History of Systemic Therapy

Systemic therapy promotes the use of brief treatments, contextualize people and understand the mind as something relational. Knowing your history will help you understand its foundations.

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Currently, systemic therapy is used by many psychologists both in the treatment of individual problems, as a couple or family, and in research. To understand the functioning and relevance of their concepts, it is necessary to know their history.

The most innovative aspect of systemic therapy is the understanding of the mind as something relational, assuming a difference with respect to the traditional currents that understood the origin and treatment of the pathology as something exclusively individual. In turn, this change led to the transfer of the focus of intervention of the individual or the intrapsychic nature of the pathology to the environment or to the interactional character.

The history of systemic models in psychotherapy has been linked to that of family models, with family therapy being its most widespread field of application. In the same way, the history of systemic therapy is conceived as a pioneer in the development of brief therapy, with a short treatment duration of 6-20 sessions.

The history of systemic therapy is characterized by not being linear and being consubstantial with the constant interactions among its members, like no other model in psychology. Here are some of them:

Background of systemic therapy

Prior to the development of systemic therapy, Rogers in 1939 contemplated the inclusion of the other members of the family in the intervention. The reason had to do with the necessary purpose of Rogerian psychology to increase understanding in the individual to obtain better results.

The first family associations emerged in the United States in the late 30s and early 40s, under the name of “AAMFT-American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy”, keeping their doors open at present.

The psychoanalysis of the first half of the 20th century pointed out the importance of family relations in the genesis of neuroses, obviating contact between the therapist and the client’s family; for Freud, this could only increase the chances of breaking the abstinence rule.

However, it was a psychoanalyst, Ackerman, who in 1937 published an article that focuses on how the current attitudes of family members can influence the symptoms of one of the members. From the 40s, contributions from other psychoanalysts, such as those of Eric Fromm, K. Horney and Sullivan, that went beyond Freudian orthodoxy, arose.

For his part, Adler emphasized the role of relations between the brothers in the development of the individual, including the concept of family constellation: weight that has the order of birth of the brothers in their psychological development.

The change that produced the shift from the intrapsychic to the interactional paradigm was the one that originated thanks to social psychology and the contribution of symbolic interactionism. His ideas had an influence on neo-psychoanalytic theories when taking into account the current psychosocial environment at the origin of neurosis and encompassing phenomena that escaped from psychoanalytic approaches, such as psychosis.

In this aspect, the most influential contributions for family therapy were: that of Fromm-Reichman, with the concept of schizophrenic mother, Rosen’s, with that of a perverse mother, and Whitaker’s with schizophrenics within the family.

The anecdotic emergence of family therapy

The idea of ​​psychotherapy with family members was born of a misunderstanding between Bell and Sutherland, who described this to the styles of attachment -the famous psychologist Bowlby- when he was in a room in England.

Upon his return to the US, he began to use joint interviews to treat children’s problems, obtaining success in the results.

Beginnings of systemic therapy, 50s

The most relevant beginnings of family systemic therapy are due to the anthropologist Gregory Bateson and his team at Palo Alto Hospital, who between 1952 and 1962, carried out research with psychotherapists and communication theorists, arriving to elaborate the theory of double bind , considering today a milestone in the history of psychotherapy.

The contributions of Bateson were fundamental for the initiation of systemic and innovative therapy in the history of psychotherapy, considering the mind as relational and not as an individualistic character.

The theoretical foundations of the systemic paradigm were influenced by the disciplines that were emerging at that time, such as cybernetics, the theory of human communication, ecology and systems theory.

Development and expansion, from the 60s

The development of systemic therapy takes place in the decade of the 60s. Jackson and Ackerman founded the magazine Family Process, considered as an organ of scientific communication of systemic therapy. Along with Virginia Satir and Riskin, Jackson creates the MRI (Mental Reseach Institute) of Palo Alto, led by Gregory Bateson who subsequently the author of the theory of human communication, Wazlawick, Weakland and Sluzki joined.

In the 70s, the creator of modern hypnotherapy, Milton Erickson, joins this team, while Haley diffuses his method. Also around this time, Salvador Minuchin, promoted by Ackerman himself, carried out a research project with families of low social level, with delinquency problems. This allowed us to carry out a very structured family therapy style, now known as a structural school, which was perfectly integrated into the systemic framework of Palo Alto’s first school.

