Systems theory as explained by the Eckhardt “family”

I still have one paper left to write. Sorry about the lack of posts. But you know you were impatiently awaiting the Eckhardt “family” breakdown of systems theory basics!


Our family unit is comprised of Louie, me, Lucy, Lizzie (a sweet, sadly deceased guinea pig), Marcy, Penny, and Ellie. Here we all are!

This was taken at our rehearsal dinner. Don't even ask.

We actually did not pose this picture. Everyone just sort of follows me around all the time.


Subsystems are smaller units within the larger system. In the Eckhardt house, we have the following subsystems:

Big Hairy Beasts (dog and kitty), Humans (would that make us Giant Hairy Beasts?), and the Wee Beasties (guinea pigs–and we do actually call them that).

The Big Hairy Beasts. I think they are plotting something.

In any system, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Between any two members of a system is a relationship that is sort of like a thing unto itself. In the picture above, you see Penny and Ellie. You can also see the sort of relationship they have as Ellie slinks around under the kitchen cart, ready to poke at Penny as she gets a drink. Ellie is a total instigator and Penny is totally clueless.

Linear vs. Circular Causality

They usually aren't this cuddly with each other.

Systems theory requires that we think in circles, rather than in straight lines. One thing causes another thing, which in turn causes the other thing, etc.

Linear causality: Lucy nips Ellie’s tail, so Ellie swishes it angrily. End of story. Lucy is at fault.

Circular causality: Lucy nips Ellie’s tail, which causes Ellie to swish it angrily, which tickles Lucy’s nose, so she nips it again, so Ellie gets more annoyed and swishes it harder, so Lucy nips it again…It keeps going, and both parties have a hand in it.


In homeostasis, the system tries to keep itself balanced and regulated, even as events like the addition of new members threaten to throw that balance off.

We got Lucy in 2006. In 2007, I decided she needed a friend and adopted Lizzie. This arrangement did not thrill either of them for a few weeks–Lizzie desperately wanted a friend, and Lucy desperately wanted her space back. Because all things are circular, the more Lizzie clung, the more Lucy ran away.

Lizzie would get in the pigloo and blockade herself in. Lucy was left out in the cold. Things just weren't the same.

As they adjusted, they got a *little* closer. More in sync with each other, you could say.

Finally, they adjusted as much as possible and settled into a new routine, although occasionally they wouldn't look at each other.

Lizzie passed away in 2008 and then we had to start the whole process over with Marcy!

Rules and Myths

Rules, both spoken and unspoken, govern how a system behaves. Some rules in the Eckhardt House:

  • Cats do not belong on tables
  • Dogs do not belong in our bed
  • Kristen always gives the dog a bath
  • Louie always scoops dog poop.

Sometimes, rules become so ingrained that they become inflexible myths that limit behavior and growth. “Won’t” turns into “can’t”.  Eckhardt family myths:

  • Louie cannot give the dog a bath because he doesn’t know how
  • Kristen cannot scoop dog poop because she gags.
Let’s just say neither of us are willing to dispel these myths.

Incongruent/congruent communication

Something isn't right with this picture!

Penny and Ellie decided to help me with the laundry. But wait a minute! Penny isn’t supposed to be on the bed! I am very angry! I have two choices about how to communicate to Penny to get her off the bed:

Incongruent: “Penny, please get off the bed. Thank you.” *clenching fists because I’m holding back my emotions*

Congruent: “Penny, get down! I feel very angry when you get on the bed!” *no clenching fists because my outside expression matches my inside emotions*


Family systems often form triangles of two members against a third. The first two are actually projecting their uncomfortable feelings or conflict towards each other onto the third.

It’s hard to admit, but I can be guilty of this. Sometimes when Louie and I are kinda grumpy towards each other, we act nice to each other and yell at the dog instead. Mostly me. I’m trying to break this cycle. I’m sorry!! Because:

How could you possibly be mad at Bumblepug?

All of these elements combine to create our unique “family” dynamic. In some ways, all systems are the same, since the same rules govern them. In other ways, each system is unique, because every system has its own set of interacting elements. So–celebrate your family’s uniqueness, and take comfort in the fact that it’s also similar to everyone else’s family!


One thought on “Systems theory as explained by the Eckhardt “family”

  1. Pingback: Life as a new counselor–Let’s catch up! | Feet in Two Worlds

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