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The structural theory of family structure

Family therapy is based on the belief that the family is a unique social system with its own structure and patterns of communication. These patterns are determined by many factors, including the parents' beliefs and values, the personalities of all family members, and the influence of the extended family (grandparents, aunts, and uncles). As a result of these variables, each family develops its own unique personality, which is powerful and affects all of its members.

The structural theory sees the family as an integrated whole. Therefore, the emphasis should be contextual problems and solutions rather than an individual. It focuses on family interactions to understand the structure or organization of the family. The theory consists of three major concepts namely family structure, family subsystems and boundaries.

The family structure represents the operational rules that govern the way family members interact with each other (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2000, p.198). The structure of the family provides an understanding of the patterns that develop over time within a family to allow it to maintain stable while existing in a changing environment (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2000). The family structure is governed by two sets of constraints; generic rule and idiosyncratic rules.

Generic rules dictate the hierarchical structure of the family, which Structuralists believes is a part of all well functioning families. This hierarchy is reflected in the power and authority differential between parent and children and older siblings and younger siblings. Generic rules are also seen in the different roles played by family members within the hierarchy. The roles are usually complementarity, such as the role of the husband and wife, which, results in the members working as a team to carry out the required functions of the family. Idiosyncratic or individualized constraints are “specific to the family and involves the mutual presumptions of particular family members regarding their behaviour towards each other” (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2000, p.199).

The structural theory is a systems theory and as such, the family is viewed, as a system comprised of various subsystems. These sub systems are hierarchically arranged and exist to support tasks necessary for family functioning (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2000, p.???). The primary sub systems of the family are spousal, parental and sibling. “The sub systems are defined by interpersonal boundaries and rules of membership which regulate the amount of contract with other subsystems” (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2000, p.???) . The spousal sub system is considered the most important subsystem, due to the integral role it plays in the stability and flexibility of the family. Formation of the sub system occurs when two people marry and start a new family. The stability and survival of the new unit is dependent on the ability of the couple to negotiate difference, accommodate each other and develop complementary roles, which will meet the need of each person (Becvar & Becvar, 2003).

The additional of a child changes the spousal subsystems into parental sub system, with both systems coexisting simultaneously. The skills and roles necessary for the maintenance and functioning to the spousal subsystem are still used but the focus is on parenting of the child throughout the different developmental stages (Becvar & Becvar, 2003). The sibling subsystem is comprised on the child or children within the family. It provides the medium within which children first experience peer relationship that helps them to work out difference and support each other. They also learn to deal with the parental subsystem as they navigate relationship changes between the subsystems throughout their development cycles (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 200).

The final component of the structuralist basis tenets is boundaries. Boundaries provide invisible demarcation between individual and sub systems, they determine the amount and kind if contract between family members (Becvar & Becvar, 2003, p. 177). These boundaries are categorized as clearly defined, diffused or rigid. These classifications are based on the flexibility of the boundaries. Clearly defined boundaries are considered ideal as it promotes independence and freedom for the individuals while providing support by the family. Diffused boundaries are too flexible and result in blurred lines of demarcation between subsystems. This leads to what Minuchin describes as enmeshment, conversely rigid and inflexible boundaries lead to isolation or disengagement (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2000).

Another systematic family theorist was Bowen who posits his Family System theory. The eight interlocking concepts of the theory are differentiation of self, triangles, nuclear family emotional system, family project process, emotional cut off, multigenerational transmission process, sibling position and societal regression.

Differentiation of self involves the ability to be emotionally separate from other family members and the ability to distinguish feeling processes from intellectual processes. The separation of feeling and intellectual process will allow the individual to avoid displaying behaviour driven automatically by emotions (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2000.p. 172).

Triangles are three person emotional units formed to diffuse or reduce emotional tension in an individual or their relationships. A dyad is inherently unstable especially in times of anxiety and tension and so either party will seek to bring some one else in, which will change the dynamics of the interactions between the persons involved. The triangle is more stable and tolerant of stress than the dyad. It is considered the smallest stable relationship unit in the family, which allows members to balance closeness and distances while experiencing the least amount of anxiety (Goldenberg& Goldenberg, 2000, p.174).

“The nuclear family emotional system is multigenerational as individual repeat the martial choices and other significant relationship patterns learnt from their family of origin” (Goldenberg& Goldenberg, 2000, p.176)

Family projection process occurs mainly in the father- mother- child triangle where parents transmit their low levels of differentiation on the most susceptible child (Goldenberg& Goldenberg, 2000). “The level of projection is directly correlation to the levels of differentiation of the parents and the stress or anxiety the family experiences” (Goldenberg& Goldenberg, 2000, p.178). This family projection process often results in the Bowen’s fifth concept of emotional cut off. Emotional Cut off is the attempt by child or children who are the focus of the family projection process to create emotional distance between themselves and their family of origin (Goldenberg& Goldenberg, 2000).

The multigenerational transmission process “involves the transmission of specific levels of differentiation over several generations” (Goldenberg& Goldenberg, 2000, p. 180). This transmission takes place largely through the nuclear family emotional system and the family projection process.

The Sibling position concept resulted from Bowen’s expansion of Toman’s research on sibling position. Toman cited in Goldenberg and Goldenberg, 2000 posit, “some fixed personality characteristics are developed by children based on their birth order” (Goldenberg& Goldenberg, 2000, p. 182). Bowen saw interactions patterns between spouses as a directly relation to their birth order in the family of origin as well their functional position.

Societal Regression, the emotional dynamics of the family are similar to those of the family. In times of chronic stress (e.g. depletion of natural resources) society tends to react on an emotional level instead of on intellectual determined principles (Becvar & Becvar, 1999,p.149).

