If there is one thing we can agree on, it’s that families are complicated.
They are messy, annoying, exciting, appalling, and did I mention complicated?
And, because of that, they are sometimes really hard to understand. I think that family systems theory can help us explain the complexity and messiness of families.
Now, hold on. I know that “systems theory” sounds kind of lofty and academic. But, once you get the basics, I think it has some wonderful lessons for day-to-day life.
Systems theory, as applied to families, came largely from the General Systems Theory of Ludwig von Bertalanffy. Bertalanffy argued that the same basic principles can be used to understand a variety of systems, because the focus is on the interactions between system parts, rather than the characteristics of the individual parts. In this spirit, when we consider family systems, the primary focus is on behavior/interaction occurring in and from the family, rather than the individual traits or feelings of the members.
It’s a bit confusing to follow this idea sometimes, but examples pretty quickly puts it into perspective. In a family, it’s not precisely the love that a mother feels that affects the children, it is how she does or does not indicate that love in her behavior that will have the impact.
Say we know two families, where both mothers love their children dearly. One shows that love by being very strict and controlling, while the other shows love through frequent physical and verbal expressions of affection. Despite the fact that both mothers love their children equally, the experiences of the child and the effects on the family system will be quite different.
Or, think about two men who both feel that they are devoted to their wives. For one man, devotion is expressed through providing financial and emotional support, but not through fidelity. For the other man, expressing devotion through fidelity is very important, but he feels it is not important for the husband to be the primary breadwinner in the family. Those two women, those two couples, are going to have a very different experience, even though both men feel the same degree of devotion.
The members of a family have a continual impact on another in many ways, both small and large (interdependence in systems theory). Junior with a cold may impact Dad by his needing to miss a day of work reducing his pay for the week. Then Mom has to run to the grocery store and get decongestant, and while she is there, she picks up ingredients for potato soup, which is Little Brother’s favorite meal and makes him very happy. Since Junior can’t go to soccer, everyone stays home and cuddles on the couch together watching a favorite movie. Somehow, this cold becomes the starting point for a family evening that will linger in memory as one of the best ever. Or, a bad day for Mom at work impacts how she responds to the children when she gets home, and that is then spun out into their interactions with one another. These effects can be very small, or very significant, but they are continual.
Members of families are not additive in the way that two numbers might be (non-summativity). When it comes to people in systems, the whole is different than the sum of the parts – not “better,” but different. A group of people who seem pretty unpleasant when taken individually may create a very positive and healthy family. Alternately, a group of people that each seem quite lovely taken singly may create a pattern of interaction that is actually toxic for members.
This is directly, and importantly, related to the idea that the path of a family cannot be predicted, and that they are not bound by their history (called equifinality). Families can start in similar conditions, but end up in very different places, and the reverse. While we may like to think that if we put XYZ in place at the start we can promise a “good” outcome (particularly with regard to children), that is not really the case. While we are affected by our past, we are not constrained by it. A family that has very negative and stress-producing interactions today can make changes that create a more positive future. But, the reverse is also the case.
So, on a day-to-day basis, why is all of this important in our understandings of family? I believe that, if we could really embrace these ideas, we would be much more willing to accept difference in family form and function. Because we would realize that 1 + 2 does not always = 3, we would have less of a tendency to assume that there is one clear path to successful family life. Perhaps our standards of what counts as family would relax and our tight cultural expectations of what types of families are good for children and adults would expand. We would be better able to see that no family is “dysfunctional,” because the very nature of the system is to tend toward the maintenance of similar function (systems theory calls it homeostasis), but how that system affects individual members is a very different thing.
Thinking about families in this way would make it more apparent that the very same behavior will have different impacts in two different families, because the systems are not the same, so we would realize behaviors cannot be judged in a vacuum. Maybe such understandings of family would release parents and children from the binding cultural expectations of what family should/must be, and allow them to better appreciate and navigate the tides of their own individual and unique family system.