For most families, change is hard earned!
That’s because families are designed to resist change. Families are what scientists—and family-systems therapists—call “self-regulating systems.” Since self-regulating systems prefer stability (homeostasis), the self-regulation response automatically resists change. This can be tricky during family therapy the point of which, of course, is to facilitate change!
Because a family is a system of interdependent members, it tends to interfere with changes attempted by individual members as well—since any significant change to a family member means change for the whole family.
So now you know why it’s so tough to change!
One way a family-systems therapist or family-systems oriented clinical team addresses this resistance to change is to view change as occurring on two levels: first-order change and second-order change.
Changes of the First Order
First-order change is change that occurs on the behavioral level without impacting the operating rules of the system. These changes are considered more superficial and less sustainable than second-order changes.
Here’s an example of first-order change:
John and Mary fight all the time. Tired of all the fighting, they decide to just stop talking altogether. Now they are no longer fighting, but they have not changed the underlying dynamic, or “rule,” of hostility that governs their relationship. They just don’t yell at each other anymore, but the dysfunction is still there.
First-order changes are considered less sustainable and less impactful than second-order changes, but play a practical role in systems therapy. First order changes can create a temporary shift in systemic dynamics that can set the stage for more sustainable second-order changes.
Changes of the Second Order
Second-order changes involve not just changes in behavior, but changes (or “violations”) of the rules of the system itself.
Here’s an example of second-order change:
John and Mary fight all the time. Next time they fight, John does a silly dance. By engaging Mary in a somewhat ridiculous and unexpected manner, John has broken the rule of hostility (at least temporarily) and disrupted this habitual negative dynamic of fighting. The hostility that is at the root of their fighting is itself interrupted.
While approaches like behavioral modification primarily seek first-order change, family systems therapy seeks principally second-order change.
For adolescents in treatment, the challenge is to prepare for successful participation in numerous systems (for when they transition home) rather than just the family system. People often transfer rules and patterns from their family system to other systems such as work or school; the girl who is confrontational with her controlling father, for instance, may bring the rule of confrontation to relationships with other authority figures such as teachers or employers.
The key, then, is to equip the young woman to break the rule of confrontation in her family so that these changes can transfer to other systems she participates in. So second-order change can occur for a whole system and/or for an individual member of that system. It can also occur for an individual across multiple systems. That’s pretty powerful change!
So while the road to healing may be fraught with systemic resistance, take heart! By acknowledging this normal systemic resistance to change and out witting it, the family-systems therapist can help revise even the most entrenched behaviors. It just takes some time, persistence, and maybe a little silly dancing.