Feminist Family Therapy (Part 4): The Invisible Web

Alright, this is my final post in this four part series.  I hope you have enjoyed it or at least learned something new.  Make sure to read my first, second, and third posts if you have missed them.  In 1988, Walters, Carter, Papp, and Silverstein published The Invisible Web: Gender Patterns in Family Relationships.

In her book, Exchanging Voices: A Collaborative Approach to Family Therapy, Lynn Hoffman (1993) wrote:

The Invisible Web (1988) challenge[s] many foundational theories of modern psychology and psychotherapy: developmental schemes based on studies of male maturation but applied to all humans; biases built into the family life-cycle concept that take the heterosexual but patriarchal family as the norm; devaluation of qualities like dependency and caretaking that are usually associated with women. (p. 93)

Hoffman further stated:

Like a country quilt, The Invisible Web pulls together the living thought and practice of four leading women in the family therapy field, as they apply a feminist lens to their own treatment methods. This is not only a major event, but a unique one… (Walters, et al., 1988)

The publication of this landmark book was another step in raising awareness in the field of marriage and family therapy surrounding gender issues.

The theoretical constructs described in Walters, Carter, Papp, and Silverstein’s manuscript are now considered foundational in the feminist perspective in family therapy. They wrote that their group’s collective feminist prospective developed through three distinct phases: delineating a feminist frame of reference; a re-examining of systems theory and how it is used to disadvantage women; and creating and modifying systemic interventions to account for gender.


A Feminist Frame of Reference

During this initial phase, the group collaborated together to construct an operational definition of feminism:

Feminism, we agreed, is a humanistic framework or world view concerned with roles, rules, and functions that organize male-female interactions. Feminism seeks to include the experience of women in all formulations of human experience, and to eliminate the dominance of male assumptions. Feminism does not blame individual men for the patriarchal social system that exists, but seeks to understand and change the socialization process that keeps men and women thinking and acting within a sexist, male-dominated framework. (p. 17)

Walters, Carter, Papp, and Silverstein further developed two guidelines to follow in their revisions of family therapy theories. The first is that no systems theory is genderless. All theories claiming this quality are inherently biased because they perpetuate the social pretense that there is equality between men and women. Women are underprivileged in our culture, and ignoring that truth disadvantages women further. Secondly, therapeutic interventions should consider gender by acknowledging how the socialization processes of men and women are dissimilar. Walters, Carter, Papp, and Silverstein stated, “We need to recognize that each gender hears a different meaning in the same clinical intervention and accordingly feels either blamed or supported by and identical therapeutic stance” (p. 17).

How Systems Theory is Used to Disadvantage Women

Walters, Carter, Papp, and Silverstein began this second phase by reviewing the basic assumptions of the major schools of theory in marriage and family therapy. Next, they analyzed these concepts looking for sexist principles, and how these ideas could be abused to disadvantage women. They reported finding patriarchal assumptions in family organization like role complementarity, where men do instrumental tasks (e.g. working to provide economic support) and women focus on emotional tasks (e.g. parenting). This is based on a traditional hierarchy of male power. In direct contrast, the feminist construct of role symmetry stresses that both men and women perform instrumental and emotional tasks. Role symmetry has a more equal, or egalitarian, distribution of power. They also point out that it is a fallacy to presume that autonomy and dependency are inherent gender traits, rather then designated by our gender assignments in a patriarchal society.

lightThe group also took a hard look at several fundamental family therapy concepts. The idea of reciprocity is that, “everyone involved in a problem plays a part in the maintenance of that problem by reinforcing the behavior of the other” (Walters, et al., 1988, p. 21). Walters, Carter, Papp, and Silverstein argue that all players may contribute to the problem, but that does not mean they make equal contributions (e.g. a battered spouse). Also, a common therapeutic mistake is claiming a neutral stance and then asking questions that imply a one sided responsibility. Instead of asking a question like, “What do you do to anger your husband?” the therapist could ask, “What do you do when your husband gets angry?” (p. 22). This accounts for individual responsibility and the social context, while continuing to focus on the systemic pattern.

