Family systems theory is a set of principles that outlines that a family is a group of interdependent members. The focus is therefore on family members and not the individuals in a given family. The concept has three key terms, ‘family’, ‘theory’ and ‘systems’. A family is a complex structure in which people are seen to share family tree and are bonded together both physically and emotionally. Also, a family has a common cultural definition. A theory is a set of principles or ideas that try to explain a given phenomenon. Systems, on the other hand, can be defined as basics between themselves and the environment in which they operate. In this case, therefore, the theory is used to study a particular system which is the family (Barnes, 2004).
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Family Systems Theory, Concepts and Their Application
This theory argues that family life consists of human systems that exist mutually. They are organized hierarchically. According to family systems theorists, the hierarchy begins with the self and ends with the community. All the other systems such as marital, nuclear siblings fall in between. Also, they claim that the immediate family members have features in common with the families of origin.
The theory states that the family operates as a single entity. The family resources and strengths are therefore merged to serve a community goal. The social worker should emphasize that with different potentials brought together, the family can be able to achieve what an individual cannot.
This theory also brings out the concept of system boundary which is important in family systems. This is because it defines parts that are supposed to be in the system and those that should not. In other words, it is permeable. When it is open, it allows components in and out of the system. In the case of family, if the boundary is open, it allows external elements to influence it. Closed boundary family systems do not allow external influences. It is independent. However, there cannot be a completely open or closed boundary (Goldenberg and Goldenberg, 2008). This concept is important in that members of a family should understand what they need to incorporate in the system and what they are not supposed.
The triangular relationship concept entails maintaining the emotional relationship using the triangular-like channel. It can be applied in social work practice when two members of the family differ and another member has come in and stabilized the situation.
Communication which is important in this theory brings about the concept of feedback loop. In this context, the concept outlines that there is ‘path’ followed by information given in the system. At the same time, this information can be traced at any point in the system (Carlson, 2005). The social worker should guide the members of the best avenues of communication that encourage cohesion.
Family systems theory is crucial in social work practice because social workers can apply the equilibrium concept. For instance, when dealing with a family issue, they educate the members to resist change to maintain homeostasis. In other words, they should stick and defend their customs and operations.
Family systems undergo a life cycle. It is thus important in any social work practice to emphasize the need to be flexible in adjusting to the same. The members should be able to cope with changes. The family life cycle is repetitive and if not handled well can cause dysfunction in the family system. The most common life cycle is childbearing (Carter and McGoldrick, 2005).
Individual members of the family are expected to play roles that ensure the cohesion of the whole system. The most common roles include the mother, father, son, and daughter (Cortes, 2004). This is important in social work because, in case of problems, the issues can be solved based on the roles of the individuals.
Family systems have subsystems as a component. That is, it is made up of other small groups of people. The small groups consist of two or three people. These people are bonded together and this composition is referred to as relationships or coalition. In addition, the group is governed by its own rules. The importance of each subsystem should be emphasized in order to incorporate all the groups in the system.
Diversity is a component of a family system. Family members may differ greatly. They may have different ethnicity, culture, beliefs, and values. In a family system, the diversity of individual members is accommodated to form one group. For this reason, acculturation and immigration should be the areas of concern in social work practice. Though there may be a change of culture, the members should be able to adjust. A family should be flexible at the same time maintain its culture (Heater, 2003). Diversity is important in a family system because it enriches the group. In addition, diversity helps the members to understand that the different backgrounds and therefore they should respect that fact and live together.
Family rules are principles that govern how a family system operates. They are usually unspoken. Family rules are applied by social workers in ensuring that member behaviors are governed within and outside the system. The social workers guide the members on how to conduct themselves in order to avoid conflict. For example, the rules are to be applied in a family system in case of a conflict. Moreover, they can be used when making decisions as well as how members are supposed to relate with one another (Collins, Jordan and Coleman, 2007).
The family system is vulnerable to environmental stress. Environmental stressors may include the fellow members of the family as well as other changes in the system. Environmental stress may cause disruption in the family system and other emotional disorders such as trauma. The concept is thus important when dealing with family issues because one can be able to identify the source of stress and therefore getting ways to solve them. The members can as well understand these sources of stress and avoid them for the good of the whole family system (Minuchin, 1974).
