Systemic Family Abuse

Systems theory was pioneered by VonBertalanffy in the early 1900s with his initial work called "TheoretischeBiologie"(theoretical biology) reflecting his "organismic biology" or "system theory of the organism," and is considered the founder of General Systems theory. This was the beginning of looking at the world to see different types of systems. VonBertalanffy defined system as a "set of elements standing in interrelation among themselves and with the environment"(von Bertalanffy, 1975: 159). 


There are over 40 different types of system theories that have been developed, like biological, archeological, ecological, economical,and mathematical, to name a few. 

One type of system that was developed was Family Systems Theory. Nathan Ackerman is one pioneer in Family System Theory, as he believed that the mental or physical temperament of one family member would affect the other family members and often the best way to treat the individual was to treat the family as a whole. Nathan Ackerman began his work in the 1950s and founded the Ackerman Institute in 1960. 


Other colleagues of Nathan Ackerman include Gregory Bateson, Luigi Boscolo, Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy, and Murray Bowen who all recognized the profound involvement that many patients' parents had in their patients' lives. Their work led to interest in family-based interventions. 

These are the basic components of a family system. 
     In the family system, there is an organic synergy that takes place where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Unique aspects may describe the whole system but those traits may not be applicable to certain individuals in the system. 

     In a family system, each member is an element of that system and has unique characteristics in that system. The relationships between each of these elements function in an interdependent manner and all these factors make up the structure. The are interconnected and interdependent. 

     Every system has subsystems that operate in twos (dyads) or threes (triads) and each subsystem has its own unique traits, patterns of relating, rules and boundaries. When one part of the system changes, it impacts the other parts of the system and these changes can bring about either solutions or problems. 

     Certain rules determine the functioning of a system. The patterns of interaction develop between the members to maintain the system's stability (homoeostasis) and unwritten rules or silent contracts guide each member in their role, carefully balancing continuity against change. 

     Family rules develop the working of the system. The unwritten rules or silent contracts often dictate the behaviour of the individuals in the system. For example, "be loyal," "be perfect," "don't rock the boat," "be nice," are messages that conform the behaviour of the members through guilt, control or power to fit the way the system operates. 
     Each system has elements that include and exclude so that there is an unspoken defined line between those within the system and those outside of the system. If a family is more of an open system, factors and situations outside of the family are welcome to influence the system. A closed family system works on being self-contained and isolates the members from outside influence. This open and closed aspect is on a continuum of how much outside influence is welcomed in the system.* 

A family has these unique components; however, a community of people such as a corporation, a group of colleagues working together, a social club, a government agency, Wall Street, a school, a church, a mission agency, a gang, a cult, the Mafia, also have similar unique components in their system. Whenever a member from a corporation system steps out and discloses information that violates the system rules, they are often treated like whistleblowers. Surviving the fallout of being a whistleblower is very difficult, for it impacts every aspect of work life. The same is true for a member from a family system or a system where you work and live together who discloses information that violates the system rules. The consequences for that member are even greater. Often the system, in its quest for equilibrium, will isolate or alienate the one who is speaking out. This shows the power of an organic synergy where the whole is greater than the sum of each individual member. 


The Stanford Prison Experiment was a system that was set up and led by Philip Zimbardo, a Psychology professor and a team of researchers as an experiment. From August 14-20, 1971, twenty-four male college students of Stanford University were paid for participating, half of them acting as prison guards and half acting as prisoners. The experiment was to extend for fourteen days; however, it was quickly halted after only six days. Not only were the members abusive with one another, psychologically, mentally, emotionally and physically, but even lead psychologist Philip Zimbardo admitted that he was abusive (the appointed superintendent of the Prison Experiment) as he witnessed the abuse but did not step in to stop it. After he stopped the experiment and reflected back, he realized that he had a blind spot and permitted the abuse to continue because he fed into being part of the system and set up a system that was susceptible to abuse. 


Systemic abuse occurs when the structure of the system has hidden root elements that are disposed to abuse and abusive conduct is expressed, tolerated and sometimes encouraged upon the vulnerable. Hidden root elements are often one's blind spots. 
Each person carries their belief system that comes out of their childhood pain. These beliefs usually are not conscious beliefs but often underground messages from the pain that is not yet healed. For example, a father who had a difficult childhood and has not had healing of his wounds may often have poor boundaries for his son and not protect him for what is age-appropriate behavior. He will say, "You think that was bad, I had it much worse." A mother who is in denial of her abuse from an uncle may subconsciously protect her daughter from abuse with that uncle, but ends up missing the family friend who is abusing her daughter. If a mother believes subconsciously that she would not be a good mother, then she will probably find a culturally acceptable way to abdicate the mothering role and the child often interprets this as rejection. These types of blind spots in the leaders of the family set up the family system to be susceptible and vulnerable to abuse. The parents often unknowingly expose their children to abuse. It is interesting to note that those outside of the family system can often see the blind spots in that family but those in the system have difficulty perceiving the same vulnerability in the system. 


When looking at the Family System where abuse occurred, there is a common pattern for the survivors that relates to the family system.Therapists who work with abuse in the family system often report the following: 

     Abuse of power over the vulnerable person with no accountability structure and the abuser rarely takes responsibility. 
     All parties in the system refuse to talk about the incident even when victim discloses information. Victim does not have any options or choices available to them in the closed system. 
     All members in the system put down the truth teller. They will depict the truth teller as speaking lies or even crazy. 
     The survivor experiences shaming, blame, walls of silence, verbal attacks and even being disowned if they continue to speak out. 
     The survivor sometimes pretends the abuse never happened in order to stay close to family members while secretly suffering the horrors of the damage. 
     The one who remembers loses everything. 
     The one who was abused carries the pain. 
     The one who was a child victim is victimized again as an adult. 
     Some survivors come to terms with the trauma of their childhood and recognize that the system is too toxic for them to try to be in relationship with some family members. 
     Some survivors recognize that crimes have been committed and no justice has been or will be served. 

