Family Therapy: What You Need To Know

Family therapy is very different from individual therapy. In this post, I will discuss theory behind family therapy and why you might want to consider some MFT (marriage and family therapist) training.

A Bit of History

Back in the 1950s a mathematician by the name of Weiner got together with a therapist by the name of Bateson and came up with the concept of systems theory. That is, that families and couples can be considered as systems, with many parts that all interrelate. The major concepts behind family therapy originate from systems theory.

Around the same time a very interesting thing happened. Also in the 1950s, Bateson began to notice problematic family dynamics in the families that would come visit the people with schizophrenia in the mental hospital. What he noticed was a double bind, that the verbals and non-verbals of the family members didn’t match. For example, the mother might say she loves the patient, but when the patient goes to hug her she remains stiff. Bateson thought this might be enough to make the patients crazy. Of course, it has since been discovered that problematic family dynamics do not cause schizophrenia, but attention was drawn to family dynamics, contributing to the development of this theory.

Major Concepts

  • Homeostasis. Systems have a tendency to maintain the status-quo. That is, they abhor change. Systems will do anything they can to keep things static.
  • Feedback loops. In order to maintain homeostasis, systems use feedback loops. Each part of the system provides information to the other parts of the system, which then adjust themselves accordingly. How does this manifest in a couple or family? Members of the system will influence each other with their behavior. Assuming the system was healthy to begin with, it becomes dysfunctional when homeostasis cannot be maintained.
  • Circular causality. In a system, it doesn’t matter where the problem started. Causality is not linear in that sense. Each part affects the other in a loop, so it doesn’t matter where you begin to examine the problem. You can start anywhere and still cover all of the bases.


After examining the system, family therapists will know where and how to intervene. Depending on your theoretical orientation (there are several for this type of therapy), a family therapist could intervene in a number of different ways. Here are some examples:

  • Once a dysfunctional feedback loop has been identified, and the family agrees with its conceptualization, the therapist will work with the members to identify a) what behaviors they would like others to change; b) what behaviors they are willing to change; and c) what other members can do to facilitate their behavior changes.
  • The identified patient may not be the problem. In an attempt to maintain homeostasis, children may act out. More specifically, if Mom and Dad are always fighting, but stop when little Susie pitches a fit, guess what little Susie is going to do? Because she doesn’t like it when Mom and Dad argue, she will act out. Therefore, although the child is the “presenting problem,” often it is the parents that really need the help.

Yours in the Joy of Knowledge,

Barbara LoFrisco