Family Structure

The concept of family structure, either overtly expressed or implied, is common to many schools of family therapy. It was well described by Salvador Minuchin in his 1974 book, Families and Family Therapy. It is related to systems theory concepts in that the perceived "structure" in a family system consists of the various subsystems in the family and the nature—that is strength and permeability—of the boundaries between them.

A typical, well-functioning family might have quite a simple structure: a parental subsystem and a child subsystem. In two-parent families some would distinguish the parent subsystem from the marital subsystem, since the way a couple relate as a marital pair is often distinct from how they function as parental couple. There might be expected to be a well-defined, but not overly rigid and impermeable boundary between the parental and the child subsystems.

The nature of the boundaries that exist between the subsystems in families is of great interest to the structural family therapist. Related to this are the concepts of enmeshment and disengagement. Enmeshment is said to exist when the boundaries between family members or subsystems are weak and readily permeable; it implies an overclose involvement of those concerned. When families members are enmeshed, their behaviors and, often, emotional states have marked effects on each other. In contrast to this, if members are disengaged, the behavior of one member will have little effect on those with whom the member is disengaged.

In a less well-functioning family one might find a different subsystem pattern. For example, there might be a subsystem consisting of the mother in an en meshed relationship with one or two children, and another comprising the father. The boundary between the two subsystems might be robust, with little interaction or communication of feeling between them.

Many other family structures may be encountered; indeed the possibilities are limitless. In larger families there may be more than one child subsystem; for example, an older child subsystem and a younger child one, or male and female subsystems. And the structural problems may not be confined to the nuclear family. The extended family—grandparents, uncles, aunts, and other relatives—may be involved. So may friends, school staff and others, depending on the boundary between the family and its suprasystems.

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