Don Jackson was rated one of the top ten Psychiatrists in America in the late 1960s just before his untimely death in January 1968 at the age of 48 (Rogow, 1970). He is best remembered as having been a brilliant therapist, teacher, and for his leading part in the development of such ground breaking theoretical concepts as
family homeostasis, family rules, relational quid pro quo, and, with Gregory Bateson, John Weakland and Jay Haley, the theory of the Double Bind. Jackson's theoretical and clinical contribution to the understanding of human behavior is phenomenal for its breadth and scope. Many leaders in the fields of family and brief therapy acknowledge Jackson as the principle founder of
Interactional Theory and Conjoint Family Therapy.
places emphasis on what is transpiring in the present between people as the primary data relevant to understanding human behavior. Context and relationship are the focus of attention. Little or no emphasis is placed on the past, genetic, or biochemical explanations of behavior.
Conjoint Family Therapy
is a term coined by Jackson to characterize therapy in which two or more people who are vitally important to one another are seen simultaneously (i.e. conjointly) in psychotherapy. In a career that spanned a brief 24 years (1944-1968) Jackson was one of the most prolific authors of his time, publishing more than 125 articles and book chapters and seven
books including two classic texts that remain in print today - Mirages of Marriage (Co-authored with William Lederer, and Pragmatics of Human Communication (co-authored with Paul Watzlawick and Janet Bevin Bavelas). He co-founded with Nathan Ackerman and Jay Haley the journal Family Process. He helped found the publishing house Science
& Behavior Books. Jackson won virtually every honor available in the field of Psychiatry, including the Frieda Fromm-Reichmann Award for contributions to understanding Schizophrenia, the first Edward R. Strecker Award for contributions to in-patient treatment of hospitalized patients, and the 1967 Salmon Lecture from the American Psychiatric Association and the New York
Academy of Medicine. Working from within the paradigm that is now known as a cybernetics of cybernetics or second-order cybernetic position, Jackson was the first clinician to uncompromisingly maintain a higher order cybernetic and constructivist position in the actual practice of therapy. The essence of this model is that the client is seen as a "family-surrounded
individual with real problems in the present day" (Jackson, 1964a, 1967). Brief in its orientation, the primary focus of the model, the questions asked, assignments and task given, is
members of the family. A few of the most fundamental premises of Jackson's Interactional Theory are detailed below, followed by a list of the most basic characteristics of Jackson's therapy.
Fundamental Premises of Interactional Theory
Tactics of Therapy: with these basic theoretical premises in mind, some of the most basic characteristics of Jackson's therapy are as follows:
- While there is a possibility of historical, genetic, or so-called hereditary factors, such ingredients are not independently observable except in cases of severe mental or physical deficiency. Focus of therapy, therefore, is on observable behavior taking place in the present between the members of the client's primary relational context.
- The most influential learning context is the family. Thus, "symptoms, defenses, character structure, and personality can be seen as terms describing the individual's typical interactions which occur in response to a particular interpersonal context."
- For Jackson, family membership included "parents, children, other significant relatives such as grandparents and aunts or uncles, and other significant non-relative people, with the selection dependent on relationships and not necessarily on blood ties."
- All behavior (including symptomatic behavior) is communication and, therefore, inseparable from its context.
- The concept of the Double Bind as a multi-directional phenomenon observable in some human communication is fundamental to Interactional Theory. The essential ingredients of the double bind are:
a. Two or more people are involved in an intense relationship that has a high degree of survival value for those involved. Family members are involved in sending incongruent messages. At one level (verbal) the message is "behave one way and if you don't I won't love you." Simultaneously, at a non-verbal level a contradictory message is conveyed demanding the receiver
"behave the opposite way and if you don't I won't love you."
b. The recipient cannot comment on the incongruency (i.e. metacommunicate), and cannot leave the field.
c. The process is continuous and pervasive throughout communication between members. Once established as the prevailing style of communication within the family all ingredients do not have to be present to maintain the behavioral effects of the double bind.
- Any belief shared by members of a group constitute the reality they experience. The therapist, as a participant observer, actively participates in the creation of descriptions of behavior imposed on the family.
- Participants in relationships continually attempt to define the nature of that relationship. For the purpose of this theory, relationship is defined as having two primary characteristics: (a) it is meaningful to those involved, and, (b) it is of a long standing nature. When these two factors are present, the effort to define the nature of the relationship cannot not occur.
