Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

Are Trustworthiness and Fairness Enough? Contextual Family Therapy and the Good Family

Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

Are Trustworthiness and Fairness Enough? Contextual Family Therapy and the Good Family

Article excerpt

The moral dimension of family therapy theory and practice has received increasing attention in recent years. Boszormenyi-Nagy was among the first to see that family therapy and moral questions are inseparable. His focus on relational ethics has helped us to reappropriate individual responsibility and accountability within a systemic context. Although contextual therapy has clearly enriched the field, we argue that its emphasis on trustworthiness and fairness provides a limited view of the good in family life and leads to three related problems. First, Boszormenyi-Nagy offers a compelling ethical vision of the family and then denies that he has done so, which undermines some of his key moral claims. Second, because fairness is defined subjectively, contextual therapy may not have the resources to deal with legitimate differences in family ideals. Third, the reliance on self-interest as the primary motive for trustworthy relating appears to be self-defeating. We offer a hermeneutic perspective that takes a broader approach to the good. It places greater emphasis on the social and historical context, deals squarely with different understandings of the good in family life, and recommends an approach to resolving these differences.

The field of family therapy now recognizes the inescapability and importance of values in family therapy. The discipline has moved beyond seeing our work in value-neutral terms or claiming that therapists merely help families attain their own aims and ideals through neutral strategies. The systematic infusion of contemporary social values in family therapy has been documented by numerous authors (Bernal & Ysern,1986; Cushman,1995; Doherty, 1995; Fowers & Richardson, 1996; Mannino & Shore, 1984; Nicholas, 1994; Ryder, 1987; Stein, 1985), most prominently by feminists (Goodrich, Rampage, Ellman, & Halstead, 1988; Hare-Mustin, 1978, 1986; Walters, Carter, Papp, & Silverstein, 1988).

Boszormenyi-Nagy and his colleagues (Boszormenyi-Nagy & Krasner, 1986; Boszormenyi-Nagy & Spark,1973; Krasner & Joyce, 1995) were among the first to see that family therapy and moral questions are inseparable. Their seminal work in developing the contextual family therapy approach locates the ethical dimension of family life and therapy at the center. Whereas the majority of the literature on values and therapy is long on criticism and short on suggestions, contextual therapists have offered positive recommendations about how to approach the moral dimension of family therapy from the beginning.

Boszormenyi-Nagy (1986) presents contextual therapy not simply as another school of family therapy but as "a search for the common denominator of therapy as a whole" (p. 196). The contextual family therapy approach has deeply enriched the field. Nevertheless, we will argue that it does not provide the general approach to moral considerations in therapy for which Boszormenyi-Nagy hopes.

This paper explores several key limitations of contextual therapy. Boszormenyi-Nagy presents a compelling vision of the moral in family life, but due to a quintessentially modern fear of value imposition, he denies that contextual therapy promotes a specific ethical code. He accomplishes this by presenting contextual therapy as a neutral procedure for attaining fairness within families. We will explore five unfortunate consequences of this denial. First, Boszormenyi-Nagy sees justice as the result of following a straightforward neutral procedure. As a consequence, he does not define justice explicitly and this omission results in a self-contradictory presentation of justice. Second, he suggests that fairness is defined subjectively within families. This approach belies Boszormenyi-Nagy's stated ethical commitments in some cases and leaves contextual therapy without resources to deal with legitimate differences in how family members see justice. Third, seeing justice in narrow, interpersonal terms perpetuates the split between the public and private domains of life that may actually increase family distress. …

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