As in every field, psychotherapy theory and practice has its giants. Who does not recognize the names of Freud, Jung, Haley, Piaget, Skinner, Beck, Ellis and Salvador Minuchin, who passed away in October at the age of 96?
Minuchin’s Structural Family Therapy, based upon the principles of systems theory, views the identified patient as the entire family, not any one individual. It is the interaction of executive and subsystems that influence family functioning, creating dyads and triangles, alliances, enmeshment and conflict. Even as family members search for equilibrium and homeostasis, Minuchin recognized the repetition of inter and multigenerational family patterns that keep families stuck in their dysfunction.
Although small in stature, he was a presence in any room he entered. Born in 1921 in Argentina of Russian-Jewish heritage, he grew up in the Peron era of religious persecution. First emigrating to Israel and then to the United States, he was educated in psychiatry and first practiced in the Wiltwyck School in New York serving disadvantaged youth. Clearly, he was not the traditional psychoanalyst, devoting much of his career to the poor and disadvantaged. Indeed, he was more social worker than psychiatrist. He was a founder of Child Guidance in Philadelphia before establishing the Minuchin Center for the Family.
In his work with families, Minuchin was a director, a choreographer and lyric poet. His use of metaphors intensified the slightest examples of enabling, dramatized boundary violations and highlighted self-efficacy. He was a prolific writer, often partnering with authors of complementary models of practice including Haley, Fishman and Montalvo. The Minuchin Center for the Family trained hundreds of family therapists and provided pro bono treatment for disadvantaged families across the globe.
No one however, will ever be able to surpass Minuchin’s cadence, accent, gestures and force of personality. He was one-of-a-kind, and his legacy will endure.
Temple University School of Social work has been teaching Structural Family Therapy to clinical social workers for decades. Its efficacy and sensitivity to all cultures proved it is the appropriate model of treatment for most families. Students are taught the nuances of family dynamics, family world views, holons, equifinality, joining and use and abuse power within the family.
Perhaps most valuable, students are introduced to enactment, both spontaneous and directed. Here the family therapist can get a “fly-on-the-wall” perspective on family functioning. Who bears the symptoms of the family? Who is the scapegoat? Who is most invested in maintaining problems, and who is invested in solving them? Through role plays, research and practice in field, students are thoroughly grounded in the principles of structural family therapy.
The very core of social work, and clinical social work in particular, emphasizes the importance of human relationships. Salvador Minuchin’s contributions to family wellbeing cannot be overestimated.