Psychological Perspectives On Marriage And Family Therapy

Cohabitation. Gay marriage. Transgender families. Prolific divorce. These are just some of the issues facing counselors in this age. What has been accepted for centuries as standard has become questionable. The current generation has seen the divorce rate for first time marriages climb to 50 percent (Wilcox, 2012). Churches in America are deeply divided in their response to the ever-increasing number of homosexual relationships being celebrated. Marriages once seen as a desirable life experience have been replaced by the convenience of living together and sexual intercourse has been reduced to hooking up and friends-with-benefits.

Marriage and Family Therapy can be reduced to the question of when to counsel toward divorce but for the Christian therapist, the foundation of beliefs needs to be considered.

Many clinical aspects of therapy and definitions of marriage and family exist. The American culture accepts as normal many forms of marriage with different family structures but for Christians, it is difficult to describe the institutions of marriage and family without having the foundations of the Bible.

Christian practitioners are taught to keep personal beliefs out of the therapeutic setting unless brought into the conversation by the client. Ethical codes are sometimes in conflict when counseling settings vary. Where a county hospital would hold as a standard the APA code of Ethics, a Christian counseling center may hold the AACC Code as primary. Issues such as dual relationships present the counselor with slightly different standards. Aspects of certain therapeutic techniques blend well with biblical foundations and the result has been a workable balance between clinical and spiritual principles.

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It is important to understand some of the different definitions of marriage. From a purely institutional view, marriage has two broad components; marriage is a relationship and a contract (Matthews & Hubbard, 2004). The relationship is a seeming natural culmination of the attraction two people have towards each other. Relationships range from one-time acquaintances to passionate, unbridled, long-term love affairs – some of which stand the test of time. In the American culture, relationships do not have to include members of the opposite sex. The 2013 movie, Her, even explored the idea of having a fulfilling relationship between a man and female counterpart that was an intelligent computer operating system (Jonze, n.d.). Granted, relationships can come in many forms but marriage also contains a contract.

In the State of New York, the application for a marriage license must be signed by both applicants in the presence of the town or city clerk. There are age restrictions if one or both are under 18 and there is a fee that needs to be paid. For the marriage to be valid, a marriage ceremony must be performed by certain individuals as specified by the laws of the state. Individuals include: mayors, justices, judges, town or village marriage officers and religious officials who have been officially ordained and granted authority to perform marriage ceremonies from a governing church body (information on getting married in New York State, n.d.).

The institutional perspective is important as it sheds light on how the American culture views marriage. If marriage is boiled down to relationship and a contract, then it is easy to see what should happen if the relationship is strained or ends altogether; terminate the contract. Many individuals in the legal profession can perform a wedding and it seems that even more have the ability to end the contract. The standard for the culture is relationship and contract but there is another view of marriage that needs to be understood. The Christian marriage replaces the contractual view with a covenant view. Marriage, as God sees it, is a bond that has more permanent implications for this world and is a living example of the steady love God has for people both now and in the future. Scripture teaches that marriage is not a mere human institution, but something God established from the foundation of world.

The younger generations are getting a radically different view of what it means to be in relationship. The proliferation of social media has reduced face to face contact to screen time and time with friends always seems to involve an eye on the cell phone. The traditional view of marriage being between one man and one woman is also changing. The lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) community has seen widespread acceptance and increased legal standing in almost every state. Lobbyists for the LGBTQ+ community are powerful and businesses have been shut down in the wake of conservative values being held. It seems that a wider variety of relational possibilities are here to stay.

Gay and Lesbian couples, however, face many challenges. These challenges can be grouped into three broad categories: coping with lesbian and gay minority stress, resolving relational ambiguity in the areas of commitment, boundaries and gender linked behaviors and developing a family of choice (Gurman, Lebow & Snyder, 2015). All same sex couples are vulnerable to similar kinds of prejudice, discrimination and marginalization by persons and institutions outside of their relationships. What was once an outlawed practice, even as recent as the early 2000’s, has become legalized and embraced across the United States. Even though same sex couples face difficulties at every turn, many states now embrace legal marriages giving same sex couples all the same rights and privileges as traditional, heterosexual couples.

