Theories of Family Therapy, Based on the film: “Ordinary People”

Theories of Family Therapy, Based on the film: “Ordinary People”

The Chicago School of Professional Psychology- Los Angeles, California

By : M. Azad Moradian

Editor: Cklara Moradian

The purpose of the following article is to help graduate and undergraduate level students in the fields of ordinary_people.jpgpsychology, social sciences, and/or film be able to have a model of how to look at a movie from the perspective of their fields of study and write a paper utilizing their knowledge.
In the following papers movies are analyzed, interpreted, discussed, and ultimately criticized a way that is very specifically related to academic understanding of psychological subjects, which is a different way of looking at film than the traditional way. We hope that you can find the following helpful and we will appreciate your comments as well as any submissions that you might have that could be published in this category

The family chosen to be analyzed from two different family therapy theoretical perspectives, as well as from the perspective of a potential family who might reach out to bee seen by a therapist is the Jarrett’s family based on the film Ordinary People.
The two models chosen are Structural Family Therapy Theory and Emotional Focused Couple Therapy Theory. These theories were examined due to the family’s observed dynamic, interactions, communication methods, and need for intervention.
In this paper, each individual member of the family will be looked at from the theoretical perspective of each model and put into context of a family dynamic and how each of their relations affect one another.
Some ideas and intervention methods will be offered based on each theoretical model to move the family towards a healthier and more enriching relationship.
Ordinary People
Director: Robert Redford
Writers: Judith Guest (Novel)
Alvin Sargent (Screenplay)
Main Actors: Donald Sutherland, Judd Hirsch, And Timothy Hutton
Main Actress: Mary Tyler Moore And Elizabeth McGovern
Release Date: 2 March 1981 (Sweden)
Genre: Drama
Awards: Won 4 Oscars. Another 14 wins & 8 nominations
A Paramount Picture (USA)Overview of the movie:

Ordinary People is one of the very few Hollywood movies that at best realistically and at worst again realistically looks at a family struck by tragedy. It depicts what might happen to an upper middle-class family when tragedy strikes unexpectedly, and order is turned into chaos. Everyone must, however, continue to upkeep a mask of normalcy for society and for each other. The film sheds light into a family, due to a tragedy, has turned into separate individuals inhabiting the same house, who cannot communicate their grief effectively. It realistically, without over dramatization, look into misplaced guilt at every level. The family’s inability to work together as a system through the tragedies lead them down to a path where they each felt an individual breakdown and ultimately the family as a dynamic.
Beth, Calvin, and their son Conrad are living in the aftermath of the death of the oldest son Buck. Conrad is overcome by grief and misplaced guilt to the extent of an attempted suicide and some time of hospitalization. He seeks out therapy because he needs to feel more “in control”. Beth had always favored Buck and does not connect with Conrad. Calvin is trapped between the two trying to hold the family together but the pressure is building and he is coming to realizations of his own.

Looking at the Jarrett family from a Structural Family Therapy Theory

Conrad is the Identified Patient (IP) of the Jarrett family. He is the youngest son of the family. A High School student recently returned home from a four months hospital stay after a serious suicide attempt. He exhibits signs of depression and PTSD. He has trouble sleeping and/or has nightmares of trauma, which might have triggered his symptoms. He blames himself for a boating accident, which killed his brother. He does not have an appetite, has very little social contact with friends, cannot concentrate in class, is faltering in swimming team, and does not display a good relationship with his parents.

We are introduced to Calvin, Conrade’s father, as he is falling asleep in the theater next to his wife Beth who seems much more entertained by the play than he is. Calvin returns home, goes right away to Conrade’s room, and asks if he will see a therapist soon, showing much concern for his well being than Beth.
Clearly, from our first meeting with Calvin, we realize that there is a disconnect within the marriage, and a gender role in the Jarrett household that is not aligned with our idea of a traditional family view as the mother being more of the care giver than the father.

We are introduced to Beth, Conrad’s mother, who in the first interaction with her only son shoves his breakfast in the disposer without any hesitation when he says he is not hungry. Clearly, a communication barrier is present, as well as a very subtle passive-aggressive hostility from Beth towards both Conrad and Calvin.

Our introduction to our key characters shows right away that there is conflict within this family. That not only is this family in grief, but that each member is struggling to communicate effectively, and there is an unhealthy power dynamic within this structure.

