invisible set of functional demands that organizes the ways in which family members interact. A family is a system that operates through transactional patterns. Repeated transactions establish patterns of how, when, and t o whom to relate, and these patterns underpin the system. When a mother tells her child to drink his juice and he obeys, this interaction defines who she is in relation to him and who he is in relation to her, in that context and at that time. Repeated op erations in these terms constitute a transactional pattern.
In their interview the Wagners described many such patterns. Emily generally plans the family's Saturday activities, but only an event of major importance would make her interfere with her husband's Sunday fishing trip. In her family of origin, Emily w as involved in a coalition with her mother against her father: the mother encouraged the daughter to disobey the father, who complemented this by attacking the daughter when he was angry at the mother.
Transactional patterns regulate family members' behavior. They are maintained by two systems of constraint. The first is generic, involving the universal rules governing family organization. For instance, there must be a power hierarchy, in which paren ts and children have different levels of authority. There must also be a complementarily of functions, with the husband and wife accepting interdependency and operating as a team.
The second system of constraint is idiosyncratic, involving the mutual expectations of particular family members. The origin of these expectations is buried in years of explicit and implicit negotiations among family members, often around small daily e vents. Frequently the nature of the original contracts has been forgotten, and they may never have even been explicit. But the patterns remain-on automatic pilot, as it were-as a matter of mutual accommodation and functional effectiveness.
Thus the system maintains itself. It offers resistance to change beyond a certain range, and maintains preferred patterns as long as possible. Alternative patterns are available within the system. But any deviation that goes beyond the system's thresho ld of tolerance elicits mechanisms which re-establish the accustomed range. When situations of system disequilibrium arise, it is common for family members to feel that other members are not fulfilling their obligations. Calls for family loyalty and guilt -inducing maneuvers then appear.6
But the family structure must be able to adapt when circumstances change. The continued existence of the family as a system depends on a sufficient range of patterns, the availability of alternative transactional patterns, and the flexibility to mobilize them when necessary. Since the family must respond to internal and external changes, it must be able to transform itself in ways that meet new circumstances without losing the continuity that provides a frame of reference for its members.
The family system differentiates and carries out its functions through subsystems. Individuals are subsystems within a family. Dyads such as husband-wife or mother-child can be subsystems. Subsystems can be formed by generation, by sex, by interest, or by function.
Each individual belongs to different subsystems, in which he has different levels of power and where he learns differentiated skills. A man can be a son, nephew, older brother, younger brother, husband, father, and so on. In different subsystems, he en ters into different complementary relationships. People accommodate kaleidoscopically to attain the mutuality that makes human intercourse possible. The child has to act like a son as his father acts like a father; and when the child does so, he ma y have to cede the kind of power that he enjoys when interacting with his younger brother. The subsystem organization of a family provides valuable training in the process of maintaining the differentiated "I am" while exercising interpersonal skills at d ifferent levels.
Boundaries. The boundaries of a subsystem are the rules defining who participates, and how. For example, the boundary of a parental subsystem is defined when a mother (M) tells her older child, "You aren't your brother's parent. If he is riding his bike in the street, tell me, and I will stop him" (Fig. 2). If the parental subsystem includes a
M (executive subsystem)
children (sibling subsystem)
parental child (PC), the boundary is defined by the mother's telling the children, "Until I get back from the store, Annie is in charge"
M and PC (executive subsystem)
other children (sibling subsystem)
The function of boundaries is to protect the differentiation of the system. Every family subsystem has specific functions and makes specific demands on its members; and the development of interpersonal skills achieved in these subsystems is predicated on the subsystem's freedom from interference by other subsystems. For example, the capacity for complementary accommodation between spouses requires freedom from interference by in-laws and children, and sometimes by the extrafamilial. The developm ent of skills for negotiating with peers, learned among siblings, requires noninterference from parents.
For proper family functioning, the boundaries of subsystems must be clear. They must be defined well enough to allow subsystem members to carry out their functions without undue interference, but they must allow contact between the members of the subsy stem and others. The composition of subsystems organized around family functions is not nearly as significant as the clarity of subsystem boundaries. A parental subsystem that includes a grandmother or a parental child can function quite well, so long as lines of responsibility and authority are clearly drawn.
