In the 1960s, a team of theorists and psychologists at the Mental Research Institute (MRI) in Palo Alto, California started to study communication in families in a new way. This team recognized that self-reinforcing and self-correcting feedback loops occur in many fields, including neurology, evolutionary biology and even mechanical and electrical systems. Such systems constantly adjust themselves. A good example is the thermostat in your house. When the thermostat registers that the temperature falls, the furnace kicks on until the house heats up. When the desired temperature is reached, the thermostat lets the furnace know it can shut off. And around and around it goes.

They applied those observations to psychology, suggesting that as people in families communicate with each other, they respond in similar feedback loops. Individuals, they found, not only react to each other but also react to each other’s reactions. This leads the first person or group to react to those reactions and so forth in an endless communication loop.

A well known example is the “pursuer-distance” relationship of some couples. When pursuers feel there is too much space between them and a partner, they pursue. If the distancers feel they are being crowded, they distance in order to get some space. If the distancer distances too much, the pursuer again pursues. And around and around it goes.

To describe their new understanding of family dynamics, they adopted the term cybernetics. This word was originally used in the 40’s by Norbert Weiner who defined it as “the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine.”

The MRI team identified two types of feedback loops: Symmetrical – where people respond to each other in similar ways and Complementary – where one person yields to or supports the other. Neither is more “correct” than the other. When expressed in healthy ways, either type of feedback loop results in growth and positive change. But, if not checked by cultural norms or positive values, the communication loop can get out of control and become unhealthy and destructive.

The team went on to more clearly specify healthy as well as unhealthy ways that symmetrical or complementary relationships can work.

In healthy symmetrical relationships, the two parties mirror each other. One person’s success gets celebrated (respected, admired) from the other who then works to be equally successful who then gets celebrated (respected, admired) for their success and so forth. An unhealthy example of symmetry would be of two siblings who are brutally competitive with each other. Neither can rest in their anxiety to always be on top. Each spends his life anxiously looking over his shoulder to see whether his brother is besting him and renewing his own efforts to be best and first.

In healthy complementary relationships, the pattern of each person’s behavior fits or is complementary to the other. Sometimes this is expressed as a division of labor where one person takes on a project while the other provides support for that person’s success which makes the other person more successful which is then supported by the other. Both recognize and appreciate the other’s contribution to the project.  An unhealthy complementarity can be seen in couples where one person dominates disrespects and controls the other and the other person responds by becoming more and more passively the victim.

For a more thorough explanation of these communication patterns, see Watzlawick, Beavin and Jackson, Pragmatics of Human Communication: A Study of Interactional Patterns, Pathologies and Paradoxes, Norton Books, 1967.

Some of the most brilliant and innovative thinkers in psychology at the time, including such luminaries as Gregory Bateson, Paul WatzlawickRichard Fisch, Jules Riskin, Virginia SatirSalvador MinuchinR.D. LaingIrvin D. Yalom, Jay Haley and Cloe Madanes were drawn to Palo Alto to engage in the research and to learn from each other. Their experimental and innovative work forms the basis of much of what we do in family therapy today.

Why? Because the work at Palo Alto was a seismic shift in thinking. Cybernetics asked us to stop looking at problematic behaviors of individuals in a family and instead to consider the family as a “system,” an organic and ecological whole whose members are in constant communication with and reaction to each other.

Treatment necessarily then moved from treating each individual to treating the communication within the system as a whole. Yes, the field of family therapy has evolved and changed over the last 50+ years. But I think it’s important that we not forget key principles from this early work.

Why Remember Cybernetics:

It reminds us that neither pattern is the “right” way to set up a relationship.

 It’s only human to believe that the way we have chosen to structure our own relationship is best. But there are many healthy ways (both symmetrical and complementary) for people to be in a significant or married relationship. Whether the therapist is in a more complementary marriage of bread-winner and homemaker or in a more symmetrical relationship based on egalitarian principles, it is not his or her job to promote what works for them. It’s the therapist’s job to look for the health or potential for health in a couple’s unique pattern of relating and to help them strengthen it.

It is non-judgmental.

Describing a pattern of communication that the couple or family has fallen into removes the idea that someone is to blame for the problems. Rather, everyone has become stuck in a pattern that is causing pain and everyone is, however unwittingly, reinforcing it.

It short circuits the idea that someone started it.

When thinking cybernetically, it is impossible to figure out who started a problem interaction. It is understood that, yes, someone did something that triggered someone else but it’s pointless to go digging through history for that moment. The fact is that a person can only be triggered if they have a sensitivity to whatever the other person does and the person doing the triggering may not have any idea that they are setting off something in the partner. It’s more helpful to look at the circularity of their interaction and help everyone involved understand it and decide how to change it.

It puts the couple (or family members) on the same team.

Having established the no one is to blame and that who or what started it doesn’t matter, it is easier to help the couple or family members stop fighting with each other and instead to turn their attention to mutually solving the problem.

It changes the goal of treatment from fixing an individual to fixing a pattern.

When people are reacting to each other’s reactions to each other’s reactions, the goal becomes to intrude on the cycle, not to define the problem as the need to fix one or more person’s “issues” Often this mindset has an interesting effect. The couple or family does work on changing their communication pattern. But, it also reduces the defensiveness of individuals and makes each more open to working on their particular concerns.