Psychotherapy: The Evolving Treatment of Gender, Ethnicity, and Sexual Orientation in Marital and Family Therapy

By Leslie, Leigh A. | Family Relations, October 1995 | Go to article overview

Psychotherapy: The Evolving Treatment of Gender, Ethnicity, and Sexual Orientation in Marital and Family Therapy


Leslie, Leigh A., Family Relations


In 1985, Virginia Goldner wrote an article for the Family Therapy Networker entitled "Warning: Family Therapy May Be Hazardous to Your Health." In this one tongue-in-cheek title, Goldner captured a major theme and source of controversy in the discourse surrounding marital and family therapy over the last decade. This debate centers around the idea that some clients may not be well-served and, in some cases, may be harmed by marital and family therapy. More specifically, at the heart of this debate is the premise that marital and family therapy as traditionally practiced is oppressive to specific constituencies. In the last 10 years, questions have been raised and criticism leveled concerning biases in marital and family therapy that have ignored and, in some cases, pathologized three groups: women in families, racial-ethnic minority families, and gay and lesbian families.

Although the critiques of the field of marital and family therapy's treatment of gender, race and ethnicity, and sexual orientation evolved independent of one another with no common theoretical framework, similarities exist in the criticisms offered and questions posed about the biases that exist in marital and family therapy. The purpose of this review article is to look at similarities in the critiques emanating from these different quarters and to examine the impact these critiques have had on the field of marital and family therapy. In addition, areas in which work is still needed will be identified.

Prior to examining these critiques in greater detail, one point should be noted. Discussions of the treatment of minority families in marital and family therapy have often been clouded by an inconsistency in terminology. The term ethnicity is most frequently found, but is often used somewhat interchangeably with the term culture. Although there is a great deal of overlap in the terms culture and ethnicity, they are not synonymous; culture is broader in scope than ethnicity (Preli & Bernard, 1993). The term race, however, is less frequently used and often is treated as simply one component of ethnicity. Hardy and Laszloffy (1994) propose that the relative silence around race, achieved by subsuming it under ethnicity, is a way of marginalizing race and downplaying the domination of the White perspective in models of family therapy. Yet race--particularly skin color--is often a defining aspect of the experience of ethnic identity for people of color. In an effort to recognize that ethnicity is much more than just race, but that race assumes a primacy in structuring peoples' experiences, both race and ethnicity are used throughout this article, with the term racial-ethnic used where grammatically appropriate.

CRITIQUES OF MARITAL AND FAMILY THERAPY

Any cursory review of journals, workshops, and conference programs will reveal that the topic of marital and family therapy's insensitivity to, and in some cases, oppression of certain groups has been a dominant theme in the field in the last decade. Certainly, the feminist critique of the treatment of gender in the field was the most extensively articulated during this time (e.g., Goodrich, Rampage, Ellman, & Halstead, 1988; Luepnitz, 1388; McGoldrick, Anderson, & Walsh, 1989, Walters, Carter, Papp, & Silverstein, 1988), but a substantial body of literature also addressed the treatment of racial and ethnic minority families (e.g., McGoldrick, Pearce, & Giordano, 1982; Saba, Karrer, & Hardy, 1991; Tseng & Hsu, 1991). Although less systematic attention has been given to gay and lesbian families in mainstream family therapy research and treatment journals, the topic has been a controversial one and has been addressed with greater frequency in marital and family therapy book chapters (e.g., Brown & Zimmer, 1386, Goodrich, Ellman, Rampage, & Halstead, 1990; Sanders, 1993).

These critiques of marital and family therapy have varied in the specific aspects of therapy that are thought to be insensitive or oppressive, yet all share a t common concern that the field has perpetuated the status quo.

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