Full version Structural Family Therapy

Structural Family Therapy

This print version free essay Structural Family Therapy.

Category: Psychology

Autor: reviewessays 28 December 2010

Words: 1943 | Pages: 8

“The road is not the road; the road is how you walk it.” – Juan Ramon Jimenez

Since not all changes affect all family members, and changes in one individual are not going to affect the rest of his or her family, it seems families can use whatever methods facilitate smooth functioning. Then, what is the definition of family and how family therapists help families when problems do arise? A family is an aggregate of individuals, and family therapists have inevitably been dealing with individuals within families. Thus, it is somewhat challenging for family therapists to deal with the family as it requires seeing people as individuals and as part of a whole.

Structural family therapy views a family as an aggregate of individuals that works in a system as a united whole. It presents a framework to help families modify their family structure or the underlying organization of family life. In structural family therapy, each individual becomes a subunit of his or her family as well as a member of different social contexts. This perspective helps families, as it grasps certain family patterns and focus on reciprocal relations within the family. Problems arise because of old habits, thus when those habits are change, the structure of family also can be changed. Structural family therapy is effective for treating various problems of families and members of families especially with anorexia nervosa, addiction, substance abuse problems, a troubled adolescent, or a marriage crisis.

Therapists insist that each family is basically unique no matter what characteristics they may share with other families. Through the lens of the above assumption, the family is seen as fundamentally resourceful and having a core of uniqueness that will determine how the family will change in therapy. Therapists also emphasize that it is possible to change family systems in a relatively short time by understanding families’ unique characteristics and problems.

One of the main assumptions of the structural family theory is that families are trapped by certain patterns that are inappropriate for their current life circumstances. Families are organized hierarchically with rules for interacting within subsystems. Thus, inadequate hierarchies and boundaries can maintain symptomatic behavior. As the boundaries of subsystems improve, the functioning of the constituent parts will also improve (Minuchin, 1974).

Salvador Minuchin, who developed structural family therapy and rules to organize therapeutic techniques, helped families to see the hidden parts of their family. Minuchin suggested that therapists should understand that families are subdivided into subsystem with boundaries. He strongly advised therapists not to explain how families might experience pathological symptoms as they adopt changes in the system. By comparing therapists to anthropologists who have a thorough knowledge of a culture before conducting fieldwork, Minuchin encouraged therapists to join with the family before they take an active and intervening role (Nichols& Schwartz, 1995).

As compared to other theories, structural family therapy is unique in that it deals with spirituality and ways that therapists’ own spirituality has an impact on therapy itself. Harry Aponte emphasized the importance of spirituality and asserted that spirituality brings the ultimate meaning to psychotherapy. All therapies are somehow connected to spirituality, as it is the basis of emotions families are confronting. Aponte challenged therapists to think of spirituality in a clinical context and to talk and work with spirituality. In order to utilize spirituality in therapy, he established the spiritual framework, which included love and forgiveness. Translating spiritual perspective into therapy, he constructed his own definition of love and forgiveness, but at the same time, he discovered that patients come with their own spirituality no matter what he believed. In therapy, therapists and patients establish a spiritual framework or the family’s value platform for change. As patients accept the meaning of love, he found that it becomes unconditional love, which promotes responsibility, autonomy, and motivation. Aponte also stressed the importance of spirituality, as it produces factors critical to successful therapy in any model (Aponte, 1998).

By facilitating the transformation of the family system, structural therapists take a pivotal role in helping the identified patient and family. The therapists’ use of themselves to support family members is especially crucial in work with pathologically enmeshed families. In the therapeutic system, the family therapists consider themselves as acting and reacting member. In order to join with the family, the therapist emphasizes the aspects of his or her personality and experience that relate to the family. As the experiences of family members change, the therapist joins with the family in the goal or changing family organization. Instead of focusing on the individual, the therapist focuses on the person within the family. Therapy based on this framework is expected to change the organization of the family. Each individual’s experiences are transformed when the structure of the family group changes, and the positions of members in that group are altered accordingly (Minuchin, 1974).

Structural family therapists take an active role, and their interactions will generally consist of directions for family members in the therapy session. Since theory is heavily focused on change, the therapists emphasize present problems rather than those of past. In addition, the therapist is more interested in patterns of communication than in the content the communication, and thus, the role of the therapist is to shift patterns of interactions in a positive direction. By focusing on the consistent, repetitive patterns of family behavior, therapists are interested in the emotional boundaries and coalitions, as they help them to understand the structure of family (Minuchin & Fishman, 1981).

The family becomes an important factor in the therapeutic process, as therapy stresses individuals in their social context. Dealing with the process of feedback between circumstances and the person becomes an important factor in structural family therapy since persons make changes in their circumstances and feedback to these changes is directly connected to the next step.

