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The concepts of differentiation, enmeshment, and the relationship between them : a family theory validation study using Q-methodology Kuchenmuller, Manfred Detlef


Family counselling is partially guided by theoretical models, but the capacity of the models to explain the development and maintenance of symptomatic and non-symptomatic behaviours has yet to be demonstrated. The present status of family theory reflects a lack of agreement on important concepts (Bell, 1976 and Geertsma, 1980) and inconclusive data differentiating disturbed from normal families (Jacobs, 1975). This study examined the historical or intrapsychic/interpersonal family theory, developed among others by Bowen, Boszormenyi-Nagy, Wynne, and Lidz. This theory, which is based on historical object relations and generational transmission of individual and family functioning, espouses a relationship between failure to differentiate from one's family of origin and later marital and family problems: a relationship which had not been empirically established (Gurman, 1978). The primary objectives of this study were fourfold: first, to provide a conceptual analysis of the concepts of differentiation and enmeshment; second, to examine the fit between the theoretically expected and empirically derived factor patterns; third, to test the theoretical relationship between differentiation and enmeshment within families of origin and procreation respectively; and fourth, to test Bowen's hypothesis that spouses show approximately equal levels of differentiation from their families of origin. The secondary objectives, which were primarily for general interest, were twofold: first, to determine the four theorist's clinical contributions to the derived family patterns, and second, to determine the theoretical commonality and uniqueness of the clinical descriptors. The unidimensional concepts of differentiation and enmeshment were operationalized by their polar positions of differentiation and non-differentiation for the differentiation dimension and mutuality and enmeshment/disengagement for the enmeshment dimension. Three samples were employed: two Q-sort samples and a subject sample. Of the two 120 item Q-sort samples, one represented differentiation from the family of origin and the other enmeshment within the family of procreation. The Q-sort samples were composed of the clinical descriptors of differentiation and enmeshment, taken from the literature of the four theorists. These descriptors were rewritten to correspond to the polar positions of each concept, and the final Q-sorts were sampled from a rewritten item pool of 578 descriptors. The subject sample of 22 couples represented 11 symptomatic and 11 non-symptomatic families. The non-symptomatic sample included Marriage Encounter couples and couples who had not experienced any formal therapy. Each spouse sorted the Q-sort items in terms of representativeness of their families of origin and procreation.

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