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p 2 M (executive subsystem)

children (sibling subsystem)

parental child (PC), the boundary is defined by the mother's telling the children, "Until I get back from the store, Annie is in charge" (Fig. 3).

M and PC (executive subsystem)

Fig. 3 -----

other children (sibling subsystem)

The function of boundaries is to protect the differentiation of the system. Every family subsystem has specific functions and makes specific demands on its members; and the development of


- clear boundary diffuse boundary

- rigid boundary affiliation overinvolvement

- conflict coalition detouring

Key to Figs.

Families and Family Therapy

interpersonal skills achieved in these subsystems is predicated on the subsystem's freedom from interference by other subsystems. For example, the capacity for complementary accommodation between spouses requires freedom from interference by in-laws and children, and sometimes by the extrafamilial. The development of skills for negotiating with peers, learned among siblings, requires noninterfer­ence from parents.

For proper family functioning, the boundaries of subsystems must be clear. They must be defined well enough to allow subsystem members to carry out their functions without undue interference, but they must allow contact between the members of the subsystem and others. The composition of subsystems organized around family functions is not nearly as significant as the clarity of subsystem boundaries. A parental subsystem that includes a grandmother or a parental child can function quite well, so long as lines of responsibility and authority are clearly drawn.

The clarity of boundaries within a family is a useful parameter for the evaluation of family functioning. Some families turn upon themselves to develop their own microcosm, with a consequent increase of communication and concern among family members. As a result, distance decreases and boundaries are blurred. The differentiation of the family system diffuses. Such a system may become overloaded and lack the resources necessary to adapt and change under stressful circumstances. Other families develop overly rigid boundaries. Communication across subsystems becomes difficult, and the protective functions of the family are handicapped. These two extremes of boundary functioning are called enmeshment and disengagement. All families can be conceived of as falling somewhere along a continuum whose poles are the two extremes of diffuse boundaries and overly rigid boundaries (Fig. 4). Most families fall within the wide normal range.

Fig. 4




(inappropriately rigid boundaries)

(normal range)

(diffuse boundaries)

A Family Model

In human terms, enmeshment and disengagement refer to a transactional style, or preference for a type of interaction, not to a qualitative difference between functional and dysfunctional. Most families have enmeshed and disengaged subsystems. The mother-children subsystem may tend toward enmeshment while the children are small, and the father may take a disengaged position with regard to the children. Mother and younger children can be so enmeshed as to make father peripheral, while father takes a more engaged position with the older children. A parents-child subsystem can tend toward disengagement as the children grow and finally begin to separate from the family.

Operations at the extremes, however, indicate areas of possible pathology. A highly enmeshed subsystem of mother and children, for example, can exclude father, who becomes disengaged in the extreme. The resulting undermining of the children's independence might be an important factor in the development of symptoms.

Members of enmeshed subsystems or families may be handicapped in that the heightened sense of belonging requires a major yielding of autonomy. The lack of subsystem differentiation discourages autonomous exploration and mastery of problems. In children particularly, cognitive-affective skills are thereby inhibited. Members of disengaged subsystems or families may function autonomously but have a skewed sense of independence and lack feelings of loyalty and belonging and the capacity for interdependence and for requesting support when needed.

In other words, a system toward the extreme disengaged end of the continuum tolerates a wide range of individual variations in its members. But stresses in one family member do not cross over its inappropriately rigid boundaries. Only a high level of individual stress can reverberate strongly enough to activate the family's supportive systems. At the enmeshed end of the continuum, the opposite is true. The behavior of one member immediately affects others, and stress in an individual member reverberates strongly across the boundaries and is swiftly echoed in other subsystems.

Both types of relating cause family problems when adaptive mechanisms are evoked. The enmeshed family responds to any variation from the accustomed with excessive speed and intensity. The disengaged family tends not to respond when a response is necessary. The parents in an enmeshed family may become tremendously upset because a child does not eat his dessert. The parents in a disengaged

Families and Family Therapy

family may feel unconcerned about a child's hatred of school. A therapist often functions as a boundary maker, clarifying diffuse boundaries and opening inappropriately rigid boundaries. His assessment of family subsystems and boundary functioning provides a rapid diagnostic picture of the family, which orients his therapeutic interventions.

The Spouse Subsystem. The spouse subsystem is formed when two adults of the opposite sex join with the express purpose of forming a family. It has specific tasks, or functions, vital to the family's functioning. The main skills required for the implementation of its tasks are complementarity and mutual accommodation. That is, the couple must develop patterns in which each spouse supports the other's functioning in many areas. They must develop patterns of complementarity that allow each spouse to "give in" without feeling he has "given up." Both husband and wife must yield part of their separateness to gain in belonging. The acceptance of mutual interdependence in a symmetrical relationship may be handicapped by the spouses' insistence on their independent rights.

