Remembering Family Therapist Guru Virginia Satir (1916-1988)

family-holding-hands-in-the-parkHumanistic in nature and concerned with the existential qualities of human relationships, Virginia Satir was considered a founder and leading catalyst in the evolution of experiential family therapies.

Satir’s method revolved around two core elements—family life chronology, in which she sought to understand the developmental patterns of relationships in the family as a basis for change; and family reconstruction, in which she attempted to guide families through a process of engaging positive change using experiential interventions from guided fantasy, guided contemplation, hypnosis, psychodrama, family sculpting, parts parties, and role playing (Gross, 1994; Satir, 1988; Winter and Parker, 1991).

One of Satir’s chief concerns was communication within families. Satir (1988) went as far as to write, “Once a human being has arrived on this earth, communication is the largest single factor determining what kinds of relationships she or he makes with others and what happens to each in the world.”

Satir developed within her model five conceptual styles of communication: placating, blaming, computing, distracting, and congruent communication. In Satir’s conception, placaters act as pleasers and are often self-effacing, blamers act self-righteously and often accuse, computers are emotionally detached and often rigidly intellectual, distracters are unfocused and seemingly unable to relate to what is actually being communicated about or going on in the family, and congruent communicators are expressive, responsible, seem genuine, and articulate themselves clearly and in the appropriate context.

Satir utilized experiential techniques that allowed families to explore, acknowledge, and modify their own communication patterns in-session. Role plays, family sculpting, and guided contemplation were three prevalent forms of experiential communication therapy used by Satir in her work with families.

In observing a family, Satir centered her focus on family interconnectedness, especially triad units, the relationship emotional system between three members of a family. The mother-father-child triad frequently held the center of her attention, as she believed that it is most powerfully in the crucible of this triadic relationship that children begin to learn about and practice intimacy (Baldwin, 1991).

Virginia Satir

Virginia Satir

Satir held four assumptions: (1) All people await the potential of growth and are capable of transformation; (2) people carry all the resources they need for positive growth and development; (3) families are systems wherein everyone and everything impacts and is impacted by everyone and everything else; and (4) the beliefs of counselors are more important than their techniques (Satir and Baldwin, 1983).

Satir was concerned with family members’ uniqueness and potentials, and she was always concerned with their spiritual development as well. Satir (1988) wrote, “I believe [spirituality] is our connection to the universe and is basic to our experience, and therefore is essential to our therapeutic context.”

She challenged behavioral and cybernetic epistemologies, criticizing that, in the effort to change behavior, people’s spirits are often crushed, “crippling the body and dulling the mind.” She saw error in equating the value of a person with the nature of his or her behavior. “Remembering that behavior is something we learn,” she wrote, “… we can simultaneously honor the spirit and foster more positive behavior.”

Satir viewed poor communication as a perpetuator of unhealthy relationships, and she championed more open and congruent communication between and within individuals as a key to increasing awareness, compassion, and connection in families and society (Satir, 1983).

Satir (1986) stated, “[People] use their past to contaminate their present, which in turn creates a future that replicates their past, a stuck place, and often a hopeless quagmire” (changed from past to present tense). She added, “It is the learnings from the past that form the approach to the present. To change the perception and the experience of the present so it can become a steppingstone to a healthier future, I need to somehow introduce ways to stimulate new learnings to take place.”

Satir, unlike her contemporary Carl Whitaker, for instance, was concerned with directly identifying and addressing symptoms. Satir held that symptoms of individuals in families express family pain and that children’s symptoms are related to marital difficulties in which they become triangulated (Luepnitz, 2002).

For Satir, the goal of therapy was essentially to increase self-worth and nurturance within families.

