With respectful observance to those who have lost some, or in tragic cases all contact with their own families, I say this with prudence. Everyone on this earth has or had a mother and father at some point. Therefore, they are or were part of a family unit. When a child is born, they are completely dependent first and foremost on their mother. As they are raised by their parents and/or siblings, they become attuned to that unit – mimicking the actions of those in the family and creating a sense of self belonging that is consistently associated with them. This is directly contradicted by the fact that humans are also independent beings. Through our personal experiences, we develop an individual sense of self in conjunction with our association to the group. Due to our innate desire to be part of the family unit (this can be psychologically explained by being raised in the unit, as it becomes embedded in the developing brain forever) combating individuality – the family unit becomes an interdependent system to balance these two ends of the spectrum. Michael E. Kerr elegantly explains it when referring to Murray Bowen’s Family Systems Theory, “People solicit each other’s attention, approval, and support and react to each other’s needs, expectations, and upsets. The connectedness and reactivity make the functioning of family members interdependent. A change in one person’s functioning is predictably followed by reciprocal changes in the functioning of others. Families differ somewhat in the degree of interdependence, but it is always present to some degree” (1). Because of this, families develop their own unique structure (although in many cases of dysfunctional family systems, we often can predict patterns about their structure) that conducts itself through interactions that allude to a sub-surface network of order. Salvador Minuchin’s Families and Family Therapy refers to these interactions as “transactional patterns” that “regulate many family situations” (17). Additionally, the family structure exists through “subsystems” (26), in the family such as the relationship between siblings, spouses, or parents to their children. In order for these subsystems to ideally function, they need clear rules (boundaries) that allow for communication amongst the members (53). These rules can’t be so encapsulating that they don’t allow for communication (disengagement), but they need to be existent enough to prevent a loss of individual functioning (enmeshment) (54). Naturally, this structure is impermeable – often making it hard for families to deal with natural change that occurs in life. According to Minuchin, the family functions as “an open system in transformation…it adapts to the different demands of the developmental stages it faces” (50). The problem we see with dysfunctional families is that they are unable to facilitate this change on their own due to the existing family structure, and lack of boundaries. This is where Minuchin’s Structural Family Therapy comes in. Structural Family Therapy is a strategic way of diagnosing a families issues, and working towards creating new boundaries to work towards solving them. The first step for family therapist using this strategy would be for them to observe the family in their natural state (or as natural as being in a therapists office could be) to understand their family structure. Then, by becoming a part of (Joining) the family structure, the therapist can begin the road to restructuring (91).
Looking at The Loman family from Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, we see a family structure that is far gone. The lack of boundaries between an older, lost salesman Willy Loman and his eldest son Biff, results in subsystem enmeshment that goes haywire during a transformational stage. Through a diagnosis and intervention, the Loman’s would have been able to form a new therapeutic family system and solve the problems of enmeshment in the father-son subsystem, in turn preventing the eventual suicide of Willy Loman. We will closely examine the pivotal development of the father-son subsystem in scenes throughout the play, and apply methods of Structural Family Therapy in order to work towards this new family system. It is important to note that although these scenes are flashbacks in the play, we will be observing them in chronological order as events that are currently happening – as to effectively see the development of transactional patterns between Willy and Biff.
Act one, scene 3, Willy is addressing Biff and his younger brother Happy in a stern tone of voice. He is giving them detailed instructions about how to polish his car. He tells them that he has a surprise to give them after they finish polishing the car. Biff asks what the surprise is and Willy says, “No, you finish first. Never leave a job till you’re finished — remember that” (17). Willy then goes on to talk about a fantasy of buying a hammock that he saw on his recent business trip to Albany.
This is the first instance we will see of Willy establishing his dominance as the “head” of the family. There is one main issue that stands out here. Willy is offering the boys a reward for their hard work. Although this seems like good advice it is a sign of a transactional pattern leading the young boys (who are very much in a developmental stage of their life) to think that they must please their father to reap the rewards. Additionally, it seems that Willy is the type to “talk the big talk” – telling the boys to never leave a job unfinished and that he is going to buy them a hammock. We will need to find out more information to understand if this is relevant.
Moving forward, Biff tells Willy that he stole a football to practice his passing. Willy laughs and tells Biff to return the football. Happy then starts reprimanding Biff. Willy says this in response, “Sure, he’s gotta practice with a regulation ball, doesn’t he? Coach’ll probably congratulate you on your initiative (19).” Biff confirms that the coach congratulates him all the time and Willy says, “That’s because he likes you. If somebody else took that ball there’d be an uproar” (19).