The clarity of boundaries within a family is a useful parameter for the evaluation of family functioning. Some families turn upon themselves to develop their own microcosm, with a consequent increase of communication and concern among family members. A s a result, distance decreases and boundaries are blurred. The differentiation of the family system diffuses. Such a system may become overloaded and lack the resources necessary to adapt and change under stressful circumstances. Other families develop ov erly rigid boundaries. Communication across subsystems becomes difficult, and the protective functions of the family are handicapped. These two extremes of boundary functioning are called enmeshment and disengagement. All families can be conceived of as f alling somewhere along a continuum whose poles are the two extremes of diffuse boundaries and overly rigid boundaries (Fig. 4). Most families fall within the wide normal range.
In human terms, enmeshment and disengagement refer to a transactional style, or preference for a type of interaction, not to a qualitative difference between functional and dysfunctional. Most families have enmeshed and disengaged subsystems. The mothe r-children subsystem may tend toward enmeshment while the children are small, and the father may take a disengaged position with regard to the children. Mother and younger children can be so enmeshed as to make father peripheral, while father takes a more engaged position with the older children. A parents-child subsystem can tend toward disengagement as the children grow and finally begin to separate from the family.
Operations at the extremes, however, indicate areas of possible pathology. A highly enmeshed subsystem of mother and children, for example, can exclude father, who becomes disengaged in the extreme. The resulting undermining of the children's independe nce might be an important factor in the development of symptoms.
Members of enmeshed subsystems or families may be handicapped in that the heightened sense of belonging requires a major yielding of autonomy. The lack of subsystem differentiation discourages autonomous exploration and mastery of problems. In children particularly, cognitive-affective skills are thereby inhibited. Members of disengaged subsystems or families may function autonomously but have a skewed sense of independence and lack feelings of loyalty and belonging and the capacity for interdependence and for requesting support when needed.
In other words, a system toward the extreme disengaged end of the continuum tolerates a wide range of individual variations in its members. But stresses in one family member do not cross over its inappropriately rigid boundaries. Only a high level of i ndividual stress can reverberate strongly enough to activate the family's supportive systems. At the enmeshed end of the continuum, the opposite is true. The behavior of one member immediately affects others, and stress in an individual member reverberate s strongly across the boundaries and is swiftly echoed in other subsystems.
Both types of relating cause family problems when adaptive mechanisms are evoked. The enmeshed family responds to any variation from the accustomed with excessive speed and intensity. The disengaged family tends not to respond when a response is necess ary. The parents in an enmeshed family may become tremendously upset because a child does not eat his dessert. The parents in a disengaged family may feel unconcerned about a child's hatred of school. A therapist often functions as a boundary maker , clarifying diffuse boundaries and opening inappropriately rigid boundaries. His assessment of family subsystems and boundary functioning provides a rapid diagnostic picture of the family, which orients his therapeutic interventions.
The Spouse Subsystem. The spouse subsystem is formed when two adults of the opposite sex join with the express purpose of forming a family. It has specific tasks, or functions, vital to the family's functioning. The main skills required for the implementation of its tasks are complementarily and mutual accommodation. That is, the couple must develop patterns in which each spouse supports the other's functioning in many areas. They must develop patterns of complementarily that allow each spouse t o "give in" without feeling he has "given up." Both husband and wife must yield part of their separateness to gain in belonging. The acceptance of mutual interdependence in a symmetrical relationship may be handicapped by the spouses' insistence on their independent rights.
The spouse subsystem can become a refuge from external stresses and the matrix for contact with other social systems. It can foster learning, creativity, and growth. In the process of mutual accommodation, spouses may actualize creative aspects of thei r partners that were dormant and support the best characteristics of each other. But couples may also activate each other's negative aspects. Spouses may insist on improving or saving their partners, and by this process disqualify them. Instead of accepti ng them as they are, they impose new standards to be reached. They may establish dependent-protector transactional patterns, in which the dependent member remains dependent so as to protect the partner's feelings of being the protector.
