I am often asked by friends to explain how family therapy works, and if family counseling is right for them.
I try and resist explaining the fascinating theory of Family Systems and to not get into a passionate explanation of the work of Dr Murray Bowen - the model of therapy I rely heavily on to guide me work. So, in the multifamily group I run in Los Angeles, I explain family therapy by using the Family Connection Pyramid. With this tool, I am able to explain to new families that come to see me for counseling how family therapy might help them.
I explain that we start at the base of the pyramid with the existing relationship, and develop and enhance skills including listening, talking and vulnerability in an attempt to develop connection. I believe that deep and genuine connection with another human is what we all crave, and in particular with our partners and family members.
When a family feels connected and closer, and members are able to be heard when being vulnerable, we see dramatic decreases in symptoms such as depression, anxiety and substance abuse.
I often find that relationships in families are strained or damaged; much of the work a family therapist does is to repair these. I see often that adolescents are withdrawn from or angry with their parents. Sometimes it's the parents who are in a stressful marriage that needs some help, and at other times, the tension between two siblings is what's needed to be looked.
Whatever the relationship I'm working with, and sometimes it's all of them at once, there's a deep desire to feel closer and connected. I help families build the skills and develop the tools to achieve this.
I help families use and develop active listening skills. This is a communication technique that is used in conflict resolution, therapy as well as work-based training and many other corporate situations.
The listener develops skills that help the speaker feel that they are being heard and understood. There's an element of repeating or paraphrasing, but leaving it at that is too simplistic of an explanation.
Essentially, when using active listening, both the speaker and the listener know that their words have been heard and understood by the other. A confirmation of understanding by both parties is developed to ensure this happened.
Additionally, active listening helps clients open up, avoid misunderstandings, resolve conflicts, build trust, increases satisfaction, and deals with the negative feelings.
When we feel seen and heard, we are more able to down regulate our emotions, and the prefrontal cortex is able to kick-in allowing rational and calm discussions to continue.
When used correctly, “I” statements can help foster positive communication in relationships.
A direct expression of how we feel is surprisingly difficult for most people I work with. Developing this skill often helps relationships become stronger as thoughts and feelings are shared in an honest and open manner.
This direct exchange of thoughts and feelings, can help family members grow closer on an emotional level. It also helps in conflict resolution as family members become able to express themselves and be understood.
Mutual vulnerability fosters closeness, a key pattern in studies of close relationships is sustained, escalating, reciprocal and personal self-disclosure. In couples therapy,, I often quote Brene Brown who says: "there can be no intimacy—emotional intimacy, spiritual intimacy, physical intimacy—without vulnerability,”.
Allowing oneself to be vulnerable with another person can be exceedingly difficult, so I use a series of exercises to force the issue and create moments of connection and togetherness which is so often lacking in our most important relationships.