Psychological Assessment of the Problem
With certain psychological conflict within the family, it is often impossible to find the common language and proceed with considering the situation objectively to solve the conflict. Thus, in the case under consideration, it was most reasonable to resort to the professional help of the Family Therapy agency. It seemed obvious that with the help of J. F. Colon-Hernandez, the Puerto-Rican family therapist, the problem could be finally solved. Mandating the understanding between the members of the family, this agency helps people to tackle their family problems. Also mandating the protection of families and their members, the Family Therapy Agency is a piece-maker in the sphere of family relationships. Claiming that their mission is to help people respect themselves and the rest of the family members, the Family Therapy Agency helps people to find the place where they belong.
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To say that the family which needed the help of the professional social worker (see the genogram in Appendix A) was an out of the ordinary case would mean to exaggerate. Composed of two spouses and two children, it looked in a rather usual way. However, as they proceeded with the problem which they needed to tackle, it became obvious that their relationships were on the brink of a complete collapse.
Martin and Maria, two Puerto-Ricans, both 32, used to be a loving couple who shared the lives of each other for 8 years. Their two children, Natalia, aged 9, and Alex, who was 6, were the apple of their parents’ eyes. However, things changed as the life of the spouses became somewhat more complicated.
One of the factors which played its role in the shaping of the problem was the family background of both spouses. Taking into consideration the descent of the husband and the wife, the roots of the problem could be detected rather easily. Because of the peculiarities of upbringing, Martin and Maria were to face a problem that would bring them to a dead-end of their long-lasting relationships.
It is of utter importance that Martin’s mother can be described as a very bossy and determined woman who has a great influence on her son. Thus, Martin is quite unlikely to follow his own course both in personal life and in his work, since he would always need the consultation of his mother. Even when the family does not have any apparent problems, such a state of affairs makes the relationships between the wife and the husband rather strained.
However, Maria’s background presupposes certain difficulties in building family relationships as well. Born in a large family, with six brothers, she was raised in both patriarchal and at the same time liberal style. Tending to be independent and making decisions on her own, she has her idea of a family hierarchy which makes her a devoted and loving mother and wife.
Martin’s mother introduces certain air of conflict in the family, for she has not accepted the daughter-in-law from the very beginning. This predetermined the relationships between Maria and the rest of her spouse’s family. When Martin decides to create a business of his own and starts staying up late, which finally ends in cheating on his wife, Maria wants his family to help her, but Martin’s mother-in-law gives Maria a cold shoulder. Desperate and forsaken, Maria seeks help from the church and becomes informed that, as a Roman Catholic, she is not supposed to divorce.
After Maria learned that her mother-in-law had experienced the same situation once, but decided not to investigate the affairs of her husband to keep the family, with her own material incentives as well, Maria considers that she should consult the family therapist. With her family unwilling to help and her husband being reluctant to resort to the help of a family therapist, Maria feels most miserable and depressed. Another factor that keeps her away from separating with Martin is that Natalia and Alex miss their father much. In addition to all the stresses which she has suffered, her own family did not respond to her pleads for help, which is quite unexpected from a typical Puerto Rican family (McGoldrick 2005, p.242) and thus entirely shocking. Despite all Maria’s attempts to have a heart-to-heart talk to her husband, he refuses her feeble attempts to shift their relationships from the dead point.
Family Structure and Dynamics
Since a family is a structured hierarchy of human systems that exist mutually, it can be considered that the family of Martin and Maria is experiencing difficult times. Because of the discord within the family, it cannot represent the whole anymore; instead, it is falling apart into detached elements, the wife, the husband, and the children who cannot understand what is happening with their parents. It is quite obvious that because of the nuclear type of the family, all its members will be equally hurt by parting; thus, it would be the most reasonable to resort to the help of the professional family therapist.
