Family Therapy Strengths and Limitations

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Alusine M. Kanu, D.A. 

            This essay discusses family configurations, the emerging trends of varied family forms, changing gender roles, socioeconomic disparity, and family life cycle course.  Families come in a variety of forms, and families differ across cultures.  In collectivist families, numerous members live closely together:  grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins.  Families are vital to the survival of a culture and all families have rituals and traditions.  Berko (2010) reports family configurations as being (1) the nuclear family with wife, husband and their biological children or adopted children, (2) adults and children who are not the biological offspring of both adults who have combined into a family unit, (3) single parent family with one adult with children, (4) couples with two adults living together in a relationship, commonly a paperless marriage, with no children, (5) gay and lesbian couples.

            As families vary, so do beliefs about the process of how they can effectively be treated.  Most families know how to communicate effectively, but some need to take time to practice what they know.  Family conflict should not be a symptom of deteriorating family relationships.  Conflict can be healthy if it is dealt with in a positive way.  I have a family, am part of a family, and have created a family.  My family uses open and supportive communication to create intimacy, maintain traditions, deal with problems, develop effective relationships, and function effectively.  I am part of a functional family which respects the feelings and needs of everyone.  In both my nuclear and extended family, we communicate love by prohibiting any physical, sexual, or verbal abuse and respecting our differences and uniqueness, giving praise and support each other, and including each other in family activities and decision-making processes.  In my family there are courtship stories, birth stories, roles family members are expected to play, hopes and dreams for the family, and stories of survival.

            Cheris Kramarae (1983), a professor of speech communication and sociology at the University of Illinois, claims that women’s words are muted because their words are discounted in some societies, and their thoughts are devalued.  Man-made language “aids in defining, depreciating and excluding women.”  To offer a clear example of this depreciation and devaluation, here is Kramarae’s argument regarding the public-private distinction in language.

            Within the logic of a two-sphere assumption (that gender differences pose separate sexual spheres of activity), the words of women usually are considered appropriate in the home—a “small world” of interpersonal communication.  This private world is somehow less important than the “large world” of significant public debate—a place where the words of men resonate.  Kramarae asks, “What if we had a word which pointed to the connection of public and private communication?”  If there were such a word in everyone’s speaking vocabulary, its use would establish the idea that both spheres have equal worth and that similarities between women and men are more important than their differences.

            Differences between men and women, both in terms of the ways they communicate and the ways they are heard, permeate our understanding of relational communication.  Differences between the genders are learned through cultural instructions guiding girls to behave in ways society has deemed feminine and teaching boys to behave in masculine ways.  What one learns is that competent communication is about figuring out the most effective and appropriate ways of interacting in a given situation and that often includes using gendered speech that is appropriate.

            A discussion of economics, business, and intercultural communication provides views of socioeconomic disparities that directly and indirectly affect families.  Worldwide, we are being forced to rethink our economic role in human culture.  The triggering question is whether or not cultural tensions are created by economic transformations.  An examination of the relationship between economics, culture and communication might provide answers as I discuss intercultural communication in the socioeconomic context.  Economic global transformations influence how people relate to one another.  People in nearly every part of the world can buy blue jeans.  Changes are occurring because of information and communication technologies and global market forces.  Without knowledge of these changes, it is unlikely that we will understand the attitudes and behaviors that accompany such dramatic economic and cultural shifts.  Several characteristics of global transformations influence our ability to communicate competently with people from other cultures.

The ground rules of social life are changing.

The restructuring of time is intensifying loneliness and social isolation.

We are becoming an information society.

 Human tensions are being spawned by technological changes.

 Old values are clashing with technology.

Our role models are changing from the teacher, priest, and family to multiple outside channels such as mass media, including the internet, television, newspapers, radio and magazines. Challenges and opportunities face individuals of different backgrounds who live and work together.  Multicultural researchers believe that our social attitudes, religious beliefs and culture are probably the most important influences on how quickly we respond to change.  Economic and technological jolts and jars are bound to affect how we communicate interculturally.  The following is a list of some characteristics that are tied to the socioeconomic with effects on relational communication.

