Gail Simon

Published in Context 1999

Let’s abandon the term “family therapy” as we know it. It is too steeped in restrictive discourses and political intent.

“Family” is most often used to describe biological or legal relationships between a group of individuals. It has come to be associated with being a healthy, legitimised forum - for what? - the production of children, the justification of child oriented services? The discourses of biology and legitimacy are used to reinforce notions of “real” family and pseudo family, the latter being granted a conditional and temporary membership by dominant, white, conservative, heterosexual institutions. “Family” is a right wing term used by the ruling classes to create an idea of a particular kind of peopled unit.

The term “family” is, by implication, excluding of individuals, people without children, systems of significant others who do not identify themselves as a family; it excludes couples, pets, friends, classmates and other social systems. The term family therapy is undermining of sole attendees whether “family” members or not.

As “family” therapists we may try amongst ourselves to be inclusive of others who may not fit within a “normal” or dominant notion of “family” i.e. a 2+2 or 2+5. So we invent the “single parent family”, the “reconstituted” or “step family”, the “lesbian/gay family” - as opposed to the “family” which rarely has the implied adjective of conventional or normal attached to it.

Why do “family” therapists try to include more and more social systems under the umbrella of “family”? Why try to recognise these others as “real” families? They are often not mere variations on a theme but quite different social formations and political entities. Such social systems may indeed be in need of services but are not in need of an invitation from family therapists to define themselves in such a way so they are eligible to receive a service. Maybe it is “family” therapy which needs to redefine itself so it can free itself from the paradox of its invitation: “We’ll treat you as if you were an authentic family so we can call ourselves family therapists”.

One might say that there is no such thing as “family” therapy - there are only people who call themselves “family” therapists and who constantly name their practices with the certainty of a reality which helps to preserve an otherwise fragile institution. Let’s face it, the practice of “family” therapy, the training courses and institutes who use the term “family” in their name do not get funding solely because they offer an alternative way of treating an unhappy or unruly child or family member. They get funding because of a political concern in mainstream society to support and promote notions of the conventional family.

This may not be a professional concern, as opposed to managerial concern, of institute directors, course leaders and family therapists. Perhaps this is why family therapists are inclined these days towards inclusivity.

There is something sinister for me about inclusivity. There have been many attempts by liberal institutions to deactivate the threat of difference by inviting, incorporating the “other” into the mainstream, into the dominant language of the professional and broader right wing power structures. But this invitation can only offer a conditional membership within the dominant culture: ‘you may be seen as a “family” as long as you agree to use the child as a starting point for the referral, so long as you agree to the type of treatment method, so long as you are relatively amiable and not too threatening to the dominant heterosexual/white culture’.

And of course one does get black social systems, lesbian or gay social systems, gay and black social systems who choose to go along with a definition of “family” and there are professionals who define as “family” therapists despite being gay and/or black and who may choose to work the “parliamentary” end of the system to confirm for colleagues that it is possible to incorporate lesbians, gay men and black people - without too much disturbance to the dominant culture of the institution. Those who choose not to fit in with a “family” therapist’s story of family or those therapists who challenge the dominant culture of the employing authority, their colleagues’ well intentioned liberalism, are likely to have the old stories of pathology revived for them.

Lesbian, gay and black “families” may argue that they have had to fight to get on the map in terms of  receiving services, to be recognised as having different struggles. That may be, but let us maintain an irreverent relationship with the “map” and with the influences on the creators of a map.

If we accept that the “family” is a central means for the reproduction of culture, then we need to accept that different groups are likely to be wanting to produce different cultures while being under the influence of a mainstream dominant culture. Many groups of people may not choose to show the “family” therapist the culture they are wanting to produce if they perceive the therapist as being from another culture and having a language which seems to expect “normality” across the board.

Let’s dump the term “family”, dump the concept of “marital” and reinvent the genogram so it does not privilege biology and legitimacy. In creating genograms, let’s expand the notion of system with less reference to biologically or geographically grouped relatives and ask questions like

  • “Who are the most important people in your life?”
  • “When you were born, who were the people who were most around you?”
  • “In two years time, who would you like to be closest to you and in what ways?”
  • “If you could design the perfect social network, what would it look like?”
  • “Who are the people with whom you have the most useful conversations?”
  • “Who would you want to be like when you grow up?”
  • “Do you have any pets who you want to include in this Who’s Who?”
Let’s experiment with alternative words for family therapy such as
  • relationship
  • counselling
  • working with child
  • oriented systems
  • systemic/structural
  • practitioner
  • systems therapy
  • systems as a noun to describe groupings of people not a particular approach)
And for family:
  • significant others
  • close relationships
  • social systems
And of particular importance, let’s stay mindful of what stories clients might have about our stories about families which might act to restrict what gets brought forth.

