Breaking the Vicious Cycle: 5 Family Therapy Interventions

Person with long hair wearing had and down jacket stands on rock looking out to waterProblems that make their way to family therapy tend to involve self-reinforcing—or circular—dynamics and, as such, are commonly called “vicious cycles” or even “vicious circles.” When people become “stuck in a rut,” so to speak, a problem has morphed into a cycle of cause, effect, and attempted solutions.

In other words, even legitimate attempts to solve a problem seem to somehow perpetuate it.

By the time a person (or couple, or family) enters therapy, they are often aware on some level of the nature of the cycle they are stuck in, and motivated to try something new.

This is therapy’s opportunity.

People thoroughly entrenched in problems have underlying resiliency. Family therapist Carl Whitaker (1989) wrote, “Psychopathology is proof of psychological health. The individual who is distorted in his thinking is essentially carrying on an open war in himself rather than capitulating …”

Effective therapy need not reinvent a person; rather, systemic therapists wrestle with people in their care to stir their own latent creative energies to free themselves from being stuck in their quagmires. It is ultimately always the people in therapy who become free and responsible over their lives, not the therapist.

Therapeutic experiencing invokes a kind of psychological immune response. In the best of cases, multiple interdependent systems experience simultaneous positive effect. In the course of therapeutic work, I utilize interventions that turn circular tailspin into dialectical liftoff.

I must credit these ideas, broadly, to the pioneering integrative systems theory of Gregory Bateson, to whom many of the founding mothers and fathers of our field owe their inspiration.


The use of feedback to engage the parallel emotional process.

At every turn, I believe it is my responsibility to circle back around to mindful reflection of my therapeutic interaction with people. I tell them about my experience of them—what I have felt, wondered, observed, and thought, including my evolving hypotheses.

I sometimes go to great lengths to understand and cajole them to understand some of the basic relational dynamics taking place between us in therapy to stir perspective outside the therapy room.

Isomorphism as intervention is about intentionality as a therapist in cultivating emotional-relational transparency oriented toward therapeutic intimacy.

When built on openness, respect, and curiosity—and while maintaining a practice of accountability with people in therapy—engaging at this level has the potential to infuse transformative power into the therapy process.


The use of evaluative assessment to gain contextual perspective.

Recently the Rosetta space probe arrived at its destination after a 10-year journey of more than 600 million miles through our galaxy. When it arrived, it spent months carefully orbiting around comet 67P, aka Churyumov-Gerasimenko, in order to study it from afar. Rosetta first had to get a sense of the shapeliness of the mass, understand a bit of its terrain, and strategize where best to send its lander.

Philae, the landing module that Rosetta had brought along, eventually made its careful descent to the comet. Unfortunately, despite careful planning, the lander bounced at least twice after landing on the surface, and when it landed, it was in a shadow, near the bottom of a towering ridge, unable to absorb the sunlight necessary for its own battery and the continuity of the mission.

After the mishap, scientists reassessed that the unthinkable position of the lander may have a serendipitous upside—as the comet nears the sun, the lander may find itself exposed to the beams of sun necessary to charge itself yet remain shielded enough to carry on for much longer than planned.

As we survey territory, I must be skilled enough to avoid major obstacles, and we must be joined well enough together to traverse through pummeling, disorienting space dust in order, ultimately, for people in therapy to gain an awesome, sometimes catalyzing, perspective of larger processes governing their lives. And we must roll with resistance in the process, reframing stumbles as opportunities.

Oh, and just in case it crossed your mind—yes, assessment is intervention!


Analyzing perceptual alongside communicative patterns in order to disentangle them.

Bateson (1979) described how people become stuck in their own rigidity—how, for instance, presupposed ideas are supported by a social system which conversely supports the presupposed ideas because the social system itself is a vast recursion full of individuals with presupposed ideas.

The proverbial “chicken or the egg” really cannot do justice at this level of complexity.

Bateson commonly called abduction “the double description,” and he by this referred to extrapolating patterns of mental processes alongside patterns of adaptive processes. It is fascinating to consider—all forms of communication truly are adaptive; and perception is nearly inextricably tied into it.

We must move far beyond learning as insight-comprehension to a kind of learning-while-learning, with, for instance, communicative shifts occurring simultaneously alongside perceptual shifts and each reinforcing the other—Bateson (1972) called this “deutero-learning” or “Learning II.”

As people in therapy grasp shared aspects of the perceptual and communicative processes within themselves and their families, the possibility increases that as they decode interrelationships, they will learn to disembody the problem transfixed within them. In other words, they may learn increasingly to dissociate themselves in some way from their problem and thereby become disentangled from it.

Bateson (1977) once wrote, “As you become aware that you are doing it, you become in a curious way much closer to the world around you,” and this is its therapeutic power. This, Bateson (1991) argued, is because “meaning is not internal. It is between parts.”


Practicing the problem in order to demystify and rend it less powerful.