Complementarity is another concept from systems therapy. This principle “has to do with the inductive nature of interactional patterns: that is, how the behaviors of one person induce the other into behaviors that complement them, and vice versa” (Walters, et al., 1988, p. 23). One problem with this construct is that it can be used to push women into roles that complement the roles that men first choose. Walters, Carter, Papp, and Silverstein proposed the following:

Systems therapy discriminates against women by seeking balance and equilibrium for the family system as a unit, without addressing the unequal access of each individual to choice of role. The pretense that men and women are genderless cogs in the system prevents us from noticing that women are held more responsible than men for making it work, in the family and in family therapy, and that the “complementary” roles, tasks, and rewards of the stable system are allocated by gender, unequally, to its male and female members. (p. 23)

They do acknowledge complementarity as a useful therapeutic concept, but caution therapists to take into account that it is not always reality.

Walters, Carter, Papp, and Silverstein also take issue with hierarchy and boundaries. Hierarchy is a conception that orders the “relative power and authority of the individuals and subsystems in the family, and indicating the boundaries between them” (p. 24). If hierarchy is used in an inflexible and chauvinist way, women and children are certain to be found at the bottom of the power ranking.

One example of this is a father/mother/daughter relationship (Papp, 1988). In one case study, Papp shifts the focus of “an overly involved mother” to “an imbalance of power within the family as a result of the father maintaining his one-up distant position” (Papp, 1988, p. 133). Identifying this theme was one key to helping this family.

Another piece of systems theory is the notion of triangles and triangulation, when some conflict between

D56H22 Paper doll graffiti in a public street - Rome

D56H22 Paper doll graffiti in a public street – Rome

two people is detoured through a third party. Walters, Carter, Papp, and Silverstein stated, “Triangles provide no differential explanation of gender-related behavior, such as an explanation of why mothers are most often found on the so called ‘overclose’ or ‘fused’ leg of the triangle and the fathers in the distant position” (p. 25). Also, using the triangle concept “defines the problem as inside the family system alone and ignores their direct connection to the larger social system” (p. 25).

Systems theory also postulates that symptoms serve a purpose, and are seen as an essential way of keeping the system in check. A feminism addendum to the role of the symptom would be to “consider the impact of gender when formulating interventions” (p. 26). One example is a mother who keeps her child from leaving home because she is lonely, and her husband is away at work. Often the mother’s actions are identified as the problem, and the husband’s absence is overlooked.

Devising Feminist Interventions

Walters, Carter, Papp, and Silverstein focused much of their work on devising feminist theory and technique, and proposing feminist modifications to traditionally accepted interventions. Through this process, they developed guidelines to bring feminist principles into family therapy practice. They suggested that therapists be more aware of gender messages, and how behavior and gender roles are socially constructed. Therapists must acknowledge that social and economic resources are not as accessible to women. It is also important to have an understanding of sexist thinking patterns, which prevent women from having the freedom to run their own lives. In addition to this, therapists should take into account that women have been socialized to feel responsible for maintaining family relationships.

Therapists should also keep in mind the discord between childbearing and child rearing; that women are socially assigned to primary parenting responsibility. If a woman chooses to also have a career, she may feel overburdened. It is also worth noting the “patterns that split the women in families as they seek to acquire power through relationships with men” (p. 28). One example of this is when women compete with each other as they each try to fulfill their socially assigned role of family relationship maintainer. Furthermore, therapists should validate values and behaviors that are characteristic of women (e.g. connectedness, nurturing, emotionality). Therapists should also be supportive of women’s choices beyond marriage and family. There also must be “recognition of the basic principle that no intervention is gender-free and that every intervention will have a different and special meaning for each sex” (p. 29). Finally, therapists must consider therapy as a political act, and that therapy cannot be conducted separate from greater social issues.

sittinginlightThe Women’s Project in Family Therapy won the American Family Therapy Academy award for distinguished contribution to the field of family therapy in 1986 (Papp, 2000). Each member of The Women’s Project in Family Therapy brought their individual expertise to the field of marriage and family therapy in the realm of feminism, and came from a wide variety of backgrounds.

