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Strange Attractors: Chaos, Complexity, and the Art of Family Therapy

The book I will introduce to the class is Strange Attractors: Chaos, Complexity, and The Art of Family Therapy by Michael R. Butz, Linda L. Chamberlain, and William G. McCown

This book looks at the complexity of the family system and applies Chaos Theory to help therapist understand the dynamics of interpersonal bonds. Since families are open systems in a constant flux, the application of empirical data to unpredictable situation has resulted in failure to address positive therapy. In this book a nonlinear theoretical approach towards family therapy seems to be more effective in the family paradigm.

Family Therapy is a fairly new field in psychological treatment that was developed between the 1940's and 1960's. The book introduces five paradigms shifts that have been used in family therapy: double-bind, Cybernetic Theory, open systems with transformative states, autopoiesis, and most recently self-organization and Chaos Theory. The last example being the focus of the book.

Families...Complex Terrain
Here the book introduces strange attractors in patterns of family interactions. The pull of the strange attractors within a family system come into conflict between solitude–the focusing on oneself–and intimacy in the relationship–the focusing on the other. The fluctuation of love and fear make these elements the definitive strange attractor patterns in relationships for family therapists.

Instead of the normal phase space where the attractors lie, the book introduces “phrase space? which is the pattern of communication that establishes both problems and solutions in families. By mapping phrase space, a therapist is able to realize what is being and not being said in a relationship. It is a way for therapist to describe the family’s boundaries in terms of information. If the family system is unstable the therapist may be able to provide the particular information so that the family will be able to self-organize. Introducing a therapist to a family system is a step towards greater complexity and a way to establish a new strange attractor that can positively restore order in a chaotic family system.

Catching the Butterfly–Chaos in Therapy
Butterfly effect is used in Family Therapy to introduce a new piece of information that will stir the air where it is most stagnant in the family. Therapeutic observations of families are guided by the careful consideration of where the energy is directed in the system. Through the observation, the therapist should determine the types of patterns and try to introduce small perturbations to direct the family away from the attractors that are volatile in the relationship.

Fractals and Forks in the Road
Therapist use fractal models to help derive new treatment strategies for undifferentiated families.
Families described as rigid are lacking in flexibility and chaotic families are unstable because they are too open to change. Unless the family system experiences stress, the fractal generated by such families will be monotonous (sameness) with no bifurcation pointing towards change, thus equilibrium and stagnation set in. This inhibits the family from progressing forward in a positive manner and produces psychological disorders.

At the Turning Point
Here therapists determine whether they should use stabilization or destabilization treatment.
I found it interesting that intervention for dealing with families that are in crises, therapist would introduce more chaos to the already chaotic family system in order to help stabilize the family. The families would self-organize to deal with the chaos introduced and the families would emerge in a more stabilized system. Also the use of introducing new strange attractors helps to break negative patterns and enable the family’s system to bifurcate towards a positive stabilized system.

Some therapy methods of destabilizing
• Joining with under-represented family members
• Giving families tasks that they will fail in completing
• Empowering family members
• Prescribing specific behaviors to upset balance
• Forbidding specific behaviors
• Isolating scapegoats


Destabilization of the family system becomes unethical if there is reasonable probability that the family will cease treatment because the initial effects of these interventions cannot be predicted. Therapists have to be careful when introducing chaos/crises to family based on the sensitivity to the initial conditions that are observed by the therapist. The therapist as an observer must acknowledge their impact on the family (Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle), because just by them being the therapist, whether intervention or quiet observation, the family system has become more complex and more prone to influence.

The book is trying to convey chaos theory ideas in a way that therapist will move towards more theoretical techniques instead of empirical application when accessing families because of the levels of uncertainties. It has many case studies examples of chaos theory techniques therapists are applying towards the open organic system of families. It is written in a way that is easily understood after reading and discussing Chaos Theory within this class.