We live in an individualistic society where each person is special and feels able to change the world. But the truth is that we are all part of a bigger system. This wider system includes our partner, our siblings, our family, our community, our society, our country, and ultimately, our species.
One of the most effective ways I have found to help people change their relationship is through systemic therapy.
The systemic approach
Very broadly, the systemic approach sees individuals as fundamentally interdependent parts of a larger system. Systems are always synergistic and larger than the individuals who make them up. These systems always fluctuate between balance (homeostasis) and imbalance.
Just like every biological organism, systems always aim for homeostasis (or equilibrium). This balance is maintained by complementary roles individuals take that ensure stability. In order to maintain homeostasis, systems rely on feedback loops that ensure that any disruption from inside or outside the system will be autocorrected to return to homeostasis.
What are relationships in systemic therapy?
Viewed systemically, relationships are essentially patterns that repeat over and over again. Together, most partners assume complementary roles that enable and maintain homeostasis. For example: pursuer/distancer, downstairs/upstairs parent, or over-/under-functioning.
Personal motivations within the systemic role
Due to the systemic nature of your role, the concept of secondary gains and losses is helpful for ascertaining motivations for change.
Secondary losses are the inescapable “taxes” you pay due to the role you perform in the system.
- These losses can be internal (lack of confidence) or external (ridicule from partner).
- There can be a lack of something (no cooperation) or the existence of something (more contempt from partner).
- The partner that is more content with the current homeostasis is usually blind to the secondary losses of their role.
- The partner that is “suffering more” is usually acutely aware of their secondary losses.
Secondary gains are unavoidable “perks” of the role, whether conscious or not.
- Like secondary losses, gains can be internal or external.
- Gains can be the existence of something good (for example the workaholic gains respect and money). Other times, the gains are protection against some pain or fear (the workaholic is protected from vulnerability towards their partner).
- The more complaining partner often ignores, denies, or isn’t aware of their secondary gains.
- The partner with more secondary gains will be the one who resists the systemic change more.
A few conclusions from secondary gains and losses
- Both partners who stay in the homeostasis have secondary gains and losses.
- Both partners are actively maintaining the dynamic through their behavior (their feet), regardless of what they’re saying (their mouth).
- In every change you make, you’ll always lose some of your gains and improve some of your losses.
- As I say to my clients: “You are never 100% 'guilty' but you are never 100% 'innocent' of responsibility for your current relationship dynamic.”
If the system always returns to homeostasis, how is systemic change possible?
In systemic therapy, there are two types of change: first- and second-order change. Both types of change are legitimate and create different reactions within the system.
First-order change: The solution is the problem
First-order change refers to “more or less of the same.” It is the common sense, natural behavioral changes you make.
- First-order changes are attempts to disrupt the homeostasis but are usually reversed, ignored, or resisted through a feedback loop that returns you to the original homeostasis (and the default roles).
- Oftentimes, these solutions just cement the current dynamic more by triggering resistance from system members in their attempts to stick to the current reality.
- Sometimes, though, first-order changes can result in a deeper change to the system. This type of change is what couples try before turning to therapy, and more often than not, what they expect from therapy.
Second-order change: No applause for this change
This is a conceptual transformation, where you resign from your role, leading to a major disruption in the system.
- This change relates to more than just behavioral change and is a challenge to the roles that each partner has traditionally taken in the relationship.
- It usually requires an “irrational” move, because it breaks the internal reasoning and equilibrium of the system. Therefore these changes might appear weird or unexpected.
- Second-order changes create ruptures in the system because they force your partner to change their own role as the usual complementary roles are broken.
- That is why “there is no applause for second-order change!”
How do we make second-order changes?
The good news is that you can make systemic second-order changes, even by yourself, though it requires determination and differentiation to power through the feedback loops of your current system.
- Share this article with your partner so you have a common language and to hopefully lower the unavoidable resistance from them.
- Choose a relationship dynamic you want to change.
- Draw out the complementary roles in this dynamic. Be blunt and extreme so you’ll be able to observe it somewhat from the outside. (For example the “overly-modest martyr” and “selfish pig.”)
- Write two columns: Gains and losses from this dynamic. Be honest with yourself and write down without censoring what you are gaining and losing from your current role or behavior. Try to have at least 10 items on each side.
- Assess which column is activating your behavior (your feet). If the gains outweigh the losses, then perhaps it’s not your time to change this role. You could still benefit from executing first-order changes. If your losses outweigh the gains, then see how your role is serving the system and what is your partner’s complementary role that keeps this relationship’s equilibrium?
- Brainstorm more adaptive ways to achieve your current gains. This requires some creativity, play, and potential state to dream of different ways to be in your current reality. You can also reflect to see if you still need these gains at all in your life today.
- Enlist the help of people outside your system to be your “change squad.” Find people who won’t be threatened if you grow beyond your current role.
- Persevere. Keep holding on to yourself as the system will inevitably try to pull you back to your old role. Remind yourself that there is no comfort in the growth zone.
- Stay open and loving to your partner as they initially resist your attempts and later start to confront their own roles in the dynamic.
If you persist with second-order changes, over time, the system will come around to a new homeostasis that will be more appropriate to your current reality. This balance will be maintained until one of the partners starts to initiate a new second-order change to the relationship. And that’s how relationships (systems) develop over time: balance, unbalance, balance, and unbalance.
Barrett, M. J., & Fish, L. S. (2014). Treating complex trauma: A relational blueprint for collaboration and change. New York, NY: Routledge.
Fisch, R., Weakland, J. H., & Segal, L. (1982). The tactics of change: Doing therapy briefly. San Fransisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Inc Pub.
Watzlawick, P., Weakland, J. H., & Fisch, R. (2011). Change: Principles of problem formation and problem resolution. New York, NY: WW Norton & Company.