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Can therapy help resolve my family conflicts?

Family therapy can be effective in solving interpersonal conflicts among members of a family

When you face a conflict in your family, what do you do?

Most of us try to resolve it by talking to each other and understanding each other's perspective on the issue. When the issue does not get resolved, we consult our close friends or extended family to find possible solutions. But what if the problem persists?

This is where family therapy comes in. Family therapy is a specific form of therapy that focuses on solving communication issues in relationships. A family therapist will help resolve conflicts in the family by exploring the underlying causes and helping the family derive solutions for their issues. The therapy focuses on improving communication among the members of the family -  between husband and wife, or among parents and their children, or issues among multiple family units (extended family members). 

Who can opt for family therapy?

Family therapy deals with a range of issues that can occur within a family, including:

  • Parenting issues
  • Behavioral issues in adolescents and children 
  • in the family: understanding their loved one's illness, and how to communicate with them* 
  • Understanding a family member's sexual orientation and same-sex relationships
  • Issues faced by couples after marriage: role changes, intimacy issues, better communication
  • Pre-marital intervention for couples
  • Empty nest syndrome in middle-aged couples

*For families struggling to understand their loved one's mental illness, family therapy is very helpful as it helps them understand what their loved one is experiencing, and how to communicate with their loved one with empathy and understanding.

"But I don't need family therapy!"

Many people hesitate to approach a family therapist because they don't feel comfortable discussing intimate details about their family lives with a stranger.

There are others who don't believe in approaching a therapist due to the lack of awareness and stigma in seeking help. At the same time, there are several families that do go in for family therapy to understand the stresses within their family, and work on improving interpersonal relations within.

Experts say that coming in with an open mind and talking about fears about therapy and family therapy can dispel a lot of myths. 

What's the process of family therapy?

The process of family therapy is structured to understand and delve deep into the psyche of each member to understand the root cause of their issue. The process involves:

I.: During assessment, you can get a picture of the therapy process by asking the therapist questions such as:

  • How long will the sessions be?

  • How much time will the therapy take?

  • Who needs to present during the therapy session?

  • How private is this information? 

  • How experienced is the therapist? Has the therapist dealt with similar issues in the past?

​The therapist on their part meets the individual or group of individuals for the first time and assesses the family dynamics. The family is assessed on various parameters such as boundaries, hierarchy, decision-making in the family etc. Boundaries in a family refers to the restrictions (or lack of them) that members of a family have between them. These could be boundaries between parents who form one part of the family system (also called a subsystem), siblings or between extended family members. Hierarchy is the power structure within the family that influences  the communication and functioning of the family. Usually, in patriarchal families, the father is on top of the hierarchical structure. 

The therapist will talk to you, either individually or with other family members, about the current issues faced by the family to understand the reason behind the conflicting situation(s). They will also try to tunderstand the communication patterns in the family, whether it is top-down or otherwise, and find ways to address the issue.

If you feel that other members of the family are not forthcoming about seeeking family therapy, you as an individual can also seek professional help.

Also read: What is counseling? When can it help?

II. Intervention phase

Based on the information gathered during the assessment phase, the therapist tries to form a hypothesis and the intervention that needs to be recommended to the family.

There are several forms of intervention that the therapist can choose from, depending on the issue. The principles of cognitive behavioral therapy are used to change their way of thinking and looking at the problem. This change in perspective can help the family members in therapy derive solutions.

The myth of an ideal family

We are social creatures and tend to compare our lives with that of our neighbours, friends' or other siblings' families. it can be natural to think that others we know are happy and have everything they want in their life. Experts call this the myth of an ideal family. An ideal family is believed to be a family where the members do not face any issues in communication, never disagree with each other and are always cheerful and happy being with each other.

Experts say that people who go for family therapy tend to believe that their family will also turn into an ideal one with therapy but that's not true. When two people with individual thoughts and opinions coexist, disagreements and miscommunication can happen. Family therapy helps families deal with these disagreements and communication issues in a constructive manner. 

What can I expect out of family therapy?

It is natural to assume that family therapy is going to fix all the problems that exists among family members, but it is not so. What you can expect is that:

  • There is a professional therapistwho will listen to you with empathy and non-judgmental behavior

  • The conversations are kept confidentialfrom other members (if any)

  • The conversations are structuredto be productive and not accusatory

  • Every family member is given an equal platformto voice their perspective

  • The therapist does not take sides and instead tries to help the family find a solution that fits them the best

The effectiveness of the therapy depends on working with the insights gained during therapy.

This content has been created with inputs from Dr Veena Satyanarayana, clinical psychologist, NIMHANS.