While there are different definitions of marriage, the institution is still popular. Until recently, marriage has been one of the primary forms of community and community has long been a foundation of the human experience. To live is to be in relationship. Native Americans were in relationship with their creator (Appleby, Colon & Hamilton, 2011). Freud is credited with saying that a healthy person must be able to love and to work (Elms, 2001). If life can be reduced to three major decisions, who will be my mate, what will be my mission and who will be my master, then the mate question becomes paramount in developing community.

Reasons to Marry

People marry for many reasons. One reason is love. Romantic love, for the most part, is a universal emotion. One definition of love holds that the security and well-being of a partner is as significant as personal security and well-being (McGraw, 2007). In a physical sense, people experience attractions which trigger neuro-pathways which can eventually lead to relationships.

Another reason for marriage is identity completion. Many people unknowingly see relationships as a way to fill in missing pieces in their personality. One of the biggest reasons to marry is to provide a foundation of support for raising children. The idea of having children and carrying on the family line can be powerful. Children can be a way to transcend mortality and give purpose to life. Loving and being loved unconditionally provides security in a world that can be unpredictable.

Less loving reasons for marriage include social pressure and unexpected pregnancy. Even unconscious needs present and play a role in mate selection. Dependency, the need to dominate, to be protected, to exact revenge or even spite parents are all seemingly ways to get needs met in a marriage relationship.

In the United States, mate selection is individualistic and includes courting and choosing who will be selected. In previous cultures, however, mate selection was up to parents. Two dominant approaches were the bride-price system where the family was compensated for the marriage partner and the dowry system where the bride was offered with goods to enhance desirability. World-wide modernization has challenged the tradition of these systems and the influence of the western culture has placed a higher emphasis upon romantic love. It is a relatively new idea but romantic love has become the norm in the American culture and certain unconscious ideas have firmly taken hold; people should be romantically in love before they are married and only the people in the relationship can determine whether romantic love is present in the relationship.

In the period following World War II, mate selection moved to include the rational consideration of compatibility. While few couples will marry based on love alone, fewer still will marry if romantic love absent altogether. This is particularly common among college-educated people who will marry only after education has been completed. In an attempt to sort out the complexity of what the culture calls romantic love, Roger Sternberg offered definitions to the parts of love. He believed love included commitment, intimacy and passion (Acker & Davis, 1992). Commitment was the cognitive component, intimacy was the friendship component, and passion described the motivational factor. Interestingly, these definitions bare similarity to three words for love found in the Greek culture: agape, philia, and eros. Jesus, in his day, was able to identify and differentiate the terms that are used to describe love in the culture today.


Another reason people marry is for sex. Though promiscuity seems to be on the rise, it is still preferable for people to be in monogamous relationships. There is still a considerable amount of taboo for practices such as consensual nonmonogamy. For many, consensual nonmonogamy represents a line that must not be crossed (Rubel & Bogaert, 2014). While the culture is evolving, traditional values still seem to be the norm and monogamy is generally understood to be optimal and natural within Western cultures (Perel, 2007) Therapists routinely suggest that sex outside of a primary relationship is a sign that the relationship is troubled (Conley, Moors, Matsick & Ziegler, 2012). Movies, television programs and social media continue to support more open sexual encounters but marriage and monogamy are still central values.

Marriage is important for the proper socialization and overall well-being of children. A central purpose of the institution of marriage is to ensure the responsible and long-term involvement of both biological parents in the difficult and time-consuming task of raising the next generation. Three categories of sexual relations are emerging in the American culture; procreational or traditional, relational and recreational. The traditional view is centered around reproduction while the relational view is centered more around intimacy and loving relationships. The recreational view is mostly about pleasure and seems to be the idol of modern society.

In a day when it seems that whatever feels good is the ultimate goal, the orgasm is the pinnacle of relationship. The American culture especially has traditionally held the belief that a sexual encounter should climax with intercourse and orgasm. Orgasm is good, but a large part of pleasure is the buildup to orgasm. Rushing to enhance the orgasm completely ignores the emotional, spiritual and relational aspects of sex. Many times in culture, even in Christian marriages, emotional, spiritual and relational parts are ignored.