The pattern that we see is a complimentary role of tough-mother/tender-father.
Within this family structure, the father plays more of the traditional gender roles assigned to an “expressive” role, expected of a caring mother, such as providing emotional support and tender care.

The mother in this family makes most of the decisions, such as trips for herself and her husband, checking bills after returning from a trip, buying the shirts her teenage son should wear, and even what shoes her husband should wear during their son’s funeral. Her need for so much power and control, for so much structure, leads to a great deal of tension within the family. She does not like change very much either.
There are several subsystems within the dynamic of this family:
-Beth and Buck the oldest son who had died had a very special type of relationship, and though Buck has died, their relationship continues to haunt the current family structure.

-Beth and her own mother and brother seem to have an extended subsystem. They are the people whom she turns to when she needs a refuge from her own home.
-Conrad and his father have a different communication than that of Conrad and his mother. They have a more tender relationship.
-Beth and Calvin, with Beth acting as the dominating force within the couple relationship. An example of how this particular subsystem between Beth and Calvin clearly tells us why the family is not able to adapt to change when mandated. Beth who likes to keep everything under her control is not tolerant when her husband wants to have a healthy relationship with their son Conrad.

Inflexibility boundaries created by Beth is blocking an easy way to communication and negotiation between family members whenever they need it.

They are confused about their relationships and none of them show a clear sense of belonging within that system of a family.

Based on the structural model the Jarrett family shows a disengagement system in the way they deal with Conrad’s mental and emotional issues.
As we indicated, Beth who is the decision maker in the family has more power in the family. Calvin, who carries out the decisions, does not have enough power to keep the family system intact. The emotional and psychological connections between the family comes from this unhealthy balance power operations.
Overall, this family structural system is dysfunctional and tears the family apart due to the lack of implementation of intervention, though Calvin and Conrad were both willing and seeking such intervention.
Beth, who has issues with power, does not tolerate any coalitions between his husband and son.

Therapeutics Goals for the Jarrett family and the process of the therapy based on the Structural Family Therapy Theory:
It is clear that the family structure, which includes patterns, rules, and regulations within the family, should be changed. The new structure should seek to rebuild a relationship between the family members in such a way where there are new boundaries and engagements.

A family therapist should begin by helping Calvin and Beth gain awareness that Conrad is the identified patient. By challenging them, from separate angles, to look beyond Conrad’s symptoms, and see the patterns and rules within the family structure that might have led to those symptoms. Family should have a chance to look at their behavioral patterns when faced with a problem. Although change within the system is difficult for Beth, keeping the family safe and happy needs a new structure and a new pattern. The transactional period for the family is an intensive work. The new structure will give Calvin more authority to help the family rejoin, taking care of Conrad’s psychological issues, and helping his wife to look at herself from clear glasses with the object of change for the better.

Knowing Beth’s character, based on our observations in this movie it is clear that she will feel blamed within a therapy model of Structural Family Therapy. Beth does not like to publicize the family problems and she feels the same regarding sharing with a family therapist. She does not believe in what a therapist could do for her family because she feels that only she can fix their problems. She repeatedly said that, “this is my family. I don’t want to change. This is me!”
A family therapist will assess the family with a joining family session and mapping the family relationship and interaction patterns as well.
Family will get privilege of a few family sessions during family gatherings; either during lunch or dinner time to find out the way they communicate with each other.
The therapist will work on the boundary making between Beth and her son, Conrad. The therapist will also work on the unbalancing issues among the family especially between the couple to restructure the family hierarchical relationship.

Looking at the Jarrett family from a Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFCT) Theory:

Emotional Focused Couple Therapy Theory is a theory that can best describe the experiences that the Jarrett family is going through. These include, but are not limited to, lack of communication or affective communication, disagreements over what is a priority to each member for example whether to go on vacation or stay to take care of their son’s psychological needs.

In the film, a particular scene which clearly captures a family in conflict and seemingly in different worlds is a memorable scene where Calvin tells his wife Beth that he was very disturbed that she wanted him to change the shoes and shirt he wore to their son Buck’s funeral. To Beth appearances and people’s opinion is everything, even when her favorite son has died. To Calvin what he wore is arbitrary and irrelevant but he had complied at the time without questioning and was unable to contain his pain about that.

