Traditionally, people have entered into marriage and family counseling in an effort to settle their differences. The therapist gets the family’s story and gets to work, focusing on negative, unhealthy relationship patterns that exist within the family. In other words, the therapist will ask each family member to tell the others why they are so annoying.
For example, the therapist may ask Mom what things she finds annoying about her husband. Her reply: “He is a slob and obsessed with football.” The therapist then turns to Dad and asks how he feels about this and if he thinks he can change. Then the therapist may turn to Johnny, their 16-year-old son, and ask him what he finds annoying about his 12-year-old sister, Suzy. “She embarrasses me.” “Good, thanks for sharing.” And so the pattern continues.
Another tradition is to ask each family member to identify his or her needs and to tell the others why these things are needed. Then the family members try to meet each other halfway, to compromise. This is known as “mediation” and is a popular, often useful technique.
This is what we therapists were taught in class and this is how we were trained in the field. Focus on what is wrong and ask family members to compromise. Focus on the problems and help the family to fix them. Focus on unhealthy behaviors, point them out as such and help people change.
Family Therapy: A Different View
Let’s shift the focus and, instead of looking at what is going wrong, look at what is going right. Why should family members be asked to give up their favorite, disgusting habits and, in the process, their identities? In answer to this question, a new form of therapy has emerged over the last decade called “strength-based” treatment. Who cares if Dad is always watching TV; is there anything that anybody likes about the old slob? That’s the point, that’s the idea: Instead of having an open forum where everyone feels free to criticize one another, let’s look at our strengths!
Strength-based treatment works something like this:
The therapist will say to Dad, “I’m glad you decided to join us today. That shows me that you are ready to move forward in your relationship with your family. Is there anything else about yourself that says you are ready to move forward?”
The therapist then will ask other family members to respond to and comment on Dad’s responses. The therapist will then ask Mom directly if she has noticed anything about Dad that tells her he is ready to move forward. In this way, the treatment focuses on people’s strengths rather than asking them to get stuck on problems.
The therapist will ask Mom if there is anything she likes or admires about Dad. Perhaps he’s a whiz at balancing a checkbook. “Dad, how do you feel knowing that Mom thinks you’re a whiz at balancing a checkbook?” The therapist has now taken the energy that was put into conflicts and turned it into energy for boosting strengths. Now, instead of asking Dad to “compromise” and turn off the game, the therapist’s job becomes one of helping Dad to put other people in touch with the man who balances the checkbook with one arm tied behind his back.
Creating a New Family
Does it seem profound or radical to ask someone what he or she likes about another person? Well, maybe it is, but how else can we know? Every family has its story and that is where family members get stuck — trying to fix it. The strength-based therapist can help a family create a new story based on family strengths. Helping the family realize that it is oppressed by its story is the key, since the story keeps the family stuck in the past. The job of the therapist becomes one of helping the family to realize its strengths, to contradict the old story and to create a new story and, in the process, a new family.
In family therapy, it is all too easy for each family member to become discounted as a person and become labeled as a “reason” for the problem. With this model, each family member is asked to identify his or her strengths, empowering that individual. What a concept: making people feel good by focusing on their strengths!
So, instead of poor 12-year-old Suzy sitting there listening to why she is so annoying to big brother Johnny, we can ask her what she likes about herself and then ask Johnny if he finds those same traits likeable. Suzy is no longer a problem, but now a person with admirable qualities.
Every family and every therapist is different and individual needs are endless. But applying a strength-based approach to family counseling can help a family win the battle against breaking up.