Counselling in Cheshire - providing a service for Knutsford, Northwich, Tarpoley and Crewe

In Family Therapy, what's missing is love.

Published: Jan 16, 01:04 pm

In a recent interview with Louise Casey – head of the Government’s Troubled Family Programme – Casey told the Guardian newspaper (30/11/2013), when speaking about family intervention, “we need to bring back… the ability to empathize, not to be fearful of empathy.” Speaking about the social work system she makes the observation, “because some of what people are exposed to is so hard, we create strategies and structures around them to protect the worker, which means we can no longer get to the person we are trying to work with.”

In my own work with troubled families, the ability to listen and to demonstrate empathy is an essential part of the healing of these families, finding solutions to thier problems and enabling the members to achieve conflict resolution. Empathy is the ability to demonstrate to an individual that you have understood his or her problem on an emotional and cognitive level. It is a way of acknowledging and validating the experience of another. In individual therapy this is relatively straightforward. In family therapy, however, where there are several people with differences of opinion, validating each person’s perspective in an empathic way can be challenging. Striking the right balance so that the family members don’t feel that the therapist is taking sides requires a subtle kind of diplomacy on the part of the therapist.

So, in helping families to change and move forwards, my task is to show empathy towards the family as a group, as a system, and this will mean allowing each person to have a voice. By focusing on the underlying vulnerable emotions that fuel the anger and conflict between familiy members, this positions people on common ground and allows each person to recognize the hurt/sadness in each other, ‘softening’ the exchanges, promoting acceptance and understanding. My job here is not to focus on the behaviours so much, as on the intention behind the behaviours. For example, a 16 year old daughter shouts at her mother ‘why can’t I go on the sleep over? This home is like a prison, you won’t let me do anything!’ The mother retaliates with, “you’re so rude! You have no respect for me, either as a mother, or as a homekeeper! What do you think, Jack?!” Jack (her husband) maintains a an edgey silence, dealing with the situation in a passively agressive way. As the therapist I would reflect back each person’s position and view on the situation, thus capturing everyone’s perspective. I would then probe deeper, inviting each member to explore the ‘softer’ disclosures behind the ‘harder’, (angry) disclosures – deepening the empathic response between the group. It may soon become clear that underlying the daughter’s frustration and anger is the fear of being excluded from a peer activity (as social cohesion is important for most teenagers, finding oneself marginilized can be shaming).

For the mother, it emerges that negotiating her daughter’s transition from dependence to greater independence and adulthood is proving difficult as it involves themes of letting go, loss and grief. In the father’s case, Jack’s apparent angry indifference belies an underlying dread of conflict. As I help to guide the process, each family member has a chance to evaluate this new information, and find themselves listening to each other more empathically. This is a collective perceptual shift that sets the stage for further positive change and growth.

It may sound obvious, but in family therapy unconditional love is an integral part of the healing, and should be the main tool of the therapist. “What’s missing is love” – theses are the words of Louise Casey – with her daunting remit “to turn around the fortunes of 120,000 of England’s most damaged and damaging families.” By helping unhappy families to see that behind the anger, assertion, power and control there often lie feelings of fear, dissapointment and hurt – these softer disclosures amongst familiy members have the capacity to generate empathy and are often more likely to promote closeness and renewed attachments.