Magazine articles reiterate what is happening. Relationally, people are hurting. Social media has taken the place of face-to-face conversations and couples are unable to connect emotionally even after several sessions of therapy. Images constantly stream that objectify women and keep men focused on shallow issues. If magazine articles are where men turn to learn about sexuality and the sexual response system then the needs that everyone has, to be understood emotionally, spiritually and relationally, will continue to go unmet. The current culture seems to be suffering from a disorder of intimacy. Distortions like pornography are added to an individual’s entertainment diet and further damage is done to relationships (Porn and Your Husband, 2012). People yearn for enduring relationships but current cultural habits further undermine the bonds of intimacy.

The cycle of the intimacy disorder is straight forward: people have needs to be accepted and liked. As early as the junior high years people realize that relationships can be awkward and complicated. Needs for acceptance remain high. Pornography is introduced and gives some sense of satisfaction without all the complications of direct relationships. Following the acting-out stage, shame sets in. The need to suppress anxiety and depression builds and the cycle repeats. The lie is that sex addictions pretend to meet a need for intimacy but behind the scenes, the addiction systematically makes intimacy impossible. True relational intimacy is not formed so relationships do not grow. Genital sexuality is again reinforced.

Steps for a Great Marriage

One definition of love holds that the security and well-being of a partner is as significant as personal security and well-being (McGraw, 2007). In order to fix a relationship, emphasis needs to be placed on the individual. If a relationship is going to be rescued it begins by rescuing the individual. In changing how individuals treat themselves they alter the most important element of the entire equation. The best relationships are those where two healthy individuals give themselves completely to the other person without compromising the individual identity. Therapy then, means altering the environment in which the relationship exists and changing the priorities that dictate time and energy.

Persons at the beginning of promising relationships need to ask difficult questions. If the definition of love is that the security and well-being of the partner is as significant as personal security and well-being, do current behaviors show a love for the partner? Second. Does the partner reciprocate that love? Some people get stuck in a rut of complacency due to familiarity. The next question is to ask if they would still get involved with the same person if they had to do it over? Some people feel they have settled or have been cheated out of the opportunity to choose another. As more and more children are born to parents out of wedlock, another important consideration needs to be given; if the relationship could be broken off without any inconvenience, legal cost or embarrassment and without any undue hardship on the children would it last? If couples are still moving forward after these tough questions a good foundation is formed.

There are five qualities that are absolutely necessary for a marriage to be great (Rich & Kravitz, 2007). The qualities can be remembered by the acrostic, GREAT. G stands for good communication. Communication involves being able to talk with the partner as well as listening. Expressing oneself kindly goes a long way in helping foster good communication. R stands for real partnership. Two individuals are part of a team. Both people share everything that happens whether it’s good or bad. E is for effort. Time and energy need to be invested in order to make the relationship great. A is for adaptability. People who are flexible are generally happier than people who are inflexible. Couples need to learn early on how to absorb disappointment. Lastly, T stands for total commitment. Strong couples are thoroughly committed to the relationship. If either partner is less than 100% committed, the strength of the relationship will be undermined. Couples should go into the relationship choosing to be with their partner forever. There’s no such thing as a perfect marriage. The word, perfect, implies that there is only one right way to be married. Marriages are unique and there are many different kinds that are pleasing. Four intriguing paradoxes summarize the marriage bond: the healthiest marriages are built by those persons who need them least, to effectively work on relationships, one must work on oneself first, to have relational needs met effectively, one must work on meeting his or her spouse’s needs and to attain an optimal level of intimacy one must have developed firm yet flexible personal boundaries.

Attachment and the Marriage Bond

Attachment bonds are something that many people sense but most people do not understand their importance. Attachment is the enduring emotional relationship between the parent or caregiver and the infant. Attachment provides the framework for all future relationships the child will develop. While it is possible for kids who live in difficult family situations to end up seemingly normal, more often there are difficulties even when the child was adopted as an infant.