Once people in therapy have come to experience a problem differently in-session, they will come to experience it differently in life. Experience will beget experience, as it nearly always does.

And so I find it of the highest necessity that the people I work with in therapy bring their problem(s) into therapy. This may seem to be stating the obvious. What I mean, though, is that for our therapeutic relationship to affect change in the lives of the people I help, we must somehow experience the problem together in vivo.

When people are tempted to go on recursively explaining problems, I let them know they can choose between carrying on, remaining in the safe position of knowing what they know already, or experientially exploring with me aspects of presence, emotion, or communication to risk gaining what they may have never known.

Summoning the spirit of the problem may necessarily come of its own accord, as its cajoling may constitute an ethical breach for the therapist, depending on the nature of the problem. Nonetheless, nearly inevitably, and often in the midst of a presumed period of improvement, the therapy room becomes proving ground.


The spontaneous and creative stirring of images and feelings to energize positive changes.

When the positive end of one magnet is placed against the negative end of another, an invisible force pulls them together. Likewise, when the magnet’s positive end is placed against the positive end of another, they repel one another. Two pieces of uncharged metal neither attract nor repel.

There is magnetism in the emotional systems of families and, to greater or lesser degrees, between every family member. The force between two is skewed by an intervening third, and so on.

The challenge of therapy is of how to work therapeutically with processes that bind and unbind, generating flexibility and instilling resilience. To grow, people must experience freedom within the felt pushes and pulls of powerful self-perpetuating forces in which problems—and families—maintain themselves.

Bateson (1972) himself suggested that painting, poetry, music, dance, and other metaphoric art forms serve as a bridge between the conscious and the unconscious, a way of communicating outwardly what dwells inwardly, abductively and evocatively affording us opportunities to enter into the relationships they express.

Whitaker (1989) taught us that what is therapeutic is not necessarily the experience itself but the meaning the person in therapy attaches to it. Quite so, if the person is to change, then transformative experiencing must occur. Success is quantum leap from one state—or state of meaning—to another.

And who but the therapist must invoke it?

(Incidentally, these modes of intervention spell “I CARE.” You can credit the acronym to me.)


  1. Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an ecology of mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  2. Bateson, G. (1977). Afterword. In J. Brockman (Ed.). About Bateson: Essays on Gregory Bateson (pp. 235-247). New York: E. P. Dutton.
  3. Bateson, G. (1979). Mind and nature: A necessary unity. New York: Bantam.
  4. Bateson, G. (1991-published posthumously). A sacred unity: Further steps to an ecology of mind. New York: Harper/Collins.
  5. Whitaker, C., and Ryan, M. (1989). Midnight musings of a family therapist. New York: Norton.

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • carolee

    January 6th, 2015 at 10:37 AM

    Have you ever found that allowing that spontaneity can actually cause a great deal of tension in a session?
    I think that I am a little more guarded with what I am feeling as a way to ward off tension and anxiety in other people, trying to protect them I guess just as much as I am protecting myself and the relationship that I have with this other person.
    Sometimes the truth hurts and there are certain people that I would rather not do that too.

  • marc

    January 6th, 2015 at 3:43 PM

    I guess that it isn’t my nature to circumnavigate. Man I tend to want to jump right in, to heck with what the consequences will be. I suppose that for my own safety and sanity I could learn to hold back a little more, investigate a little longer.

  • Ali2199

    January 6th, 2015 at 4:49 PM

    ‘When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.’ I Corinthians 13:11

    Spake, Understood, and Thought. This is the time of year where many of us gaze at the proverbial man in the mirror and ask him/her to commit to the year’s Renaissance. Talk about a vicious cycle. Fat Bastard would say, “I eat because i’m unhappy; I’m unhappy because i eat.” Bad spot to be in man.

    oh yeah Spake is my Isomorphism… Isommorphism, I’z definitely smarter than a lot of people now. Daily Bread. ok BlAKE, sPAKE IS to ISomorphism. Make it plain. Power of life and death is the tongue, all of that. But from the outside looking in it’s impossible (for me) to know just how real someone is keeeping it. I have to have trust that what they tell me is true.
    Look how many words it takes for me to only halfway communicate my ideas. I’m an idiot dude. Because i’m not supposed to write this part of what i’m thinking. Guess what. you read it.
    So if we can trust that words coming from said mouth is truly what is going on inside, then we have to get into that cerebral cortex. I bet the CIRCUMNAVIGATION gets messy. Have you ever tried to get a sane woman, you love, to repeat back a statement (from you) in the correct context? Much less a truly hurt person. Context is one of the detriments to the english language, too many synomyms. Damn man. You want to revisit the roughest places and make it smooth by re-contextualization? You have to have potter’s hands my friend. How strong can a rebuilt psyche become? Pressure busts pipes.
    UNDERSTOOD as a child; detangling. I love that you understand the link between the two. People live in what they percieved reality. Altruism’s only lives in the mind but is hardly ever manifested in deed. I find now that while i have a firm handle on my body, my thoughts are what i fight to purify. I guess the result is shown in a systems change. Something compels to completely throw out the outdated (childish) systems of the past.
    THOUGHT as child. I think we victimize ourselves. Long after the act itself is completed, the mental imprint just kicks your butt over and over again. You want to let go, let God, but how the brain has almost been rewired to never forget. Recapitulation to render powerless. Finding the point where control was lost, the (bitter)sweet spot? Can you put a price on being able to take back your life, self worth, dignity, etc? That moment that it all fell down; when helplessness was all you had.
    Question, in this stage are you picking up pieces and putting them back together. Or do you crush the pieces and reconstitute the clay? Make a new pot from what was old and rejected?
    Thanks for helping us as we put away childish things.
    Love the article Doc and look forward to reading more from you. Please excuse the informal nature but i write how i talk sometimes.

