Understanding Family Systems

It is easy and even understandable to feel alone and isolated in today’s society. With social media offering a barrage of unhealthy relationships and interactions, COVID keeping some parts of our community less open and welcoming than they used to be, and limited travel keeping us apart from our family and friends, loneliness is soaring.

In this lonely state, we might begin to think that our individual problems are caused by us and – just as erroneously – we think that the full responsibility for solving them falls on our own shoulders.

However, whatever mess you think you are in, you did not get here alone and without help, and you can’t get out without help either.

Because you are a person, you are part of a complex family system. It shaped who you are, how you react, how you feel about certain events and actions. If you don’t understand that family system, you will not be able to meaningfully and permanently improve your situation.


What is the family system?

Whether you heard about it on Dr. Phil or from your own friends or therapist, you have likely encountered the concept of a family system and wondered what it means.

The family system starts from a simple concept: we grow up in a family. That unit of people function together – or dysfunction together. We learn to play roles, imitate or reject ways to respond to problems, avoid the same topics, and have implicit agreements about how the world works.


Keep the family system running smoothly with family therapy. Photo by John-Mark Smith on Unsplash


As a simple example, if your parents never discussed finances, you likely grew up thinking that people don’t or can’t talk about finances. If your parents fought about finances, you might avoid discussing or thinking about them altogether.

You did not merely learn a few habits from your family. Instead, you BELIEVED that was how the whole world worked. Because it was your reality.

Then you grew and left the family system. But in that suitcase filled with your clothes, and the furniture and other belongings, you also took your habits. All the things you believed as a member of the family, you packed out with you. And you brought them with you to your new relationships with a roommate, a partner, and perhaps later a spouse and your own children.

You created a new system, and you brought all of your dysfunctions with you.

You likely sought to date people who interacted with the world the same way your opposite-sex parent did. You were attracted to people who handled problems the same way as your family members did before.

You unconsciously sought to repeat and replicate the conditions from your family life in your new independent life.

The reality is that until you acknowledge and address your family system and how they shaped you, you will be unable to make substantive changes in your life.

So why do family counseling?

Your new family will mirror your old one. That is, you will exist in these roles until you address the concerns. Because the whole system needs to be fixed together, it is important to do family counseling.

Once you understand that the parts of a family work together in such a way that one of them affects the whole system, you see the need to address the whole machine instead of trying to repair individual parts by themselves. 

Having the whole family present for counseling allows you to work together. In a controlled, therapeutic setting you can address the interactions and roles that you play.

Often individuals in therapy are forced to make guesses about how others feel about them. 

“I think my mom believes I’m a failure.” 

“My wife doesn’t find me attractive.” 

“I don’t know why my son doesn’t talk to me about his problems.”

When you have the relevant people in the room, you no longer have to guess. You can turn these guesses into questions. And then you can get the answers you need.

Mom: “I am very proud of all that you have accomplished.”

Wife: “I am very attracted to you, but you never take me dancing anymore.”

Son: “Whenever I want to talk, Mom is around, and I don’t feel like I can share all these things with her. I wish we had time for just the two of us.”

You can see how having family counseling can answer questions.


Sakina Issa. Photo provided.

A licensed therapist like Sakina Issa can help you and your family figure out the problems that are keeping you from reaching your potential. 

Hit the red button to schedule a free no-obligation consultation to see if online counseling might be the right answer for your situation. 

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