Friedman: Families Matter


Edwin H. Friedman.  1985.  Generation to Generation:  Family Process in Church and Synagogue.  New York:  Gilford Press [1].

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Families matter more than normal (individualistic) intuition suggests.  A death in the family may leave one person with chronic migraine headaches; another may develop back pain or experience a heart attack; a third may exhibit psychiatric dysfunction.  A medical doctor or counselor treating only an individual’s symptoms may not have a high degree of success because the cause of the symptoms lies in the family system, not the individual.  While pastors and chaplains may not be surprised by this observation, standard medical and counseling training and practices focuses almost exclusively on the individual.


A relatively new field of counseling, family systems counseling, looks at the family as an emotional system.  What matters in family systems is not so much individual behavior, but how individuals in the family interact with one another.  Because any emotionally connected group—an office, business, or church—behaves in much the same way, family systems analysis has wide applicability.  Edwin Friedman’s book, Generation to Generation:  Family Process in Church and Synagogue, is probably the best known book in this field.

Five Concepts

Friedman outlines 5 basic concepts in family systems theory, including:

  1. The identified patient;
  2. The concept of balance (homeostasis);
  3. Differentiation of self;
  4. The extended family field; and
  5. Emotional triangles (19).

Each of these concepts deserves discussion.

The Identified Patient

Symptoms arise in a family system first in the weakest members of the system.  This unconscious scapegoating effect arises, in part, because they are least able to cope with problems elsewhere in the system like plumbing subject to excessive water pressure (21).  For example, a child may act out (nail biting, bed-wetting, fighting in school, teenage troubles, etc) because the parents have marital difficulties.  Focusing on the child may simply make the problem worse, while counseling the parents may not only resolve the marital difficulties, but the child’s issue as well.


The family emotional system strives to maintain equilibrium (resist change) having an effect not unlike a thermostat.  When problems surface, questions according arise like:  what is out of equilibrium?  Why now? (24)  Ironically, familiar dysfunction may be preferred to therapeutic change (25).  Dynamic stability may accordingly be attained, in part, by how loosely or tightly individuals respond to changes.  Friedman classifies families as acting more like a serial (tightly integrated) or parallel (loosely integrated) electrical system (25-26).  Families that are loosely integrated exhibit a greater capacity to absorb stress simply because they are less reactive to the stress.

Differentiation of Self

According to Friedman:  Differentiation means the capacity to be an “I” while remaining connected.  Differentiation increases the shock-absorbing capacity of the system by loosening the integration.  The ideal here is to remain engaged in the system but in an non-reactive manner—a nonanxious presence (27).  Great self-differentiation offers the opportunity for the entire system to change by reducing the automatic resistance to change posed by homeostasis (29).  Family leaders (including pastors in church families) who develop greater self-differentiation can accordingly bring healing in the face of challenges (30-31).  This is a principle that can aid leaders in many a dysfunctional organization [2].

Extended Family Field

Understanding one’s extended family and family history can identify unresolved issues and repeating patterns.  The principle is that one cannot solve a family system’s problem by withdrawing temporally or geographically—in such events we simply take our issues with us.  Such problems have a nasty habit of reappearing kind of like genetic diseases transmitted by DNA.  Friedman (32) observes that:  family trees are always trees of knowledge and often they are also trees of life.  This re-emergence of family systems problems across time and distance extends the principle of homeostasis.

Emotional Triangles

Friedman (35) writes:  An emotional triangle is formed by any three persons or issues…when any two parts of a system become uncomfortable with one another, they will “triangle in” or focus on a third person, or issue, as a way of stabilizing their own relationship with one another. This has the effect of putting stress on that third person to balance the system.  An unsuspecting pastor could, of course, end up participating in many such triangles and simply burn out.  This leads Friedman to observe that: stress is less the result of quantitative notion such as “overwork” and more the effect of our position in the triangle of our families (1).

The importance of the pastor’s stance in a church family is immediately obvious in this framework.  The pastor functions as a parent in the church family system.  Problems in the pastor’s family of origin have the potential to transmit immediately into the church family because of the pastor’s key role in the system.  Likewise, the pastor can also be easily triangled into families within the church family if the pastor is not a nonanxious presence within the system.  Homeostasis can leave a new pastor vulnerable to dysfunction in a church years after the apparent source of the problem, perhaps a prior pastor, has left.

What is fascinating about this line of thought is that, unlike in theories of culture, much of this activity is subconscious—a kind of emotional twin to the thought processes involved in discussions of culture.

Family Therapy

Friedman wrote having worked as family therapist and ordained Jewish Rabbi for more than 30 years in the Washington DC metro area.  He writes in 12 chapters divided into 4 sections preceded by an introduction and followed by a bibliographic and index.  The chapter titles are:

  1. The Idea of a Family;
  2. Understanding Family Process;
  3. The Marital Bond;
  4. Child-focused Families;
  5. Body and Soul in the Family Process;
  6. When the Parent Becomes a Child;
  7. A Family Approach to Life-Cycle Ceremonies;
  8. Family Process and Organizational Life;
  9. Leadership and Self in a Congregational Family;
  10. Leaving and Entering a Congregational Family;
  11. The Immediate Family:  Conflict and Traps; and
  12. The Extended Family:  Its Potential for Salvation (ix-x).

Although Generation to Generation is a textbook, it is a fascinating read—Friedman is famous for his story-telling and he wrote another book, Friedman’s Fables (New York:  Gilford Press, 2014), which focuses more explicitly on the stories.


Applying Friedman’s principles in my own family life has brought enormous healing.  My seminary training, for example, worked to increase my level of self-differentiation within my family which is very close (fused in Friedman’s terminology).  This book is well worth the time and effort to read and study.  The life you save may be your own.


[2] An entire book has been focused on this same principle:  Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky. 2002.  Leadership on the Ling:  Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading.  Boston:  Harvard Business School Press.

Friedman: Families Matter

Also see:

Nouwen: Make Space for Self, Others, and God 

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1 

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