There are people that grow up in bad family situations and turned out fine and vice-versa but there is more evidence that points to the idea that if there are ongoing difficulties, there is an attachment issue behind it (Ainsworth, 1979). In the early study of attachment, researchers focused on three classifications; secure, avoidant and ambivalent. The secure child is identified as one that readily separates from mother but seeks proximity when distressed using mother as a safe base. The avoidant child avoids eye contact with parent and has no preference for parent verses stranger. Finally, the ambivalent child does little exploring and is very upset when the mother leaves and is not reassured when mother comforts. Interestingly, as family theory goes, the attachment classifications stem from a response to the kind of care the child is receiving. It is therefore not difficult to understand that a secure child is being raised in an atmosphere that is responsive to the child’s needs. The more the care is responsive, the more secure the child. On the other end of the spectrum, a child that is rejected is at risk of becoming avoidant. For the child that seems to be ambivalent, it was noted that the care they were receiving was inconsistent or unpredictable.

As attachment research continued, a fourth category emerged. The fourth category described children as disorganized or disoriented. These children seemed to lack a strategy for forming attachment and how to manage the anxiety of separation. It was noted that kids that fit this fourth category came from difficult environments: the caregivers were abusive; there was prolonged separation or permanent loss. Kids that fit in this category appeared dazed, confused and fearful and were even more so when the caregiver was around.

Another interesting feature about attachment is the idea that attachment styles seem to stick with individuals and are seen in how people react to others during adolescence and how people interact in relationships as adults. Evidence of attachment is even transferred to romantic relationships. Again, it is not difficult to see that the secure child grows to be a secure adult that is comfortable in relationships and able to seek support from a partner. On the other hand, by adulthood people adapt to their attachment style so that the avoidant child grows to have a greater sense of autonomy. On the downside, they also tend to cut themselves off emotionally from a partner. The resistant child grows into someone that fears rejection from a partner and has a strong desire to maintain closeness. Attachment is all about interactions with other human beings, even strangers.

Distress in marriages and families then can be traced back to attachment injuries sustained earlier in life. The central tenants of attachment theory state that dependency is an innate, healthy part of the inner being and not something that is grown out of (Bowlby, 1988). Autonomy and secure dependence are not in opposition with each other but work together; the more securely dependent people are, the more separate and independent they can be. What positive attachment offers is a safe base or secure haven. The presence of an attachment figure such as parents and spouses provides comfort and security. When one of these figures is perceived as inaccessible, distress is created. The positive attachments offer a buffer against the effects of stress and uncertainty. A secure base encourages exploration and opportunities to adapt to the changing environment. It promotes the confidence to risk, learn, and alter the self and the influence the world.

So, what happens when there is distress in relationships? Separation distress is a predictable response in attachment. When individuals are threatened by traumatic events, stress, illness, or an attack on the safety in the relationship, attachment needs for comfort and connection become very important and compelling and attachment behavior, such as seeking proximity to a loved one, is activated. If attachment seeking behaviors do not evoke comforting contact and responsiveness from an attachment figure, a process of angry protest, clinging, depression, and despair occurs, resulting eventually in detachment. Depression naturally follows loss of connection. The response, when a partner is perceived as not being dependable can be organized along two dimensions: anxiety and avoidance (Fraley & Waller, 1998). The first response is anxiety. When the bond with an attachment figure is threatened but not severed, attachment behaviors become heightened and intense and may include anxious clinging, pursuit and aggressive attempts to get a response. Avoidance, on the other hand, results when safe interactions turn hostile. This is particularly true when there does not appear to be hope for safe responsiveness and attachment needs are suppressed. In either case, the ever-growing acceptable result is divorce.


Marriage has been around for centuries. Recent statistics, however, show a decrease in the number of marriages surviving more than seven years and a dramatic increase in the number of households choosing cohabitation over marriage (Marquardt et. Al, 2012). One of the things that seems to have changed is the foundation on which marriages are built. What used to be a life-long commitment can be easily dissolved.

What is at issue in the incorporation of autonomy into the ideal of marriage is the availability of free exit through no-fault divorce. Free exit is the right to withdraw or refusal to engage (Properties of Marriage, pdf, pg 86). As the culture swings further away from godly principles, institutions like marriage erode. “A strong commitment to exit, to the idea of open boundaries that enable geographical, social, familial, and political mobility, enhances the capacity for a self-directed life, including the capacity to form, revise, and pursue our ends. In marriage, as in all contexts, the availability of exit is crucial to achieving these central goals (Properties of Marriage, pdf, pg 86). As the culture shifts into a more liberal, post-Christian norm, people are becoming more and more self-centered. The individual rather than the couple or family is the most important entity.

