L & B Counseling

The Importance of Couple & Family Therapy

Family therapy is important because it helps family members communicate and resolve conflict. It can also help families deal with major life transitions, such as divorce, the death of a loved one, or a move to a new city. Family therapy can also help families who have a member with a mental illness or addiction. Below are some areas where family therapy can be more helpful than only individual therapy. 

Second Order Change

Second order change is probably the most important aspect of family therapy. This is the reason family therapy is so important. Throughout this blog, second order change will be brought up, and so, it is fitting for it to come first. So, what is “second order change?” Second order change in family therapy refers to changes that occur within the family system as a whole, rather than just changes in individual family members. In areas of communication, conflict, bonding, life changes, or dealing with other mental illnesses, second order change creates a new dynamic for the whole family to follow that changes the negative patterns they may have naturally fallen into without even realizing it. This type of change can be very beneficial for families, as it can help to improve communication on a systematic level and resolve any underlying issues within the whole system. Second order change can be difficult to achieve, but it is often worth the effort, as it can have a lasting and positive impact on the family. Second order change is more likely to occur via family therapy rather than individual therapy.


When communicating, there is often more than one person involved. Even if one individual goes to therapy to help their communication skills, that doesn’t mean those around them are also going to change their communication as well. Miscommunication between family members leads to bottled-up feelings, misunderstandings, and family problems. Only one person going to therapy for communication may lead to power struggles between family members who are not present in the therapy process. It takes everyone involved in the communication process, to also be involved in the therapy process, to see real systematic change (second order change). When the whole family sits down, talks openly, and expresses their concerns, this opens an opportunity for problem-solving. The therapist acts as a neutral family mediator, providing communication tips and skills to the family.

Familial Bonds

Families are constantly changing, moving through different life stages, and sometimes it can be easy to get lost on the way. One example of this could be families who used to be close when their kids were young, may find that as their little kids become teenagers, they are now divided. As families grow, it’s important for familial bonds to continue to be present, this may just look different as families pass through different life stages. Families may feel disconnected from one another because they no longer understand each other’s wants and needs. A family counselor can help the family explore options, activities, and ideas to create a new, and ever changing, system for the whole family to take time and bond throughout the years (second order change).

Resolve Conflict

There are normal levels of conflict in a couple/family. However, if problems are not addressed in their early stage, they may end up destroying the whole family unit. Couples should resort to marriage/family therapy when things at home are not being solved. Children are also affected by witnessing conflict consistently. Couples may benefit from couples therapy to help reunite their relationship unit. Families may benefit from family therapy by giving a voice to everyone involved in the conflict. The family/couples therapist’s goal is to keep the whole family together and enable a healthy relationship at home by providing problem solving techniques to all involved. 

Improve Mental Health 

Family stress can contribute to a decline in individual mental health. This could affect one or multiple individuals in the family. Home should be a place to feel safe and secure, not add to individual life stressors. A family therapist can facilitate discussions about the family situations that are contributing to stress at home. It is beneficial for families to discuss these issues rather than ignore them. Therapists then teach skills/techniques in order to solve the stress. Therapists can also help individuals cope with stress or change within the family system.

Individual Therapy Vs. Family Therapy

Family therapy can be overlooked by individual therapy since maybe one individual is having a more apparent issue than the family. These individuals get the most attention, but in most cases, they are actually the symptom bearers of an overarching family issue. In a family system, a symptom bearer (often children but not always) is the member of the family who presents the most obvious symptoms of dysfunction. The symptom bearer is often seen as the “black sheep” of the family, and may be scapegoated or ostracized as a result. Examples of this may be a family member with behavioral issues, an addiction, an eating disorder, and more. So how can family therapy help? Family therapy looks at the overarching issues and not just the individual’s dysfunction. For Example: If we take a father who struggles with addiction and see what individual therapy would do vs family therapy…

  • Individual therapy (first order change) makes changes to the symptoms
    • Surface level changes in behavior to the one who is presenting with the dysfunction 
      • In this case, father would attend AA to get and stay sober
  • Family therapy (second order change) makes changes to the system
    • Getting deeper into the underlying issues and interactions of the family that are involved in the disfunction
      • In this case, questions that would be considered are:
        • What’s happening in the family that is maintaining dad’s drinking habit?
        • How does dad’s drinking habit serve the family?
        • What familial actions or interactions are influencing dad’s behavior?
        • What interactions are supporting the broken system?

Given the information above, family therapy gets to the root of the issue, provides insight into the whole system, and facilitates change that will benefit the individual as much as the rest of the family. 

This post was written by Taylor Kracht, LCMHCA

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