I expect that, for most “family” therapists, the amount of work with conventional families is actually a small part of their work and that “family” therapy is not an accurate enough description of their work with most of their clients.

So what would happen if we ceased to use the term “family therapy”? With clients I imagine it would hardly matter; with colleagues we would find alternative ways of describing our workload and approach; with funders, hmm…., how would we describe the uniqueness of the systemic or structural approach? Could we compete with the title of psychiatrist, psychologist? Possibly, but in the meantime, we may need to keep the idea of “family” alive to maintain our professional identity and funding for the work we do - but let’s not kid ourselves that it’s “families” we are working with.


Clap - But the single parent family really exists!
Trap - Meaning?
Clap - Meaning they have special needs, particular struggles.
Trap - Unlike…..?
Clap - Unlike two parent families who have a joint income (that’s if they are both working) and who have each other (that’s if they are getting on okay) and who are socially more acceptable (so long as they aren’t living in another dominant culture of whiteness, heterosexuality or class).
Trap - So the single parent family is….?
Clap - The single parent family is worth paying attention to.
Trap - Agreed but why call it that?
Clap - Because that’s what it is!
Trap - Why not call it a mono-adult child oriented system?
Clap - What?!
Trap - Or non-coupled parenthood? Abandoned parent system? When you use the term single parent family, how do you distinguish between parents who choose to parent alone over those who have been left by the other parent or who have grown up in a culture where parenting is done by a sole resident parent? Do you distinguish by age, culture or gender?
Clap - Of course!
Trap - So what exactly is a single parent family?
Clap - It can be lots of things as you point out? The single parent family also has different economic rights.
Trap - Is it an economically defined term then?
Clap - To a small degree. They also experience prejudice from others for being a lone parent.
Trap - From the same people and authorities who are prejudiced against gay people?
Clap - Probably.
Trap - From the same people and authorities who are prejudiced about black people?
Clap - Possibly.
Trap - Social systems suffering stigma. All non-traditional families could be renamed S.S.S.S.’s. “The QuadrupleS has arrived in reception.” But why give ‘single parent families’ a name when it’s clearly the bigots who need a name? Bigots Undermining Meaningful Systems. B.U.M.S.
Clap - Oh really


Clap - Well, you have to admit to lesbian and gay families?
Trap - Admit them to the institution? Admit they exist? Yes, they exist.
Clap - So. You admit it.
Trap - Yes, there are lesbian and gay realities. Many. Some dykes or fags have kids. That’s not the point. Having a child does not mean you choose to define as a “family”. It’s the same for some straight people; much as they may benefit from a degree of societal approval based on how they look and the fact they have done the reproduction thing, they may still want to think of themselves differently. But that’s a choice they can make. Lesbians and gay men have no choice - unless some members of the dominant heterosexual culture grant them a temporary pass.
Clap - What’s wrong with being given an invitation to join in the dominant culture? It can give people power, status, equality.
Trap -Okay. I’m a white master, you’re a black slave and I’m giving you your freedom. Do you think that means you will be treated by me as an equal in society?
Clap - But you have to start somewhere…..
Trap - Yes, but joining the dominant culture, being incorporated into the mainstream, isn’t the place to start. It just leads to a direct erosion of an attempt at alternative culture and to a false idea that serious change is at hand when it isn’t. My gay brother can’t fuck his boyfriend because he is 17 years old and if they do, they’ll go to prison. Gay youths have higher suicide rates than their straight peers. Some psychoanalytic trainings still enquire whether applying trainees have performed penetrative heterosexual sex and do not admit gay trainees. You have to be careful which institution you are allying yourself with. They have to able to prove themselves.
Clap - But how? I’m gay. I’m black. I have a family. I have a job as a family therapist and I don’t really know what to do with what you are saying. And if I feel that, what must your white straight readers feel?
Trap - You mean there must be a nice way of saying this or don’t say it at all? That’s the bind if one does try to address these issues. Why bother anyway? So there can be an idea of some understanding or knowledge that has been created to work with other social groupings as if we were just another version of the same?
Clap - But these ideas are important.
Trap - Now they are important? Ideas are a burden. Having them isn’t always helpful.
Clap - How do you know?
Trap - Then you write them.
Clap - As Clap or as Trap?

Gail Simon works as a systemic practitioner with the Pink Practice, a lesbian and gay systemic therapy practice in London.