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Gary GillesGary Gilles, LCPC
Empowering and practical insights to grow your most important relationships

What is a Family "System?"

Gary Gilles, LCPC Updated: Oct 21st 2014

It is relatively easy to understand the structure of a family system but more difficult to understand the inner workings of how that system functions. Let's start with a simple explanation of the family system structure.

group of 3D figures under umbrellaIf a man meets a woman and they marry, you have the beginning of a family "system." Let's say that this couple then goes on to have three children. As each child is added to the family, the "system" becomes larger and more complex. The same couple could go on to adopt another child, invite grandma to live with them and even assume custody of a wayward nephew whose parents are sick. It's not necessary that each person in the "family" system be related biologically. But they do need to have regular contact with each other for a prolonged period of time. So, to answer our first question, we can say that a family system is merely the sum of all its members.

How do family systems work?

Psychologists who work with families usually see them as a unit. It is assumed that all members have different personalities, habits, perspectives and interpretations of events. What one member does or doesn't do affects not only him or herself but everyone else in the family as well. It is like a game of billiards. When you shoot the cue ball into a cluster of other balls it scatters them in various direction; some more than others. In other words, the action of one member affects everyone else in that family system. Here's an example to make it clearer.

For example, Ruth and Kyle and have been married for 12 years and have three children. Kyle had a drinking problem for a few years in college and as a single adult. But when he met Ruth, he promised her he would stop drinking. But lately he has been sneaking alcohol behind her back. Ruth suspects that he is stopping at the bar on his way home from work but is afraid to ask Kyle because he becomes enraged if questioned about his drinking behavior. Since he has started drinking again, his interaction with Ruth and the children is minimal. He spends most of his evenings tinkering at his workbench or watching television alone in his bedroom.

There are many repercussions of Kyle's behavior, but the most obvious is his relational disengagement from everyone in his family. As he isolates himself because of the guilt he feels and other situations for which he is unhappy, his wife and children suffer the consequences. As Kyle withdraws relationally, he also holds back the support, encouragement or guidance that his wife and children need from him as their husband and father. So everyone must try to adjust to this new and confusing behavior. If Kyle continues this behavior for a long period, Ruth and the children will make permanent adjustments probably stop looking to Kyle to meet these needs. So, you can see how the behavior of one member, affects all the members of the family. It is an emotional game of marbles. As one member bumps against the other, it forces that person to adapt; many times in unhealthy ways.

There are developmental benchmarks that measure whether a family's health is on track. These benchmarks are not always as visible as the development of speech or mobility in a child, but they are just as important to the health of the family. There are many developmental components of a healthy family but we will examine two important ones: the emotional system and family boundaries.

The emotional system

For a family to mature as a system they must have a healthy emotional system in place. As with any family system, the adults set the tone for how the emotional structure of the family will develop and be maintained. For example, the way a husband and wife interact with one another, and with their children directly, sets a precedent for how the children will then interact with one another and their peers. If there is respect, tolerance, attentive listening and grace extended on a regular basis, especially during conflict, then the emotional system of a family will develop healthily. This forms a strong foundation to work from when difficult circumstances arise and the family members must pull together for mutual support and encouragement.

The goal of any family system is to build into the individual relationships of each person in a way that breeds cooperation, respect, kindness and love. Parents much model this behavior if they want their children to follow that line of thinking. It's take deliberate effort, but the payoff of having a family system that is healthy and vibrant is worth the effort.


Gary Gilles, LCPC

Gary Gilles is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC) in private practice for over 20 years. He is passionate about helping people live empowered, healthy lives. He works from the idea that we feel most contented and in control of our lives when we take action on what we value most. This typically involves choices around relationships and personal habits. He uses his expertise as a change agent in his counseling practice, his blog and his books to help people get their lives back on track. Gary's hundreds of published articles have appeared in a wide range of print and online publications. He currently publishes a popular blog entitled Relationship Matters at His books are available at You can contact Gary at:

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