In their now classic family therapy text, The Family Crucible (1978), Napier and Whitaker outline two main “battles” between therapists and clients: The battle for structure and the battle for initiative.
At the time of their writing, concepts of resistance and unconscious processes were accepted within the family therapy field; this may have been due, partly, to the fact that many family therapy pioneers were trained as psychiatrists. While family therapy has moved beyond these views of the therapist-client relationship, there are still ways in which family therapists can use Napier and Whitaker's "battles" to inform and enhance their work.
The Battle for Structure
Napier and Whitaker (1978) posit that when family members request therapy, and the therapist requests they bring their entire family to therapy, the response is resistance (discomfort, fear, etc.). According to Napier and Whitaker, families know that if they come to therapy together, “their whole world would be exposed" (p. 10), and they present obstacles to meeting together, as a result. This “battle” between family therapists' attempt to manage who attends therapy and the family's discomfort with meeting together is the battle for structure.
The battle for structure is, in essence, the decision over who will attend the therapy meeting. Napier and Whitaker (1978) say, “every [family] member is important,” and when families "elect" to attend therapy without a particular family member, they are not only deciding to go against the therapist’s request, they are also sending a subtle (or not so subtle) message to the missing member: The missing member will wonder, "Do I matter?"
In The Family Crucible (1978), Napier and Whitaker present a family therapy case in which a family arrives to the initial session without their son, Don. Whitaker responds by asking the parents to call Don and remind him that he is expected in the therapy session. Until Don arrives, Whitaker stops family members when they begin talking about problems, reminding them that it would be best to wait until Don is present. Whitaker reminds the family that he asked for all family members to be in the session, and the family responds that Don didn't hold up his agreement to attend. Whitaker then explains to the family that he believes the family elected Don to be absent in order to contain the anxiety related to meeting together. This is a back-and-forth between Whitaker and the parents regarding the fact that a family member is missing. Rather than moving into problems, or other clinical topics, Whitaker makes the missing member the focus of the first session, despite the family's urgency to cope with a crisis.
"Families come into therapy with their own structure, and tone, and rules. Their organization, their pattern, has been established over years of living, and it is extremely meaningful and very painful for them. They would not be in therapy if they were happy with it. But however faulty, the family counts on the familiarity and predictability of their world. If they are going to turn loose this painful predictability and attempt to reorganizae themselves, they need firm external support.” (Napier & Whitaker, p. 11)
Firm External Support
Napier and Whitaker (1978) give a framework for how therapists can provide firm external support for families in therapy--they can maintain the structure of therapy and through this show that they are able to consistently and courageously deal with clients' pain and problems.
The authors also emphasize that therapists can hold firm to structure (the role that belongs to them) by deciding who talks and when. This managing of voices in the therapy session comes from therapists' acceptance of their responsibility for maintaining balance and participation from clients, rather than from an authoritative position. Whitaker invites specific family members to respond, and when others answer, or when the invited member passes, he gently moves the focus back to the invited member. In this way, he maintains structure for the therapeutic conversation.
The Battle for Initiative
In the beginning stages of therapy, therapists initiate therapeutic conversation by aksing questions, interpreting, clarifying, as well as other interviewing skills. As therapy continues, the responsibility for change and family dialogue must rest on the clients. Napier and Whitaker (1978) say, “If therapy was to succeed, [the family] had to know, early in the process, that their initiative, their will to fight and struggle and push and try, was essential to a successful outcome” (p. 62). Therefore, the responsibility for change, pace, momentum, action, etc., rests not on therapists, but on family members (or individual clients, when relevant).
Whitaker (1978) used his silence to allow clients to interact and to push "everyone into their own internal resources" (p. 64), because he believed that the purpose of therapy is for the family to "relate and struggle" in the therapist's presence (p. 64). Napier and Whitaker also stand against using explanation or teaching as a way to foster change, because this relies on the belief that cognitive knowledge, or insight, is sufficient for new action. They cite Franz Alexander's conclusion that "the voice of the intellect is too soft' (p. 11). They emphasize that amidst the anxiety and emotional turmoil that families bring to therapy, education can't "touch them," and for this reason, they prefer experiential moments. In their words, “Therapy is a catalytic 'agent' which we hope will help the family unlock their own resources.”
Summary: How to Apply The "Battles"
Napier and Whitaker's (1978) concepts of the battle for structure and the battle for initiative remind us today that there are clear ways therapists can direct therapy. Using collaboration, empathy, and gentle language that maintains appropriate boundaries, you can guide clients securely through treatment, as they find their resources and relational courage.
For suggestions on how to apply these concepts in therapy, download the free cheat sheet below.
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- What one thing from these battles do you most want to master?
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