About Dr. Jen Theule and Dr. Cathy Costigan

Dr. Jen Theule and Dr. Cathy Costigan

Family Psychology

“No healthy person is totally independent.”

At the end of The Godfather Part III, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) dies alone in a courtyard, having apparently cut all ties with his family and the family business. On closer examination however, he can never have fully cut ties with his family – they made him who he is, and they shaped the path of his entire life. In fact, even the courtyard where he is sitting as he slumps over and dies is in the villa belonging to Corleone family friend Don Tommasino.

In our culture we tend to think about people as individuals much of the time. In this way, we think of a good health individual separately from their family, and rarely think about them in that larger context. Family psychologists, on the other hand, think about that context all the time. Dr. Jen Theule is an Associate Professor at the University of Manitoba in the school and clinical psychology programs, and the Chair of the Family Psychology Section of the CPA. She says many things we experience in our daily lives come about as a result of family psychology.

“Rooming in at the hospital instead of the baby going to a nursery as they once did – that’s a family psychology thing. Inviting family members into medical appointments and discussions. Parent-teacher meetings. Anything where we involve your family context, and involve more people in the discussion, those are the kinds of things family psychologists push for.”

When Amerigo Bonasera comes to visit Don Corleone on the day of his daughter’s wedding to ask for a favour, it is not just him and the Godfather in the room. There are others, among them the family consigliere Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall). These decisions are not made by the Godfather alone – he values input from those closest to him.

There are the discoveries brought about by science and the study of families, and then there are the applications of those innovations in dealing with family dynamics, often but not always in a therapy scenario. Says Dr. Theule,

“I think of family psychology as two things. One, it’s the study of ‘the family’ – parent-child relationships, romantic relationships, multigenerational families, close friendship groups, that kind of thing. Learning about how families operate, both the larger family units and all the subsystems within them. And two, it’s the application of that research to interventions. Family therapy, couples counselling, those kinds of things.”

Dr. Cathy Costigan is a Professor in the psychology department at the University of Victoria.

“I teach about what we call ‘developmental psychopathology’, or the mental health challenges of children and youth. I teach that from a strong family lens, all about how we understand childrens’ normal and abnormal development. I also teach family therapy to graduate students, which involves ways to intervene at a ‘systems level’. We see problems not as ‘there’s something broken within a child that we need to fix’ but rather by looking at the relationships among the different family members and their communication patterns. It is these broader ‘systems’ issues that might be creating or maintaining some stresses in a family where the child might be the one expressing the stress in the family by say, acting out in school or having meltdowns at home.”

Both Dr. Theule and Dr. Costigan speak a lot about ‘systems’. It’s a way to be a little more broad and inclusive when speaking about families. It’s not just a nuclear family of two moms and two kids – it could also refer to the extended family of grandparents and cousins, or a close-knit friend group, or a large hippie commune in California that has been running continuously since the 70s. Dr. Theule explains,

“Everyone’s impacted by various systems. Whether that’s who you work with, or who you live with, or are related to, or your friend group. All of those things operate quite similarly to families. Most people would consider a foster family to be a family unit of a sort, but the larger world might struggle with things like ‘is my roommate my family?’ By and large, society still considers ‘family’ to be a nuclear family – a mom and a dad and 1-4 children. But in some communities families are more broadly defined, and are larger. So when I use the term ‘system’ people might be more okay with the idea that the family can include Auntie or Grandma – or even roommates.”

How big, exactly, is the Corleone ‘family’ in the Godfather movies? Is it limited to just the immediate family members – Vito, Michael, Fredo, Sonny, and Connie? Does it extend to spouses? Children? Is Tom Hagen, informally adopted by the Corleones at a young age, truly a family member? What about all the ‘made’ guys – is that official induction into the organization, or into the family itself? In fact, where does the ‘family’ end and the ‘criminal enterprise’ begin?

Every community, and every culture, defines ‘family’ a little bit differently. For Dr. Costigan, it is these definitions of family, and the cultural differences in what constitutes a healthy family, that interests her.

“These days my research is predominantly focused on immigrant and refugee families. Looking at ways in which families under stress and cultural adjustment harness the resources and strengths within them as they go through changes from one country to another, along with the various traumas that might have accompanied that journey to come to Canada. How do they maintain strong family ties against this backdrop of many cultural differences, where each individual family member might be adjusting to Canadian culture in different ways and at different rates that might create tensions within the family?”

One of the ways these tensions manifest themselves might be for parents who are here in Canada, but whose own parents and extended families are still living back home. With today’s global technology, they are more connected to those remote family members than they could ever have been before. Sometimes that connection puts parents in a tough situation. The expectations of their own parents as to the proper way to raise children might now contrast greatly with the expectations of their own children who are growing up in Canada. It’s this kind of tension Dr. Costigan deals with often within the families with whom she works.