The spouse subsystem can become a refuge from external stresses and the matrix for contact with other social systems. It can foster learning, creativity, and growth. In the process of mutual accommodation, spouses may actualize creative aspects of their partners that were dormant and support the best characteristics of each other. But couples may also activate each other's negative aspects. Spouses may insist on improving or saving their partners, and by this process disqualify them. Instead of accepting them as they are, they impose new standards to be reached. They may establish dependent-protector transactional patterns, in which the dependent member remains dependent so as to protect the partner's feelings of being the protector.

Such negative patterns may exist in average couples without implying an extended pathology or malevolent motivation in either member. If a therapist must challenge a pattern that has become dysfunctional, he should remember to challenge the process without attacking the participants' motivation. A systems-oriented therapist should offer interpretations that underline mutuality, such as, "You protect your wife in a way that inhibits her, and you elicit unnecessary protection from your husband with great skill." A tandem interpretation of this sort emphasizes the complementarity of the system, joins positive and negative in each spouse, and eliminates judgmental implications of motivation.

A Family Model

The spouse subsystem must achieve a boundary that protects it from interference by the demands and needs of other systems. This is particularly true when a family has children. The adults must have a psychosocial territory of their own—a haven in which they can give each other emotional support. If the boundary around the spouses is inappropriately rigid, the system can be stressed by their isolation. But if the spouses maintain loose boundaries, other subgroups, including children and in-laws, may intrude into their subsystem functioning.

In simple human terms, husband and wife need each other as a refuge from the multiple demands of life. In therapy, this need dictates that the therapist protect the boundaries around the spouse subsystem. If the children in a family session interfere with a spouse subsystem transaction, their interference should be blocked. Husband and wife may have sessions that exclude others. If in these sessions they continue to discuss parenting instead of husband-wife transactions, the therapist would do well to point out that they are crossing a boundary.

The Parental Subsystem. A new level of family formation is reached with the birth of the first child. The spouse subsystem in an intact family must now differentiate to perform the tasks of socializing a child without losing the mutual support that should characterize the spouse subsystem. A boundary must be drawn which allows the child access to both parents while excluding him from spouse functions. Some couples who do well as a group of two are never able to make a satisfactory transition to the interactions of a group of three. In some families, the child may be drawn into problems of the spouse subsystem, as happened to Emily Wagner.

As the child grows, his developmental demands for both autonomy and guidance impose demands on the parental subsystem, which must be modified to meet them. The child comes in contact with extrafamilial peers, the school, and other socializing forces outside the family. The parental subsystem must adapt to the new factors impinging on the tasks of socialization. If the child is severely stressed by his extrafamilial environment, that can affect not only his relationship with his parents but even the internal transactions of the spouse subsystem.

The unquestioned authority that once characterized the patriarchal model of the parental subsystem has faded, to be replaced by a concept of flexible, rational authority. Parents are expected to understand children's developmental needs and to explain the rules they impose. Parenting is an extremely difficult process. No one

Families and Family Therapy

performs it to his entire satisfaction, and no one goes through the process unscathed. Probably it was always more or less impossible. In today's complex, fast-developing society, in which generational gaps occur at smaller and smaller intervals, parenting difficulties have increased.

The parenting process differs depending on the children's age. When children are very young, nurturing functions predominate. Control and guidance assume more importance later. As the child matures, especially during adolescence, the demands made by parents begin to conflict with the children's demands for age-appropriate autonomy. Parenting becomes a difficult process of mutual accommodation. Parents impose rules that they cannot explain at the time or that they explain inadequately, or they regard the reasons for rules as self-evident, when they are not self-evident to the children. As children grow older, they may not accept the rules. The children communicate their needs with varying degress of clarity, and they make new demands on the parents, such as for more time or more emotional commitment.

It is essential to understand the complexity of child rearing in order to judge its participants fairly. Parents cannot protect and guide without at the same time controlling and restricting. Children cannot grow and become individuated without rejecting and attacking. The process of socialization is inherently conflictual. Any therapeutic input that challenges a dysfunctional process between parents and children must at the same time support its participants.

Parenting requires the capacity to nurture, guide, and control. The proportions of these elements depend on the children's developmental needs and the parents' capacity. But parenting always requires the use of authority. Parents cannot carry out their executive functions unless they have the power to do so.

Children and parents, and sometimes therapists, frequently describe the ideal family as a democracy. But they mistakenly assume that a democratic society is leaderless, or that a family is a society of peers. Effective functioning requires that parents and children accept the fact that the differentiated use of authority is a necessary ingredient for the parental subsystem. This becomes a social training lab for the children, who need to know how to negotiate in situations of unequal power.