Such negative patterns may exist in average couples without implying an extended pathology or malevolent motivation in either member. If a therapist must challenge a pattern that has become dysfunctional, he should remember to challenge the process wit hout attacking the participants' motivation. A systems-oriented therapist should offer interpretations that underline mutuality, such as, "You protect your wife in a way that inhibits her, and you elicit unnecessary protection from your husband with great skill." A tandem interpretation of this sort emphasizes the complementarily of the system, joins positive and negative in each spouse, and eliminates judgmental implications of motivation.
The spouse subsystem must achieve a boundary that protects it from interference by the demands and needs of other systems. This is particularly true when a family has children. The adults must have a psychosocial territory of their own-a haven in w hich they can give each other emotional support. If the boundary around the spouses is inappropriately rigid, the system can be stressed by their isolation. But if the spouses maintain loose boundaries, other subgroups, including children and in-laws, may intrude into their subsystem functioning.
In simple human terms, husband and wife need each other as a refuge from the multiple demands of life. In therapy, this need dictates that the therapist protect the boundaries around the spouse subsystem. If the children in a family session interfere w ith a spouse subsystem transaction, their interference should be blocked. Husband and wife may have sessions that exclude others. If in these sessions they continue to discuss parenting instead of husband-wife transactions, the therapist would do well to point out that they are I crossing a boundary.
The Parental Subsystem. A new level of family formation is reached with the birth of the first child. The spouse subsystem in an intact family must now differentiate to perform the tasks of socializing a child without losing the mutual support t hat should characterize the spouse subsystem. A boundary must be drawn which allows the child access to both parents while excluding him from spouse functions. Some couples who do well as a group of two are never able to make a satisfactory transit ion to the interactions of a group of three. In some families, the child may be drawn into problems of the spouse subsystem, as happened to Emily Wagner.
As the child grows, his developmental demands for both autonomy and guidance impose demands on the parental subsystem, which must be modified to meet them. The child comes in contact with extrafamilial peers, the school, and other socializing forces ou tside the family. The parental subsystem must adapt to the new factors impinging on the tasks of socialization. If the child is severely stressed by his extrafamilial environment, that can affect not only his relationship with his parents but even the int ernal transactions of the spouse subsystem.
The unquestioned authority that once characterized the patriarchal model of the parental subsystem has faded, to be replaced by a concept of flexible, rational authority. Parents are expected to understand children's developmental needs and to explain the rules they impose. Parenting is an extremely difficult process. No one performs it to his entire satisfaction, and no one goes through the process unscathed. Probably it was always more or less impossible. In today's complex, fast-developing society, in which generational gaps occur at smaller and smaller intervals, parenting difficulties have increased.
The parenting process differs depending on the children's age. When children are very young, nurturing functions predominate. Control and guidance assume more importance later. As the child matures, especially during adolescence, the demands made by pa rents begin to conflict with the children's demands for age-appropriate autonomy. Parenting becomes a difficult process of mutual accommodation. Parents impose rules that they cannot explain at the time or that they explain inadequately, or they regard th e reasons for rules as self-evident, when they are not self-evident to the children. As children grow older, they may not accept the rules. The children communicate their needs with varying degrees of clarity, and they make new demands on the parents, suc h as for more time or more emotional commitment.
It is essential to understand the complexity of child rearing in order to judge its participants fairly. Parents cannot protect and guide; without at the same time controlling and restricting. Children cannot grow and become individuated without reject ing and attacking. The process of socialization is inherently conflictual. Any therapeutic input that challenges a dysfunctional process between parents and children must at the same time support its participants.
Parenting requires the capacity to nurture, guide, and control. The proportions of these elements depend on the children's developmental needs and the parents' capacity. But parenting always requires the use of authority. Parents cannot carry out their executive functions unless they have the power to do so.
