Teaching the Structural Way

By Joel Palmer,2014-11-23 14:58
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Teaching the Structural Way

Jorge Colapinto


    Teaching the Structural Way

    On finishing one year of training in structural family therapy, a group of fun-loving practitioners produced a spoof videotape that they titled “The Structural Way.” In a comic fashion, the piece demonstrated the trainees‟ understanding of a fundamental tenet in

    their teachers‟ philosophy: that structural family therapy should be learned, not as an assortment of efficient techniques, but rather as a disciplined way of looking at families in pain, at the intricacies of change, and at the role of the therapist.

    What is, however, the “structural way”? The adjective “structural” is usually employed to identify the approach originally developed by Salvador Minuchin at the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic. Today, however, a good number of family therapists invoke it to describe their practice in some cases without much justification while

    many others are producing excellent structural work that they do not label as such. Pinpointing the “real” structuralists is difficult by the absence of a formal model that

    would define the essential features of structural family therapy. Minuchin‟s own theoretical writings, while abundant and inspiring, display noticeable variations in emphases and are not without inconsistency probably the result of an open-minded

    interest in what other thinkers had to say about his own clinical work. The influence of Jay Haley can be detected through the pages of the classic Families and Family

    Therapy (Minuchin, 1974), and many clinicians and even taxonomists of family therapy would not acknowledge any substantial differences between the two masters. There have been attempts to systematize the essential tenets of the structural model (e.g., Aponte & VanDeusen, 1981; Colapinto, 1982; Nichols, 1984; Umbarger, 1983), but none of these renditions can be regarded as the “official” version.


    It could certainly be argued that there is no such thing as “the structural way,” but only the inimitable style of Salvador Minuchin, an idiosyncratic expression of genius that manifests itself anew each time and does not allow for formalization. Indeed, the master himself, worried that his creation might be turned into dogma by others, has all but disowned anything resembling a comprehensive model of therapy that can be taught and learned (Minuchin, 1982). The contrary position reflected in these pages is that there exists a core system of perspectives on families, change, and therapy that directs the structuralist‟s work in the therapeutic arena and sets the “structural way” apart from

    other approaches. Such a paradigmatic core can be primarily distilled from certain redundancies in Salvador Minuchin‟s clinical operations and in his case discussions,

    more than from his theoretical presentations where the search for dialogue with other

    thinkers has occasionally blurred the shape and boundaries of the structural paradigm.

A Structural View of Families

     1 Originally published in Liddle, Breunlin & Schwartz, Handbook of Family Therapy Training and

    Supervision. New York, Guilford, 1988.

    Family therapists of all persuasions look beyond the apparent behavior of family members in search of some kind of pattern that will introduce a unifying meaning into what would otherwise be a confused bundle of unrelated observations. But they are not all searching for the same kind of pattern (Scheflen, 1978). Some pursue clues to the distribution of power; others, styles of conflict resolution; still a third group, redundancies in the sequence of speakers. The list could continue almost indefinitely.

    The structural way is one among many methods of putting together the richly complex manifestations of family life. Although generically speaking it conceptualizes the family as other systemic approaches do as a system in evolution that constantly

    regulates its own functioning it features a distinctive focus on concepts that describe space configurations: closeness/distance, inclusion/exclusion, fluid/rigid boundaries, hierarchical arrangements. The key notion of complementarity is used by the structuralist to denote not an escalation of differences (Bateson, 1972), but a fit among matching parts of a whole. Visually, the relational patterns that the structuralist “sees” can be better described by maps and jigsaw puzzle-like figures than by circular series of arrows.

    From the structural point of view, symptomatic behavior is a piece that fits into a dysfunctional organization. An adolescent‟s anorexia may be related to a mutual invasion of the patient‟s and her parents‟ territories; a school phobia may reveal excessive proximity between mother and son; a runaway may signal a “leaky” structure. Structural configurations are deemed functional or not according to how well or how badly they serve the developmental needs of the family and its members. In a dysfunctional family, development has been replaced by inertia. Stuck in a rigid arrangement, such a family cannot solve its problems and continue growing. For example, following mother‟s death, a father and a daughter maintain the same distance

    that they had kept when mother was alive; the girl becomes a truant, mother is not there to make sure that she attends school, and the vacuum in parental functions is filled neither by the father nor by the relatives who are now mediating between him and the girl.

