Experiential Family Therapy: The Humanistic Family Therapy Model

By Nathen B. Lester, November 2009


I examine experiential family therapy in its philosophical context, its relationships with Becvar and Becvar’s (2006) core family systems theory assumptions, Watzlavick, Bevelas, & Jackson’s (1967) communication theory, and my own values system and beliefs about change.

Experiential Family Therapy: The Humanistic Family Therapy Model

Experiential family therapy is the meeting place of the humanistic psychology and therapies of the likes of Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, and Fritz Perls, and the family systems and communication theories of the likes of Gregory Bateson, Don Jackson, and Paul Watzlavick. It might be more accurate to say “meeting places,” however, as it clear that experiential family therapy has never been a single coherent system for conducting therapy. Becvar and Becvar, for example, tend to refer to “experiential approaches to family therapy” (e.g. 2006, pp. 158-159), rather than an “experiential model” and focus on individual practitioners rather than a general theory or set of interventions. It is also telling that they place Virginia Satir, one of the two major progenitors of experiential approaches to family therapy, in their chapter on communication approaches, rather than that on experiential approaches. There are at least three major branches of the family systems family tree – Carl Whitaker’s symbolic-experiential approach, Walter Kempler’s Gestalt-experiential approach, and Virginia Satir’s communications approach (Becvar & Becvar, 2006) – but experiential therapists’ focus on the unique self of the therapist gives the impression that there may be as many models as therapists (e.g. Baldwin & Satir, 1987; Napier & Whitaker, 1978), and the focus on the unique experiences and responses of both clients and therapists, from moment to moment, can give the impression that there are infinite variations.

In order to accommodate my newness to this subject and to write a reasonably short summary, however, I will treat experiential family therapy as one school of thought and use “experiential family therapy,” “experiential family therapists,” “experiential approaches,” and “the experiential model” somewhat interchangeably.  I will certainly miss many of the subtleties and may overemphasize the work of the importance of Satir, whose work has produced more literature, but these appear to be necessary sacrifices in order to concisely explore experiential family therapy in its historical and philosophical context.

Humanistic Psychology, Family Systems Theory, and Experiential Family Therapy

The humanistic, experiential, or “third force” of psychology and psychotherapy arose primarily in reaction to the way the second force, behaviorism, completely disregarded the inner experience of individuals and focused only on easily quantifiable behaviors. And while carrying forward the psychodynamic ideas of the first force – psychoanalysis – humanistic therapists were also reacting against the Freudian emphasis on the client’s past, analysis, and intellectual understanding.  The way that all of the various humanistic therapies were “experiential” was in the belief that therapeutic change occurs in the honest and accurate self-expression of the experience of both the therapist and client, in the here-and-now of the session, in the context of their genuine, empathic, therapeutic relationship (Greenburg, Watson, & Lietaer, 1998).  Humanistic therapies also tended to share beliefs in the value of self-actualization, the reaching of human potential, and in the natural ability and tendency of individuals to achieve it (Nichols & Schwarts, 2008).

In some ways, family systems theory can be seen as a resurgence of behaviorism, with its emphasis on observable behavior and insistence that the inner workings of another’s mind is unknowable, and best treated as a “Black Box” (e.g. Watzlavick, Bevelas, & Jackson, 1967, p. 43).  For the most part, however, family systems theory was an attempt to apply general systems theory to family systems (e.g. Jackson 1957, 1965); it improved on behaviorism by observing and theorizing about complex, interpersonal behaviors from the context of systems theory’s “reciprocal causality,” by using Russell’s theory of logical types (Watzlavick et al., 1967), and a postmodern, constructivist epistemology. In other words, they asked “How shall we best help people, now that we understand that their problems lack linear causality, are dependent on their interpersonal contexts and the confusion that can occur in the entanglement of multiple, contradictory levels of communication, given that we can only view and think about families through our limited, personal, subjective perspectives?” The answer, they decided, is that we can  help best by intervening at the level of family systems – humbly, without pathologizing – using paradoxical and structural interventions. That is, they refused to see individuals as sick or the cause of problems, focusing instead on the family system, tweaking or tricking it to force outmoded rules into adapting.