  • Jenna

    January 7th, 2015 at 3:42 AM

    I would like to know some thoughts on when it would be appropriate to go into counseling together as a family and when it would be considered a right time to do counseling on your own.

    I am 23 and have had some crazy things happen in the past, both as a result of choices that I have made and from choices that my parents made. I am not blaming them but there are still a lot of unanswered questions that I have about my childhood and need some resolution.

    They tell me I am grown now, to work on it myself, but how do I ever get them to own up to their part that they played? or is that wrong of me and do I at this point just work on my own things and leave theirs behind?

  • Christine

    January 7th, 2015 at 2:24 PM

    Jenna, part of the recovery process is acceptance. We cannot make people feel our experience of past events. This is true of our families and other significant relationships. In my experience, I have found that it creates more pain for myself when I get stuck trying to get others to ‘own’ their stuff.

    I can own my own stuff and I can own my recovery and healing.

  • Grace

    January 7th, 2015 at 4:22 PM

    Therapy is a relationship you enter for yourself; a mirror for you to heal from and grow. It is not your responsibility to cause them to own up to the pain/mistakes they’ve caused or to force anyone to have a realization that they aren’t ready to make. For that, there’s got to be a willingness to repair and atone and that is impossible for anyone other than THEMSELVES to make. Your responsibility is to heal from that pain that others may have caused and do everything in your power to learn how to stop it from continuing to harm you.

  • CT

    January 8th, 2015 at 3:22 PM

    There will always be those families though who sort of thrive and get a kick out of the fact that they are so dysfunctional. These are the families that don’t necessarily wish to heal because this is how they identify themselves and that to them is something that they do not want to give up. Honestly, I like that my family is a little quirky and I would never want to change that. Now if I thought that there was real dysfunction there then of course I would be open to making some resolutions for change.

  • Blake Griffin Edwards

    January 9th, 2015 at 10:58 AM

    Carolee, spontaneity can, indeed, cause tension in a session. Broadly speaking, health and resilience in relationships and life require a highly developed capacity for flexibility and adaptability. To what extent should we be striving to avoid generating tension and anxiety in our clients? I recognize the danger of misinterpretation in saying this, but to the extent that sessions are purely safe from tension and anxiety for clients, they may also be unhelpful in the long run. You said “the truth hurts” and “not wanting to do that to people.” I must share my contention that it is the therapist’s role to interpret “truth” for their clients. The best of therapy is aimed at growing people so that they have an increased capacity to live and choose their own lives well, and life is full of the unexpected and the unknown. Could it be that in the course of a safe and trusting therapeutic relationship, there is an important value to spontaneity in shaping and guiding the therapeutic process? I sure do think so. Thank you again for your comment.

    Marc, yes, I would dissuade you from the attitude “to heck what the consequences will be.” The consequences are of the utmost importance, aren’t they? Thank you for your comment.

    Ali, I love your poetic reflection. Images of pressure busting pipes and of a potter’s hands shaping beauty out of shapeless clay. Wisdom of letting go of outdated systems of dealing with problems in our lives, purifying our thoughts, and surrendering control to God. Thank you for your comment.

    Jenna, family relationships are ground zero for our development. Regardless who attends, your family will never be emotionally far from the scene. If your family members were willing to participate in counseling sessions with you, there is potential for the facilitation of important conversations by a skilled therapist. It may, however, be important at this stage in your young adulthood to engage in some therapy without other family members participating in order to most safely process with you some of the difficult experiences you have had. Such therapy may prepare you for navigating the long journey ahead as you face and work through these issues with your family. I wish you the best as you take courage and steps forward along this way.

    Christine, Grace, and CT, thank you as well for contributing your perspective!! :)

    Blake Griffin Edwards

  • cade

    January 14th, 2015 at 3:59 AM

    i want to somehow break the cycle of my family history of violence but i try to get away from it and then there is always something that pulls me back in

    how do i break that chain pulling me back for good?

    or do i have to?

  • Blake Griffin Edwards

    March 10th, 2015 at 3:44 PM


    I recommend you utilize the therapist directory and locate a counselor near you to work with. It is, indeed, important work and necessary.

    Blake Griffin Edwards

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