Thursday, November 5, 2009

A change in any part of the system affects the system as a whole and all of its parts

When I’m not counselling, I teach college students about counselling and social work. One of the defining aspects of Social work (and of family therapy) is its emphasis on seeing the person in the larger systems in which s/he lives. So this includes family, friends, neignbourhood, as well as larger systems such as social class, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion etc. Systems can be very large like political systems and economic systems or they can be small like the system that develops between any two people when they are in relationship to each other.

It’s not only that these systems impact greatly in our lives and shape us but it’s that we also shape those systems. Think of inter-racial relationships 20 years ago, Think of the feminist movement changing what it is to be a woman, think of oppressed groups like gays and lesbians being able to expect to be respected, etc. In general, committed people have made significant changes to society and this results in a whole new world for the next generation. On a more micro level, people forget that they have incredible power to shape (and change) their personal relationships.

One of the more frequent reasons that people access counselling is to talk about their personal relationships and sometimes the personal distress that arises from these relationships. People are generally much more vulnerable to stress, depression and even physical infections when their primary relationships aren’t working well. Relationships truly can bring us both incredible happiness as well as incredible pain. Strong positive relationships are an incredibly important buffer for maintaining our emotional and mental health.

So sometimes people access counselling together. At other times, either the person’s partner won’t attend or the person thinks that it may not be feasible to invite the other person to counselling for a variety of reasons. These significant others in the person’s life could be siblings, friends, parents, in-laws, bosses, colleagues etc. So if the “other” cannot attend counselling, the person may wonder if it is worthwhile to attend counselling on his or her own. My response to this question is a resounding “yes”! Even though one’s partner, spouse, or other significant person is not involved in the counselling, it is possible to change the relationship. This is due to the systems principle “A change in any part of the systems affects the system as a whole and all of its parts.”

So how does this work? People forget that it takes more than one person to set up a pattern in a relationship although sometimes these patterns of relationship between people seem to take on a life of their own. But relationships are like an intricate dance between people. For example, think of ballroom dancing or salsa dancing. If you move one way, your partner must follow your lead to stay in the dance. Another example. Think back to your childhood (or perhaps more recently) when you were playing in a playground. The teeter-totter or see-saw has the same principle. If you go up, your partner goes down and vice versa. So relationships are a lot like dancing, and playing see saw or teeter-totter. If one person makes a change in any of these “systems”, the partner will be affected.

This is an incredibly powerful phenomenon! It is also very empowering for people to realize that they can make changes to the relationships that are causing them distress. Sometimes, however people get stuck (possibly because of hurt, anger and even resentment) and feel that the “other person” is the one who needs to change. In this scenario, think of someone who waits for their partner or significant other to change. This can be very frustrating. Unless the other person is really motivated to make changes, the changes may never happen. I personally think that the person who is experiencing a lot of personal distress about a relationship is the best one to “change the dance” simply because s/he is the one who is most motivated.

How do you change the dance? The possibilities are almost limitless. Here’s when a person can be as creative as they like and maybe even inject some humour into the process as well. Basically, the idea is to either initiate or respond to the other person’s behaviour in a different way than in the past. This can mean saying or doing things differently. If a particular relationship pattern or dance has resulted in arguments or hurt feelings, trying something different is a good idea simply because whatever it was that he or she is doing isn’t working. Some experimentation may be necessary – but if you change the dance even in small ways, you are bound to change the relationship simply because “a change in any part of the system, affects the system as a whole and all of its parts”.



Weiner-Davis Michelle. How to Change Your Life and Everyone In It (1996)

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