Understanding Divorce’s Role in Family Systems Theory


  • Family systems theory is a theory of human behavior that views the family as an emotional unit and examines the bonds and interactions to describe the complex interactions in the unit.
  • Children find themselves in the crossfire of a parental divorce, looking to reinforce bonds, in an effort to make sense of the situation.
  • Family systems therapy evaluates the parts of the system in relation to the whole and suggests that it is more beneficial to address the structure and behavior of the broader relationship system.
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"Whether or not a divorced couple and their children considers themselves a family is up to them and them alone."

Divorce can often be a shifting point within the context of families. What we, as a society, think of as a family is in a state of constant change, but what stays the same is the way individuals look for bonds of commonality. The common experience of a divorce can create gravitational bonds between family members, forging unique relationships during this time of change.

Whether the family structure involves marriage or divorce, each individual has a unique interpersonal relationship with every other individual that makes up the family. These interpersonal relationships are bonded by the kinship and love that each family member feels for one another. These relationships strengthen at times and weaken at other times, but the pull between them is what keeps them together.

These pulls and bonds among individuals within a family display the sociological idea of family systems theory.

Understanding family systems theory

Family systems theory is a theory of human behavior, developed by psychiatrist and professor Murray Bowen, that views the family as an emotional unit and examines the bonds and interactions (systems thinking) to describe the complex interactions in the unit, according to The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family.

Bowen saw the personalities, emotions, and behaviors of grown individuals as a result of their birth order, their role within their family of origin, and the coping mechanisms they have developed for dealing with emotional family issues, according to Psychology Today. The concept forces you to look at the family as a whole, and it becomes defined by not only the people who make it up, but also how they interact with each other to create the dynamic itself.

This can become complicated in a divorce. Many believe that, regardless of the divorce itself, require that both divorcing parents and their common children be looked at as a whole family unit. In “Families and Change: Coping with Stressful Events and Transition, ” professors Mark A. Fine, David H. Demo, and Lawrence H. Ganong, they state that family systems theory suggests that , in reference to divorce, the family still needs to be viewed in its entirety because it may be misleading to focus on only particular individuals or dyads within the family.

Children of divorce

This becomes especially apparent, as it pertains to children caught in the crossfires of a divorce. Family systems theorists suggest that one cannot understand how children are affected by a parental divorce without understanding how children are affected by their parents, school and other institutions outside of the family dynamic, and how the parents are affected by it. This is primarily due to how great of an influence parents have on their children.

If a parent is struggling emotionally with the divorce and finds themselves venting to a child, it can greatly affect how a child sees the family, sees the divorce, and sees other members of the family. As the bond between the struggling parent and the struggling child strengthen their own bond, they can actually find itself repelling other members of what family systems theorists see as the family unit.

Parental alienation

While family systems theorists may question it, the act of a parent struggling with their divorce venting to a child is an act of parental alienation. By sharing their opinions and feelings regarding their ex-spouse, they actively are changing how a child views their parent. Parental alienation is considered a public health hazard and should be taken very seriously.

The reason that family system theorists may avoid the consideration of parental alienation is the insistence that the family be looked at as one unit, regardless of the divorce. The act of alienation itself may prevent anyone in the family dynamic from seeking the professional help that they may need, after a divorce.

Family systems therapy

However, that may not always be the case. Family systems therapy does provide a level of support for those interested in seeing the family dynamic as a whole and emotional unit, even after a divorce. It evaluates the parts of the system in relation to the whole and suggests that it is more beneficial to address the structure and behavior of the broader relationship system, which is suggested to play a part in the formation of character, according to Good Therapy.

There are three separate methods of family systems therapy that can be employed, in order to address the emotional issues that individuals in the family may experience after a divorce. Structural family therapy looks at behaviors, family relationships, and patterns as they are exhibited within the sessions in order to evaluate the structure of the family. Strategic family therapy looks at family functions and processes by evaluating family behavior outside the therapy session. Intergenerational family therapy acknowledges generational influences on individual and family behavior.

These approaches to therapy utilize the family systems theory to help preserve the interpersonal relationships of the family dynamic, but in many instances, that’s simply not realistic.

Parts or a whole

Divorce ends the dysfunctional and unhappy relationship of two individuals, who may go on to start other families in future relationships, and while they may share children, it does not necessarily make the original dynamic a family, unless the individuals in question agree that it is.

Whether or not a divorced couple and their children considers themselves a family is up to them and them alone, and as much as concepts like the family systems theory may look at their relationships, commonality, and emotions as ties that bind them, it is ultimately up to the individuals in question, whether or not they subscribe to that idea.

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