Those who ended up calling themselves experiential family therapists agreed with the family system theorists that families got stuck in inflexible, old rules, in the family-systems sense. They agreed that the family system was the ideal level of intervention, as it was the family that could either facilitate or disallow its members’ self-actualization. But they gave equal weight to the experiences –  especially the emotional experiences – of the therapist and of the individuals in the family. They took the humanist ideas that individuals tend towards, deserve, and can achieve self-actualization, and that learning and change happen best in the context of here-and-now experiencing in the context of a non-judgmental, compassionate relationship, and added it to the family-systems idea that families can fail to adapt to changing circumstances, or habitually communicate in self-contradictory ways, producing symptomatic behavior in their members in an unconscious attempt to maintain outmoded self-definitions.  Family systems therapists also concentrated on the behavior of the system and the alleviation of the symptom to the extent that they could sometimes justify bending the truth, or even outright lying to family members (e.g. Fisch, Weakland, & Segal, 1982; Burbatti & Formenti, 1988); the ends justify the means. This is in stark contrast to the standard of authenticity that experiential therapists hold themselves to.

The Experiential Model and Core Family Systems Theory Assumptions

Systems theory, one of the major philosophical foundations of all modern family therapies, came about in part as a reaction to traditional, linear and reductionist systems of thought and investigation.  Taking things apart (e.g. chemistry, anatomy) and thinking in terms of simplified, idealized situations (e.g. Newtonian physics) have always been powerful methods for gaining knowledge, but systems theorists saw that they were also quite limited because in natural, complex systems, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and causality tends to exist in loops, patterns, and patterns of loops, rather than straight lines. These qualities tend to be invisible from the pre-systems perspective, so therapeutic models developed before systems theory tended to have the linear, reductionist, medical model as a philosophical foundation. Family therapy models, on the other hand, tend to be more closely related to systems theory, and each model has its own relationship with the tenets of systems theory.

Family systems theory, as opposed to general systems theory, also incorporates elements of postmodern philosophy. Postmodernism was, like systems theory, in part a reaction to traditional systems of thought and investigation, especially in how traditional thinkers assumed objectivity on the part of the observer. Postmodernists assert that since no one is objective, the closest we can come to the truth is perspective and opinion – meaning we must be humble about what we think we know.

In the subsections below, I will discuss the experiential family therapy model in light of the core family systems theory assumptions listed by Becvar and Becvar (2006, p. 8), which are an amalgam of general systems theory and postmodern philosophical tenets applied to families.  I will use the term “traditional” below to refer to approaches that predate systems thinking and postmodernism, such as modernist or positivist approaches, as well as older, myth- or theology-based approaches.

Asks, “what?” and here-and-now focus. Traditionally, the important question to answer was “why?” Insight into causality was considered the most powerful tool for therapeutic change. In family systems theory, the focus shifted to “what?”  This was ostensibly because “why?” was unknowable, but in practice, “why” was assumed — the family system is failing to adapt — so “what?” became the pertinent question; seeing the way in which the problem perpetuated itself – in the present, in the room with the therapist – was now the most powerful tool. Experiential therapists concur with this, both because of their systemic understanding that problems are maintained by the behavior of the family system, and because of their humanistic focus on the quality of experience in the moment.

Reciprocal causality and patterns. Family systems thinkers believe that traditional thinkers see linear causality in the world because of a mistake in punctuating events. The classic example is the husband who withdraws “because” his wife nags.  Instead of punctuating before the wife nags and after the husband withdraws, a systems thinker sees a reciprocally-causal pattern of events, in which the husband and wife are participating in an interactive pattern of nagging and withdrawing. Experiential therapists follow the systems model here, in seeing the shared influence but also introducing a kind of blame-free personal responsibility for one’s emotional states and behaviors with the exception of symptomatic behavior in children, which is seen as a somewhat unidirectional result of communication problems of the parents (Becvar & Becvar, 2006; Nichols, 2008).

Wholistic. While traditional thinkers are reductionistic, seeing problems in individuals or even the psychodynamic or biological parts of individuals, family systems thinkers prefer to see problems in the context of the “whole” family system. Experiential family therapists may be more rigorous about this than those of most other models. Whitaker, for example, would often refuse to see clients without their families, and preferred to have three generations come in (Whitaker & Keith, 1982). Experiential therapists’ inclusion of emotion as an important aspect of therapy (Satir & Baldwin, 1983; Nichols & Schwartz, 2008) can also be seen as more “wholistic” than some other family therapists, who focus only on behavior and cognition.