Deborah Luepnitz (2002), a prominent feminist voice in the field, criticized Satir’s theoretical simplicity:

Satir’s fallacy is the fallacy of believing that one can change the world by appealing to principles of therapeutic change alone, ignoring the global political changes that must be understood and grappled with. Satir said in our 1984 interview: “If tomorrow morning, every school, every family, every workplace had a transformation in the middle of the night to love and value themselves and treat others likewise, you know we would transform like that!” [snapping her fingers]. This is hardly a theory of social renewal. It cannot help us understand the extraordinarily complex problems of development in the Third World nations, nor the dismantling of weapon systems, nor the bitter mystery of AIDS. There are reasons that people do not decide in the middle of the night—or by the light of day—to love and work as well as they might … Satir, however, has no theory that will help explain violence or the evil that has broken individuals and entire peoples on the wheel of history. Low self-esteem simply cannot account for the eradication of entire nations.

Luepnitz reasoned that Satir’s concept of “self-esteem” is nothing more than a derivation from ego psychology or else just a crude and imprecise conceptual oversimplification.

Satir’s lack of theoretical clarity and precision cost her equal respect alongside other major family therapy pioneers. Alan Gurman and David Kniskern (1981) chose not to represent Satir’s work in their Handbook of Family Therapy because “no discernible school or therapeutic method has evolved from her contribution.”

Nonetheless, many important family therapy trailblazers who have followed after extol Satir’s inspirational genius. Another distinguished family therapy authority, Lynn Hoffman (1981), attested to “the power of her presence with families” and her “extraordinary and unique contribution” to the field.


  1. Baldwin, M. (1991). The triadic concept in the work of Virginia Satir. In B.J. Brothers (Ed.), Virginia Satir: Foundational ideas. Binghamton, NY: Haworth.
  2. Gross, S. J. (1994). The process of change: Variations on a theme by Virginia Satir. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 34 (3), 87-110.
  3. Gurman, A., and Kniskern, D. (Eds.) (1981). Handbook of family therapy. New York: Brunner/Mazel.
  4. Hoffman, L. (1981). Foundations of family therapy. New York: Basic Books.
  5. Luepnitz, D. A. (2002). The family interpreted: Psychoanalysis, feminism, and family therapy. United States: Basic Books.
  6. Satir, V. (1983). Conjoint family therapy (3rd ). Palo Alto: Science and Behavior Books.
  7. Satir, V. (1986). Foreword. In W. F. Nerin, Family reconstruction: Long days journey into light (pp. v-xii). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
  8. Satir, V. (1988). The new peoplemaking. Mountain View: Science and Behavior Books.
  9. Satir, V., and Baldwin, M. (1983). Satir step by step: A guide to creating change in families. Palo Alto: Science and Behavior Books.
  10. Winter, J. E., and Parker, L. R. E. (1991). Enhancing the marital relationship: Virginia Satir’s parts party. In B. J. Brothers (Ed.), Virginia Satir: Foundational ideas. Binghamton, NY: Haworth.

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  • Leave a Comment
  • trina

    January 16th, 2015 at 8:01 AM

    so ridiculous that someone who made so many contributions but still is probably not recognized the way she should be

  • Thomas

    January 16th, 2015 at 10:06 AM

    It sounds to me that this was a woman far ahead of her time with some very thought provoking ideas on how to heal the broken family dynamic that she had so often encountered.

  • Stan

    January 17th, 2015 at 9:18 AM

    hmmm based on this I am definitely the distracter of the family. I don’t really want to know when things are going wrong, that takes away all of the fun from any interaction, and honestly I think that I am also the person who will try to get others to forget all about that discomfort too. I personally think that life is too short to focus on the small petty things, and that you are missing out on soooo much when these are the things that you choose to give your attention to.

  • Talia

    January 20th, 2015 at 10:42 AM

    “All people await the potential of growth and are capable of transformation”

    I believe that if everyone thought this about others, wow! What an amazing world we would all call home!

  • Blake Griffin Edwards

    January 20th, 2015 at 1:45 PM

    Thanks for your comments!

