Family Therapy – A Brief History of Part 1

Historically psychotherapy has always been about treating the individual, some methods of therapy (of which there are in excess of 160 different kinds!) still believe in just treating the individual completely independantly of their family or friends.

Bowlby and Freud started working with some family members, in particular Bowlby was concerned about attachments that we make, and unfortunately break with each other.

John Bowlby’s studies pointed towards that most neurotic conflicts (distress, addiction, anxiety, stress, depression and even potentially schizophrenia) were caused by the family of origin.

It wasn’t until after the death of Sigmund Freud that studies began to pick up traction on looking at the family framework of interpersonal issues. Families were seen sometimes as to reinforce dysfunctional patterns and ways of perceiving the world.

Family members can often reinforce maladaptive patterns of behaviour.  This is why family therapy can be very useful – and in some cases vital –  to disrupting the group behaviour that reinforces these patterns.

Good Family Therapy

  1. Good family therapy should first start with a better understanding of the differences between process and content.
  2. Role Theory:   “Rebel, Good Child, Bad Egg, Matyr” These roles are all there to allivate stress and never really deal with the problem.    As most problems are rooted in childhood – early interventions are a good idea. A child misbehaving in the family can be viewed as a symptom of distress in the family (John Bowlby).  John Bowlby began working with the family as a whole to address childhood distress.
  3. Marriage guidance – Dynamics and conflict can cause a great deal of distress for children. Many theroies of therapy believe that even schizophrenia can be linked to childhood trauma.  Children are very sensative to emotional conflict between parents.

Towards A Better Understanding

In the 1950’s Nathan Ackerman became very interested in the field of family therapy being abosolutely key to helping overcome mental health problems that festered in a family unit. He was a strong advocate for treating the family as a whole and believed it was vital if people wanted to create a new way of living.

Ackerman did not expect a child to change in isolation of themselves.  Ackerman believed that families must confront areas and topics that a family unit usually denies or represses.   He believed firmly in stiring up families, bringing secrets out into the open. Many view Ackerman’s approach as quite pioneering as this approach was not common place in the 1950s.

This method was also adopted by Epistien who trained under Ackerman.

Murray Bowen – Bowen Theory

In the mid 1950’s Murray Bowen began to look into the relationship between mothers and schizophrenic children.  He saw a relationship between anxious attachment Vs functional attachment (sometimes called co-dependency by 12-step groups).

Bowen coined the term and model “Relationship Systems”

He believed, like others before him, that the success of therapy rode on treating the family as a single unit.  Connections for him were emotionally charged and each person in the family affects the other PROFOUNDLY! If one person in the family becomes anxious and depressed then the WHOLE FAMILY becomes anxious and depressed.  When this happens family members can become overwhelmed and disconnected.

When bad dynamics begin in a family household they can become immensly powerful.  What is even more worrying is that these dynamics remain hidden from the members who are experiencing it except for in the guise of depression and anxiety. People who have come from households with particularly bad dynamics are less able to spot these maladaptive and dysfunctional schemas.  Bowen believed that a key element to dealing with the family was to disentangle the family influences. Bowen observed that emotions affect our behaviour in a family unit.

Where’s the conflict coming from?

Where the conflict is coming from is the question Philip Guerin asked when devising his “Multi-generational” model .  He proposed that in order for treatment to work more effectively we must measure the severity of conflict between family members, then seek to reduce or calm these emotional levels.  Indentify areas that need work on and make a commitment to improve relationships.

Stir up emotions

Those who have studied and advanced the field of family therapy agree with some stiring up of conflict that brings out emotions, encourages opening up and engenders change.


  • Lack of emotional closeness 
  • An environment that discourgages opening up and sharing

It’s not always possible to have family therapy, maybe people have moved on, disconnected from their family or family members may even be dead. This can be true but if you feel that your family has had an negative impact on your life you’re certainly not alone.

Most families are far from perfect, we all have to work, we sometimes unfortunately have to put our families second to demanding jobs, unruly bullies and difficult circumstances in life.   However, we can indeed try to be open and honest with our intentions towards each other and take some time to take care of not only ourselves but the family as a whole.



-Written by Dylan Kerr 2018

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