Subjective/perceptual. One of the great overestimations of traditional science was the belief that humans could be objective in their gathering knowledge. This misconception was set straight by postmodern philosophers such as Von Glasersfeld (1984), rather than systems theorists; an individual’s understanding is limited and colored at every step of the process, from perception to description, by factors of which they are not aware. Experiential therapists align with the postmodernists here, focusing on and trying to communicate – as authentically (as opposed to objectively) as possible – their own subjective experiences, rather than on “knowing” or the illusion of observing from the outside.

Relational and contextual. Traditionally, problems were seen as pathology in an individual, or in a psychodynamic or biological part of an individual, but family systems theory came to see problems as existing in relational patterns, in communicative behavior and in the individual’s social context, usually the family. This tenet is strongly upheld by experiential therapists too; if individuals are naturally good and healthy in humanistic psychology, it has to be the context they exist in that produces symptomatic or problem behavior.

Relativistic and dialectical. Modern science overcame the absolutism of the premodern era to a great degree, but a vestige remained in the form of a belief in the reality of the conceptual categories “discovered” by scientists, and in the implied truth of theories which had gathered some supportive evidence.  Postmodernism came to see all opinions and ideas as part of a dialog between different perspectives, and thus not related to each other in hierarchical fashion – true versus false, or even more informed versus less informed – but existing side by side, equally valid.  Experiential therapists follow this new tradition, giving equal weight to the experiences of all family members as well as the therapist. Experiential family therapy, while directed by the therapist, can look very much like a conversation in which the therapist and family members come to understand each other’s values and experiences (e.g. Menninger Video Productions, 1993; Golden Triad Films, 2004).

Proactive. Family systems therapists tend to be proactive in comparison to the psychoanalytic school. That is, where in psychoanalysis the therapist and client would sit together regularly for years, talking about the client’s history and aiming at a restructuring of the client’s psychodynamics through intellectual insight, family systems therapists tend to do their work briefly, in 8-10 sessions, focusing on the client’s presenting problem with relative directness (Fisch et al., 1982).  Experiential therapists are proactive compared to psychoanalysis, in that they work more briefly and use direct emotional interventions such as Satir’s family sculpting (Satir & Baldwin, 1983) or Whitaker’s emotional confrontation (Neill & Kniskern, 1982). They use straightforward coaching and reframing to cause the emotional and communication shifts they believe are called for.  On the other hand, they may appear less proactive than some other family therapy models which focus more directly on  changing a single, problematic behavior (Nichols & Schwartz, 2008).

Experiential Family Therapy and Communication Theory Assumptions

The term “communication theory” can be confusing because of its different meanings for experiential family therapists, family therapists in general, and psychologists in general.  The communication theory created by Bateson and the Palo Alto/MRI team is primarily a theory of pragmatics, or the behavioral component of communication (Watzlavick et al., 1967), where a comprehensive theory of communication would also fully address syntax, or the structure of communication, and semantics, the meaning of communication (Carroll, 2008). This reflects the emphasis in family therapy of process over content.

The major elements of communication theory as described by Watzlavick and colleagues (1967) are, (a) since all behavior is communication, it is impossible to not communicate; (b) the two basic levels of communication are the digital/verbal/content level, which conveys the dictionary-definition-of-the-words information, and the analog/non-verbal/relationship level, which conveys information about how the information sender views the nature of their relationship with the receiver; (c) relationship-level communication exchanges can be seen as attempts to assert which communicator has the power to determine the nature of the relationship; and (d) since communication almost always occurs in an ongoing social context, the punctuation of events by participants is somewhat arbitrary, and often confusing and self-serving.

Most family therapy models use these insights to understand communication and experiential therapists are no exception. Indeed, Satir was part of the MRI team for many of the years they spent formulating their communication theory. What Satir ended up meaning by “communication theory,” however, while completely compatible with Bateson and MRI communication theory, had a very different focus: ways of preventing and clearing up miscommunications, and ways of giving and receiving information and requests in accurate, functional ways (see e.g. Satir, 1967, pp. 63-90). She emphasized, for example, the problems inherent in generalizing and assuming, and in various kinds of ambiguity in communication.