From the work that was being done at the Palo Alto Institute, it is contemplated to study the patterns of communicational interaction in the processes of change while analyzing the way in which the treatment can be more efficient, that is, with a smaller number of sessions.

This line of research was born in 1967 in the Brief Family Therapy Center, led by Fish and integrated by Watzlawick, John Weakland and Segal, in order to investigate brief family therapy.

The duration of the brief treatment of 10 sessions, without pathology selection, focusing the intervention on the problem, the use of active and very directive techniques, gave rise to the treatment model focused on the problems, characterized in the complaints of the people and not in organizing the family or in the development of insight. It was considered that the problems are of interactional type and are maintained by the ineffective attempts of solution, that is to say, the problem is the attempt of solution.

Therapy focused on solutions, cradle of brief therapy

The second school of systemic therapy is brief therapy focused on solutions (TCS). This school is created in the Brief Family Therapy Center of Milkwaukee through Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg who left to focus on identifying patterns of interaction around the complaint to disrupt the sequence-problem, as promoted MRI, and They focused on what worked for the person, in order to identify and amplify the solution sequences.

Therapy focused on the solutions, conceives the problem and the solution as discontinuous categories. Thus, two people can go to therapy for the same problem and generate two different solutions or on the contrary, you can get an equal solution for two different problems.

Late 60’s, early 70’s: European schools

At the end of the 60s, in Europe the different lines of research began to settle. Laing travels to Palo Alto and, in his return, consolidates the research line of the systemic model at the Tavictock Clinic in London.

In 1967, Selvini-Palazzoli and his team formed a research center in family therapy with wide repercussions for the whole international psychotherapeutic movement, considering the school of Milan, the third reference school. Subsequently, in Germany, a clinical service of psychosomatic medicine and family therapy is created, led by Stierlin at the University of Heidelberg

On the other hand, Andolfi and Cancrini, take up the systemic model and create another path of family systemic therapy, giving rise to the school of Rome. All these schools maintained constant exchanges and relationship, being able to differentiate into three orientations according to their theoretical-practical foundations:

Pure systemic orientations

Integrated by the school of Palo Alto, the strategic school of Jay Haley and the School of Milan. Therapy focuses on solving problems, the family unit is subject to intervention, and considers the individual as a member of the family system. It is considered that the family is an open system, governed by rules that constitute metaphors elaborated by the therapist to denominate sequences of behavior.

The family system acquires these rules over time by trial and error, and are not considered negative “per se” but they are when they become rigid and are used compulsively and repeated the same solutions, leading to the symptom.

The systemic therapist has to discover the operation of these rigid and redundant rules to modify those that are not useful for the system, focusing on the solution of problems and therefore, in the here and now. Unlike the following orientations, the therapist intervenes from the outside, as if it were an observer.

The objectives of the therapy not only try to solve the problem, but also modify the family structure, so that if problems arise again this structure may be useful over time. This orientation is characterized by its ecological perspective.

The therapist acts by becoming involved in the family system, not as a passive observer, but as an active agent of change that has to achieve this restructuring. Limits, alliances and hierarchy are key elements of any family structure, which guide the therapist in the place where changes in the family structure are made.

Systemic psychoanalytic orientations

This orientation is integrated by Ackerman, contextual therapy, Whitaker’s experiential symbolic family therapy and the group-analytic orientation of Robin Skinner

The family is composed of individuals each with their own identity and personal history and the pathology responds to the laws that govern interpersonal relationships. Although they do not stop paying attention to the family, they consider the individual in the foreground. It is a systemic individualistic perspective. Undoubtedly, if there is something that characterizes the history of systemic therapy, it is the constant relationship between its different schools, its more practical and innovative conceptual character and the quality of its research.

Systemic therapists are not limited to “military” in a school of their own, but have a good knowledge of the contributions and techniques of diverse schools, a constructivist and integrative perspective predominated.

Currently, the systemic paradigm is the most used in family and couple therapy, being used in recent years in the field of health, welfare and welfare, organizations, school problems and social networks .