Experiential Psychopathology - Dr John Howells

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III - Family Psychology & Family Psychiatry - Psychotherapy

The Task of Family Psychotherapy

Psychopathology, discussed in detail earlier, will be briefly outlined here so as to define the adverse experiential process and make it possible to draw general conclusions about the reversal of its effects, ie the benexperiential process.

The adverse experiential process:

It is easier to understand the psychopathology of the family, and the means of its improvement, by looking at the historical development of the “collective group psyche” of the present family. Each family is the product of two previous families, the preceding families of each marriage partner. Each marriage partner has been habituated to act in the way he or she does by the dictates of his or her family. Thus each carries his own imprint (the “imprint” is used not in a special ethological sense but in its ordinary usage of “stamp” or “mark”) of life in the preceding family into the present family. Harmony results from the capacity of the two families, as represented by their members, to integrate. A clash produces disharmony,

The adverse experiential process starts in the preceding family of the adult members of the present family. Psychic noci-vectors adverse to a particular family member arise in his preceding family; these noxious agents can arise from one, several or all his fellow family members in that family. In later years they may be supplemented by adverse experiences outside the family. Psychic noci-vectors can operate in one overwhelming experience in time, but, much more commonly, they operate over a sustained period of time. This adverse experience may make the person sensitive to one or many psychic noci-vectors; he may be so vulnerable as to be in a permanent state of anxiety – always “on guard”. The psychic noci-vectors create weaknesses in the psyche; the essential damage is done to the “idea of self”.  To cope with the adverse experience, the self adopts the coping devices that are possible in those circumstances. Later in life, with similar threats, the same coping devices are employed and the attitudes engendered by these coping devices may cause more trauma and thus damage by clashing with the attitudes of others. The most immediate, sensitive, and powerful clashes are likely to occur in the family where he is a founder member, husband or wife. The indicators of dysfunction in the past or in the present arise from this adverse experiential process in his preceding family; they are not the process itself.

As part of his imprint, each person carries: (i) a way of life with attitudes capable, or not capable, of adjusting to the way of life of a partner; (ii) a degree of psychonosis, dictated by past damaging experiences, largely in the preceding family, with damage to the psyche, especially to the “idea of self”; (iii) sensitivity to general psychic noci-vectors because of past experiences, largely in the preceding family; (iv) sensitivity to particular psychic noci-vectors because of past experiences, largely in the preceding family; (v) a tendency to react to psychic noci-vectors by the development of coping devices, which are often dictated by the set of circumstance in the preceding family – these devices are likely to operate in the present when faced by psychic noci-vectors; (vi) indicators of dysfunction used in the past which may be imitated in the present.

The individual, the epitome of his preceding family, moves through time, his formative years having been spent mostly in his preceding family. As he advances he gathers new experiences, some of which will clash with the attitudes he has already acquired and will create more stress and damage; on the other hand, he may meet ameliorating situations. At each stage, what he has gathered from the past interacts with his immediate situation. Thus, he reaches the present and he is what a lengthy experience has made him. Depending on the climate in which he finds himself, he is either again in a stressful environment, or in an ameliorating situation. If the latter, he probably will not seek the help of the psychiatric services.

The imprint in the life of an adult family member may be reinforced or changed by continuing interaction with his preceding family. In therapy this reinforcement or change may be encouraged or discouraged. It is relevant to mention that improvements, sometimes dramatic, occur spontaneously as the result of the demise of a member of the preceding family. The change, beneficial or damaging, may wrongly be credited to coincidental therapy.

The liabilities brought to the present family by an adult member may be overt or covert, either to the member who brings them or to the other family members. To add to the problems of assessment by each other, standards of conduct will be judged by the family imprint of each, and these standards may deviate not only from the average standards in the community, but also from those of the other family members.

The imprint produces needs which may or may not be satisfied by the imprint of the partner, eg an individual, because of experience in the preceding family, may react by hostility if ignored. The partner’s imprint may be able to deploy assets and allow him or her to contain this. Thus harmony results. An inability to contain brings disharmony. The great advantage of family therapy over individual therapy is the possibility of enlisting not only the aid of assets possessed by the therapist, but also the aid of the assets of the family members themselves. Harmony may be possible by building coping devices to the imprint deficiencies of the other. These new coping devices are possible if the antagonist’s family imprint allows of it, eg to withdraw when hurt and refuse retaliation. Circumvention is a mechanism insufficiently exploited in therapy. An example of circumvention would be accepting a deficiency in a partner, and planning the way of life of the present family in such a way that the deficiency has little or no opportunity for expression. Therapy must employ all these natural procedures in a systematic fashion – deploying assets, building new coping devices and circumventing deficiencies. Success will largely depend, given the best of all therapists, upon the qualities of the imprints facing one another; there are occasions when they allow of no resolution.

While the imprints from the preceding family are of basic importance, it must not be ignored that the present family is also developing a course which is superimposing an imprint on the fused imprints of the marriage partners. Again, children of the marriage are in the process of imprinting in the present. The collective group psyche, at first composed of two fused imprints, expands as it embraces the children and all the new experiences it meets. The past impressions of the parents, however, are always paramount, even if hidden, simply because they result from a long-lasting experience in the preceding families during sensitive formative years. A family group composed of adult members imprinted with gross deficiencies does not necessarily collapse. The deficiencies may be complementary, eg an excessive need to be mothered in one partner may satisfy an excessive need to mother by the other partner. Again, deficiencies in an adult family member may produce marital clash, but not be inconsistent with excellent parenting; indeed, occasionally, a parent may “wall off” himself or herself with the children in an enclave that protects them from the onslaught of the family imprint of the other partner.

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