Family Psychology, as a discipline, has been moving this way for some time. An increased emphasis has been placed on cultural variation in families. It’s moving away from an implicit assumption that the Canadian context (the white family with Western values) is the way a family should function. Instead, the focus is more on what good and effective parenting looks like, or good communication within a family. This, of course, varies greatly by culture. Healthy family functioning doesn’t look the same for everyone, and acknowledging this has been a big step forward for family psychology over the past few decades. Dr. Costigan gives an example:

“In White Western culture, we have the primacy of the marital relationship between partners, whether that’s same-sex or opposite-sex. The partners play a leadership role in the family and there should be good boundaries around the decision-making in the family, where kids aren’t really a part of that. We might consider it problematic if kids are too privy to adult issues or too involved in adult decision-making. In some cultures, however, the primary relationship is parent-child. It can be desirable for children to contribute to the family at a much higher level than we expect in Canadian culture. Fulfilling those family obligations is really a strength, and it’s part of a healthy adaptation for that child from that cultural lens.”

For psychologists who specialize in working with families, their work can involve every moment of the lifespan, from dealing with a newborn arrival into the family to planning for end-of-life care for a parent or grandparent. Dr. Costigan says that in all those situations, although the approach might be vastly different, the fundamental principles remain the same.

“The core family functioning systems principles around communication and problem-solving have relevance at every phase of the lifespan. How do you get families to share what they’re thinking in respectful and helpful ways, how do you get them to solve problems in ways where everyone feels heard? Adult children can live their own lives fairly independently. Then when their parents start to decline they have to interact with one another and deal with each other much more, in a really emotional context. Some of those old wounds of childhood interaction can really rear their heads and disrupt that process. That’s an example of a prime time when psychologists might want to get involved, to help a family navigate that difficult phase of the lifespan.”

Or, maybe, psychologists might want to get involved right after the death of a family patriarch. This could potentially avoid future disagreements and betrayals, and ensure that Fredo never sealed his fate by taking sides against the family. I mean, maybe. The Godfather had some pretty difficult family dynamics and precious few psychologists.

Over the past two years, a new test has been placed on families and, by extension, the family psychologists who help them. Not only has the pandemic increased mental health difficulties, it has made it harder to reach out for the supports that could once have alleviated some of those issues. Says Dr. Theule,

“I think the last two years have put a lot of pressure on families who live together. The pandemic has taken away a lot of the larger system, and the supports that come with it like grandparents. We have a lot of great technological innovations, but those innovations aren’t going to come over and take care of your kids when they’re sick, or change a diaper for you. They don’t solve instrumental needs. In my estimation, a lot of research in the last two years has opened a lot of eyes outside the field of family psychology. Psychologists all sort of anticipated this, but to see the stress that children, people with disabilities, and older individuals – people who rely on the family system a little bit more – how impacted those individuals were by stresses to caregivers. It made people realize that maybe focusing on the adults who help those who need the extra care is one of the best ways to help those people who need extra care. For anyone who’s relying on others, a caregiver is really important and I think that may have been a shift in the larger community.”

Again, Dr. Theule is talking about systems. The future of family psychology is an integration of what the experts know now into a much larger, and more complex system that we can call a ‘family’.

“Family psychology is just starting to scratch the surface of the whole system. We’re really good at examining the parts of the system – what happens between a couple, what are the dynamics between one parent and one child, and so on – but a family isn’t just all these little parts added together, it’s greater than the sum of its parts. So how do you look at, and measure, something as complex as a family system? They vary in size, in culture, in dynamics in every single family. That’s where we’re trying to go – to look at the larger systems. Some research is being done now into triad dynamics, like one parent and two children, or two parents and one child. But the amount of complexity it adds to go from two people to three is so large that this is a huge shift already.”

Picture a diagram that you draw on a piece of paper. If you have two people (two dots on the diagram), there is only one line that can be drawn between them. Add a third person (third dot), and there are now three lines that can be drawn between individuals. One more person – three times as complex. Add a fourth, and there are now five possible lines. And so on – so you can imagine how difficult it must be when you’re dealing with a whole family system, where there can be upward of nine, ten, or even thirty people involved. Making sense of those systems might be the monumental task facing family psychology over the next several years.

Dr. Theule and Dr. Costigan will be a part of that – making sense of the incredible complexity of family systems, and coming up with more effective interventions and treatments as a result. There may, however, be one question they will not be able to answer. What, exactly, convinced Francis Ford Coppola and Al Pacino that making that third Godfather movie was a good idea?