The idea of exit also tends to undermine sharing and trust. “What I found was that the number one, most important issue that came up to these couples was trust and betrayal. I started to see their conflicts like a fan opening up, and every region of the fan was a different area of trust. Can I trust you to be there and listen to me when I’m upset? Can I trust you to choose me over your mother, over your friends? Can I trust you to work for our family? To not take drugs? Can I trust you to not cheat on me and be sexually faithful? Can I trust you to respect me? To help with things in the house? To really be involved with our children?” Many of these questions are the same questions addressed in attachment theory.

If marriage is reduced to a contractual agreement with the ability to exit without fault, then it is no wonder the divorce statistics are so high. The result of more permissive divorce attitudes is that marriages have a lower-quality of satisfaction and they are more unstable. People who have experienced divorce have a greater risk of being in an auto accident, increased risk of physical illness, are at increased risk of suicide & homicide and increased mortality from disease ((Bloom, Asher, & White, 1978). Divorce not only affects couples but their children as well.

By the middle of the 1960s, the number of divorces started to increase and the rate more than doubled over the following fifteen years to reach a historical high point in the early 1980s. Since then, the divorce rate has modestly declined. The decline apparently represents a slight increase in marital stability. Two probable reasons for this are an increase in the age at which people marry for the first time, and that marriage is progressively becoming the preserve of the well-educated. Both of these factors are associated with greater marital stability

While the divorce rate continues to hold at the 50% mark, for many people the actual chances of divorce could be far better. Background characteristics have much to do with the success of marriages. A reasonably well-educated person with a decent income, coming from an intact family with a religious background, marrying after 25 without first having a child would have a much better chance of remaining married (Wilcox, 2012).

Research has consistently shown that children from unmarried parents and children from divorced parents have an increased risk of being poor (Wilcox, 2012). In recent years the majority of children who grow up outside of married families have experienced at least one year of dire poverty (Rank & Hirschl, 1999). In one study, if the structure of families had not changed between 1960 and 1998, the poverty rate of black children in 1998 would have been 28.4 percent rather than 45.6 percent, and the white child poverty rate would have been 11.4 percent rather than 15.4 percent. The rise in child poverty also increases the costs of health and welfare programs (Thomas & Sawhill, 2002).

Children oftentimes suffer from lost relationships. Emotional scars and loss of security have visible consequences. Research has been going on for years and continues to show the negative effects on children. Most of the measurable effects are calculated in increased risks. While divorce is not necessarily the cause of many problems, risk factors are higher in children who experience parents who divorce. Relational complications, esteem and even health are all affected when parents divorce.

An example of this is shown by research comparing children of divorced parents to children with married parents; children from divorced homes suffer academically. Children from divorced homes also experience high levels of behavioral problems. Their grades suffer, and they are less likely to graduate from high school (Astone & McLanahan, 1991). The increased dropout rate results in higher levels of incarceration and kids whose parents’ divorce are more likely to go to jail for committing a crime as a juvenile (Harper & McLanahan, 2004). If a parent’s income drops then children in divorced homes are almost five times more likely to live in poverty than are children with married parents (Parcel, McLanahan & Sandefur, 1995). Teens from divorced homes are more likely to engage in drug and alcohol use, as well as sexual intercourse than are those from intact families (Flewelling & Bauman, 1990). Divorce is difficult on children but the effects are not only centered on the younger generation.

In 1976, more than 3,000,000 persons in the United States were directly involved in a dissolution of marriage. There were over 1,000,000 divorces and in each divorce there was an average of 1.08 children. Thus, more than 2,000,000 adults and over 1,000,000 children were affected by divorce in a single year, representing, in 1 year alone, 1.5% of the total United States population. These figures might have little interest to any group other than demographers were it not for the fact that there is a growing body of evidence that marital disruption (separation or divorce) constitutes a severe stress and that the consequences of that stress can be seen in a surprisingly wide variety of physical and emotional disorders (Bloom, Asher & White, 1978). What needs to happen is to understand the role of family and what marriage and family therapy can do.