Children and parents, and sometimes therapists, frequently describe the ideal family as a democracy. But they mistakenly assume that a democratic society is leaderless, or that a family is a society of peers. Effective functioning requires that parents and children accept the fact that the differentiated use of authority is a necessary ingredient for the parental subsystem. This becomes a social training lab for the children, who need to know how to negotiate in situations of unequal power.
A therapist's support of the parental subsystem may conflict with a therapeutic goal of supporting a child's autonomy. In such situations, the therapist should remember that only a weak parental subsystem establishes restrictive control, and tha t excessive control occurs mostly when the control is ineffective. Supporting the parents' responsibility and obligation to determine family rules secures the child's right and obligation to grow and to develop autonomy. The therapist's task is to help th e subsystems negotiate with and accommodate to each other.
The Sibling Subsystem. The sibling subsystem is the first social laboratory in which children can experiment with peer relationships. Within this context, children support, isolate, scapegoat, and learn from each other. In the sibling world, chi ldren learn how to negotiate, cooperate, and compete. They learn how to make friends and allies, how to save face while submitting, and how to achieve recognition of their skills. They may take different positions in their jockeying with one another, and those positions, taken early in the sibling subgroup, can be significant in the subsequent course of their lives. In large families, the sibling subsystem has a further division, for the younger children, who are still transacting in areas of security, nu rturance, and guidance within the family, are differentiated from the older children, who are making contact and contracts with the extrafamilial world.
When children contact the world of extrafamilial peers, they try to operate along the lines of the sibling world. When they learn alternative ways of relating, they bring back the new experiential knowledge into the sibling world. If the child's family has very idiosyncratic ways, the boundaries between the family and the extrafamilial world may become inappropriately rigid. The child may then have difficulty entering other social systems.
The significance of the sibling subsystem is seen most clearly in its absence. Only children develop an early pattern of accommodation to the adult world, which may be manifested in precocious development. At the same time, they may manifest difficulty in the development of autonomy and the ability to share, cooperate, and compete with others.
A therapist should know the developmental needs of children and be able to support the child's right to autonomy without minimizing the parents' rights. The boundaries of the sibling subsystem should protect the children from adult interference, so the y can exercise their right to privacy, have their own areas of interest, and be free to fumble as they explore. Children at different developmental stages have different needs, particular cognitive skills, and idiosyncratic value systems. At times, the th erapist must act as a translator, interpreting the children's world to the parents or vice versa. He may also have to help the subsystem negotiate clear but crossable boundaries with the extrafamilial. If the child is caught in a web of exaggerated family loyalty, for example, the therapist will act as a bridge between the child and the extrafamilial world.
A family is subject to inner pressure coming from developmental changes in its own members and subsystems and to outer pressure coming from demands to accommodate to the significant social institutions that have an impact on family members. Resp onding to these demands from both within and without requires a constant transformation of the position of family members in relation to one another, so they can grow while the family system maintains continuity.
Inherent in this process of change and continuity are the stresses of accommodating to new situations. Family practitioners, in their concentration on family dynamics, may minimize this process, in the same way that dynamic therapists may minimize the context of the individual. The danger of this pitfall is its emphasis on pathology. Transitional processes of adaptation to new situations, which carry the lack of differentiation and the anxiety that characterize all new processes, may be mislabeled as p athological. To focus on the family as a social system in transformation, however, highlights the transitional nature of certain family processes. It demands an exploration of the changing situation of the family and its members and of their stresses of a ccommodation. With this orientation, many more families who enter therapy would be seen and treated as average families in transitional situations, suffering the pains of accommodation to new circumstances. The label of pathology would be reserved for fam ilies who in the face of stress increase the rigidity of their transactional patterns and boundaries, and avoid or resist any exploration of alternatives. In average families, the therapist relies on the motivation of family resources as a pathway to tran sformation. In pathological families, the therapist needs to become an actor in the family drama, entering into transitional coalitions in order to skew the system and develop a different level of homeostasis.
Stress on a family system may come from four sources. There can be the stressful contact of one member or of the whole family with extrafamilial forces. Transitional points in the family's evolution may also be a source of strain, as are idiosyncratic problems.
