There is a picture I keep looking at once in while in one of my desktop folders. It’s a caricature of story characters: colourful, disjointed, strange. In this drawing, one character says to the other:

“I don’t think of it as working for world peace… I think of it as just trying to get along in a really big, strange family.”

Living in the world feels like that sometimes. Despite all the differences and all the borders cross-crossing the world, it still feels like one, big, strange family. Neither of us is born on a blank slate, in empty space. We are all born into our particular solar systems, with its gravitational pulls, planets, stars, all orbiting each other like a self-organizing system.

Like solar systems, our families are self-organizing, sustaining, and organic systems that shift and adapt to external forces. This isn’t a new idea—this is part and parcel of what makes Family Systems therapy and Systems thinking.

Family Systems therapy was first synthesized by Murray Bowen during the 1950s. He was inspired by the climate of a new wave of scientific thinking—when scientists stopped defining things and behaviour in isolated terms but began considering the environment and its influence on the behaviour and object of their study. Key words in systems thinking are terms like boundaries, homeostasis, adaptation, response, relationships, and feedback. A systems perspective sees systems as naturally inclined towards equilibrium—or “status quo”. When something happens to throw that system off balance, the system will respond in a way to get it back to its original state. The same way that after stretching a rubber band, the band will want to return to being slack.

In therapy, when a “problem” is viewed through the lens of systems thinking, we ask: what is the function of this dysfunction? How is this “problem behaviour” reflective of the family’s adaptive strategy, a desire to maintain equilibrium?

The key difference between Family Systems therapy and other forms of therapy is that the presenting problem is taken out of the individual and looked at in terms of the individual’s relationship dynamics, the individual’s system. This makes the problem easier to address. It’s impossible to change people, but it’s possible to create different ways of relating.

This also means that family dynamics are not random. They are, on some level, adaptive and responsive measures the family takes to establish its own equilibrium. When an individual grows up in this system, they naturally—even unconsciously—learn the rules and behaviour that maintain status quo. Even if the status quo is apparently unhealthy. What is “unhealthy” now, such as enmeshment or codependency, may have been a protective mechanism in the past. For instance, it could have been a way to preserve relationships when the consequences of losing a relationship were high.

What therapy is often about, and why relationships begin to feel rocky during therapy, is that we begin to examine the status quo. We ask—are the dynamics that were healthy before, serving you now? If not, then we explore new behaviours and ways of relating. And when these are applied, they naturally de-stabilize the system at first—at least, until the system reaches its new equilibrium, its new level of evolution.


About The Author

Lena (she/her) is a therapist with Helps Counselling. She is a first-generation immigrant from Eastern Europe, now living and working on the ancestral lands of the Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh. She loves her work, and she loves to connect.