The Growing Importance Of The Family System When Conducting Individual Psychotherapy

By Beth Cooper Tabakin, Ph.D., and A. Rodney (Rod) Nurse, PhD, ABPP

We have learned in recent years the marked importance for the growing child of the earliest family system— in addition to the developing dyadic relationships with each individual “caring for” person. We have also found out much more in recent years about how these personal attachment experiences within the early family system shape adult relationships and how the initial family system forms the context for our development through life stages. In the opinion of these authors we have reached a tipping point whereby even the psychologist conducting individual psychotherapy needs to consider obtaining a direct understanding of the specific patient’s family system, not simply learning about it through the patient’s eyes, as important as it is to understand that. This is similar to how a psychologist practicing primarily couple or family therapy needs to take account of new developments in understanding the individuals.

One of the more frequent reasons for a distressed individual to seek psychotherapy stems from suffering during the difficulty of making a life transition smoothly—from home to school, into adolescence, first year in college, a new or failed relationship, a marriage, the first baby, etc. What a reasonably functioning family system can do is smooth the way and support the process of these transitions so that the individual makes the change adequately and does not need to become a patient or does so for only a short time.

Conversely, when a family system has difficulty functioning around a family member’s life transition, that suffering individual may seek help from a psychologist. Given the patient’s suffering there is little reason to assume that the patient’s view of their family is, by an objective view, accurate (nor may the family member’s view of the patient be presumed accurate).  The psychologist, to be most responsible to their individual patient, needs to obtain his or her objective view of the family through assessment procedures of interviewing the family and at least obtaining some results from application of selected inventories or tests. The argument may be made that this model may not fit all patients.

However, to discover that a particular patient and their family does not fit the model is worthwhile information itself in planning and carrying out treatment, or calling for further assessment before moving ahead. At the same time, knowing just how the individual patient and family fit together can be a tremendous advantage in planning and executing therapy, anticipating strengths and vulnerabilities.

Underpinning our thesis we suggest two books and a new journal: One book by Jeffrey J. Magnavita (2005), Personality-Guided Relational Psychotherapy; and another book, edited by James H. Bray & Mark Stanton (2009), Handbook of Family Psychology. We also point to a new development in family psychology, the American Psychological Association (APA) has collaborated with the Society for Family Psychology (Division 43) to found a new APA Journal (initial issue March 2012) titled Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, with “a focus on “the intersection of research and practice” (Stanton, 2011). This APA journal “reflects original research and/or clinical innovation (our emphasis)” (Stanton, 2011). (Disclosure: Dr. Nurse is Consulting Editor for the journal).


Beth Cooper Tabakin, Ph.D. is a psychologist in independent practice in San Anselmo, California.  She serves on the boards of Division 1, CPA, and Marin County Psychological Association (MCPA).  She is a past president of MCPA and their current GAC Representative. Her website is:

A. Rodney (Rod) Nurse PhD, ABPP Clinical Psychology and in Couple and Family Psychology. He is the Immediate Past President of the American Board of Couple and Family Psychology (of ABPP) and is the author (1999) of Family Assessment: Effective Uses of Psychological Tests with Couples and Families. New York: Wiley. His website is:

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Blog Disclaimer:

The opinions expressed by the authors are their own and do not reflect the opinions of the Marin County Psychological Association. The information posted on this blog is not intended as, and is not, a substitute for professional mental health services.