What does a Cohesive Family System look like?

Cohesive Family System, what does that mean? Family cohesion has been defined as the emotional bonding that family members have toward one another. Families who have healthy levels of cohesion emotionally interact with one another and find balance that supports individual independence and family togetherness. Healthy family cohesion is not only a strength, but a resource for families that will assist them in facing the daily challenges of raising a child with autism, assisting in maintaining a healthy marriage, and in providing a nurturing environment for all the children in the family. Through this system came Olson’s Circumplex Model. Family cohesion, flexibility, and communication are the three dimensions in the Circumplex Model. 

The Circumplex Model suggests that “balanced levels of cohesion and flexibility are most conducive to healthy family functioning. Conversely, unbalanced levels of cohesion and flexibility (very low or very high levels) are associated with problematic family functioning”. The model also provides a means of discussing these concepts with couples and families, and can provide them with tools to manage stress in the future. As we learned, a balanced level of flexibility and cohesion paired with good communication is the formula for a well-functioning family according to the Circumplex Model of Marital and Family Systems. A cohesive family system looks like a group of people who have a balance between being flexibly and structurally separated and connected. For example, a family will be connected in a healthy way, having strong communication skills, being understanding, and allowing for needs to be met, while each member of the family also has their own independence and power. Here is an example of a noncohesive family and their strides towards cohesion from the Australian Psychology Society. 

Roy and Jenny had been unhappily partnered for years, ever since the birth of their son Ben, now 13 years old. They had separated three years previously, and attended therapy following an extended custody battle. With the end of Jenny’s previous relationship they were spending more time together and struggling to agree on how to manage their son. Ben was described as having been ‘difficult’ since kindergarten, was refusing to attend school and had recently been arrested for shoplifting. He spent most of his days with his peers on the street and appeared to have little or no respect for either parent or any other authority figure.

When the family attended for the first session it was clear that communication was a serious issue. It seemed impossible for any family member to complete a sentence without interruption from another, and Roy and Jenny were unable to agree about any issue. Jenny believed her son had a psychiatric disorder that could only resolve with time, while Roy was of the view that if they could “work together as a family” they may be able to influence Ben. While initially surly, Ben soon engaged in the session by describing how both his parents contributed to the family’s difficulties, and, in particular, the fighting between them. As this unfolded, the younger children quietly slipped out of the room. Despite the fact that they were divorced, it was apparent that Roy and Jenny remained highly reactive to each other, and Ben to each of them. They were, in Olson’s schema, chaotically enmeshed, without the communication skills to resolve the changing needs of this family as a separated unit with an adolescent who required a flexible blend of independence and parental control.

Work with the family-focussed on improving communication and respect between the parents in order to cooperatively join in managing Ben’s difficult behavior. Practically, this involved an agreement to ‘stop yelling’, disengage from conflict, and to respond to Ben’s challenges in a planned way, utilizing the best of each parent’s skills. Each has been encouraged to set firm, yet reasonable limits which can be effectively enforced. Gradually change is occurring, with Ben irregularly attending school, spontaneously tidying his room, and reacting less negatively to parental demands. Jenny has reduced her yelling and chooses not to respond to Roy’s efforts to engage her in conflict. She is now actively seeking greater independence from Roy. While there is still a need for further change, the family could now be characterized as moving towards a flexible connection.


Source: Catherine Sanders MAPS and Dr Jordan Bell MAPS, The Olson Circumplex Model: A systemic approach to couple and family relationships; APS, https://psychology.org.au/publications/inpsych/2011/february/sanders.

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