Stressful Contact of One Member with Extrafamilial Forces. One of the main functions of the family is to support its members. When a member is stressed, the other family members feel the need to accommodate to his changed circumstances. This accommodation may be contained within a subsystem, or it may permeate the whole family.
For example, a husband, who is under stress at work, criticizes his wife when they both get home. This transaction may be limited to the spouse system. The wife may withdraw from the husband but support him a few minutes later. Or she may counterattack . A fight ensues, but the fight ends with closure and mutual support. These are functional transactional patterns. The stress on the husband has been lessened by the transactions with his wife.
However, the fight may escalate without closure, until one of the spouses abandons the field. Each spouse now suffers from the sense of nonresolution. In this situation, the stressful contact of one family member with external forces has generated an u nresolved stress in the intrafamilial spouse subsystem.
The same source of stress on an individual member may operate across subsystem boundaries. For example, a father (F) and mother (M), stressed at work, may come home and criticize each other but then detour their conflict by attacking a child. This redu ces the danger to the spouse subsystem, but stresses the child (C) (Fig. 5). Or the
husband may criticize the wife, who then seeks a coalition with the child against the father (Fig. 6). The boundary around the spouse
subsystem thereby becomes diffuse. An inappropriately rigid; cross-generational subsystem of mother and son versus father appears, and the boundary around this coalition of mother and son excludes the father. A cross-generational dysfunctional t ransactional pattern has developed.
It is also possible for an entire family to be stressed by one member's extrafamilial contact. For example, if the husband loses his job, the family may have to realign in order to ensure the survival of the family. The wife may have to take on more re sponsibility for the financial support of the family, thereby changing the nature of the executive subsystem. This change may force changes in the parenting subsystem. The father may take on nurturing functions that were formerly the mother's (Fig. 7). Or a grandmother (G) may be brought
in to take over parenting functions while both parents are job hunting (Fig. 8). If the family responds to the father's loss of his job with
rigidity, dysfunctional transactional patterns may appear. For example, grandmother is brought in to care for the children, but the parents refuse to cede the authority that would enable her to fulfill her responsibility.
The Wagners reported on some of the stresses of contact with the extrafamilial. Mark's difficulties as a student breadwinner interfered with his ability to relate to his wife. He became critical or withdrawn, and Emily brought Tommy into their endless quarrels as her support.
When a family enters therapy because of one member's stressful contact with the extrafamilial, the family therapist's goals and interventions are oriented by his assessment of the situation and of the flexibility of the family structure. If the family has made adaptive changes to support the stressed member but the problem continues, the therapist's main input may be directed toward the interaction of that member with the stressing agent. If the family has not been able to make adaptive changes, his ma in input may be directed toward the family.
For example, if a child is having trouble in school, the problem may be related basically to the school. If the therapist's assessment indicates that the family is supporting the child adequately, his major interventions will be directed toward the chi ld in the school context. He may act as the child's advocate, arrange a transfer, or arrange for tutoring. But if the child's problems in school seem to be an expression of family problems, the therapist's major interventions will be directed toward the f amily. Both types of intervention may often be necessary.
Stressful Contact of the Whole Family with Extrafamilial Forces. A family system may be overloaded by the effects of an economic depression. Or stress may be generated by a relocation caused by transfer or urban renewal. Family coping mechanisms are particularly threatened by poverty and discrimination. For example, a poor family may be in contact with so many societal agencies that its coping mechanisms become overloaded. Or a Puerto Rican family may have problems adapting to mainland culture.
Here again, a therapist's interventions will be oriented by his assessment of the family. If he analyzes the family organization and determines that it is basically viable but is overloaded by the impingement of many uncoordinated agencies, he may act as the family's ombudsman. He may teach the family how to manipulate the institutions for its own benefit. Or he may work to coordinate the efforts of the agencies vis-a-vis the family. With a Puerto Rican family overwhelmed by relocation, the family ther apist would do well to locate Puerto Rican resources in the community-the church, schools with a large Puerto Rican enrollment, Puerto Rican parents active in the PTA, or social and civic agencies dedicated to helping this ethnic group. His functions as a family therapist will be complemented by his actions as a social matchmaker.