Structural family therapy does not interpret or explore the past, but rather, it modifies the present. Although it seems theory is not interested in the past, it believes that the individuals are connected to both past and present circumstances. Individuals’ past and unique characteristics form their social context, and this context influences them. With memory, the individual can produce his past, and through his present circumstances, his past can be qualified or modified. Structural family therapy utilizes this framework of conceptualizing an individual within his or her circumstances (Minuchin, 1974).

Family usually brings the symptoms of one family member into therapy. In addition, it can be assumed that the identified patient’s symptoms maintain the dysfunctional system in his or her family. Thus, family dysfunction is expressed by the symptoms of the individual, and choosing one individual to be the problem is a simple method of maintaining a rigid, inadequate family structure (Minuchin & Nichols, 1993).

As a result, family therapists view family dysfunction as a result of stress and failure to recognize the structure to deal with it. Disengaged families have rigid boundaries, and family members have extreme emotional distance. On the other hand, enmeshed families have diffuse boundaries, and as members of the family overreact emotionally, they become intrusively connected to each one. Subsystems within a family have a tendency to be either disengaged or enmeshed (Minuchin, Montalvo, Guerney, Rosman & Schumer, 1967). To help families clearly see the areas needing change, structural family therapists use symbols to diagram structural problems. Using a diagram, therapists invite the whole family for assessment and problem solving since the problems become a function of the entire family structure (Nichols & Schwartz, 1995).

The basic concepts underlying the theory are structures, subsystems, and boundaries. As predictable sequences, family structure organizes patterns to make individuals interact. Families are distinguished in that subsystems play several functions, and each person is a member of one or more subsystems and perform many roles in several subgroups. Boundaries are invisible barriers that regulate the amount of contact with members. Interpersonal boundaries are rigid, diffuse, or clear: rigid boundaries result in disengagement, and enmeshment occurs as a result of diffuse boundaries whereas clear boundaries operate in a normal range (Minuchin & Fishman 1981).

The goal of structural family therapy is to change the family structure by altering boundaries and reorganizing subsystems. To have lasting structural change in family, structural family therapists help families to transform their family structure. By joining with and accommodating the family, therapists use enactment to observe problematic family patterns. Therapists also help families using thoughtfully planned therapeutic techniques to create an effective hierarchical structure in family. The challenge of restructuring requires joining, with the family and turning and responding to people according to the way they move. Therapists draw a family maps, an organizational scheme to clarify the concept of a family organism as a structure to see the relationship between an individual’s behavior and the structure of the relationships in the whole family.

In order to help families with problems, therapists must understand how the families view the problems. Then, the family therapist reframes their formulation into one based on an understanding of family structure. Its use of enactment within the therapy session to promote the reframing makes this therapy unique. Structural therapists work with what actually happens in the session, rather than what family members describe about their problems. Also, by taking an active role in therapy session, therapists work and deal with family dynamics (Nichols & Schwartz, 1995).


Although concepts such as boundaries, subsystems, hierarchy, and coalitions are popular concepts of structural family therapy, the revisionists of this therapy insist that this popular view of the therapy is inadequate. They argue that the abovementioned concepts cannot account for the way in which structural family therapy is practiced. Family functioning is not explained by the use of structural ideas. Therefore, to clarify and distinguish the practice of structural family therapy from the therapeutic practice of others, enactment is used. Aponte mentioned how important role is to structural therapy by comparing what transference is to psychoanalysis. However, this does not acknowledge the pivotal role played by the assumptions of therapy and uniqueness in determining the way in which structural family therapy is practiced. The revisionists have tried to correct the distortions of the popular concepts of the therapy since structural family therapy is more complex than people realize (Simon, 1995).

relationship stemming from family structure.

In structural family therapy, each family member is compared to a puzzle in which each individual self defines the others and the whole defines the self. The parts complete the whole, and the whole complete the parts. While family members are trapped in self-defeating patterns, they are also showing the emotions such as support, love, and caring. Through such emotions families are build up their relationship to become as a whole. Therapists can help families to focus on helping them to see the broader context of the family self by accepting both possibilities and limitations of self and other


Aponte, H.J. (1998). Love, the spiritual wellspring of forgiveness: and example of spirituality in therapy. The Association for Family Therapy and Systematic Practice, 20, 37-58.

Balswick, J.O., & Balswick, J.K. (1998). The family: A Christian perspectives on the contemporary home. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.

Minuchin, S. (1974). Families and family therapy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Minuchin, S. & Fisherman, H.C. (1981). Family therapy techniques. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University press.

Minuchin, S., Montalvo, B., Guerney, B., Rosman, B. & Schumer, F. (1967). Families of the slums. New York: Basic Books (192-243).

Minuchin, S. & Nichols, M.P. (1993). Family healing: Tales of Hope and Renewal from Framily Therapy. New York: The Free Press.

Nichols, M. & Schwartz, R. (1995). Family therapy: Concepts and methods. Boston:Allyn and Bacon.

Simon, G. M. (1995). A revisionist rendering of structural family therapy. Journal of Marital and family therapy, 21, 17-26.