     One of the hardest and most painful choices confronting a survivor is to cut off relationships with their family and the consequences of that decision as the whole family will turn on the survivor. 

To have clarity into systemic abuse, one needs to be aware of the different roles of each member in the whole system, as well as in the dyads/triads (victim, perpetrator and those codependent with the perpetrator), and also the system's contribution in order for understanding and possible deep healing to occur. Change has to take place with the members but the system itself also has to be addressed at root levels. Otherwise the system will continue to perpetuate abuse against the vulnerable. This can be seen in families where one member who perpetrates leaves home and the system has not dealt with the root issues, then another member of the family will begin to initiate abuse upon someone who is vulnerable. In order for the system as a whole to change, it is critical that the parents look at themselves, the roles they have played and the belief system/blind spots they had in setting up the system that make the family vulnerable to abuse inside the system. When the family system as a whole starts to change, then freedom comes to the individual members and the dyads/triads to work toward health so that healthy boundaries are established and abusive behaviour is not tolerated. 

In her book Belonging Everywhere and Nowhere, Lois Bushong talks about her work with Third Culture Kids (TCK). In Appendix A of this book, Lois Bushong andRuth VanReken discuss three types of systems: healthy system, unhealthy system and sick system. 

They describe the healthy system as one that has core values that are foundational for all future actions in the system. There is respect for each other as each person operates differently on the core values of the family. The healthy system has clear boundaries on what behaviours are acceptable and what are not. Bushong and VanRekendescribe the security and support of the system providing choices and a place to grow. Individuals from this type of system feel like they belong and are safe to share who they are with freedom to choose and grow. 


The unhealthy system is described as one where rigid rules replace the core values of the system. Fear of what might happen to the system occurs and individual differences are viewed as a threat. "One size fits all" is created by power and control instead of healthy boundaries. The unhealthy system is no longer a place to grow, and raising questions are seen as a threat to the system's survival. Individuals from an unhealthy system survive by becoming a clone, as those who express differences are viewed as troublemakers. Choices are not an option and individuals see themselves as victims. The atmosphere of fear, power and control block differences and self-expression. Bushong and VanReken state that there is potential for an unhealthy system to move toward health if those leading step back and call everyone to look at differences with new eyes and the reason why they all came together as a system in the first place. However, if the system does not move toward health then it will become more concerned with maintaining the system than with its original purpose of existence and move toward becoming a sick system. 


Bushong and VanReken also add a third type of system called a sick system. Distorted rules operate where people willingly drink poisoned Kool-Aid like most of the followers of Jim Jones did. Those in leadership do not care how much power and control they use. They demand obedience. The individual in the system does not need to be respected but instead is used for the leader's purpose. This system is not only closed but it is also locked down to prevent any influence from outside to come in and to prevent anyone in the system to see the options available to them outside the system. The atmosphere turns from fear to paranoia, and effectively paralyzes all members of the system. Individuals in this system are nervous, worried, can't think clearly, distressed, conflicted and depressed as the core of their being is wounded to the point where they are not allowed to feel, think or talk. They are no longer seen and respected as individuals but objects to be used by the leaders. They no longer have choices and are trapped in the system, often to the point of harming themselves. 


In conclusion, Systems Theory, founded by VonBertalanffy, was the foundation for Nathan Ackerman and his colleagues to develop Family System Theory. Over the past seventy years,an understanding of individuals has accelerated by looking at the individual and the family system they come from. With these new eyes of perception, basic concepts of the family system were revealed. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and when one member changes, the system is impacted. The Stanford Prison Experiment is an example of a system that may have started with healthy intentions but it only took six days before the experiment was cancelled as it quickly moved toward unhealth. When a family system has root elements that lead to power and control issues expressed onto the vulnerable without any accountability, then abuse is not only tolerated but it is often times encouraged. 

It is grievous to read how survivors of family abuse are caught in a system whose prime directive is to have the system survive, even at the expense of the vulnerable. One of the hardest and most painful choices confronting a survivor is to cut off relationships with their family and the consequences of that decision as the whole family will turn on the survivor. Lois Bushong and Ruth VanReken's work clarifies this system dynamic in the book, Belonging Everywhere and Nowhere as they discuss three types of systems: healthy system, unhealthy system and sick system. They provide an important distinction that an unhealthy system can move toward health if the leadership in the system is willing to look at the system and change itself. Too often the focus is on the individuals' behaviours in the system and the system works to try to change them but neglects the roots of the abuse that are at the core of the system. 

Sadly, there are systems that refuse to look at themselves and they progress to the point of a sick system that poisons all their members like Jim Jones did with his followers. Again, systemic abuse occurs when the structure of the system has hidden root elements that are disposed to abuse, and abusive conduct is expressed, tolerated and sometimes encouraged upon the vulnerable. When the leaders in the family system are willing to look at and change themselves and change the system, then there is hope that the system can move toward health, where the cycle of abuse stops and abuse is no longer tolerated by the individuals in the system or by the system as a whole. 

*A family can be unhealthy as an "open system" that is too open when they, for example, allow the outside influence of an 18-year- old boyfriend who not only dates their 12-year-old daughter but also moves in and they let him live in their home. A family can also be unhealthy as a "closed system" when they block all outside influence and isolate all members, even adults, from having any contact with "the outside world" (ex. Jim Jones, David Koresh or Rock Theriault). 
April 2014