    Thus, unlike other systemic approaches that focus on the function of the

    symptom (“Joey‟s temper tantrums distract his parents from their marital conflict”), the structural view focuses on the organizational flaw (“The couple‟s avoidance of conflict is

    crippling their parenting of Joey”).

A Structural View of Therapeutic Change

    Breaking away from such an organizational impasse requires the mobilization of resources that the family already possesses in latent fashion and which are often apparent in a different context; the widower of our example was a competent professional who could display leadership in his job but not in relation to his adolescent daughter. Systemic change, in the structural view, equals an increase in the complexity of the structure an increment in the availability of alternative ways of transacting. The function of the therapist is to create a -context for the family to experience those alternative patterns as accessible (father does have an influence on daughter), possible (neither father nor daughter will collapse while dealing with each other), and necessary (daughter is in for trouble if she and father abdicate their relationship). This definition of the therapist‟s role explains the structuralist‟s preference for changing transactions in the therapy room, where he or she can punctuate sequences of behavior and literally create a different experience.

    What the structural therapist is trying to build through his or her restructuring efforts is more important than -what he or she is trying to uncover. If father becomes

    Jorge Colapinto (1988) Teaching the Structural Way p. 2

paralyzed when his truant daughter blames him for her mother‟s death, identifying the

    accuser defendant pattern that renders him impotent is only a preliminary step toward the promotion of a more functional father-daughter relationship. This health-oriented search for the “missing pattern” is a characteristic mark of the structural approach: the

    survey of differing views about the nature of the problem, the gathering of information on family background arid history, and other diagnostic operations are guided by the need to assess the system‟s resources and weaknesses in preparation for a reorganization.

    The structural therapist does not emphasize the pursuit of individual change or the prescription of specific solutions. Instead, he or she tries to modify, enrich, and make flexible the family structure. The goal is to help the family discover patterns that are missing and that will, when developed, provide the scenario for the solution of individual problems. The family (like a recovered ecosystem) is the healer, while the therapist‟s job is to recruit individual resources for the project and to provide a context that can defeat inertia. Unlike other systemic approaches that prescribe for the therapist the role of an invariably neutral commentator, the structural view requires therapists to become protagonists as well. The creation of healing scenarios and the mobilization of individual resources demand the therapist‟s active involvement as well as a broad perspective. In helping a father to find better ways of relating to his children, the structural therapist may resemble a coach mostly straightforward, in principle benevolent, sometimes impatient, and rarely neutral. In undoing a rigid triangle in a psychosomatic family, he or she will enter into selective alliances, and will alternately imbalance, support, and push. Rather than cautiously operating from an invariable distance, the structural therapist constantly changes positions, oscillating between the objectivity of the removed observer and the intensity of the direct participant. From any of these two vantage points, families are seen not as passive mechanisms that resist the therapist‟s input, but as active

    organisms that need to be joined, explored, and expanded.


    The first trainers of family therapy did not need to pay much attention to the specifics of alternative paradigms. They were vanguard explorers, marching in different directions, somewhat ahead of their disciples, but participating with everybody else in the overriding excitement of a revolutionary, somewhat underground movement. They were expanding the frontiers of therapy, deriving techniques from new concepts and concepts from new techniques. Then, as the field grew in scope and respectability, the explorers “staked the

    unmarked corners with their trade names” (Minuchin, 1982), and schools developed.

    Today, clinicians are trained not just in family therapy, but in the structural, strategic, systemic and/or other model of family therapy each one separated from the next by

    differences in the conceptualization of both families and therapy.

Mission of Training

    The diversification of family therapy has brought about a rapid increase in available technology and with it a danger. The numerous and heterogeneous techniques

    developed by various schools are sometimes presented to the beginning therapist as an assortment of free-standing tools, each one endowed with its own efficiency, independent of the conceptual frame from which it emerged. Such an approach can generate a field

    Jorge Colapinto (1988) Teaching the Structural Way p. 3

    full of clinicians who change chairs à la Minuchin, give directions à la Haley, go

    primary process à la Whitaker, offer paradoxes in Italian, tie people with ropes à

    la Satir, add a pinch of ethics à la Nagy, encourage cathartic crying à la Paul,

    review a tape of the session with the family à la Alger, and sometimes manage to

    combine all of these methods in one session. (Minuchin & Fishman, 1981, p. 9)

