What is Systemic Therapy?

Related to a recent post about what relational therapy really means; clients also ask about systemic therapy. Systemic therapy, (also: systemic family therapy or family systems theory), is looking at any struggle a client is having through the lens of the system they are involved in. This could mean family, friends, spouse, co-workers, etc. It means including, and getting the perspective of, as many members of the system as possible and examining their interactions. These interactions have the most salient impact on what an individual experiences and they inform how we as therapists can have the biggest impact when helping clients develop change. The understanding and use of systems and interactions separate family therapy from traditional psychotherapy.


After the industrial revolution, people began to study machines and how they work. With the advent of computer systems, people then studied the invisible “connections” between parts of a computer and how similar they were to the way the human brain works. This study of cybernetics led the first forays into studying the connections between people. Scientists and theorists began to notice that not only did the brain behave like a machine or computer, one part affecting another, so do groups of people: i.e., societies, neighborhoods, and families. An individual has an effect on another individual just like gears in a machine.


Two famous quotes: “no man is an island” and “we are all connected in the great circle of life” demonstrate how cybernetics and systems theories are relevant to therapy. Humans do not exist in a void. We are born into families, a concept that had great significance on our ability to survive harsher times long ago. We needed others to protect us and provide for us just to live past infancy. This reliance on others created our affinity for familial and friendly emotional connections. We also live in a cycle of birth, life, creation of new life, and death. Cyclical patterns like this inform how we interact with the people we rely on and those we are stuck with. Knowledge of the patterns of machines and computers was translated to provide an understanding of human interactions. When one person affects another person, the pattern is called a feedback loop. One of the best examples is the concept of a thermostat. When the sun warms the house, the air-conditioning kicks on. When the house cools down, the airflow shuts off. The air-conditioning system takes in information from the environment and then “behaves” in a certain way. When it gets different or new information, it “behaves” in a different way. This is exactly how people interact with each other.


Due to all of this history of and research into machines, brains, cybernetics and more; people studying human interactions and therapeutic techniques started to apply them to therapy sessions. What they noticed is that when this bigger picture is taken into account, positive change happened faster and was stable for much longer. With more research, we got better and better at it and today some of the most influential science relevant to therapy is the study and application of interactional methods. They are proven time and again to be the most effective forms of therapy for swift and lasting change.


For more information into the start of family therapy and cybernetics look up Don Jackson and Gregory Bateson. For more information on the history of family therapy and systemic theories look up Murray Bowen, the Milan Approach, Salvador Minuchin, Carl Whitaker, and Virginia Satir. For more information on current studies of family systems look up John Gottman and Sue Johnson.

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