- In every communication the participants offer to each other definitions of their relationship in an effort to determine the nature of the relationship. "Each, in turn, responds with his definition of the relationship - which may affirm, deny, or modify that of the vis-à-vis."
- As time passes in this process, certain behaviors are maintained as acceptable while others are excluded such that observable, redundant patterns of interaction emerge among the members. These redundancies can be metaphorically understood as the rules governing relationships within a given family system. These patterns which connect members of the family are the focus of
- The more rigid and restrictive the rules of the relationship the less adaptive the family is to change (i.e. the less requisite variety available to the members) and the more probable one or more members will be identified as "symptomatic" either by themselves, other members of the family, or by outside members of the greater community.
- So-called symptomatic behavior emerges in families when the rules of relationship are so restrictive that family members are unable to adapt to the natural changes experienced as the family evolves over time, and/or when participants are unable to arrive at consensual validation about the changing nature of their relationship.
- The desire to be able to predict reality, the illusion that one can control the behavior of others, fear of change and the desire to maintain some sense of stability are at the center of most attempts to define the nature of relationship.
- When attempts are made to arrive at a point of consensual validation about the nature of a relationship, one might observe such typical "pathologies" as a marital relationship in which each partner uses various means of coercion to force the other to accept their definition of the relationship. Another example would be triangulation by one spouse of a member of
the previous or next generation in a family in coalition against the other spouse. Other "pathologies" commonly observed involve variations on the theme of overt and covert punishment and violence on the part of one spouse in response to the efforts of the other spouse to define the relationship in their own way. These so-called "symptoms" or
"pathologies" are examples of how individuals, caught in the illusion that they can control the other, attempt to define the nature of the relationship.
1. Hypotheses are developed about the family as a homeostatic system inextricably involving, influencing and being influenced by the behavior of the "symptomatic" member such that:
(a) The "symptom" bearer's behavior is conceptualized as serving a vital, present function in balancing the relationships of all family members. Her/his difficulty "protects" the viability of the family (i.e., it is the function of the "symptomatic" member to have difficulties).
(b) This, in turn, provides other family members an opportunity not to exhibit overt difficulties or problems. When "symptomatic" behavior is viewed in this way, the relevant question for assessment then becomes: "how can one elucidate and verify the context so that crazy behavior becomes meaningful to the observer?"
(c) Attempts to change the behavior of the "symptomatic" member, without taking into consideration the advantages and disadvantages of such change for all members of the family, are frequently "foolhardy and futile" as a consequence of the tendency of the family system to attempt to maintain stability and "resist" adaptation and change.
2. Paying attention to what is not said and done within the family is a primary method by which a therapist can begin to grasp the relationship rules of any particular family. When a family member attempts to introduce new behavior that is not part of the preexisting repertoire of acceptable behaviors within the family (i.e., to transgress the rules), problems can, and often
do, emerge as the system organizes itself to maintain the status quo.
3. "Tampering" with redundant patterns of interaction which are observed occurring between family members around the so-called "symptomatic" member is an important method of triggering change in the family.
4. Paying constant attention to and working with double levels of messages, context, and behavior as message are hallmarks of Jackson's style of therapy.
5. The assumption that people make the best choices available to them at any moment considering the context and dependence on the human ability to adapt and simulate behavior are themes found throughout Jackson's work.
6. Changing verbalizations into action and making covert processes overt are regularly utilized techniques.
7. What appears illogical at one level of abstraction is logical at a different order of abstraction. This is the essence of therapeutic work commonly described as "paradoxical." Jackson pioneered the shift of thinking from one level of abstraction to another for the purpose of assessing how symptomatic behavior makes sense and for the purpose of intervention:
(a) the therapeutic utility of accepting the behavior and premises of the client and then extending these to the point of absurdity, thus providing the client an opportunity to recalibrate the therapist.
(b) the use of well-timed spontaneous laughter to indicate pre-verbal understanding of the untenability of a family members position.
(c) utilization of so-called therapeutic double binds and prescribing the problematic behavior to provide the family an opportunity to change how they change while maintaining a sense of stability. These ideas have strongly influenced the work of many present day systemically oriented therapists (Ray, 1995).