Another important feature of the family that must be taken into consideration when analyzing the problem of the family is the fact that the two spouses have different ideas of the family hierarchy. Maria, who is accustomed to the idea that the husband must take the leadership of the family, makes her husband take certain decisions, which apparently makes Martin nervous.
Tracing the pattern of the family conflict, it can be observed that every time it follows the same scheme: Maria makes Martin act “like a man should”, in her understanding of what a man must be like. Turning nervous as he is forced to make decisions and undertake steps without consulting with his mother, Martin becomes increasingly detached from the family and his wife, which means that the hierarchy in this family is unsteady and precarious. Thus, the family is no longer a single entity which it is supposed to be.
On the one hand, the family demonstrates a lack of communication skills and independence. Yet, on the other hand, the husband who is formally the head of the family does not have the opportunity to manage the family business together with his wife mainly because of his mother, whose irritating manner to interfere spoils the relationships between the couple completely. The tactless behavior of Martin’s mother only aggravates the situation, which makes the spouses even more detached from each other, both psychologically and even physically – as Maria confessed, her tactile contact with husband has been reduced to naught; Martin even confessed that there were times when he could not bear being alone with his wife, which is a signal of relationships collapse.
As it has been detected, the family system boundary has decreased to zero, which means that the family vulnerability is dangerously high at the moment. Since Maria and Martin find it incredibly difficult to discuss family issues with each other directly, they need to establish a triangular relationship concept in their family. Involving a medium into their communication, they will reduce the tension in their relationships, which will result in positive changes. Unless the family asks for the professional help, they will be doomed to follow the once established pattern of tackling the conflict, which will finally lead to complete alienation and maybe even psychological disorders of both spouses.
Family dynamics also shows that there is no feedback loop in the relationships between the husband and the wife. As long as family communication remains a monologue, no positive changes can be made. At present, the couple’s tendency to acculturation and sharing their ideas with each other starts increasing, no improvements are possible.
The family homeostasis is highly unstable, which allows suggesting that the help of a professional social worker is incredibly important in this case. It must be kept in mind that not only Maria and Martin but also their children, Natalia and Alex, depending on whether the conflict will finally come to an end. The latter turns the situation into a closed disk, for as long as the parents’ quarrel, the children remain unhappy, and while children are sad, the mother is depressed, which leads to another scandal with the husband, and so on.
Family Stress and Needs
Like any other family, Martin, Maria, and their children have the needs and wants of their own. The vital one which makes the foundation of the entire family is mutual trust, which the spouses lack so much. It is clear that Maria does not trust her husband and is afraid to have STD because of his betrayal.
The couple also lacks support in the emotional issues. Due to the husband’s indifference, Maria and the children suffer, receiving no help from one of the dearest people in their life. While Maria has already come to the idea that the family needs the help of a professional family therapist, Martin still thinks that he can handle the situation and take things under control. Yet he does not understand that lingering will only change the state of affairs for the worse – there is not a moment to lose.
Despite all the sufferings which Maria had to take – or, perhaps, because of them – she still wants to live a full life in a healthy environment and be happy; yet her husband does not understand it. Pretending that things are improving, he rejects the help of a professional, which means that he is utterly confused. Martin is not used to decision-making, and the necessity to take a step on his own petrifies him, which is also the impact of his masterful mother.
Since Maria is financially dependent on her husband, she would not be able to divorce even if her moral prejudice allowed her to, and this factor seems the last straw in the range of stress factors of the family. Both hurting Maria’s pride and driving her anxiety to its peak, the financial issue is one of the key reasons for Maria to feel depressed.
The influence of the rumors is also to be mentioned. Depending on the church and the neighbors morally, Maria does not want to be despised by an entire community. Such factor will deprive her of the remaining of her courage and inner strength (see the Ecomap in Appendix B)
Although the family is surviving hard times now, they still can find the forces to resist the stress and the desire to break the relationships. Though it might sound somewhat unexpected, the peculiarities of the spouses’ backgrounds discussed above can also help to bring them together. Certain aspects of the spouses’ character can be a double-sided sword, both threatening the relationships and at the same time making them stronger. Thus, Maria’s idea of family life and family hierarchy will not allow her to split with her husband too soon. Martin, in his turn, will be quite reluctant to abandon the life pattern which he is used to. In addition, the concern about children will not let Maria call their relationships a day.
