The Unbalanced System

The Unbalanced System

Paying Attention to Power Differentials in Systemic Therapy

In discussing the process of a smart divorce and post-divorce family reorganization, several people have raised the issue of how to proceed if there are large, seemingly insurmountable imbalances of power, control and hierarchical privilege. In situations of domestic violence, rape & incest, abuse & neglect, alcoholism & chemical dependence and chronic, persistent severe psychiatric dysregulation among others, options for productive negotiation are very limited or perhaps nonexistent. In circumstances such as these the therapeutic process needs to be modified.

The first task is to ensure safety. All other considerations are secondary. In these situations, joint family or couples therapy is neither indicated nor in many cases even possible. Family members need to be seen individually. It may also be necessary to engage larger societal systems including educational institutions, social service agencies, law enforcement and criminal justice proceedings, religious establishments and governmental regulation.

There is, unfortunately, radical evil in this world and there are people who are so impaired that all sense of judgment and insight is nonexistent. There are always going to be a small number of folks who are just constitutionally incapable of thinking rationally. In unbalanced systems, we often can’t change the power discrepancy, convince others to negotiate in a principled manner or completely avoid being the victim of dirty tricks.

After that, the best answers I know come from the worlds of law and international relationships as demonstrated in the book Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by members of the Harvard Negotiation Project. The authors frame the question as “Can the way I negotiate really make a difference if the other side is more powerful?” They offer numerous suggestions as to how to make the most of the potential negotiating power one may have, asking and answering the questions:

  1. What if they are more powerful?
  2. What if they won’t play?
  3. What if they use dirty tricks?

Multiple other less dangerous though no less unbalanced systems exist, including challenging and disrespectful family members, financial inequalities, and differential access to resources and influence, which can all lead to interpersonal exploitation. For clinical understanding, formulation and treatment planning concerning such conflict and strife, thinking and acting systemically can be of great value even if it is initially in the guise of “family therapy with one person”. It is also true that with focused intervention the vast majority of situations can be improved. Made ideal? Probably not, but certainly improved or at least protected from further damage.

The important question in terms of self-care is not necessarily why or how someone is unreasonable but what to do about it. One’s efforts are most productive if focused on the process and not the content of issues. Attention to relational dynamics and patterns of interaction help make meaning out of “craziness”.

Please feel free to ask any questions or to comment in the “Leave a Reply” box below. To request more information and/or schedule an initial consultation, click here . If you found this post helpful, please don’t keep it a secret. You are encouraged to click on the buttons in the second to the right hand column at the bottom of the page and share this article with your own networks.

Ronald B Cohen, MD, PC Ronald B. Cohen, MD
Bowen Family Systems Coach
1 Barstow Road, Suite P-10
Great Neck, NY 11021
(516) 466-7530

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  1. Clarissa Szakacs on May 2, 2013 at 12:52 pm said:

    Once again, thank you for hitting the nail on the head! Such a helpful article! Thank you

    • Ronald B Cohen, MD on May 2, 2013 at 3:27 pm said:

      Hi Clarissa,

      Thank you for your kind and supportive comment. Glad to be of help. As per previous correspondence please feel free to re-post any of these that might be helpful to your clients. I would ask that you write a little intro to the topic or pose a question to entice readers, then post an excerpt, not the entire content of the blog, with my name and a link back to my blog that would open in either a new tab or window. Here’s a link for how I like to share 3rd party information. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if I can be of further assistance.



  2. Josephine Reyes, Accredited Mediator on May 3, 2013 at 12:17 pm said:

    Thank you Dr. Cohen for allowing us to include your link and re-post your blog. I will do as per your advice on how to do it.
    Congratulations once again for discussing a very important topic. Just like the way Clarissa describe it!!!.


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