What Is Systems Theory?

Theory drives practice.

This axiom is true with numerous professions. Mechanics fix cars based on an understanding of auto mechanics, which includes how engines, heating and air-conditioning units, electrical structures, and brake systems individually and interdependently operate. Dentists use their knowledge of the anatomy and physiology of mouths and gums to clean teeth and fill cavities. Lawyers read numerous legal documents and study the practice of precedence--what's already been established--to understand how the law works in particular contexts.

Many professions have competing theories to describe success for their particular product. A common theory for mental health suggests that problems such as depression and anxiety are created by a chemical imbalance in our brains, caused by some combination of genetics and traumatic experiences. Restoration, according to this theory, involves a combination of behavioral techniques and psychotropic medication.

While this model of change (we'll call it "the medical model") may be the easiest to research and quantify, it is by no means the only, nor most effective theory, to define how change happens in mental health. There is also systemic therapy (also known as family therapy), which consolidates several methods and approaches.

In the 1930s, an Austrian biologist named Ludwig von Bertalanffy coined the term "general systems theory" to suggest that organisms that he studied were just that: Organisms. A system of different parts organized to work together to accomplish shared goals, such as survival, growth, and adaptability. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Over the next 40 years, scientists began to incorporate general systems theory into numerous fields, including psychology.

Murray Bowen, a WWII army physician turned psychiatrist, observed that the desire for family harmony and stability (what we call homeostasis) creates strong emotional reactions and exaggerated responses and behaviors when the family system gets threatened. For instance, a family member may bring a third person into their conflict, rather than addressing conflict directly, a process called triangulation. These behaviors are learned, internalized, and then replicated (or entirely rejected, which creates its own issues) in future generations. Bowen organized family narratives into genograms, and used them to help family members differentiate--exploring and changing problematic familial themes and interactions into something more effective for their own lives. Monica McGoldrick and others have expanded the utilization of the genogram in family therapy.

Don Jackson, Virginia Satir, and John Weakland, psychiatrists in Palo Alto in the 1960s, observed that family systems are organized by patterns of communication. They suggested that communication is not just the words spoken between two people (content), but also the way that the conversation is had (process). They identified the cybernetic model, an observation about how interactional processes continued and intensified (positive feedback loops) and stopped (negative feedback). They also observed how different variables, including expectations of others' behaviors and the learned experiences in families of origin, contributed to positive feedback. Their research suggests that long-lasting change, second-order change, happens through changing interactions, rather than just individualized behaviors (first order-change).

Around that time, on the East Coast, Salvador Minuchin researched how the ways that families organize themselves structurally and politically impact behavior. Successful families have parents who clearly (firmly, yet not harshly) establish and implement rules, or boundaries, for other members of their family, including children, extended family members, and friends. Ideal boundaries are neither too enmeshed, where the children have complete influence over family functioning (parentification), nor too diffuse, where children have no influence, but are somewhere in the middle, based on the developmental or interpersonal needs of the children.

In the 1970s, Jay Haley and Cloe Madanes integrated the work on communication theory by Weakland and Jackson with structural tenets from Minuchin to reframe that "dysfunctional" behaviors communicate something about the dysfunction of family process. For example, an angry teenager may represent the family system being unable to adapt to meet the new developmental needs of said adolescent. Family interactions can also send mixed messages, or double binds, that place family members in a stuck situation. Haley and Madanes used strategic interventions, including paradoxes and prescribing the symptom, to get family members out of these double binds.  

Mara Salvini Palazzoli and Luigi Boscolo used similar methods of paradox and reframe (which they called positive connotations), but used circular questioning to understand how change might really impact the family, including which family members might resist change and maintain homeostasis.

In the '90s, Michael White evaluated how larger societal expectations around performing gender, race, and orientation impacted the ways that families communicate. Stuckness resulted in the family's being impacted by the cultural dominant discourse, and White and his colleagues listened to how families detached themselves from rigid narratives, identifying unique outcomes, stories in which a family operated outside of the dominant discourse and succeeded. Michael White also integrated postmodern principles into systemic therapy, suggesting that the problem is the problem, not the person. He created an exercise called externalization, where a person or family explores their relationship with an abstract construct, such as anxiety, anger, or sexuality.

The postmodern integration allowed systemic therapy to grow in numerous ways. Richard Schwartz distinguished between external systems, systems of people organized to function as a group, and internal systems, a person or family's subpersonalities, or parts. Schwartz borrows the principle of externalization to explore how parts function, assuming that internal systems operate in similar ways to external systems. Harlene Anderson suggested that language itself becomes a system, as she and her colleagues explore how families talk about a problem. The therapist joins the family system in a collaborative way, rather than an interrogative way, to create mutual understanding.

In the 90s and 2000s, systemic therapists also began to look at the dynamics of couple relationships. Karl Tomm and others used the cybernetic model to identify how specific interaction cycles develop (such as pursue-distance) and become habits. These couple relationships replicate themselves in other aspects of the couple and family relationship, what systemic therapists call parallel process.

Couples therapists have also used systems theory to address how partners create boundaries between themselves, as well as between other generations. Susan Johnson and other emotionally focused therapists create empathic interactions between partners, trusting that a greater understanding of emotion can erode thick, seemingly immovable boundaries. Other couples therapists, notably David Schnarch and other sex therapists, suggest that relational health needs effective space between two partners, so that individuals can grow while a relationship also grows. A person's ability to differentiate from their partner and manage their own anxiety makes them more effective relational and sexual communicators.

Many other therapists have contributed to the evolution of systemic therapy (also known as family therapy), and NEAFAST members are among thousands of therapists who actively practice systemic therapy. To learn more about systemic therapy, check out our list of continuing education opportunities that are happening in our state, and sites in Massachusetts that specifically train systemic therapists.

And to become a member of the professional community for family and systemic therapy in Massachusetts and New England, feel free to fill out our NEAFAST Application.