Introduction: Functionality - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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Introduction: Functionality

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Roles Rigidity Repair in Relationships

**Author's Note: Other than public figures or people identified in the media, all other persons in this book are either composites of individuals the author has worked with and/or have been given different names and had their personal identifying information altered to protect and respect their confidentiality.  

Thelma, the teenage daughter gets pulled into the parents' conflicts.  The seven-year-old brother Hank is responsible to feed and bathe the four-year-old and three-year-old siblings.  When mom Penny does not get the emotional intimacy she wants from her husband, she becomes closer with her teenage daughter.  When dad Dermot feels sexually shut out from his mate, he would never sexually molest his children, but will get heavily involved and invested in their sports and activities creating a separate parallel world for himself and them.  After their older children leave for college, Penny becomes first emotionally intimate with someone from work, and then has an affair.  And Chipper the dog does not think he is the omega in the household.  Chipper thinks he is the beta and sometimes, the alpha in the house!  Sometimes, he is the confidant for Penny, the companion for Dermot or one of the kids when they are feeling lonely.  Structural theory principles offer guidance to couples and families… and to human-canine relationships!  Lachman in his article "Out of the Doghouse …And Onto The Couch" (Psychology Today May/June 2000) recommended a structural therapy approach to dealing with people and dog hierarchy and relationships.  The human and dog relationship involves some of the same principles of a couple or family relationship.  Structural theory proposes that when a family has a logical consistent structure with appropriate roles for each member (a dog is a dog is a dog!), appropriately permeable boundaries, healthy alignments within the family, and clear open communication channels, then the family will tend to be healthy.  Lachman basically asserts that the principles apply to mixed species families!  Chipper is a dog first and last.  Perhaps Chipper is a part of the family, but not the same as the humans in the family.  The adults or parents are the leaders.  The children are the other human members and are more privileged than the canine member.  Human children… canine children, OK?

While structural theory is most often applied to the family with children, its principles are also applicable to the two-person family or the subsystem of the couple, or to an individual in some hierarchal system including those outside of the family.  In addition, the individual may have intrapsychic issues among various personas, the ego, id, and superego, or conflicting motivations, drives, needs, feelings versus thoughts, and so forth where structural perspectives can be useful.  The term structure refers to the "organizational characteristics of the family at any point in time, the family subsystems, and the overt and covert rules that are said to influence interpersonal choices and behaviors in the family" (Vetere, 2001, page 133-34).  Therapy based on structural principles seeks to change organizational patterns.  Patterns that are targeted are problematic communication and styles of communication, and potentially or actively neglectful, harmful, or abusive behaviors.  As the structure of the relationships alter, various individuals in the family shift their positions.  Subsequently, everyone's experience changes as well.  With such changes arrives the possibility of lessening or eliminating emotionally and psychologically harmful symptoms.  The therapist works to make system- that is, relationship, couple, or family members become aware of behavior, situations, individual roles, and how choices are made to facilitate change.  "…the central creative thesis of structural family therapy is embodied within the paradigm shift of the relational therapies, that distress can be understood not only in the context of the relationships within which it arises and is maintained, but also in seeing the potential for relationships to be the cause of distress" (Vetere, 2001, page 133).  

Chipper is a dog and does not and should not have the roles, privileges, and responsibilities of human members of the family.  That is obvious although problematic for some pet owners.  Spoiling the dog is an owner's prerogative, but sacrificing or harming human members of the family to do so is indicative of issues.  It may not be that big a deal that the dog sleeps in the bed, but when it is invited onto the bed by Penny when she is mad at Dermot and then growls and snaps at the him… that is a bit of a problem!  The ordinary dog-in-the bed challenges can be left to Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer (MPH Entertainment, Inc. on the National Geographic Station 203-2102)!  However, the therapist often finds the individual in a system- primarily in a couple or a family may take, be given, or be compelled to roles and responsibilities that create inherent dysfunction for everyone involved.  Therapy often involves identifying such structural issues in roles, including rigid versus over-diffuse boundaries and other problems that require repair.  Academic, social, or work systems often have similar issues.  The therapist may be involved with a couple or a family where systemic patterns have proven unhealthy or unproductive for one or more members.  Or, may work with an individual who is dissatisfied if not disturbed or oppressed in some system or systems (Penny or Dermot in individual therapy): a relationship (the two of them in couple therapy), the family, the classroom, workplace, social group, community, and so forth. .  Sometimes, beyond repair the system requires therapeutic attention for a major overhaul or complete renovation to achieve functionality.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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