  • Rising level of stress

Adaptation and growth experiences

Stress frames our interaction with others

  • Loss of hope

Anticipation about the future

Positive benefits instead of negative ones

  • Feelings of redundancy

A feeling that our skills might become useless

  • Expressions of virtue


As we interact with increasingly multicultural families, we should follow a few general rules:

  • Learn acceptable verbal patterns of address
  • Learn about other groups and families
  • Know how friendship rules apply.  Styles differ and are culturally generated.
  • Recognize that information-based cultures differ from agricultural, industrial or post-industrial cultures.  Economic structures help to explain many of the beliefs, values and norms of a culture.
  • Place communication and meanings in context.
  • Observe “because of” and in spite of behavioral differences.

            Family life cycles occur as spirals when the action of each person in a relationship magnifies those of the other.  When communicative behaviors produce more positive feelings about the relationship, the participants become generative.  In romantic couples, “love generates more love, growth more growth, and knowledge more knowledge” (O’Neill and O’Neal, (1972).  When partners go through relationship development and relationship deterioration it helps to use third parties such as family therapists because they provide a perspective to open up issues for constructive change.

            Marital family therapy allows families to reaffirm their relational goals.  Often people get stuck in negative patterns of interaction.  With counseling, relational reaffirmation can help one focus on all the things they can do to get the relationship back to a more positive phase.  Good relationships take energy to sustain; similarly, marriage therapy allows families to make a commitment to the relationship obvious to the other and will help them out of debilitating negative patterns.  The nature of family figurations and its emerging forms, changing gender roles, socioeconomic disparity, and family cycle courses show the amount of needs family therapy addresses.  I believe there are more advantages to family therapy than there are disadvantages.  The disadvantages, which are very few, include, from the counselee’s point of view that the expense of family therapy may be unbearable, and going for the good of cooperation of family at the expense of individual goals and interests might pose problems.  There are some situations where involvement of the entire family may not be in the best interests of individual family members.  The priority given to the good of the family as a whole leads to risks for individuals because of incompatible goals and interests.

            Desired goals in happy families are mutual respect, comfortable level of closeness, presence or life vision.  Regardless of type, family relationships develop and change.  One major responsibility that family members have to one another is to “talk” in ways that will contribute to the development of strong self-concepts in all family members, especially younger children (Yerby, 1995).  Family therapists are interested in giving family members the opportunity to perceive their interactions or situation from a different perspective through the process of reframing.  Specialized engagement affects family and youth conduct problems at home and school by correcting patterns of interaction because it allows emotional catharsis and mutual information sessions.

            Effective family therapy is marked by significant degrees of warmth and affection, trust, self-disclosure, commitment.  It is formalized through symbols and rituals (Prisbell and Anderson, 1980).  While we generally seek to understand our partner in family therapy, facing misunderstandings can actually be functional in a relationship.  Research shows that in cases of irreconcilable differences in a committed relationship, such as a marriage or a sibling relationship, it is better not to truly understand one’s partner (Sillers, 1998).  In some instances, misunderstandings might preserve optimism in a relationship and allow it to thrive despite a major difference between the partners.  Family therapy opens lines of communication, confronts power imbalances, recognizes and adapts the family to change, respects individual interests and manages conflict equitably.  What distinguishes marriage and family therapy is that counselors understand perspectives of system concepts and assessment methods that are fundamental to marriage, couple, and family counseling.  Counselors understand quantitative and qualitative concepts of assessments for individuals, groups, and specific populations.


Berko, R., Aitken, J.E., and Wolvin, A. (2010).  IComm:  Foundations of interpersonal communication.  Lanham MD:  Rowman and Littlefield.

O’Neill, N. and O’Neal, G. (1972).  Open marriage. New York:  M. Evans

Prisbell, M. and Anderson, J.F. (1980).  The importance of perceived homophily, level of uncertainty, feeling good, safety, and self-disclosure in interpersonal relationships.  Communication Quarterly, 28, 22-33.

Sillers, A.L. (1998).  Misunderstanding.  In B.H. Spitzberg and W. R. Cupach (Eds.).  The dark side of close relationships. Mahwah,NJ:  Erlbaum, 73-102.

Thorne, B. Kramarae, C. and Henly, N. (Eds.). (1983).  Language, gender and society.  Rowley, MA:  Newbury House, p. 9.  Griffin, E. (2006). A first look at communication theory.  Boston:  McGraw-Hill, 2006, p. 495.

Yerby, J. B. and Bochner, A.P. (1995).  Understanding family communication (2nd ed.). Scottsdale,AZ:  Gorsuch Scarisbrick.

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Source by Dr Alusine Melvin Moseray Kanu

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