Metaframeworks: My approach to family therapy

The Metaframeworks approach to therapy influences the work that I do with clients. I was trained in Metaframeworks at Wheaton Youth Outreach in the Chicago area during the turn of the 21st century, and have always appreciated the flexible and integrative approach that looks at the whole person, and his or her surroundings. The Metaframeworks approach was developed by Douglas Bruenlin, Richard Schwartz, and Betty Mac Kune-Karrer, who borrowed from major theories of family therapy (strategic, structural, Milan model, Bowenian, etc.) and added additional insights and perspectives to look at what’s going on inside the individual (Schwartz uses the term internal family systems to describe his approach) as well as how gender and culture impact the way the family works.

As the authors note in the preface to the book Metaframeworks: Transcending the Models of Family Therapy, “Multiculturalism, feminism, and individualism have had impacts that are producing tension around issues such as equality of opportunity and privilege.” To put it simply, you can’t just look at the way family members interact with each other. You have to look at the culture they live in, just like you have to pay attention to the weather when you’re looking at how well the heating and air conditioning systems are working in your home. Some families are struggling, not because of the stuff going on in the family itself, but because of the neighborhood, community, or society where they are living. As a graduate school professor memorably put it to me, “It’s hard to be Amish in Beverly Hills.”

The Metaframeworks approach focuses on constraints as a key to understanding how to focus attention in therapy. What’s keeping this person or family stuck, and how do we get unstuck? By asking this question, we go beyond simply giving a diagnosis and prescribing medications or giving out homework assignments. Part of the therapy process is giving family members a chance to get freed up from the shame, pain, and secrets that keep them stuck in rigid patterns. Part of the process is also looking at how they fit in the broader culture and the community where they live. I do this in a way that is very respectful to the freedoms and rights of the clients. The goal is to give family members permission to change and support and encouragement to take risks. When the constraints are removed, healing happens naturally.

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