  • Hannah

    January 22nd, 2015 at 11:20 AM

    Just to add one more thing… I know that those of you who are in the mental health field and are professionals know all about this lady and her thoughts on therapy, but I as a lay person have never heard of her… but find it kind of sad thinking about how there are times that we will work our whole lives on something that we feel is so important and the we never get any recognition for what we have done.

  • Blake Griffin Edwards

    January 23rd, 2015 at 6:48 AM

    Thank you for adding that, Hannah! Fortunately, Virginia Satir was very well loved, indeed. She just didn’t necessarily get all the recognition she deserved. She demonstrated wonderfully creative and compassionate ways to engage clients guided by aspects of communication theory and humanistic ideals and had an enormous impact worldwide through her traveling and teaching. However, her impact did not result in the kind of “cohesive model” or “empirical studies” that our modern world demands. Nonetheless, for anyone interested, I see online that there is an organization called The Virginia Satir Global Network that has a good deal of additional information about this important pioneering woman, particularly on this page:

    Very Respectfully,
    Blake Griffin Edwards

  • Hannah

    January 26th, 2015 at 3:43 AM

    Thanks Blake I will take a peek because she interests me, especially in her thoughts on how we already carry the things within us to make us better people, we just have to know how to gain access to that. I find that very encouraging

  • Bruce R.

    April 10th, 2015 at 6:39 PM

    I am a recovered alcoholic . At 19 years sober for health reasons I was forced to change careers. After an extensive psychological an extensive review and my vocational experience of working with many others in sobriety The Doctor of Psychology had 5 solid recommendations for me to consider. Heading this list was Individual,Couples,Family Counselling. His recommendation was up to a four year Bachelors Program in Social Work which should encompass 4-5 major psychotherapies. The works of Virginia Satire ,Claudia Black , Melody Beatty along with the major Psychotherapies suggested provided me with a very solid basis to work in an area and industry noted for Very serious family dysfunctions .I was through this able to design individualized programs including family role playing . I can say with humility my rate of success was gratifying and today , almost 30 years later , I continue to receive cards of gratitude from former clients .
    For myself , Virginia Satire wrote Family Dynamics , Claudia Black identified the individual roles each family member played , Melody Beattie named the disease within the family , and published works beginning with Co-dependent No More. The Volunteer joint Management / Union non Profit Society Board in a 5 year volunteer follow up of involved families calculated an 86% success rate.
    The common Ground these three Therapists shared was untangling the dilemma of the Dysfunction Family and each of it’s member’s dilemma . I shall forever be grateful recognised and unrecognised Psychotherapy’s . However Virginia Satire, Claudia Black, and Melody Beatty shall always be the Basis I stand on . Thank you for this site .

  • Maria Luz Lara-Marquez MD, PhD

    May 22nd, 2023 at 3:13 PM

    I found this blog in 2023. I don’t know if my comments will be published. I was one of the blessed persons that met Virginia Satir when I was 11 y/o. I had family therapy with her. My mother trained under her and Virginia changed our life forever. She indeed was ahead of her time…Her legacy is invaluable…and in my view totally up to date and much needed. I loved Virginia immensely felt extremely lucky to have her in our lives and has helped me navigate my complexities. Honoring the life and legacy of Virginia! May the Lord have her in heaven! Thank you for this blog. I do think that Deborah Luepnitz missed a lot of what Virginia had to offer. She went to Latin America (our roots) and never dismissed the role of the social struggles the family went through. But what she rescued was that no matter how poor one could be, if as a society we could help these impoverished families with all the love and respect and provide obviously essential goods for survival and make everyone feel their ‘worth’, and elevate their self-esteem we would be helping to empower the people and help them get out of poverty. I feel very blessed to have met and learned from our dear Virginia Satir!

  • Maria Luz Lara-Marquez MD, PhD

    May 22nd, 2023 at 3:15 PM

    Thank you for your sharing! Would love to connect. Regards, Dr. Lara-Marquez

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