Family is a term used to describe a coalition of members united through marriage, offspring, bloodline and adoption. Families can be found in various stages, include a wide range of formations and have varying degrees of closeness. Making matters even more complicated are the cultural differences that exist. What might be enmeshed in one family might be the norm in another family due primarily to cultural expectations. The question is, what is normal and what does a normal family look like? Even the term traditional has a wide range of meaning. Efforts have also been made to define families in terms of health rather than norm. Healthy family functioning includes connectedness, commitment of members to one another, respect for individual differences and autonomy (Walsh, 2016). For couples, health means mutual respect, support and sharing of power and for children, nurturance, protection, socialization, and care-taking of vulnerable family members. While there are many ways to look at families, there are tasks that all families should be aware of.

Common tasks of all families include the establishment of a clear identity, the ability to develop clearly defined boundaries, managing the family household, the creation of a warm and nurturing emotional environment, effective problem solving and the development of a shared belief system where ethical values are connected to past and future generations (Anderson and Sabatelli, 2011). Boundaries tend to be the area where many problems take place. Differentiation is an important concept in family systems just as it is in individual functioning. In resilient families, members have a healthy degree of separateness while maintaining a strong sense of connection and interdependence. There is mutual respect for the unique qualities and personalities of the other family members (Balswick and Balswick, 2007). Families should be close but not so close that they lose the ability to have their own identities.

Along with differentiation is the need for courage. There are some people that have a need to remain in control; they prefer safety. Having the ability to think ahead and see what needs to be done is a positive trait. Many times, however, the desire for safety leads to boring. Stories where characters are always playing it safe also tend to not have much excitement. Coughlin (2008) writes, “Refusing to make waves is not an indicator of a life well lived. Refusing to make waves is the state that precedes drowning.” All families should embrace a certain amount of courage. Courageous living is not so much about living out of control; rather it is about purposeful living while allowing for spur of the moment actions.

Families, like maturing individuals, go through life-cycle stages. As children grow older it is appropriate for them to launch into the world on their own. In the first stage, single adults learn to manage tasks like personal finance, full-time employment, new friendships and personal responsibility. The second stage includes the formation of a family through marriage. Transitions can be difficult when moving from a single person household to a two-person home so skills like communication, compromise and shared living are paramount to learn. Oftentimes, marriage leads to children which ushers in the third stage. Young children add a new dimension to a couple’s life. Caring for a newborn, juggling the work-life balance and the added responsibility to provide financially for others creates a new set of skills that must be learned. The fourth stage begins when the children move into adolescence. What used to be a time span of just a couple years has turned into more than a decade. Tweens, teens and graduated college kids still living at home all fall into the current definition of adolescence. Bringing an end to this long phase is the launching stage. Helping children move out and adjust to life on their own can be both sad and rewarding. With children out of the home, the sixth stage of the empty nest begins. Couples that can keep their personal relationship alive with their spouse have a much easier time adjusting to the quietness than parents that poured all their time into their careers and children. Couples sometimes mention that when the empty nest occurred, they looked at their spouse and wondered if they were still compatible.

Marriage and Family therapy can be useful at any one or all or the family life-cycle stages. Symptoms of distress appear when there is a dislocation or interruption in the unfolding life cycle of the family. Economic advancement or job loss, additional family members, sickness, death, changes in school tasks and extended family demands all can disrupt or bring to a halt the maturing process of the family.


One of the early pioneers of family therapy, stemming from his views of the family, was Murray Bowen. Bowen family systems theory understands the complex interactions that occur in the family. Families are intensely connected emotionally and while family members might feel distant or disconnected from their families, that is not necessarily true. The connectedness of families makes the functioning of family members interdependent. A change in one person’s functioning is followed by changes in the functioning of others. Families differ somewhat in the degree of interdependence but there is almost always a degree of cohesiveness.

Family systems thinking, as Bowen saw it, focuses on the structure of the whole family instead of the characteristics of each of its parts. Problems are seen as symptoms of a fault in the family unit. By changing the structure of the family, rather than by trying to change the problem behaviors directly, healthy structures result. Homeostasis or balance occurs as family members fall into predictable rhythms. In his research working with families and schizophrenia, Bowen found repeating relationship patterns. These were displayed in alternating cycles of closeness and distance that reflected similar shifts in emotional tension within the mother or the child. Bowen identified this emotional dynamic as resulting from two opposing forms of anxiety. One was anxiety out of separation and the other, anxiety out of incorporation or fear of being absorbed by someone else. Bowen felt the combined anxieties frequently resulted in a maladaptive form of attachment which later became the theory’s central characteristic; differentiation.