A therapist's support of the parental subsystem may conflict with a therapeutic goal of supporting a child's autonomy. In such situations,

A Family Model

the therapist should remember that only a weak parental subsystem establishes restrictive control, and that excessive control occurs mostly when the control is ineffective. Supporting the parents' responsibility and obligation to determine family rules secures the child's right and obligation to grow and to develop autonomy. The therapist's task is to help the subsystems negotiate with and accommodate to each other.

The Sibling Subsystem. The sibling subsystem is the first social laboratory in which children can experiment with peer relationships. Within this context, children support, isolate, scapegoat, and learn from each other. In the sibling world, children learn how to negotiate, cooperate, and compete. They learn how to make friends and allies, how to save face while submitting, and how to achieve recognition of their skills. They may take different positions in their jockeying with one another, and those positions, taken early in the sibling subgroup, can be significant in the subsequent course of their lives. In large families, the sibling subsystem has a further division, for the younger children, who are still transacting in areas of security, nurturance, and guidance within the family, are differentiated from the older children, who are making contact and contracts with the extrafamilial world.

When children contact the world of extrafamilial peers, they try to operate along the lines of the sibling world. When they learn alternative ways of relating, they bring back the new experiential knowledge into the sibling world. If the child's family has very idiosyncratic ways, the boundaries between the family and the extrafamilial world may become inappropriately rigid. The child may then have difficulty entering other social systems.

The significance of the sibling subsystem is seen most clearly in its absence. Only children develop an early pattern of accommodation to the adult world, which may be manifested in precocious development. At the same time, they may manifest difficulty in the development of autonomy and the ability to share, cooperate, and compete with others.

A therapist should know the developmental needs of children and be able to support the child's right to autonomy without minimizing the parents' rights. The boundaries of the sibling subsystem should protect the children from adult interference, so they can exercise their right to privacy, have their own areas of interest, and be free to fumble as they explore. Children at different developmental stages have different needs, particular cognitive skills, and idiosyncratic value systems. At

Families and Family Therapy

times, the therapist must act as a translator, interpreting the children's world to the parents or vice versa. He may also have to help the subsystem negotiate clear but crossable boundaries with the extrafamilial. If the child is caught in a web of exaggerated family loyalty, for example, the therapist will act as a bridge between the child and the extrafamilial world.


A family is subject to inner pressure coming from developmental changes in its own members and subsystems and to outer pressure coming from demands to accommodate to the significant social institutions that have an impact on family members. Responding to these demands from both within and without requires a constant transformation of the position of family members in relation to one an­other, so they can grow while the family system maintains continuity.

Inherent in this process of change and continuity are the stresses of accommodating to new situations. Family practitioners, in their concentration on family dynamics, may minimize this process, in the same way that dynamic therapists may minimize the context of the individual. The danger of this pitfall is its emphasis on pathology. Transitional processes of adaptation to new situations, which carry the lack of differentiation and the anxiety that characterize all new processes, may be mislabeled as pathological. To focus on the family as a social system in transformation, however, highlights the transitional nature of certain family processes. It demands an exploration of the changing situation of the family and its members and of their stresses of accommodation. With this orientation, many more families who enter therapy would be seen and treated as average families in transitional situations, suffering the pains of accommoda­tion to new circumstances. The label of pathology would be reserved for families who in the face of stress increase the rigidity of their transactional patterns and boundaries, and avoid or resist any exploration of alternatives. In average families, the therapist relies on the motivation of family resources as a pathway to transformation. In pathological families, the therapist needs to become an actor in the family drama, entering into transitional coalitions in order to skew the system and develop a different level of homeostasis.

Stress on a family system may come from four sources. There can be the stressful contact of one member or of the whole family with extrafamilial forces. Transitional points in the family's evolution may also be a source of strain, as are idiosyncratic problems.

A Family Model

Stressful Contact of One Member with Extrafamilial Forces. One of the main functions of the family is to support its members. When a member is stressed, the other family members feel the need to accommodate to his changed circumstances. This accommodation may be contained within a subsystem, or it may permeate the whole family.

For example, a husband, who is under stress at work, criticizes his wife when they both get home. This transaction may be limited to the spouse system. The wife may withdraw from the husband but support him a few minutes later. Or she may counterattack. A fight ensues, but the fight ends with closure and mutual support. These are functional transactional patterns. The stress on the husband has been lessened by the transactions with his wife.

However, the fight may escalate without closure, until one of the spouses abandons the field. Each spouse now suffers from the sense of nonresolution. In this situation, the stressful contact of one family member with external forces has generated an unresolved stress in the intrafamilial spouse subsystem.

The same source of stress on an individual member may operate across subsystem boundaries. For example, a father (F) and mother (M), stressed at work, may come home and criticize each other but then detour their conflict by attacking a child. This reduces the danger to the spouse subsystem, but stresses the child (C) (Fig. 5). Or the

husband may criticize the wife, who then seeks a coalition with the child against the father (Fig. 6). The boundary around the spouse
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