top of page

Systems Theory

Most of us enjoy watching a beautiful movie on a nice screen and have no idea how the TV is creating those images. It's like magic! This page is more about what goes on behind the screen on my end (how I see humans and think theoretically about change). Most people in counseling don't really care what switches and lights are firing on the back end and are happy simply to sit back and enjoy the show, so my conversations in therapy never sound anything like this. And that's just fine with me—as your Marriage and Family Therapist, I just want to get you the change you desire. (Click here for the brief description.)


However, for those interested, when I use the words "systemic" or "relational" to describe my therapeutic approach, I mean something like this:

For most of us, our general way of problem-solving relies on a linear causality approach (A causes B). So if B needs to change, we simply change A. Easy arithmetic. And this way often works quite well. For example, if you cut yourself and are bleeding out, it's nice when the emergency room doctor says, "I know exactly what's causing this and I can fix it right away." (Patient's wrist is bleeding profusely, so we'll apply pressure to the arm above the cut and then stitch it. No more bleeding!)


However, many things in life aren't this straightforward (and perhaps the above example has additional complications and factors I ignored for simplicity's sake). When it comes to matters pertaining to humans and relationships, I find it more useful to think in terms of context, pattern, and communication (systems), instead of causality. I attend to how things are influencing each other and creating the phenomena of your unique problem.

For example, if 5-year-old Tommy is acting out at home, screaming each evening and biting his little sister, a concerned parent might bring him to therapy and say "fix Tommy." I could go forward with a causality approach and "get" Tommy to stop the biting and tantrums through various tools or tactics that have the theme of "stop it Tommy!" However, stitching up Tommy might not really heal the situation, because it completely ignores Tommy's context. Instead, I might wonder: What factors are creating a situation in which Tommy's best course of action at 7:45PM is to scream and bite?

I believe all of us act in ways that make some kind of sense in our specific context. So, I might ask Tommy and his mom what else is going on around 8PM each night. Is he scared of going to bed? Does dad/mom leave for the night shift at that time each day? Is he hungry because he cannot focus on eating enough at dinner time? What specifically does he do each night? What pattern does it follow, when does it not happen, and how does mom/dad/sister react? How does mom's reaction to the biting inform the biting? What is Tommy getting from biting that he cannot get any other way? How does he end up stopping? How does Tommy know how hard to bite and how loud to scream to be effective? What goes on for Tommy this whole time, as well as everyone else? Etc...

Getting all of this kind of contextual information creates a much different understanding of biting as a relational phenomenon. (The sum result of a bunch of complex circumstances that somehow, for a 5-year-old, boil down to the message "biting and screaming would be good right now.") Once the context is in place, a simple but meaningful change in the right factors can change the whole game because a new context in created, meaning new outcomes now "make sense" to Tommy.

system map (1).png
system map blue (3).png

This approach is much less about "stop-it tourniquets" and much more about "oh of course you were biting—I probably would've done the same thing in your situation." Once I'm in that mindset, a few therapeutic focuses in the right spots can have a cascading effect into other areas. Then, a new, respectful shift in context for Tommy and his mom allow other options to "make sense" moving forward. In a way, it's an intentional effortlessness that trusts in the process of complex system parts relying on and creating each other into a bigger whole.

Again, this approach focuses on what relationships between people and things are influencing the current behavior. Once the meaningful players are included, simple but significant shifts happen that ripple through the entire system in wonderful ways. A systemic approach helps me make sense of each unique part while also facilitating a change that will last longer than a "stop it!" band-aid.

Some of this may sound new or strange to some clients, but if you could see my work, you might say that it sounds pretty conversational and ordinary. I try to bring all of these theories into practical conversational and experiential activities so that my clients don't have to understand the why and how of their problem changing and can just enjoy the change.

bottom of page