Thinking: Family Systems Theorye

I first heard about Family Systems Theory back in 2005, and I've been reading more about it in recent weeks.

What is it? I'm no expert, but I'll give you my take.

Basically, as John Donne once wrote, No man is an island. We all exist inside various relationships and connections and families. What we do affects each other. How we react causes other reactions.

In every family, an 'emotional system' exists. Things that characterise these emotional systems are levels of anxiety and the amount of closeness or distance that exist between members.

Even as very young children, we all learn how to exist within our own unique family system. If, for example, father is highly anxious, other family members may react with their own anxieties and do everything they can to make his anxiety go away.

Whatever our particular system is, the fact is that it is a system. It exists with all of its members. And the ways of reacting and relating that we learn in our systems become our 'automatic' reactions and relating styles. So if our family system is highly anxious, it's extremely likely that we will take those levels of anxiety with us into whatever new emotional system we enter - whether that is a new family, a work place or a congregation.

The most recent book I've been reading is Becoming a Healthier Pastor by Ronald Richardson (published by Fortress Press) and I'm going to quote a bit from it because it says it better than I can. (Plus, this new blog site gives me cool embedded quotes...)

Family Systems Theory takes us away from an individual focus on solving problems to a systemic focus.

Most parents operate with an individual model of functioning that says a child's problems reside in the child. They think: fix the child and you fix 'the problem'. If their child is misbehaving they focus on disciplining the child until the behaviour is 'fixed'. Sometimes the 'problem' is a parent and he or she needs to be 'fixed'. Or 'the problem' is in a relationship and it needs to be 'fixed'.

As with families, people in churches tend to diagnose problems using an individual model of human functioning.

All problems, even though they seem to be centred on or 'caused' by one or more specific people, are symptomatic expressions representative of larger systemic challenges in the congregation or in a person's family... The thinking is that if only this person or this group or or this relationship could be 'fixed', then 'we' would be ok.

The other is the problem. So a great deal of energy goes into analyzing, diagnosing and labelling the problem and trhying to get change to happen.

Often this effort only seems to aggravate the problem. Or if the problem is 'fixed', then another problem emerges somewhere else. The anxiety has moved into a new person or relationship.

A basic belief in systems theory is that there is no such thing as an emotional problem in just one person. We are each just a slice of the pie; the problem exists in, and is shared by the whole pie.