The family exerts a powerful emotional impact over the individual. So strong is this influence that dysfunction in the individual is often a reflection of dysfunction within the family. Sigmund Freud ecognized this phenomenon in treating his patients. Family structure therapy and Bowenian theory also acknowledge the importance of family in healing the individual.
Structural family therapy views the family in terms of three components: structure, subsystems, and boundaries. Structure describes the repeated patterns that define family relationships, and includes the rules that govern behavior and dictate the assumption of roles and functions. The hierarchical structure of the family describes the framework of authority, which in turn determines how intra-familial conflict will be mediated. Nichols and Schwartz (1995) explain that family structure is difficult for the therapist to discern without observing spontaneous interaction between family members (p. 213). The forces that shape family structure are both universal and unique.
Subsystems of families describe the various functions that members perform. Subsystems are coalitions created by the bonding of certain family members. For instance, parents often maintain a united front before their children, thus creating a generational subsystem. A subsystem based on gender would align the female family members against the male members or vice versa. Subsystems are also based on common interests. Family members must differentiate between their varied roles in subsystems in both the nuclear and the extended family.
Boundaries are the interpersonal controls that preserve the sanctity of family relationships. As Nichols and Schwartz (1995) put it, "Boundaries serve to protect the autonomy of the family and its subsystems, by managing proximity and hierarchy" (p. 214). Interpersonal boundaries range from rigid to clear to diffuse. Rigid boundaries are associated with d...