“Family therapy.”

For most people, these two words represent failure. If a family needs therapy, surely someone has failed, correct? To add to family therapy’s negative connotations, no one enjoys going, for two primary reasons: 1) families tend to come to therapy assuming one person is to blame for the family’s problems, and 2) family members are typically uninterested in making the necessary changes in their own thinking, communicating, and empathizing to solve the issues involved. When the therapist refuses to blame one person for all the family’s issues, and insists that everyone involved will need to make changes, family members typically react negatively.

In this article, I’ll try to demystify family therapy, as well as discuss how to avoid the “blame game” that often accompanies it.

Lifting the Veil: What to Expect Within Family Therapy

What can a family expect in family therapy? Hopefully, it will begin with a warm and empathic therapist. Therapists understand that the family at the door has been going through a great ordeal for some time, and that it takes time to truly understand what is going on in that particular family. But note that a therapist does not take one person’s side within the family. He is on the entire family’s side and works tirelessly to help improve their situation.

Therapy sessions, therefore, will oftentimes be emotionally difficult, in that members may leave the session more upset than when they entered. This happens because the therapist is intentionally ‘rocking the boat’ so that each person has to take a hard look at family rituals and communication styles to see if they are healthy. A family therapist once said a session that leaves a family anxious and upset can be good, for it forces the family, as a whole, to decide whether they want to change or remain the same. Think of it as resetting a dislocated shoulder. It hurts, but it is necessary for a person’s health.

A therapist does not take one person’s side within the family; He is on the entire family’s side.

Additionally, the Catholic therapist can help families cultivate certain virtues which draw a family closer and helps them become a domestic church. Virtues such as prudence in judgment, temperance in speech, justice in decisions, and courage in the face of an evermore hostile world towards Catholicism are an integral part of true family therapy. Granted, while a therapist may weave virtue training throughout the family therapy process, many therapists normally wait until the family has stabilized from their initial reason for coming to therapy before launching into discussions about virtue development.

Why Family Members Blame Others: One Explanation

Families usually arrive at the therapist’s door believing that one person in the family is the problem, and everyone else is an innocent victim (of course, in some cases one person is the problem, such as in the case of domestic abuse). Families often believe that if only one person would change then everything would be better. However, a therapist avoids giving into the blame game, while at the same time honoring each family member’s concerns. A therapist attempts to alter the way a family has thought about a significant problem for a long time so that the family can begin to healthily solve problems on their own.

Families naturally drift towards playing the blame game for a rather odd yet reasonable reason. Families feel safer continuing to function within their dysfunction. In general, people naturally enjoy situations in which they know the ending of the story. There’s a reason most people love romantic movies; they follow the same plot: lovers meet, they get to know each other, fall in love, have a falling out, and then resolve their difference all within a 2-hour movie.

Families feel safer continuing to function within their dysfunction.

In the same way, once a family creates certain family rules and rituals, i.e. the script of the movie, they will all tend to fight against changing them since that ending does not follow the arranged script. For example, if you grew up opening presents on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas morning, you may find yourself having a physiological response when your spouse suggests that you change your old family ritual. Although it might seem minor, rituals are important. They give us both a sense of connection to a past that we believe existed, and a sense of peace since we know what to expect within the immediate future. Therefore, when a family is asked by the therapist to alter how they function in terms of rituals and rules, many times they consciously and unconsciously will interpret this request as a threat to the family’s integrity.

What can a family do to avoid the blame game? Simply put, embrace personal responsibility. Blaming casts fault on another, but personal responsibility admits the part you played in creating a situation. The concept of personal responsibility is profoundly Catholic since it recognizes that we all have free will, influence each other, and are responsible for each other along with ourselves. Thus, the idea that your family’s distress is all one person’s fault and that the other members are blameless is a fantasy. Whether parents or siblings enjoy admitting this or not, they have helped in creating the situation that they now find intolerable. Since everyone created the problem, it will take everyone to fix the problem.

Family Therapy: Challenging Yet Worthwhile

Family therapy is one of the most challenging experiences for families and for the therapists who help them. It spurs everyone to be more compassionate towards each other, to approach family events in new ways, and to give of oneself for love of the other. A therapist, while always being compassionate, challenges families to become better. Unfortunately, given the trajectory that our world is currently on, more and more families will need therapy to help cope with a variety of stressors. Be assured, though, that an army of Catholic therapists is waiting to help families overcome the obstacles they face.