Healthy Families 1.1: Treat Problems Systemically

Transcendent Observer

Yesterday, we began a series of posts that will describe 12 competencies of healthy families. As you evaluate your family of origin and your nuclear family against these competencies, try to take the perspective of a transcendent observer–one who looks in from the outside with an objective, non-judgmental eye. Only after you see objectively can you decide whether you want to make changes in your own functioning with regard to these competencies.

Treat Emotional Problems Systemically

As we saw yesterday, healthy families welcome change. They also treat emotional problems systemically. In other words, when one person says there’s a problem, the unit accepts that there IS a problem…with the whole. How each family member defines the problem may be different–and surely will result in family discussions (!)–but emotional problems are seen as existing in the unit, with components in each person.

No Scapegoats

Such a system has no scapegoats. No one person is to blame for the problems in the family system. Healthy families recognize that everyone contributes to the smooth or jagged flow of the whole, like a flock of geese in flight. When a collision occurs, the question requires all constituents to ask, “What was my contribution to that crash?” Then every party needs to work cooperatively with every other party to identify, define and resolve the problem.

No Heroes

Not only are there no scapegoats in such an approach, but there are no heroes, either. The over-functioning of heroes is considered to be as problematic as the under-functioning of scapegoats, and both positions are to be avoided. Each person is expected to contribute whatever function corresponds to his or her capacity, developmental level, and agreed-on role–all or any of which may change over time and circumstance. No one is expected to take on more or less than their share of the load, and each person is appreciated for the particular contribution he or she makes.

No Blame

Consider a family in which addiction is active. Conventional wisdom would place the blame on the addict for being a drag on the system. However, those who take up the slack for the addict also contribute to the problem. This is why we talk about addicted families, not just addicted individuals.

Similarly, in abusive relationships, those who abuse are part of a larger problem. Those who allow the abuse to continue are also contributors. Ask any abuse survivor who has managed to take responsibility for allowing themselves to continue to take abuse and you will find someone who understands that a sadist cannot survive without a masochist…and vice versa.

True Compassion Seeks Long-Term Solutions

This does not mean that we should have no compassion for family members who are over-burdened with the weight of over-functioning for others who aren’t pulling their appropriate weight. It does mean, however, that we allow our compassion to help them seek long-term solutions, not just immediate fixes.

Certainly, there are times when immediately help must be offered–such as when a husband or wife is injured by physical abuse. In such a case, it may be necessary to help the victim get to the emergency room or to set up a restraining order. When a person is under attack, the survival mechanism in our brain, the amygdala, kicks in, and it’s virtually impossible to think beyond the moment. Compassion dictates immediate assistance in such circumstances.

After the emergency is addressed, however, true compassion shifts to a broader perspective, asking questions like, “What does this family need to effect a shift in perspective?” And, “What does this family need to ensure that all members are responsible for their own lives and that they are making appropriate contributions to the functioning of the whole?”


Helping people think and see their family as a system can provide perspective as individuals take action toward lasting remedies. When each person adopts a self-focus, he or she can identify his or her own contribution to the system’s good or poor health and then do whatever is in their power to alter that contribution. In the end, each person in the family can then be proud of both their own labor and the cooperative outcome of the whole.


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