How to get the most out of Therapy Using Family Systems Theory

Here are some helpful suggestions about how get the most out of your work in therapy:

During sessions:

If you are coming in as a couple for marriage counseling or relationship counseling, strengthen your ability to listen while your partner talks with the therapist.  Refrain from interrupting and check with your internal reactions as you’re hearing your partner’s thoughts and feelings.

Use “I” statements rather than “we” statements.

Talk about your own reactions and thoughts rather than blaming someone else or yourself.

Decide what you want to work on between sessions; set small and manageable goals for yourself.

Work toward getting out of the content of a situation (content is the topic under discussion) and focus instead on the process:  Process questions include; “When does this happen?”, “How does it happen”, and “What do I do when it happens?”

Don’t ask why:  “Why” questions are not helpful because they put you into cause and effect thinking. Cause and effect thinking obscures the reciprocity that actually drives relationships problems, (I do this because she does that vs. I do this when she does that and she does that when I do this).

Between Sessions: 

Work on yourself.  Let others work on themselves.

Pay attention to the reciprocity in your relationships with others.  This means heightening awareness of automatic reactions in your interactions, especially when these relationships are important to you, or anxious or difficult.

Change your automatic responses in a deliberate way.  You may need to rehearse new behavior in your mind before going into high stress situations.

Pay attention to things that trigger your reactivity and recognize what your reactive actions are (can be anger, fatigue, physical pain, cravings, nagging, withdrawing, or many other reactions).  Also learn to recognize when your loved ones are acting out of their reactivity.  Don’t take this personally.

Avoid over- or underfunctioning for others.  Examples of overfunctioning include advice giving and problem solving for others and doing for them what they can reasonably be expected to do for themselves.  Examples of underfunctioning include asking repeatedly for advice, venting to many people, failing to follow through or fulfill responsibilities.

Determine who in your family receives the most anxious focus from others and decide how you can avoid piling on to the problem.

Notice how the emotional triangles in your life are operating and change your typical role in them.  Try staying in the outside position when the conflict is between two other people; don’t take sides.  Work toward not triangling others into your relationships.  Interlocking triangles are everywhere, all the time, often quickly moving and shifting.  Two sides of the triangle are predictably calmer with tension in the third side.  See when you can identify this shifting process in action.  (For more information on triangles, go to

The alternative to an emotional triangle is a one-to-one relationship.  When you are having a conversation that is just about you and the person with whom you are speaking, that is an example of a one-to-one relationship.  No one does this for very long without bringing up someone or something else to shift the focus and make things less intense.  Strengthen your ability to engage in one-to-one relationships where the focus isn’t about people outside your twosome.

Notice how the togetherness and distance cycles work in your relationship.  Work to stay calm in both positions.

Attempt more accurate word choices; avoid generalizations like “always” and “never”.

Make “I” statements.  Notice how it feels to say “you and I” rather than “we” or “let’s”.

Define and clarify your positions; work out what you want, believe, and value.  Distinguish this from what you feel.

Sort out what you feel from what you think.  There is a place for both when you are clear which is which.

Work toward making regular contact with as many family members as possible and make a point of attending important family events.

Research facts of your family history, especially in branches where contact has decreased.  Use this knowledge about the past to inform your decisions in the present.

Notice and avoid participating in any family blame or projections; (Sally never does the right thing, therefore we have try to manage her).

With time and dedication to the above process, you can expect to feel better about yourself and what you are accomplishing in life.   This is a journey that never ends but it is predictable that you can feel more confident, solid and in control of yourself more of the time. You may even find that you and your loved ones have additional emotional resources available for life’s challenges when they arise.


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