Honoring Resistance in Family Therapy

When we first start out in therapy school, we can’t help how excited we are to get out there and heal some humans. Most of us are instantly seduced by all the various models and the promises they make about the potential for humans to change. Over and over again, we fall in love with the very notion that a conversation can heal pain. And we can’t wait to get out there and start talking.

That early excitement loses a little steam when we sit in our first lecture about resistance. All the enthusiasm we had for any given method of therapy screeches to a halt when we realize that they only work if the client cooperates. Without even knowing it, new practitioners begin to formulate the understanding that a resistant client is an adversary. It is made clear to us that their resistance must be overcome if we’re going to make any progress. 

How Should We Deal with Resistance?

Some models argue for directly confronting the resistance. Some suggest interpreting it as a client’s attempt to sabotage their progress. Still others encourage us to view resistance as a sign that the client isn’t ready for the next step, and that therapy should slow down. But no matter which way we slice it, resistance is understood as an enemy.

It’s odd, because we’re simultaneously taught to respect the client, and to allow them some autonomy in the process. Some models even argue for the client to drive both the pace and the content of the therapy. So then, what are we supposed to do with resistance? It doesn’t matter if resistance is a signal that the therapy is going too fast, or defiant opposition to what we’re trying to achieve in the room. It’s still something we have to deal with.  But how are we supposed to deal with it while simultaneously respecting the client’s autonomy?

My mentors all said the same thing: to deal with resistance, you have to talk about it. So that’s what I did. And sometimes it worked. But more often, it blew up in my face. (I’m remembering one client in particular who told me where I could place my “theories” about his childhood.) When spending time with resistance didn’t work, the field reassured me that some clients are just not ready for therapy. I was taught that they were the problem, not me. Not the therapy.

It was all just a little too convenient. I went looking for a new take on resistance—and found it in family therapy. 

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Structure vs. Flexibility

In family therapy, we understand families as systems—single systems made up of carefully constructed parts with very specific ways of operating. Like any system, there must be mechanisms of flexibility that allow for change, as well as mechanisms of stability that prevent change. 

What happens with too much structure

In the family therapy world, if a system is too fixed or too rigid, then it can’t adapt to  fluctuations, and it’ll eventually collapse. I always like to think of those old-fashioned wind-up toys as a good example of this. Usually the clockwork inside of the toy that makes it buzz, waddle, or spin is made of metal. 

Over time, the inner clockwork rusts, and the toy is broken. Its internal system has no flexibility—no mechanism built into it to allow it to adapt to weather or wear. Families that are too rigid, like an old tin soldier, don’t really make it. Their “parts”—or family members—eventually rust, and the family breaks. This is when you see things like divorce, runaways, or children who become estranged.

What happens with too much flexibility

On the other hand, if a system is too flexible, you have an entirely different problem. I’m reminded of this whenever I let my three-year-old paint without giving her outlines and “color rules.” She’ll declare at the beginning of the activity that she wants to make a unicorn, and reach for the purple. After applying a shapeless blob of purple to the paper, she’ll then reach for the yellow (because that’s pretty), and add it in. After that comes red, then green, and before long, her “unicorn” resembles a large, dripping blob of brown paint. 

At this point, I’m usually drying tears of frustration, and reassuring her that her brown blob looks beautiful to me. Of course, I realize that my “system” was ridiculous, because it allowed for too much change. I didn’t provide her lines. I didn’t provide her rules about mixing colors. I wasn’t rigid enough to keep some kind of “unicorn system” intact.

I see this in families where the executive unit (the parental subsystem) doesn’t function very well, or in homes where no one knows the rules, or where the rules change depending on mood or energy. No one knows which way is up or down, nor can they tell where the family begins and ends. The family has become a giant blob of brown paint.

Using Family Therapy to Find the Right Balance

The families that do best are those that have both flexibility and resistance. Those systems strike a reasonable balance between growth and stability. So when I encounter a resistant family member in therapy, I don’t see it as a problem. 

On the contrary, I recognize that a resistant family member is the reason that any change we make in family therapy has a chance of lasting. If it’s too easy to change the family, then my therapy won’t stick. They’ll inevitably come across another external influence in the middle of our work who will change them again. 

So I don’t fear the resistance—I need it. And the best part? I don’t have to “deal with it.” Family therapy is designed to work well with a resistant family member. The resistant member is engaged in the process as a necessary brake pedal to prevent the family from going too far too fast. This person is really more of an ally to me, and I use the resistance as a gauge to determine how, when, and with whom to intervene.

I find this approach so much more respectful of the client. In my work, resistance isn’t an obstacle. It’s not my adversary. On the contrary, it’s honored as the ultimate reason that the family will be able to maintain the new, healthier dynamic that we create during the course of therapy. Resistance, it turns out, is the reason they’ll make it.

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