Even though families accomplish the same tasks, which makes them function in one and the same way (Milne 2010), it cannot be denied that each has its own peculiarities which predetermine the use of a certain technique in solving various problems. In the given case, it is quite obvious that the entire family belongs to one and the same ethnical group, the Puerto Ricans; yet the difference in the family background allows to suggest that the spouses differ from each other greatly.
Thus, the gap between Martin and Maria is growing bigger. In addition, it must be kept in mind that Martin comes from an island, whereas Maria is the dweller of the mainland; therefore it can be suggested that Maria is more claustrophobic and she tends to create some personal room of her own within her family. This is what distinguishes her from her husband who is used to be guided and has another concept of personal space. It is also important that the family belongs to the Roman Catholics, one of the most widespread religious groups in Puerto Rico (see the culturegram in Appendix C).
Another aspect which the couple can be characterized by is their temper. Casting a look at Maria is enough to understand that she possesses a typically sanguine temperament, whereas her husband is of more reserved, melancholic type. Needing entertainment and variability in her life, Maria is a striking contrast to her husband who prefers a quiet life with no deep emotions. Perhaps, it was the incompatibility of their characters which drove him to play Maria false.
Because of the structure of the family (according to Milne (2010), this is the traditional nuclear family type), the difference between the family members is not supposed to drive to serious conflicts, Thus, it can be suggested that the problematic issues can be solved once Martin and Maria decide that they need to mend their relationships.
Considering the situation in Martin and Maria’s family, it is necessary to admit that creating an atmosphere of mutual trust will be rather a hard task. It is clear now that the processes which are going on in the family bear distinguished psychologically unhealthy features, which is the signal that the family needs psychological help, according to the Generalist Intervention Model (Kirst-Ashman 2008, p. 228). With a qualified specialist, there is still some hope that the family can be restored.
Taking a closer look at the overall situation which Martin and Maria have got into, it could be supposed that one of the family’s “seats of war” is Maria’s mother-in-law. Creating a tense atmosphere in the family with her intrusions, she worsens the relationships between Martin and Maria, giving them one more reason for arguments. Because of the similarity in their characters, Maria and her mother-in-law cannot help conflicting; therefore, it would be a good idea to make the system of the family boundaries stronger, without letting anyone in with no permission, even if this is a mother-in-law.
It must be kept in mind though that without the help of his mother, Martin might feel uncomfortable and could feel depressed, that is why Martin needs specific psychological help, a therapy that will help him to assume the position of the head of the family. According to Kirst-Ashman (2008, p.30), the person must fully understand the purpose and the meaning of the psychological exercises which (s)he does, otherwise there will be no effect. Therefore, the most important issue concerning Martin’s position is to help him recognize himself as the leader of the family.
Speaking about Maria, it must be admitted that it is only her who can restore the faith in her husband. Although forgiving is always harder than saying sorry, she will have to try to believe in Martin once again.
The primary goal of the family therapy course is to restore the family’s certainty and belief in themselves and their partner. With the help of individual work with both of the spouses, it will be possible to help them establish new relationships with each other based on mutual trust. Using both “personal and professional integrity” (Whitaker 1988, p. 54), it would be possible to find the way to Martin and Maria’s hearts and make them see what they will lose if they do not stop the conflict.
With the help of some minor steps, this goal could be achieved. One of the subgoals would be restricting the mother-in-law’s influence.
The next step could be an open talk with both Martin and Maria. Asking such things as the level of sincerity between the husband and the wife, it will be possible to make the spouses trust in each other once again. Finally, touching upon their children, it could be possible to help Martin and Maria find the points of contact.
Perhaps, one of the most essential and the most complicated parts of the problem solving is the calculation of results. Developing the evaluation system for Maria and Martin’s relations, it would be reasonable to suggest that their progress should be evaluated according to the scale in which they can work out together. It would be a good practice for them to consider which steps they should make to achieve peace and comfort in their own family.
