The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

The Composition of the Family System and Adaptive Success

Authored by Ethan Strauss, L.C.S.W.-C

Review of Dr. Daniel V. Papero’s presentation at the 39th Midwest Symposium on May 6th, 2022 prepared by Ethan Strauss, LCSW-C and second-year trainee in the CFC Post-graduate Training Program in Bowen Theory.

This presentation by Dr. Dan Papero focused primarily on how concepts related to adaptive success or failure apply to the family system.  Dr. Papero observes that the human family faces similar pressures to adapt to changes in the environment as all living things do.  One way that helps me to think about this concept is to relate it to the functioning of ant colonies that are discussed in Chapter 12 of “The Family Emotional System”, edited by Robert J. Noone and Daniel V. Papero.  The ant colonies clearly do not function as a collection of individuals working toward a common goal, but more as a single organism with each individual as more of an appendage.  The human family faces similar pressures from the environment, which require a response from the system if it is going to survive and thrive.

Dr. Papero discussed the concept of Dynamic Flow, which is the idea that organisms are constantly moving between being more or less successful in their adaptiveness.  The two parameters that limit adaptive functioning are energy and time.  How much energy and time are available to the system can encourage or discourage adaptive functioning.  For Papero, there is a continuum of adaptive system functioning, with total robust health on one end and total adaptive failure on the other.  A highly robust system would be able to pre-adapt to challenges in the form of goal setting or other preparatory mechanisms, whereas a less robust system would be more likely to get bogged down in reactive responses to environmental challenges.

Dr. Papero relates a system’s ability to adapt not only to time and energy available, but also to whether or not the system is in equilibrium.  He thinks of homeostasis as the starting point for the system, with each member being relatively calm and functioning at reasonable efficiency.  Dr. Papero posed the question, “would a system be out of balance when one member regresses?”.  His thinking is that the member who is regressing represents a way for the system to stay at a reasonable level of functioning without having to impair more than one member of the system.

I think about this in the same way that Bowen talked about the family “binding anxiety” in a single member or relationship through addiction, physical illness or other impairments.  Dr. Papero posits that the primary expression of the strain on a system’s functioning is emotional tension.  Humans will react to the tension, which can either increase or decrease the energy available for the system to adapt.  A small amount of tension can trigger more energy, but the energy will quickly drop off.  With increasing tension and decreasing energy, a system can be driven further into regression.  Adversity is good, too much is troublesome.  Dr. Papero believes that mechanisms “kick-in” to lower tension and increase energy, but if they are left in place too long, they make more tension and lower the energy available to the system.  I believe this is central to his point about dynamic flow and adaptive responses.  If a system utilizes the same responses or mechanisms for tension building and doesn’t accurately assess the need for them, it will lose energy needed for adaptation over time.  The more differentiated a system is, the more likely it will make a constant assessment of what mechanisms are needed and when they can be discarded.

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