Jay Haley Takes Family Therapy to Task

The Story of Family Therapy's Unabashed Founding Father

Mary Sykes Wylie

Jay Haley was an unlikely candidate to become a founder of the early family therapy movement. An outsider to the field, he had no formal training in psychology or psychotherapy. Yet, if you ask family and brief therapists who most inspired them, chances are his name will be among the first mentioned, and if you ask which figure inspired the best arguments about therapy, you'll probably get the same result. One of the most innovative thinkers, engaging writers, brilliant teachers, and powerful advocates the field ever produced, he was a famously scathing gadfly, taking on opponents in print or in public forums with almost palpable glee.

In one of Haley's earliest essays, a hit titled "The Art of Being a Failure as a Therapist," he sliced and diced the pretensions of psychoanalytic orthodoxy so thoroughly it's a wonder there were any analysts left alive to protest. "Perhaps the most important rule," for failing at psychotherapy, he wrote, "is to ignore the real world that patients live in and publicize the vital importance of their infancy, inner dynamics, and fantasy life. This will effectively prevent either therapists or patients from attempting to make changes in their families, friends, schools, neighborhoods, or treatment milieus. Naturally, they cannot recover if their situation does not change, and so one guarantees failure while being paid to listen to interesting fantasies. Talking about dreams is a good way to pass the time, and so is experimenting with responses to different kinds of pills."

One of the band of pioneers who translated the abstruse concepts of cybernetics—the rules, sequences, and feedback loops that guide self-regulating machines—into the lingua franca of family therapy, Haley helped give the field its organizing principles. He was the first to develop the idea that psychiatric symptoms often appear in families when they become stuck in key transitional moments of the family life cycle. He probably articulated more clearly than anyone else the principle that made family therapy such a radical departure from what had come before: symptoms don't originate inside a person, via genetic defect, brain pathology, or psychic wound, but from the interactions between people. A problem, he wrote in Problem-Solving Therapy, was "a type of behavior that is part of a sequence of acts between several people." Alter the sequence and you disrupt the problem, regardless of what may or may not be going on inside anybody's head.

Haley also did more than anyone else to shape the practice of strategic therapy, in which the clinician actively identifies concrete problems, sets goals, designs specific interventions, and checks constantly to see if all this activity is actually working. This may not sound like news today, but when the family therapy revolution was getting under way during the late '50s, the only legitimate clinical practices were interpreting dreams and fantasies, helping patients achieve "insight" into their unconscious motives, and nudging them gently in the direction of "personal growth," whatever that was.

He compared the good therapist to a diamond cutter, who patiently makes one small cut after another, but swiftly produces a sparkling diamond from a shapeless rock. If parents brought their child to therapy because the little tyke kept setting fires in the house, the point of therapy wasn't to ferret out the kid's nebulous, intrapsychic conflicts, of which the fire-setting was "only a symptom," but to get her to stop setting fires.

It followed that the therapist shouldn't be self-effacing or reticent—none of that namby pamby clinical neutrality stuff. "A therapist must be willing to go to the mat with a client and struggle with the problem until it is solved or the participants are dead," Haley wrote in Reflections on Therapy and Other Essays. "Should a therapist give up too easily, he will never win the difficult cases. Some people will never change until they are sure the therapist will not give up." Clients came into therapy, he said, because they wanted to be changed, even when they didn't actually want to do anything to change—they wanted the therapist to take charge and make them change, in spite of themselves.

Along with this activist credo went an ethic of profound responsibility. If therapy didn't work, the therapist must look in the mirror to see who was at fault, and not blame the client. Following the viewpoint of his mentor, hypnotherapist Milton Erickson, he didn't believe that there was any such thing as "resistance" to treatment, a concept he thought was contrived by therapists to excuse their own failures.

"Strategic" therapy wasn't the same as telling people what to do and then blaming them for not doing it—he was no Dr. Laura or Dr. Phil. Instead, in a ploy he learned from Erickson, he often used indirect directives, taking advantage of the natural human inclination to rebel against authority and wielding his clinical and personal authority to maneuver people into rebelling against him by getting better. He would, for example, direct clients to stay the same or even get worse—instruct an overprotective mother to hover over her child even more or a fighting couple to pick a specific time and spend three hours fighting. Of course, these "assignments" generally produced the reverse behavior, which was what he intended all along.

Not bad for a guy who never got any official psychotherapy credentials.

This blog is excerpted from “The Accidental Therapist.” Read the full article here. >>

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Topic: Professional Development | Aging

Tags: EFT | families | family | family therapy | fighting | Jay Haley | kids | Milton Erickson | overprotective | parents | practices | psychology | psychotherapy | resistance | resistance to treatment | strategic therapy | talking | TED | therapist | therapists | therapy

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