Salvador Minuchin, founder of Structural Family Therapy comments that "the actions and transactions of each one of the family members are not independent entities but part of a necessary movement in the choreography of a ballet.". All families are choreographed a certain way and how the family is structured will have a tremendous impact on the interpersonal relationships within the family. Structural family therapy, developed by Salvador Minuchin, coined various concepts to describe how a family is organized. The three main concepts are: boundaries, hierarchies and subsystems.
Boundaries: Boundaries, as defined by Minuchin (1974), are the rules for negotiating interpersonal closeness and distance. Boundaries exist both internally within the family, as well as externally with those outside of the family. These rules, as discussed by Minuchin, are generally unspoken of and develop over time as two people interact. It is within this relationship, where boundaries are formed in which individuals define when, where and how he prefers to relate to one another. There are three possible boundaries that can exist. They can be either clear, diffused or rigid. Clear boundaries exist when individuals can negotiate between one another, a healthy balance between closeness and separation. Over time, as individuals needs evolve and change, so does their personal relationships. If both individuals within the relationship are able to be flexible and negotiate their rules to one another, they’ve established clear boundaries which are accepted by both parties. In boundaries which are diffused, individuals overvalue closeness at the expense of one’s individuality. As a result, boundaries become diffused and individuals within the relationship may feel a lack of freedom and a loss of autonomy. In boundaries which are rigid, individuality is overvalued at the expense of closeness. As a result, there is disengagement and a loss of emotional connection within the relationship.
Hierarchies, as described by Minuchin (1974), are of importance when working with reported issues in child behavior. He describes 3 basic forms of parental hierarchy which exist in the family: 1) Effective parental hierarchy in which the hierarchy is healthy and appropriate. Parents are able to set both boundaries and limits, while also maintaining a healthy emotional connection with their children. 2) Insufficient parental hierarchy in which the parents are unable to set appropriate boundaries and limits in managing their child’s behavior. This translates to a very permissive form of parenting in which typically, the boundaries between the parents and children are highly diffused. 3) Excessive parental hierarchy in which the parents are too strict in their rules and consequences. This translates to a boundary between the parent and child which is too rigid. As a result, there is often a loss of emotional connection between the parent and child.
Subsystems as defined by Minuchin (1974), are the dividends or “smaller units” of the family system. The broad subsystems that exist within the family are the parental subsystem, the spousal subsystem and the child subsystem. Understanding how subsystems are formed, is often the most important aspect to assessing how a family is organized. As Gerhart (2014) refers to Minuchin, important questions to consider are 1) “whether there is a clear boundary between the parental and couple subsystems and 2) whether there is a clear boundary between the parental and child subsystems” (p. 131).