I do not yet know how much other experiential therapists, such as Whitaker and Kempler, used these communications theories, but it was probably not to the extent Satir did, as even the rest of the MRI team mostly moved on to other strategies, while Satir continued to develop it (Napier & Whitaker, 1978).

Core Assumptions of Experiential Family Therapists

The core assumptions of experiential family therapists are essentially the core assumptions of humanistic psychology, adapted to a family systems epistemology: Unless held back by their environment, individual humans tend towards and self-actualization and can reach their potential. The environment is primarily the system of relationships and communication that individual exists in.  It can stunt an individual’s growth by teaching them that it is not safe to fully feel or express the experience they are having, especially in the moment they are having it.  This serves to keep individuals from understanding themselves and others as they are, and from experiencing real intimacy with others, and through that, from being able to experience their own true individuality. The remedy for this is genuine, uncensored experience, communicated accurately and authentically in intimate relationships, including the relationship with the therapist. The therapist’s role is to model this kind of psychological congruence and intimacy while coaching family members to follow suit in their own unique way. This will allow both the individuals and their system to mutually support growth to the highest levels (see e.g. Becvar & Becvar, 2004; Nichols & Swartz, 2008; Satir, 1972; Greenburg et al., 1998).

Common Therapeutic Factors and Experiential Family Therapy

For decades, the charismatic leaders of various family therapy schools distinguished their work from each other’s and advocated for the superiority of their models (Napier & Whitaker, 1978); in recent years it has become increasingly common to view all therapeutic change through the lens of the Common Factors of many models, rather than their differences (see e.g. Asay & Lambert, 1999). There is considerable evidence that the bulk of therapeutic change can be attributed to (a) the qualities and resources of clients, such as their resiliency, motivation, or community, (b) the qualities and skills of the individual therapists, (c) the quality of the therapeutic relationship, including the compatibility of the client and therapist’s objectives, (d) the client’s hope or expectancy of change, and (e) other factors such as behavioral, cognitive, and affective coaching (Sprenkle & Blow, 2004). Additionally, Sprenkle and Blow assert that family therapy has three Common Factors that individual therapy does not: a view of problems in the context of social systems, intervention at the level of systems, and multiple, simultaneous therapeutic relationships (2004).

Experiential family therapists reflect all of the Common Factors in their process. They assume that it is the unique expression of the client’s strengths that is the engine for their personal growth. They emphasize that it is the ability of the therapist to model genuine expression of their own unique strengths and to form intimate, genuine connections with the clients that is the catalyst for change (Baldwin & Satir, 1987). Their belief in and respect for human beings should be a good vehicle for encouraging hope for change in clients.   Experiential therapists offer behavioral and affective coaching as well as cognitive reframing as techniques to enhance the intimacy of relationships and accuracy of perception and expression. They view problems as residing in family systems as opposed to in individual psyches. They intervene primarily at the level of relationships and systems and form intimate relationships with each person in the system.

A Personal Reflection on Experiential Family Therapy

At this early stage in my learning about family therapy models, I imagine that I will use experiential family therapy as my primary model with clients. I remain uncertain about how good a fit the standard techniques of experiential therapists, such as sculpting, will be for me, but I intend to remain open minded until I have used them skillfully for some time.  My belief system is very closely aligned with humanistic psychology; I too believe that humans are innately good and inclined to growth, and that it is the systems of interaction and oppression we inherit that impede that process. I grew up in a holistic-oriented family. I have actively internalized the belief systems and modes of communication of two mentors who are existential therapists, one of whom was a protégé of Fritz Perls. I have practiced intimacy, honesty, and emotional fluency and fluidity in my peer-counseling and peer relationships for many years. I believe that the ability to notice my experience as it is and to express it authentically in my language, behavior, and affect, and my ability to compassionately notice the expression of others’ experience is the key to my being able to have deep relationships. I believe that the depth of our relationships is a large part of what make our lives meaningful, beautiful, and useful.

There is a way that many family therapy models, in their focus on family systems, treat the individuals in those systems with less than full respect, actually lying to clients in some situations, to trick them into improving (e.g. Fisch et al., 1982) or, short of that, treating them as more or less fortunate cogs, Black Boxes, in their family systems.  I love the way Virginia Satir, especially, is not manipulative, except in her compassionate reframing. I appreciate the way experiential therapists recognize the uniqueness and lovable-ness of each individual, and the way they view that recognition as the catalyst for positive change.


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