Applying such a program into practice, it will be possible to hit two targets at the same time. On the one hand, the couple will work the individual plan which will suit them best; on the other hand, the cooperation will work as a means to link them. Of course, the family therapist will be able to make corrections in the chosen path, should any need arise.
One of the key principles of the progress evaluation will be the percentage of quarrels and compromises that the couple will have during the day. With help of the conflicting strategy which they will work out with help of the family therapist, Martin and Maria will be able to conduct reasonable discussions, but not scandals, which will also help to tackle the conflicting atmosphere in the family. Helping the couple to regulate their emotions, a therapist will show than the “civilized” way of conflict solution.
Because of the psychological trauma which Maria had finding out about her husband’s love affair, this issue has to be addressed in the most delicate way. It would be reasonable to demonstrate to the couple that in such cases there is no one to blame for what has happened, and the wisest decision would be to forget the affair.
Relevance to Social Work Practice
It seems that the role in which the situation described above played in my life has shaped my personality in the way which is most suitable to become a social worker. Learning the peculiarities of the psychological approach to certain types of people and acquiring knowledge on the family therapy, I felt the urge to help the people who have been trapped in the situation close to the one described above.
It seems to me that the experience which I have received is really precious. Helping me to integrate into the problems of the people who suffer from loneliness and the personal problems connected with the specifics of the upbringing, it will be useful in the cases where people suffer from the traumas received in their childhood and youth.
Another important aspect that I have learned from the tragic situation that I chanced to witness is that the family factors which make it weaker can also predetermine its strengths. Considered from the other point of view, what appears to be a disadvantage may be a positive factor which will help to reestablish the relationships and help to start the family life anew.
One more important skill that I have mastered during this family therapy practice is finding the roots of the problem, no matter how deep they could be concealed. In spite of the fact that a lot of problems in Maria and Martin’s family rooted back into their own family backgrounds, it was still possible to unlock the patterns of their family behavior and change them for the couple to readjust to the new circumstances. With the help of these newly acquired skills, it would be easier to assist the people who are experiencing similar problems.
Like any other theories, the ones used in the given work to identify the problems in the family of Martin and Maria have their strengths and weak points. Speaking about the strong points of the theories applied, it would be possible to say that they allow approaching the family situation relatively easy. Dealing with the specific features of the family members, these theories suggest the most objective consideration of the problem.
However, these theories have their drawbacks as well. Thus, for instance, the members of the family will have to separate from Martin’s family, for the conflicting tempers of Maria and her mother-in-law are absolutely incompatible. Because of the psychological strain which Martin will be out under as he will not be able to consult with his mother, he will feel uncertain for some time period.
A social worker will find some of the family assessment aspects applied to practice in the research quite useful. Among them, the family background is one of the most important ones. Often underestimated, it plays an important part in the family relationships establishment and provides the pattern of conflicting for the spouses to follow. To be general, it is possible to suggest that all family conflicts root from the behavior patterns adherent after observing one’s own parents’ relationships.
To solve the conflict in Martin and Maria’s family, a social worker might have to create a way to break through the wall of indifference that Martin built around himself. Although this task could seem rather easy, Martin’s despair and uncertainty could spoil the whole therapy. Thus, a well-thought plan is required, and no half-baked ideas are allowed.
The situation can still be tackled. Asking Martin to recollect the happiest moments spent with his children, the psychologist will make Martin feel the bitterness of the possible loss. Therefore, Martin will realize how important his children and his family are for him and what place they take in his heart.
Family systems theory claims that a family consists of interdependent members. In this system, the individuals’ needs are not the priority. Instead, they focus on the group as a whole. The theory argues that the family is governed by rules to maintain cohesion and equilibrium. The systems also have other important components such as boundaries that are responsible for external influences. Since the system is made up of subsystems or small groups, members play roles that are meant to bond them together. The family systems theory is important in social work practice because they depict how a system operates. In this case, they can guide on how to manage a family system. That is, it addresses all aspects affecting the cohesion of a given system.
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