In recent years, family therapists have sought to establish the credibility of their therapeutic approach by building the evidence base for models of practice. One such family therapy model - Olson's Circumplex Model - is supported by over 1,200 studies conducted over the last 30 years (Olson, 2011), making it highly attractive to psychologists working with families under stress.
Modelling family dynamics
The Olson Circumplex Model (Olson, 2000) conceptualises flexibility, cohesion and communication skills as three central variables that define family interactions. Based on a conceptual clustering of many concepts designed to describe family and couple dynamics, the model "is specifically designed for clinical assessment, treatment planning and research on outcome effectiveness of marital and family therapy" (Olson, 2000, p.144).
The Circumplex Model suggests that "balanced levels of cohesion and flexibility are most conducive to healthy family functioning. Conversely, unbalanced levels of cohesion and flexibility (very low or very high levels) are associated with problematic family functioning" (Olson, 2011, p.65). The model also provides a means of discussing these concepts with couples and families, and can provide them with tools to manage stress into the future.
Flexibility - between chaos and rigidity
Olson's model addresses flexibility through examining the amount of change that is possible in leadership, role relationships and family rules (see boxed information). Both stability and change are necessary in healthy family and couple relationships, and the ability to allow change when it is needed distinguishes functional from dysfunctional families.
Too little flexibility leads to rigidity, with the family or couple relationship unable to shift or evolve in response to change, whether it arises internally through individual members' development or is imposed by the environment. Too much flexibility results in chaos, with family members unable to create shared agreements that govern their actions and inter-relationships, providing no firm base on which to stand. In between these two extremes lies the balanced options of flexible or structured families, where the balance between rigidity and chaos is negotiated from a strong base of shared understanding of rules and roles within the relationship.
Dimensions of Flexibility (after Olsen, 2000)
|Lack of leadership
||Leadership sometimes shared
||Somewhat democratic discipline
|Dramatic role shifts
||Roles seldom change
|Too much change
||Change when necessary
||Change when demanded
||Too little change
Cohesion - not disengaged, not enmeshed
The level of emotional bonding between family members is measured in the Circumplex Model through the degree of cohesion - the extent and nature of connections, boundaries and shared interests within the family. Cohesion refers to the balance between family members' independence and their togetherness (see boxed information). Once again, both appropriate levels of connection to, and independence from, family are important for maintaining healthy relationships.
Too much closeness results in enmeshment - families exhibit extreme amounts of emotional closeness and may be dependent on, and reactive to, one another. High levels of family loyalty and consensus are required and there is little tolerance for private space or relationships outside the family. Too much separateness causes disengagement, where families exhibit little emotional closeness, instead remaining focussed on individual experiences and activities. There is limited commitment to family interests, and members are often unable to turn to one another for emotional or practical support or assistance. The balance is found for separated or connected families, where a balance between individual and group interests supports optimal family functioning.
Dimensions of Cohesion (after Olsen, 2000)
||'I - We'
||'I - We'
||Very high closeness
||Very high loyalty
||Interdependent (more independence)
||Interdependent (more dependence)
Communication - a facilitating skill
Olson's model regards communication as a ‘facilitating' skill - one which has the potential to support families and couples to move to more functional levels of flexibility and cohesion. Families which show balanced levels of engagement and openness to change tend to score higher on measures of listening skills, self-disclosure, and demonstrating respect and regard in communication.
Integrating the model
Olson views flexibility and cohesion as two dimensions on a grid (see Figure 1), so that families can be, for example, flexibly connected, or structurally separated, or chaotically enmeshed, or rigidly disengaged. Families and couples which are characterised by more balanced characteristics tend to be more functional over the developmental cycle, and tend to have better communications skills and habits (white boxes in Figure 1). Families and couples who possess more unbalanced tendencies find it challenging to deal with the pressures caused by changes in working arrangements, illness and injury, infidelity, challenging child behaviours, or the intersecting developmental arcs of different family members (black boxes in Figure 1). They tend to have poor communications skills. Families with a mixture of balanced and unbalanced styles (grey boxes in Figure 1) will find it challenging to deal with pressures and changes, but have a stronger foundation on which to base a move to a more balanced mode of interaction, especially if they can also develop their communications skills.