Stress at Transitional Points in the Family. There are many phases in a family's own natural evolution that require the negotiation of new family rules. New subsystems must appear, and new lines of differentiation must be drawn. In this process, conflicts inevitably arise. Ideally, the conflicts will be resolved by negotiations of transition, and the family will adapt successfully. These conflicts offer an opportunity for growth by all family members. However, if such conflicts are not re solved, the transitional problems may give rise to further problems.
Problems of transition occur in a number of situations. They may be produced by developmental changes in family members and by changes in family composition. One of the most common precipitators is the emergence of a child into adolescence. At that time the child's participation in the extrafamilial world and his status in that world increase. The relationship between child and parents is dislocated. The adolescent should be moved a little away from the sibling subsystem and given increased autonom y and responsibility appropriate to his age. The parental subsystem's transactions with him should change from parents-child to parents-young adult. The result will be a successful adaptation (Fig. 9).
However, the mother may resist any change in her relationship with the adolescent because it would require a change in her relationship with her husband. She may attack the adolescent and undermine his autonomy, instead of changing her own attitude. If the father then enters the conflict on the child's side, an inappropriate crossgenerational coalition is formed (Fig. 10). The situation may
generalize until the whole family is involved in the conflict. If there is no family change, dysfunctional sets will appear, to be repeated every time a conflict occurs.
When a family absorbs a new member, that new member must adapt to the system's rules, and the old system must be modified to include the new member. There is a tendency to maintain the old patterns, which places a stress on the new member and may cause him to increase his demands. The kinds of increased membership that may produce stress during the period of adaptation are the birth of a child, the marriage of a member of an extended family, the merging of two families through the marriage of single pa rents, or the inclusion of a relative, friend, or foster child.
Stresses are also produced by adaptation to a decreased membership in a family, caused by such circumstances as the death of a family member, separation or divorce, imprisonment, institutionalization, or a child's leaving for school. For example, w hen a couple separates, new subsystems and lines of differentiation must develop. The unit of two parents and children must now become a unit of one parent and children, with the other parent excluded.
Families often go into therapy because the negotiations leading to a successful transition have been blocked. A family having problems around a recent transition is easier to help than a family that has blocked adaptive negotiations over a long period.
Stresses Around Idiosyncratic Problems. A family therapist must take all circumstances into account and be aware of the possibility of dysfunctional transactional patterns appearing around idiosyncratic areas of family stress. For example, a fam ily with a retarded child may have been able to adapt to the problems posed while the child was young. But the reality of retardation, which the parents were able to avoid while the child was young, must be faced as he grows older and the disparity of dev elopment between the child and his peers becomes more evident.
The same increase of stress may occur when a child with a physical handicap, such as a harelip, grows older. The family may have been able to adapt to the child's needs while he was young, but as the child grows and experiences difficulties in interact ing with an extrafamilial peer group that does not accept him, this stress may overload the family system.
Transitory idiosyncratic problems may also overload coping mechanisms. If a family member becomes seriously ill, some of his functions and power must be allocated to other family members. This redistribution requires adaptation in the family. When the sick member recovers, a readaptation to include him in his old position or to help him take a new position in the system becomes necessary.
In summary, the conceptual scheme of a normal family has three facets. First, a family is transformed over time, adapting and restructuring itself so as to continue functioning. A family that has been functioning effectively may nevertheless respond to developmental stresses by adhering inappropriately to previous structural schemes.
Second, the family has a structure, which can be seen only in movement. Certain patterns are preferred, which suffice in response to ordinary demands. But the strength of the system depends on its ability to mobilize alternative transactional pa tterns when internal or external conditions of the family demand its restructuring. The boundaries of the subsystems must be firm, yet flexible enough to allow realignment when circumstances change.
Finally, a family adapts to stress in a way that maintains family continuity while making restructuring possible. If a family responds to stress with rigidity, dysfunctional patterns occur. These may eventually bring the family into therapy.