A few weeks ago, one of my posts received a comment that was worth a whole post:

I am also a therapist (though I’m still in training). I’m wondering if you would be willing/able to recommend some family therapy books you’ve found helpful. My program is very focused on the individual and I’m trying to fill in some gaps and find your perspective on therapy to be very resonant with my own.

I’d love to recommend some family therapy books! My program was extremely family-systems focused, which I’ve been grateful for since leaving school. If you want to see an exhaustive reading list (I can’t remember having been assigned a real dud), you can see reverse-order lists of everything I read in my first year here and my second year here.

I’ll try to create a bare-bones list for you here—much more useful for you and a good exercise for me. I should warn you before I begin that I am super nerdy when it comes to family therapy reading and I can imagine many in my cohort rolling their eyes at my “must-read” list. If you are nerdy like me, though, here goes:

Pragmatics of Human Communication: A classic and profound book by Bateson’s MRI team, the first and probably still the best attempt to apply system theory to human relationships.

Susan Johnson’s books The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy and Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy for Trauma Survivors. Johnson combines system-thinking, Rogers-style experiential therapy, and attachment theory, creating one of my most-used therapy models.

John Gottman’s books, especially The Marriage Clinic and The Science of Trust. Gottman has taken up the project started with Pragmatics, largely abandoned by family therapy, and is doing it in fine style, with solid science.

Metaframeworks: This book presents my favorite meta-model of family therapy, combining the best parts of the many family therapy models.

A major work by each family therapy model-builder is also important reading: Haley, Madanes, Satir, Whitaker, Minuchin, Bowen, Selvini-Palazolli/Milan group, Weakland/Fisch/MRI group, deShazer/Insoo-Berg, Epson/White, and Hubble/Duncan/Miller. Keep in mind that their books are presentations of informed opinion, not science. Every one of these folks have got some things right and some wrong. They have also advanced the field significantly, and are the largest part the conversation on how to think about families.

Finally, a couple things that I was not assigned in school, but I found extremely helpful in making sense of the flood of information. First, a grounding in systems/complexity theory: Family therapists think of themselves as system-theory experts and throw around a lot of lingo that they may or may not really understand. It’s easy to get confused in this situation. The best introduction to modern system thinking is still Capra’s The Web of Life (though we’re overdue for an update). Also, check out Bateson’s books Steps to an Ecology of Mind and Mind and Nature. Second, familiarity with Wilber’s integral theory really helped me navigate the heated arguments about modernism vs. post-modernism and intervention at the level of individuals vs. family systems vs. larger systems. Check out Integral Psychology or A Theory of Everything.


Last term I read Metaframeworks, a book about Bruenlin, Schwartz, and Kune-Karrer’s integration of family therapy models. It’s a fun read, but don’t run out and buy it unless you are like me, very nerdy about family therapy and a sucker for good theoretical integrations.

Metaframeworks presents two models for how relationships can grow over time. The first is a model from the 80s, by a family theorist named Wynne. In it, people in relationships develop four capacities, in this sequence:

1) Attachment/cargiving: We have “affectional bonding” with each other.

2) Communicating: We have “communicational codes” in common.

3) Joint problem solving: We have the ability to work successfully together on complex tasks.

4) Mutuality: We have the ability to renegotiate the relationship.

Metaframeworks criticizes Wynne’s model as “epigenetic,” meaning that each stage is related to the next in the way that our genes are related to our bodies: Each stage is the source and foundation of the next. If their analysis of Wynne is correct, then Wynne thought that you can’t really communicate in a relationship until you have achieved “affectional bonding.”

The authors’ scheme is similar but more complex. It has six processes that happen in relationships, and the relationships between them are “recursive,” meaning the product of each process affects the other processes. They are ambiguous about the sense in which their processes are a developmental scheme. My best guess is that they mean that each of these processes can develop in relationships, and the better developed they are, the better off we are. They say a few things that hint at a stage model, that each stage flows from the previous, and that inadequate development of an earlier process constrains later ones. But they don’t use words like “earlier” or “later” and they are very clear that the processes are related in a web-like fashion. Very postmodern. Anyway, here are the processes:

1) Attraction: We feel drawn together.

2) Liking: We appreciate and value each other.

3) Nurturing: We create safety by exchanging care.

4) Coordinating meaning: We can agree on what it means when we do and say things.

5) Setting rules: The rules by which we operate are functional.

6) Metarules: We have ways of changing our rules when we need to.

It is interesting that both Wynne and Metaframeworks consider and then reject intimacy (where “each person comes to believe in and experience the relationship as completely safe”) as a highest stage or most complex process. Wynne, apparently, does so because it is “difficult to achieve.” Metaframeworks does so because that trust can be lost, and because some couples with functional relationships never get there.

I’m not convinced. I really value intimacy in my own relationships, and I think that if we stop short of intimacy, at “stable and successful,” in our close relationships, we are missing out. And why reject a developmental stage because it is difficult to achieve?

I just finished the biggest project so far for my couples and family therapy masters program. It’s a paper about depression in couples and how it might be treated by a metaframeworks-oriented therapist. Most of it is probably of limited interest to non-therapists, but I wrote a very brief summary of  what we know and think about depression as an introduction that might interest anyone psychologically-minded. If you are interested in the research about depression in couples, my references section might be quite helpful. It would have been for me…

If you’re interested, I posted it here.

I posted this on my Advanced Family Theory discussion board a couple weeks ago. There were no replies:

According to Metaframeworks (p. 30) (which I’m loving, by the way), one of the ways which Bertalanffy distinguished organic from mechanical systems is that organic systems violate Newton’s 2nd law of thermodynamics. That is, we and the larger systems we are part of grow increasingly complex, even though Newton predicted only increasing disorder according to the rules of thermodynamics.

This “evidence of negentropy” is one of the major planks of the “intelligent design” argument for a creator being logically deducible by the presence of organic systems. Unfortunately for ID-ers and Bertalanffy, life does not violate Newton’s 2nd law because even though organisms and other phenotypes are highly and increasingly complex, our living and doing create disorder much more efficiently than nonliving systems. That is, it’s more accurate to say that Newton’s 2nd law drives the complexity of life than to say that life violates that law.

If you are as excited as I am by this idea, check out Dorion Sagan’s Into the Cool: Flow, Thermodynamics, and Life.

I warned you this note was nerdy.

In the field of family therapy, most theorists these days are postmodern and take care to spell out their epistemological lens–how and why they think they know what they know. They know that their theories are colored by their beliefs, so they want their readers to know what biases were involved in creating their theory.

I’m on page 33 of a very promising family-therapy-theory book called Metaframeworks: Transcending the Models of Family Therapy. The authors describe four views of reality, how they relate to each other, and which one they choose. The four are:

Objectivism: The often unconscious belief that there is an objective reality and that we have direct access to it. This view is also called “naive realism.”

Constructivism: This camp generally believe that a reality exists out there independent of us, but that we can’t know what it is like because our access to it is completely mediated and limited by our senses and cognitive processes. This is also called “pessimistic realism.”

Perspectivism: There is a reality out there and we have only mediated, distorted access to it, but it is possible to map it to greater and greater degrees of accuracy. That is, some maps are better than others. This is the authors’ camp.

Radical Constructivism: As far as we know, “reality” exists only in the mind. We are not qualified to make any statements about what actually exists or goes on “out there.”