There are also several other noteworthy family therapists who have also made contributions to feminist theory and practice like Monica McGoldrick, Carol Anderson, and Froma Walsh (1989). In addition to their individual contributions, McGoldrick, Anderson, and Walsh edited and published Women in Families: A Framework for Family Therapy. This book is a collection of articles including women’s issues in family therapy, gender training, ethnicity and women, marital quid pro quo, and women and serious mental disorders. Finally, Hare-Mustin (1987), Goldner (1985), and Luepnitz (1988) have all made contributions to another way of viewing family therapy. In their writings, the therapist is crucial in rebalancing the power between genders.

Do you agree or disagree with the criticisms of systems theory and Marriage and Family Therapy outlined here?  I have my thoughts, but I would like to hear yours.  Please comment below.


  1. Goldner, V. (1985). Feminism and family therapy. Family Process, 24(1) 31-48.
  2. Hare-Mustin, R. (1987). The problem of gender in family therapy theory. Family Process, 26(1), 15-28.
  3. Hoffman, L. (1993). Exchanging voices: A collaborative approach to family therapy. (p. 93). London: Karnac.
  4. Luepnitz, D. (1988). Family therapy interpreted. New York: Basic Books.
  5. McGoldrick, M., Anderson, C., & Walsh, F. (1989). Women in families: A framework for family therapy. New York: Norton.
  6. Papp, P. (1988). Too much mothering. In M. Walters (Ed.), The invisible web (pp. 174-180). New York: Guildford Publications, Inc.
  7. Papp, P. (2000). Couples on the fault line: New directions for therapists. New York, NY US: Guilford Press.
  8. Walters, M., Carter, B., Papp, P., & Silverstein, O. (1988). The invisible web: Gender patterns in family relationships. New York: Guilford Press.

Check out Summit Family Therapy in Peoria, IL to learn more about Dr. Courtney Stivers’ professional work. 

About Courtney Stivers, PhD (25 Articles)
Courtney Stivers, PhD, LMFT, is a subject matter expert in Marriage and Family Therapy. Her professional experience includes residential addiction, school-based therapy, community mental health, teaching, research, public speaking, professional consultation, and several administrative roles. She is currently the Executive Director of Summit Family Therapy in Peoria, IL. Please learn more on her practice website, https://summitfamilytherapy.com.

1 Comment on Feminist Family Therapy (Part 4): The Invisible Web

  1. Hello Courtney,
    Thank you for your blog posts on Feminist Family Therapy. I had composed a long email but was unable to send it and the content was lost, so I am starting from scratch again 🙁
    I am very interested in the subject of Feminist Family Therapy and have recently begun some informal research on the subject, for a book I have been writing. I did a Grad Dip in Counselling in 2005 and used Corey’s textbook from which you quote. I note there is no section on Feminist Family Therapy in his book, but I have found myself wanting to firstly be clear about both Feminist therapy and Family systems therapy, and then understand the politics behind the usefulness of synthesising these two approaches for women, men and families. As a therapist yourself, do you know how extensively Feminist Family Therapy is utilised as a therapeutic approach by psychotherapists in the USA currently? And can you share with me your thoughts on how Feminist Family Therapy has developed since The Invisible Web was written? Eg: has it changed to sufficiently meet the social changes for men and women as they have occurred over time, including ongoing high rates of divorce. (Which to me challenge and question the very structure of the institution of marriage as it stands in its current form).

    Thank you for your time, I hope to hear back from you on the matter, even though I see it has been nearly three years since you posted the articles.

    Yours sincerely,
    Annabelle Harvey

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