There are elements of both theories that I agree with based on my beliefs system. Bowen’s mutigenerational transmission process I believe helps to explain some of the interactions and patterns that are repeated across generations such as absentee fathers and teenage pregnancy. However, Bowen theory seems to be focused on the operations of the nuclear family while the structuralist theory can be more contextual applied to Jamaican society as the effect of subsystems and boundaries within the family has resulted in family structures such as the single parent, blended, large and three generational. The importance placed on the family interaction and its resultant effect on the behaviour of its members is a belief that I also share. I believe that many of the problematic behaviour displayed by individuals are connected to the family of origin. I also support the emphasis placed by Minuchin on the spousal subsystem within the family structure. The failure of couples to adequately maintain this subsystem while effectively negotiating and developing the parental subsystem leads to dysfunction, which sometimes results in the break down of the family.

My family of origin was not a nuclear one therefore; I believe that the structuralist theory is more applicable. In accordance with the structuralist approach, my family consisted of the parent and sibling subsystem with diffused boundaries within the sub systems. The diffused boundaries resulted in enmeshment as the boundaries between the sibling and parental subsystems become blurred. The enmeshment was probably supported by the fact that our mother was a teenager mother. The children crossed from the sibling subsystem into the parental subsystem to assume some of the responsibilities to help our mother who was a single parent cope with the economic hardships of raring two children by herself. The boundaries became very diffused and authority and decision-making became shared more and more as we (the children) reached adolescence. The result was that by the time we got to early adulthood the roles were reversed and the parental role was largely assume at the younger child in the family. The enmeshment resulted in the family being very emotional fused which resulted in emotional overdependence within the family. The level of enmeshment was particularly high between my mother and her younger child such that when the younger child married, mom saw it as betrayal. She felt abandoned and had a hard time adjusting to the change.

The structuralist theory sees the therapist role as very active with the results of therapy been largely dependent on therapist who is the major instrument o f change. The therapist joins and accommodates the family while assessing the structure to understand how they deal with problems and each other. The interactions of the therapist with the family are aimed at helping the individuals to focus on the behaviour of all the members and not just the identified patient. It also seems to allow the members to see that change can be achieved through their interactions. The therapist uses “techniques such as enactment (family members act out a scenario within the family) and then uses it for boundary marking (realigning boundaries), unbalancing (supporting one member in order to unbalance the family equilibrium) and reframing the problems as a function of the structure” (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2000, p.216). The main aim is to understand the existing organization of the family and to reorganize the structure to bring about change in the interactions, roles and functioning of the family.

Similarly, the family system theory sees the therapist role as being very important but for them the therapist needs to be more detached. According to Bowen, the therapist had to ensure that they were not triangulated with the family and are to see themselves more as coaches in the therapeutic process. The therapeutic process involves an assessment of the family history as well as a history of the presenting problem. Genograms are used to record family history over at least three generations to help the family understand the emotional processes in an intergenerational context. The therapist also used process questions to assess the patterns of emotional functioning within the family. The aim of therapy is to help family members manage their anxiety, help to detriangulate where necessary and to increase differentiation of self. Techniques used in therapy such as process questions and I statements are aimed at helping members reduce their level of reactivity to teach others actions (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2000).

System theory is also applicable to organizations and organization consultancy. Fuqua and Newman cited in (Lowman 2002p. 98) “ In system theory or system thinking organizations are thought of as dynamic whole systems which are comprised of subsystems that interact in complex, multidirectional and reciprocal inter-relationships”. They identified four major organizational subsystems namely purposive, operational, methodological and psychosocial. The dynamics of an organization system is such that there is a constant inter play of influences between the organization structure, human behaviour and the extra organisational environment (Lowman, 2002).

Consultant psychologist use system theory to understand, assess and develop interventions of organizational system with a view to maximize the quality of human life, which includes productivity (Lowman, 2002). In trying to accomplish these objectives the consultant helps people see the wholistic view of the organization through gaining an appreciation of the patterns of inter relationship within the organization. The consultant using the theory in assessing an organization and planning interventions will not “focus on individual behaviour but will instead focus on the psychosocial subsystem, which represents the human or behavioral aspects of the organization” (Lowman, 2002, p. 99).

A systematic view of organization utilizes the principle of wholeness and mutli-causality. “Wholeness focuses in the fact that the individual interactions product a whole that is greater than the individual components. Multi-causality implies that several actions can result in one outcome and one solution can cause multiple effects” (Moe & Perera-Diltz, 2009, p. 29). These principles emphasize the fact that the consultant has use non-linear thinking while focusing on the organisational processes at work (Moe & Perera-Diltz, 2009).

Along with considering the interdependence of the system parts and the effects of actions on the system, the consultant has to determine the type of system. Systems can be either open or close, however most systems are considered inherently open. Open system are characterized by constant reciprocal interactions between extra-organisation factors and the organization system (Lowan , 2002, p. 89). An open system is therefore more receptive to change compared to a closed system where the focus is on maintenance of the status quo. The consultant understanding of the type of system helps to determine the planned approach to implementing change in the organizations (Moe & Perera-Diltz, 2009).

Additionally the consultant has to consider the level of participation in the change process that is achievable. Inclusion broadens ownership of the issues and the proposed changes while exclusion can motivate persons to resist change and create a sense of isolation (Lowman , 2002, p.100).

The use of systems theory by the counseling and consulting psychologist within the family and organization to bring about change in the quality of life of the affected individuals and the resultant social systems that they are a part of is very important. It emphasizes the importance of the whole and not the individual parts and how the dynamics and inter dependence of the parts affect the system.

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