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What’s the Point of Family Therapy?

What’s the Point of Family Therapy?

Posted on January 15th, 2020 by Raffi Bilek, LCSW-C

family conflict

Family conflict is a part of life. There is no family without some level of discord and disagreement. And most families survive intact despite it.

However, in some families the level of conflict is elevated to the point where relationships begin to fall apart and the family’s existence as a unit is in question. Sometimes there is a specific issue that causes trouble – a difficult parenting decision, or someone’s marrying outside the faith, or different opinions about care for older or disabled family members. In other situations, it is an ongoing clash of personalities or priorities.

Family therapy can help.

Dealing with Specific Problems

In a situation where family members are at odds over how to handle a specific situation, family meetings with a counselor can help everyone manage a difficult conversation without it falling apart. A skilled therapist can help maintain a focus on the issues that matter, clarify a point of view that a family member has not been able to express clearly, and keep tempers in check.

Maintaining the focus can be crucial for getting to a resolution on a particular problem. It is all too easy to get caught up in that time when you were five and your sibling said that nasty thing that you never really got over. That may have relevance to the current issue, but if it doesn’t, it may be better to leave that aside for the time being while we are hashing out the question at hand. Certainly if it’s important to you it is something that can be discussed later on, once the present situation is resolved (or closer to it). It’s very difficult to try to resolve the local issue and the global one at the same time.

Jane’s mother is habitually late. This has always irritated Jane, but on a recent occasion mom’s tardiness caused a significant financial problem for the family that they are working hard to pull out of. The process has been severely hampered by the constant fighting between Jane and her mother. They turn to a family therapist for help.

This is not the time for Jane to go down the list of problems Jane’s mother’s lateness has causes. First, they need to work together to extricate themselves from this crisis; then, they can discuss at length with the therapist the history of this problem and how things can be improved going forward.

mother and daughter

Clarifying points of view from all parties is another helpful function of the therapist. A family therapist should be coming to your situation with objectivity and therefore have an easier time understanding opposing perspectives on the same issue. If your Fox-News-conservative mother can’t get your uber-liberal brother to understand her concerns, a neutral third party who can empathize with both sides might be able to bridge the gap.

Of course, emotions can run high in these meetings. It is not uncommon for voices and tempers to rise in these stressful situations. (In fact, that may be part of the reason you’ve sought out family therapy in the first place.) A good therapist will be able to manage such outbursts and maintain or restore calm so that conversation and collaboration can proceed. You are probably well aware that screaming at each other rarely accomplishes anything positive.

Robert is furious with his kids for their behavior at the recent family reunion. However, whenever they try to talk about it, he gets so riled up that the discussion, if one could call it that, ends up tanking pretty quickly. When they went to family therapy, the therapist was able to intervene when things started to go south. He sent out everyone else and spoke to Rob individually for a short while to help him cool down and be able to achieve some progress on this issue.

Repairing Family Relationships

mother in law

Sometimes there isn’t one specific issue that needs resolving. Instead, there is a general breakdown or distance in one or more relationships within the family. Personality differences play a role here, but generally it is not those differences themselves that create rifts in families, but rather the accumulation of years of antagonistic interactions, big or small that wear away at the relationship.

Eleanor is a worrier. She has been her whole life. It rarely overtakes her life, but it is admittedly something she struggles with. Her sister Carol could not be more different. She is the poster child for laissez-faire. And they drive each other crazy. In recent years they have stopped speaking: Eleanor is sick of Carol telling her to “chill out” and making light of her concerns. Carol can’t take Eleanor’s criticisms about her laid-back approach to nearly everything.

Helping a family work through this kind of impasse is obviously a longer and deeper process than resolving a current conundrum. You do have to walk through some of the history (although it is unlikely you will be able to touch on or resolve every single offense you have suffered in your lifetime at the hands of this family member). And you have to collaboratively develop a way of seeing the situation and each other in a perspective that is both realistic and acceptable.

A competent family therapist will help you consider what is reasonable and what is not. It is unlikely that you or your loved ones will change basic things about their personalities – whether you are sociable, introverted, uptight, hard-working, etc. – and coming to terms with what changes can be expected or reached for and what cannot is helpful in understanding the parameters of family interaction.

A good therapist will help you hear each other out, communicating in a way that leads to conversation instead of conflict. Everyone involved will likely have to do some changing, some accepting of discomfort, some conceding. The therapist can assist in striking a balance that leaves everyone feeling heard and accounted for.

Eleanor did not become less anxious, nor Carol more so. But they came to an understanding that neither one of them was going to change fundamentally. Eleanor was able to accept that Carol simply wasn’t going to get worried about things that Eleanor thought were important and, frankly, worrisome. Carol agreed to allow Eleanor her anxiety without feeling that she herself was on trial for not being a concerned enough parent, daughter, or anything else. Eleanor and Carol will probably never see eye-to-eye on how things “ought” to be. But being willing to let the other person be different has made quite a difference for them.

sibling therapy

 Seeing What’s Possible – Or Not

In some families, reconciliation simply will not be possible. And family therapy can help clarify this unfortunate reality and help family members make clearer decisions about where they want to go from there.

This kind of outcome is most common when one of the family members is afflicted with a mental illness. Borderline personality disorder is a common condition that does a good bit of damage to families. People with borderline personality disorder can exhibit extreme emotions and volatility, and often develop a pattern of stormy and unstable relationships. They often blame everyone but themselves for the situation. It is a very intractable disorder (though treatments exist), and it makes family relationships extremely difficult. Other mental illnesses can also cause a lot of trouble – bipolar disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and addictions, to name a few.

Even where mental illness is not part of the picture, some families will be unable to work it out. If you are willing to make some changes in your life, but your parent/child/sibling is not, you may be faced with the difficult choice of whether you want to live with what they’re offering or walk away from the relationship. It is certainly not an easy choice or one to take lightly, but in some cases that is the best option for you, and a family therapist can help you see and come to terms with that.

Rachel spent years of her adult her life recovering from the constant criticism and putdowns she heard from her mother as a child. She very much wants to repair and keep up a relationship with her mother in some way. But even in family therapy, her mother refused to hear her point of view, accept any responsibility, or even stop criticizing her right in the therapy room. Family therapy was able to help Rachel reach the conclusion that she could not maintain a connection with her mother and still remain emotionally healthy. 

Certainly we do everything we can to help families keep connected and not have to cut anyone out. Ultimately, however, that depends on each of the people involved being willing do things differently – and not everyone is prepared to do that.

Get Help for Your Family

happy siblings

If you’re struggling to manage your relationship with your mother of father; if your siblings are a major source of stress sin your life; if you can’t get along with your daughter-in-law, and you’re missing out on your son or grandchildren as a result – family therapy can help. Contact us today to start working on repairing these critically important relationships in your life.



Learn more about our family therapy services here.
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