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Why is it so hard to change?

Families, it turns out, are designed to resist change, both in the whole family and in their individual members.  Families are what scientists and family-systems therapists call “self-regulating systems.”  Since self-regulating systems like stability (homeostasis), the self-regulation response automatically resists change–even good change.  This can be tricky during family therapy, the point of which, of course, is to facilitate change!   Because a family is a system of interdependent members, it tends to interfere with changes attempted by individual members as well—since any significant change to a single family member means change for the whole family.  What’s more, individuals tend to replicate dynamics from their primary system–the family–to other systems they participate in, like school, work, and marriage. So young adults have the added complication of having to make changes made in the context of family transfer to multiple new systems.

So now you know why it’s so tough to change!

A family-systems approach to change takes these self-regulating, change-resistant dimensions of family life into account and attempts to outwit them.   One way a family systems approach to treatment addresses this resistance to change is to view change as occurring on two levels: first-order change and second-order change.

First-Order Change

First-order change is change that occurs on the behavioral level without impacting the operating rules of the system. These changes are considered more superficial and less sustainable than second-order changes.


  • John and Mary fight all the time.
  • Tired of all the fighting, they decide to just stop talking altogether.
  • Now they are no longer fighting, but they have not changed the underlying dynamic, or “rule,” of hostility that governs their relationship.  They just don’t yell at each other anymore, but the dysfunction is still there.

First-order changes are considered less sustainable and less impactful than second-order changes, but play a practical role in systems therapy.  First-order changes can create a temporary shift in systemic dynamics that can set the stage for more sustainable second-order changes.

Second-Order Change

Second-order changes involve not just changes in behavior, but changes (or “violations”) of the rules of the system itself.


  • John and Mary fight all the time.
  • Next time they fight, John does a silly dance.
  • By engaging Mary in a somewhat ridiculous and unexpected manner, John has broken the rule of hostility (at least temporarily) and disrupted this habitual negative dynamic of fighting.  The hostility that is at the root of their fighting is itself interrupted.

While approaches like behavioral modification primarily seek first-order change, family systems therapy seeks principally second-order change.  For young adults in treatment, the challenge is to prepare for successful participation in numerous systems rather than just the family system.  People often transfer rules and patterns from their family system to other systems such as work or school; the girl who is confrontational with her controlling father, for instance, may bring the rule of confrontation to relationships with other authority figures such as professors or employers.

The key, then, is to equip the young woman to break the rule of confrontation in her family and in other systems she participates in.  This will help her change these dysfunctional dynamics in her own family system and prevent them in future systems, like college, dorm, marriage, and work. So second-order change can occur for a whole system and/or for an individual member of that system.

So while the road to healing may be fraught with systemic resistance, take heart!  By acknowledging this normal systemic resistance to change and outwitting it, the family systems therapist can help revise even the most entrenched behaviors.  It just takes some time, persistence, and maybe a little silly dancing.