The family never sought natural support from their friends and family when they faced crises or tragedies. More often than not, this was due to Beth’s insecure feelings. Beth feels as though she must create an illusion of contentment to the outside world, even if it is at the risk of neglecting her family’s needs. A very interesting scene when this is evident is when Beth finds out from a friend that Conrad has quit the swim team. She becomes very angry and Conrad insists that she is only angry because she found out from someone else.

Conrad is clearly frustrated with his mother’s behaviors, but he is not able to communicate in an appropriate way so he either lashes out or isolates himself.
“Things are left unsaid and emotions become sour”. The family cannot differentiate between thought and feeling, between what they feel and what they think. “What is bothering you? “Everything!!” “Did we say that”…”we mean nothing at all” the response always ends with silence or misunderstanding of each others feelings.
Emotional Focused Couple Therapy Theory is able to focus on a positive drive to change the family’s relationship. Emotional Focused Couple Therapy theory is able to clarify how the way the family is responding to each other is not healthy. Family needs to restructure their patterns of communications. The emotional connection needs to change, although it will be hard for Beth, who is not tolerant to any kinds of change.
More than likely, Calvin will be expressing his feelings about Beth’s relationship with their deceased son and her lack of connection with Conrad.

In the movie, we find out the different individual emotions, angers, feelings, which act or react within the family relationships. Each individual has patterns and habits, which may have a role on the family dynamic. Beth needs help gaining cognition about the ways she is failing to communicate with her son or how she can be more constructive.
Beth needs more compliments and positive responses to what her son is doing from the outside.
Conrad should be able to in a safe environment and within appropriate boundaries express his anger and resentment towards his mother. He was able to do this with his psychiatrist.
It seems that the family needs to be restructure in a positive ways. They need a new experience of an emotionally meaningful level and to learn the way to get more attached to the concept of the family and to each other. A great deal of their struggles revolves around the tragedies they have faced and not coped with appropriately, and so family has many negative connotations. For Conrad the family means grief and isolation, for Beth it might mean chaos and being out of control, and for Calvin it might mean responsibility and failure. These meanings might have to be replaced by more positive feeling, such as; “home”, “comfort”, “support”, and “love.”
As the Dr. Susan Johnson says ” Emotion is the music of the attachment dance; changing the music rapidly reorganizes the partners’ interaction dance” (Johnson, 1998).

Compare and Contrast of Treatment Modalities:

The two theories that seems most appropriate for the family in “ordinary people” is Family Structural Family Therapy Theory (SFT) and Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy Theory (EFCT). Other approaches such as Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy could have also worked but might have underestimated the emotional need of the family to reconnect.

SFT emphasizes the structure of the family and places less focus on the individual. Since the system of the Jarrett family seems to be flawed and leading to pathology in each individual, it is best to focus on the restructuring of that flawed system. The members of the Jarrett family are disconnected and SFT focuses on the family as a whole, which could help them tremendously. SFT would work on the dysfunctional structures already at work in the Jarrett family.
EFCT could help greatly with the communication barriers and the emotional disconnects that were the aftermath of unresolved issues and tragedies.

If I were to work with the Jarrett family in “Ordinary People”, I would personally prefer to use the combination of the methods in EFCT, SFT and cognitive behavioral therapy model. I find that in family such as the Jarrett family, who are portrayed by the film as having a good financial and social foundation, who are educated people, that method of focusing on the positive, and on the emotions that live within them might be the best idea. I would certainly recommend that Conrad and Beth both receive intensive individual therapy.


– Gladding, Samuel T. (2007) Family Therapy: history, theory, and practice, Fourth Edition, Pearson Prentice Hall. Pp. 23,112-114,118-122,247
– Goldenberg’ H, And Goldenberg I. (2004). Family Therapy An overview, Seventh Edition, Belmont, CA, Thomson Brooks/cole, pp. 32,87,91,206,207,231,234,236,248,256,261,382,421, 423,429,430,431,434,437,440
– Johnson S. M. (2004). The field of couple therapy and EFT? In The practice of emotionally focused couple therapy (2nd ed), New York: Brunner-Routledge
– Johnson, S. M. (2004). The basics of EFT, in the practice of emotionally focused couple therapy (2nd ed), New York: Brunner-Routledge


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About Azad Moradian

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Posted on September 9, 2010, in Article, English, Psychology/روانناسى\روانشناسى and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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