Differentiation of self is a concept involving both the individual makeup and the interpersonal relationships of a person. Internally it involves being able to differentiate between one’s feelings and one’s thoughts. With a high level of differentiation of self, emotions and feelings are clearly evident, but not a dominating force. Low levels of differentiation involve difficulty in distinguishing thoughts from feelings resulting in an ease of being manipulated and molded by others. The process of achieving differentiation of self is seen as a life-long process and never fully attainable. A mature or differentiated person is defined by having the ability to distinguish one’s thoughts from feelings, having the ability to objectively think about things and people, having the capability of balancing both strong feelings and sound thinking and exhibiting an ability to be intimate with others but not involuntarily shaped by them.

Triangles are closely linked to differentiation of self in that the greater the lack of differentiation the greater is the need for emotional stability. Bowen understood that the two-person dyad is inherently unstable and much like a stool with two legs, a third leg is needed for stability and strength. Triangles are formed in an effort to help relationships. Triangles involve the addition of a person, a thing or an idea that is combined with a dyad in order to release anxiety. Triangles are not necessarily bad and can assist a two-person relationship in overcoming impasses, meeting needs, and coping through stressful times. If used appropriately for a limited time, triangles can have a helpful, stabilizing effect. Healthy triangulation can also occur in the context of parents or other family members who come together to meet the needs of a third member, such as a child. Triangulation becomes unhealthy in families when it causes undue stress on the third party when it prevents resolution of the dyad’s conflict.

Bowen’s systems theory originally consisted of five developmental concepts: the importance of differentiation, triangles, identification of the nuclear family emotional process, the family projection process and the multi-generational transmission process. Sibling position emerged as a sixth concept and the last two concepts, emotional cutoff and the emotional process in society were added in 1976. These principles are known as Bowen Theory’s eight conceptual theoretical formulations.

Other Family Structures

When families are viewed from a systems perspective, other levels of functioning are evident. One of the dynamics of family systems is the level of interaction between family members. Family members who are over-involved and over-concerned about other’s business are said to be enmeshed. These families are poorly differentiated and lack a good sense of boundaries. Belonging to the family is of primary importance and dominates all experiences at the expense of each member developing a sense of individual self. When something happens to one member of the family, the impact is felt in all the others. This is a cohesive structure to the extreme.

On the other end of the spectrum are disengaged families. In these families, individual members maintain rigid boundaries. There is little sense of family loyalty and they lack the capacity for interdependence. Rarely do disengaged family members request support from others. As far as the look of the family goes, this pattern looks more like strangers living under the same roof.

Another aspect of family functioning has to do with how open or closed a family is. Open family structures encourage honest communication and flexibility is given high priority. In the decision-making process, negotiation is encouraged and modifications occur through consensus. The core purpose in an open family is adaptability.

Closed families place a higher priority on rules and power structures. Individual family members put their own needs aside for the benefit of the family. Communication is muted and boundaries are rigid. Parents may insist on detailed reports of children’s comings and goings and schedules are strict. Closed families maintain their stability through a strong sense of tradition.

A third structure has emerged that is a loose combination of open and closed families; random family structures. Families with a random structure have few if any rules. Each person does what he or she wishes and may or may not be connected to others. Boundaries are blurred and easily crossed and simple gatherings such as mealtimes are seldom scheduled. Each member is free to explore as he or she sees fit. More and more in the current age, defining standards both for marriage and for family is based on individual preferences.

In terms of healthy family functioning then, much can be learned from the systems perspectives. From Bowen’s point, dysfunction in the family comes from lack of differentiation. Health flows from a central goal that involves actively resolving unhealthy emotional attachments to one’s family so that one can exhibit a healthy differentiated and mature personality. This includes inclusion of the extended family, though the entire family need not be present.

It is clear that the structures of marriage and family are changing. What seemed to be common twenty-five years ago is radically different. Divorce is more prolific. Blended families are much more common and the increased acceptance of same-sex partnerships is at an all-time high.

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Psychological Perspectives On Marriage And Family Therapy. (2022, Jul 15). Retrieved from

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