    The problem is that techniques do not work by themselves. Knowing how to join, reframe, or unbalance is useless if one does not know when and why to do it. Therapeutic competence requires a synthesis of many different and even contradictory abilities; the structural therapist needs to engage clients intensely and also to keep an efficient distance from them; to accept and disrupt the ways of the family; to be a leader and a follower, firm and flexible, poised and humble. In order to choose, organize, and time specific interventions, the therapist needs to rely on the master blueprint, the therapeutic world view that is provided by the structural paradigm. The heuristic value of the paradigm as a propeller and organizer of the therapist‟s operations surpasses the efficacy of any collection of techniques, and therefore its acquisition constitutes the main mission of training. Technical skills need to be learned as a natural expression of a consistent paradigm (Colapinto, 1983).

Training Strategy

    The early emphasis on techniques in the teaching of structural family therapy was a reaction to the limitations of traditional training, with its deductive sequence from theoretical constructs to specific interventions; the availability of live and videotape supervision exposed the huge discrepancies that may exist between the apparent understanding of concepts and the actual behavior of the therapist in the session. The idea then, as Minuchin recalls, was to teach the “steps of the dance,” to focus on the specific skills of therapy “without burdening the student with a load of theory that would slow him down at moments of therapeutic immediacy.” Theoretical integration, it was

    hoped, would emerge spontaneously: “Through an inductive process the student, in „circles of decreasing uncertainty,‟ would arrive at the „aha!‟ moment: the theory.” (Minuchin & Fishman, 1981).

    Experience with this approach eventually showed that spontaneous theoretical integration was the exception more than the rule. The tactic of concentrating on the practice of skills while leaving conceptual understanding for later may require from the student a strong and lengthy attachment to the teacher. In Zen and other Eastern models of learning (often cited as an inspiration by family therapy trainers) the student is sometimes even -prevented from attempting to practice the master‟s teachings in the real world while in training (Herrigel, 1953). But in our world of licensing boards, third-party payers, and workshop show business, the relation of trainer to trainee offers little room for pure aesthetic contemplation and personal renunciation. Apprentices just will not wait for the master‟s anointment.

    The student of structural family therapy should not be expected to infer the theory from the practice any more than the other way around. The conceptual understanding of the model and the practical operations in the therapy room need to be taught simultaneously and as an integral paradigm. A mere “balance” of theory and practice

    such as the interspersion of theoretical seminars in a clinical program that otherwise focuses strictly on the practice of skills is not enough, and may in fact defeat the

    purpose of integration by maintaining “theory” and “practice” as separate realms. A real

    integration of theory and practice can occur only in the arena of supervised clinical work,

    Jorge Colapinto (1988) Teaching the Structural Way p. 4

    and the best opportunity for the supervisor to facilitate it is immediately before or during the therapeutic encounter with a family when the therapist is at the highest point of motivation and alertness.

Pragmatics and Aesthetics of Training

    The integrated approach to training presented in these pages offers one possible answer to the debate about the aesthetics and pragmatics of family therapy. Some authors (Allman, 1982; Keeney & Sprenkle, 1982), reacting to the pragmatic lure that cookbooks” of techniques may exert on therapists, have argued for a more “aesthetic” attitude -one that would temper or counterbalance the pragmatic trend by enhancing a more contemplative understanding of underlying patterns of interconnectedness The opposition, however, is a false one. The cookbook approach thrives not on excessive, but on defective pragmatism. Therapists who only learn techniques that “work” turn out

    to be as “practical” as actors who only impersonate others: the effectiveness of their performances diminishes as a function of their narrowed creativity. An awareness of “underlying patterns of interconnectedness” -like the ones depicted by the structural

    paradigm- is necessary, not to temper the therapist‟s pragmatic goals but to improve his or her chances of achieving them. Aesthetics, far from being the opposite of pragmatics, constitutes its highest form.

    To help the therapist develop an aesthetic perspective, the trainer must begin by acknowledging and respecting the therapist‟s pragmatic concerns. If a trainee is anxious

    to learn how to do better therapy, attacking his or her motivation as being too pragmatic will not help in promoting a paradigm shift. But the trainer also can and should challenge