Key conceptions of Family Systems Therapy are Differentiation of Self, Emotional Triangles, Fusion, and Emotional Cutoff
Differentiation of Self is a term that refers to an individual's ability to think clearly and logically, even in the face of anxiety. Undifferentiated people react automatically with emotions. Undifferentiated people "... find it difficult to maintain their own autonomy, especially around anxious issues. Asked what they think, they said what they feel; asked what they believe, they echo what they've heard... Differentiated people are able to take stands on issues because they're able to think things through, decide what they believe, and then act on those beliefs." (p. 87)
How people become differentiated will be addressed soon.
Emotional triangles are when two people are locked in conflict and bring in a third party who then because fixed in the conflict. This forms a dysfunctional, three party relationship. The third party relieves some of the anxiety involved with the conflict, but also prevents the conflict from being resolved. An example of this could be a married couple who are having conflict and instead of dealing with the conflict, involve themselves with their child who acts as a distraction and someone to involve ("your father is so unemotional", "your mother spends too much money"). Emotional triangles can also form between a young married couple and a set of inlaws.
Emotional fusion is when two people become so over-involved in each others lives they lose their autonomy. Bowen, the man who originated this theory, first saw the concept of emotional fusion when working with young men with schizophrenia. He saw this concept between the men and their mothers, but after practicing in different fields, noticed this concept was in all types of families.
Emotional cutoff "The greater the emotional fusion between parents and children, the greater the likelihood of cutoff. Some people seek distance by moving away; others do so emotionally by avoiding personal conversations or insulating themselves with the presence of third parties." (p. 89) The book equates parents with kryptonite for some seemingly well adjusted adults.
Back to how a person ends up differentiated or undifferentiated. When a family is involved in fusion, the child most involved with the fusion becomes more undifferentiated and also experiences a high level of emotional anxiety. The child who is least involved in the fusion experiences the highest level of differentiation. THE REASON FOR THIS is because the child most involved in the fusion is forced to either "conform or rebel" (p. 89), emotionally while the child not involved in the fusion is able to learn to think for themselves.
The goals of Family Systems Therapy are to help those involved realize the difference between thinking and feeling, lower anxiety, and to increase the realization of how the individual affects the family.
The therapy begins with the assessment of the families function and the relationships between the family members. Genograms are appropriate here.
Process questions are also the staple of Family Systems Therapy. Process questions are questions designed to move people towards differentiation. They help the person think logically and less emotionally about their problems and their involvement in them. An example exchange could be,
Therapist: "When your husband doesn't return your calls, what goes on inside you?"
Wife: "I get scared. And then I feel disrespected."
Therapist: "And how does that manifest?"
Wife: "I withdraw from him."
Therapist: "What are you trying to tell him when you do that?"
Wife: "That I'm hurt."
Therapist: "Does it work?"
The therapist is NEVER to take sides between couples. The therapist's job is not interfere with the content of the arguments, but to help the couple work on the process of their arguments. The therapist should work to keep those involved in therapy calm and rational, because when discussions become emotional, those involved are not able to think about their processes objectively.
Individual therapy with this theory involves helping the individual gain autonomy and to remove themselves from triangles.
Nichols, M. (2009). The essentials of family therapy (4th ed.) Boston: Pearson.