Edwin Friedman, in his book Generation to Generation, relates the structure of families to an electrical circuit. Your family is either “wired” as a series circuit or a parallel circuit, or, more likely some combination of the two.
Notice in the series circuit, the electricity has to travel through each light bulb before completing the circuit, which means, that if any one light bulb burns out, the circuit will not be complete, the electricity will not flow, and none of the bulbs will light up. In the parallel circuit, however, there is a complete circuit through each individual light bulb, meaning that even if any bulb burns out, it will not effect the flow of electricity through the other bulbs.
If a family is like the series circuit, anytime a problem or crisis happens, the whole family breaks down. There is no one to take a leadership role to fix the problem. Friedman calls this “linear thinking.” Members of a family need to differentiate themselves from the others in order to create a more parallel system.
“Differentiation means the capacity of a family member to define his or her own life’s goals and values apart from surrounding togetherness pressures, to say ‘I’ when others are demanding ‘you’ and ‘we.’ It includes the capacity to maintain a (relatively) nonanxious presence in the midst of anxious systems, to take maximum responsibility for one’s own destiny and emotional being.” (Friedman, pg. 27)
In a family, when some problem occurs, often one family member will show the symptoms of that problem more than he others. That member Friedman calls the identified patient. “The concept of the identified patient … is that the family member with the obvious symptom is to be seen not as the ‘sick one’ but as the one in whom the family’s stress or pathology has surfaced.” (Friedman, pg. 19)
A mistake, according to Friedman, made by counsellors is to assume that the identified patient is the only one with a problem and then try to “fix” that one person. In reality, the problem is with the whole family, and the whole system needs fixing.
The identified patient is often diagnosed with some condition. Friedman criticizes this practice….
“Diagnosis in a family establishes who is to be the identified patient. It is inherently an anti-systems concept. It is linear thinking [series circuit]. It denies other variables that are present in the system. Existentially, it makes someone ‘other,’ and allows the remainder of the family to locate their troubles in the diagnosed member. It also disguises opinions and judgments; in an intense ‘congregational [church] family’ struggle, this hidden effect adds to polarization.
“Within the personal family, the labelling effects of diagnosis destroy the person. It decreases, in the diagnosed member, a sense of control over the situation, increases his or her dependancy, and thus lowers their pain thresholds. The effect on nonsymptomatic members is that it fixes their perception of the diagnosed person’s capabilities. Eventually a family member’s label will become confused with his or her identity. Diagnosis also tends to concretize. It makes everything and everyone more serious.” (Friedman, pg. 56)
~All quotes from Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue by Edwin H. Friedman