Based on the previously learnt transactional pattern (although still early on in the diagnoses stage), it can be implied that Biff has stolen the football to (possibly subconsciously) please his father by becoming a better football player. Although Willy gently tells Biff to return the football, when someone else criticizes his sons wrongdoings, he defends him. Instead of telling Biff about the consequences of stealing, he not only tells him it is alright, but that it was in fact the right thing to do. Willy tells Biff that he is a well liked person and through affirming that he did the right thing – Biff now believes that that is a way to achieve success in life. This is a clear example of unclear boundaries resulting in enmeshment. Willy contradicts his previous statement about never leaving a job unfinished (working hard and for a purpose) by validating Biff’s act of stealing. It is most likely true that Willy has gone through life and his career with this method of dishonesty to find success. In order to confirm this and learn more about the reason behind Willy’s actions here, the therapist can send in a probe (90). Asking questions such as to find out more about Willy’s career and backstory. If we learn that Willy is not (financially or personally) living up to his “big talk” about himself – it is probably true that he makes excuses for himself. As soon as he sees his son experience the same thing, he praises it (validating his own actions at the expense of his son). Clear father-son boundaries could have prevented this. A therapist could intervene by challenging the exchange that has occurred. However, the therapist must tread lightly as not to attack Willy and create blame. Rather, the therapist must stress the importance of these clear boundaries for having a functional father-son relationship. The therapist must simultaneously continue the process of Joining. By finding ways to relate to each family member, and respecting the pre-existing family structure (accommodation), the therapist gains trust and mutual support from the patients (17).
Biff’s classmate Bernard comes to tell Willy and Biff that if Biff doesn’t study for Math, he will flunk. Willy calls Bernard a pest and once again tells Biff that Bernard isn’t well-liked and that even good marks in school don’t matter for success. Willy then boasts about his recent successes as a salesman in Providence and Boston.
It has become more clear that on the outside Willy has an inflated sense of self worth but on the inside he knows he is a failure. The therapist could probe here by asking Willy why he thinks of Bernard as a pest (why would a grown man care about the successes of a young boy). This would most likely bring up the fact that Willy is secretly jealous of Bernards father who is a successful businessman who “played by the rules”.
At this point in time, there is beginning to be a clear picture of the development of Willy and Biff’s father and son subsystem. Through probing the therapist understands the family structure of Willy as the head of the family. With joining, the therapist is now in a better position to continue to re-structure by establishing boundaries.
Fast forward to the end of Biff’s high school years, he flunked math (shocking right?!). When he finds of this news, he immediately takes a train to Boston where Willy is on a business trip. He goes to Willy’s hotel room to ask him to charmingly talk to the teacher to pass him. Willy agrees.
If Willy hadn’t accommodated enmeshment all these years, Biff wouldn’t be in this position. Even if Biff did flunk math, he would take his own responsibility for it. Rather than looking to his Dad to fix the problem (allowing Biff to self-validate his actions). However, even if it got to this point – Willy still has a chance here. The therapist can point this out and (although it’s very late in the game) tell Willy to decline Biff. Although Biff has flunked high school and probably won’t go to college at least for now – this could be a turning point to set up Biff with a new way of approaching the rest of his life – taking responsibility for his actions and finding a new path to success. However this doesn’t happen.
Biff doesn’t know that Willy’s mistress is hiding in the bathroom of the hotel room. She comes outside and Biff see’s her. He is shocked and lashes out at Willy. Weeping, he accuses Willy of being a fake. Biff declines Willy’s continual offerings to try and fix the grade.
When Biff finds out that Willy has been unfaithful to his mother, his whole world comes crashing down. Due to the fusion (enmeshment) he has with his father, his self-worth has always existed as an extension of his Willy’s. For the first time in his life, he sees the truth about him. This is traumatic for Biff. However, he surprisingly handles it quite well in the moment . He is able to recognize his father’s wrongdoings and remove himself from it. However, this is what results in him leaving home. Biff realizes he doesn’t need to please his father anymore and wants to pursue his passion of working with his hands (12). Biff has finally removed himself from the enmeshment and low level of differentiation (See Family Systems Theory by Dr. Murray Bowen). However, he has flip flopped himself over to the other end of the boundary spectrum. Rather than being enmeshed, he is disengaged from his father. Not wanting to face the reality of the relationship of his parents and who his father truly is. However since Biff still has the enmeshment psychologically engrained in his being, he returns home to New York to try and be successful to please his father, leaving frustrated every time. This in turn results in Willy’s long time disappointment in Biff. Therapeutically, the first step here would be to empathize with Biff. It’s quite understandable that he would flee home after a traumatic experience like this, and it is admirable that he was able to differentiate himself from the way he was raised. However, this family is in need of dire-restructuring. The main problem is Willy’s affair. It needs to be out in the open in order for this family to heal. The therapists responsibility however, is not to “out” this fact and potentially ruin a marriage. Rather, the therapist needs to foster an environment of trust, healing, and restructuring where this type of news can be accepted and worked into a bigger picture of issues that need to be solved. It would take a while of therapy and restructuring to foster this type of environment, but it is the key to making any significant progress to heal this family system.
- Minuchin, Salvador, and Salvador MINUCHIN. Families and Family Therapy, Harvard University Press, 1974. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxynec.flo.org/lib/necmusic/detail.action?docID=3300221.
- Kerr, Michael E. “One Family’s Story: A Primer on Bowen Theory.” The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family. 2000. http://www.thebowencenter.org.
- Kerr, Michael E., and Murray Bowen. Family Evaluation : an Approach Based on Bowen Theory. Norton, 1988. cat05324a, ezproxynec.flo.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cat05324a&AN=flo.353389&site=eds-live. Accessed 24 Oct. 2019.
- Sterling, Eric. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Rodopi, 2008. cat05476a, ezproxynec.flo.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cat05476a&AN=nec.1142553&site=eds-live. Accessed 24 Oct. 2019.