The model is particularly useful when working with families or couples who are entrenched in their positions to explain that the situation doesn't have to be black or white, all or none. It demonstrates clearly how incremental change can be helpful, provides clues as to how individual actions can bring results, and visibly illustrates the ‘shades of grey' that lie between the simple considerations of ‘balanced' and ‘unbalanced'. Interventions which improve communications skills can support families to move closer to optimal flexibility and cohesion, and changes in one dimension can have flow on effects to other dimensions.
The Circumplex Model operates on the fundamental assumption that families naturally progress through cycles of change in response to altered environmental demands and the evolving needs of family members. This is termed ‘second order change', which involves a change in the rules which govern the system and effectively creates a ‘new' family better suited to its conditions. Functional families understand change - that a couple's relationship will alter once a baby arrives, that it's not appropriate to parent a 16-year-old in the same way you parented a 6-year-old, that when adult children leave home the degree of closeness with parents will alter - and adjust their interactions to meet the required levels of flexibility and cohesion. Balanced families flexibly transform from one arrangement to another in times of stress and as the life cycle unfolds. Conversely, unbalanced families tend to remain condemned to their dysfunctional patterns, which further increase the pressures on the system.
Having the ability to understand and respond to needs for increased or decreased closeness or flexibility in a relationship is a protective mechanism. Once presenting symptoms are addressed, the family is empowered with the tools to respond functionally to future pressures, environmental changes and the developmental trajectories of its members.
Roy and Jenny had been unhappily partnered for years, ever since the birth of their son Ben, now 13 years old. They had separated three years previously, and attended therapy following an extended custody battle. With the end of Jenny's previous relationship they were spending more time together and struggling to agree on how to manage their son. Ben was described as having been ‘difficult' since kindergarten, was refusing to attend school and had recently been arrested for shoplifting. He spent most of his days with his mates on the street and appeared to have little or no respect for either parent or any other authority figure.
When the family attended for the first session it was clear that communication was a serious issue. It seemed impossible for any family member to complete a sentence without interruption from another, and Roy and Jenny were unable to agree about any issue. Jenny believed her son had a psychiatric disorder which could only resolve with time, while Roy was of the view that if they could "work together as a family" they may be able to influence Ben. While initially surly, Ben soon engaged in the session by describing how both his parents contributed to the family's difficulties, and, in particular, the fighting between them. As this unfolded, the younger children quietly slipped out of the room. Despite the fact that they were divorced, it was apparent that Roy and Jenny remained highly reactive to eachother, and Ben to each of them. They were, in Olson's schema, chaotically enmeshed, without the communication skills to resolve the changing needs of this family as a separated unit with an adolescent who required a flexible blend of independence and parental control.
Work with the family focussed on improving communication and respect between the parents in order to cooperatively join in managing Ben's difficult behaviour. Practically, this involved an agreement to ‘stop yelling', disengage from conflict and to respond to Ben's challenges in a planned way, utilising the best of each parents' skills. Each has been encouraged to set firm, yet reasonable limits which can be effectively enforced. Gradually change is occurring, with Ben irregularly attending school, spontaneously tidying his room and reacting less negatively to parental demands. Jenny has reduced her yelling and chooses not to respond to Roy's efforts to engage her in conflict. She is now actively seeking greater independence from Roy. While there is still a need for further change, the family could now be characterised as moving towards flexible connection.
¹ Bower Place (www.bowerplace.com.au) is a Registered Training Organisation and clinical practice of psychologists, family therapists and psychiatrists which offers seminars and internships designed to meet CPD requirements.