The family structure is made up of individuals living together in intimate groups with the purpose of caring and supporting each other. Rules and boundaries, spoken and unspoken, are developed by the family members. Family rules and boundaries change and shift over time in order to evolve and grow as a family unit. Some changes are subtle, but some events force major change within the family system. This paper applies the concepts of systems theory to the family system in the movie Sweet Home Alabama. Reese Witherspoon (Melanie Smooter) and Josh Lucas (Jake Perry) star in this heart-warming film telling a story of a young woman who flees from Alabama to reinvent herself in New York City as a high fashion designer. She leaves behind her redneck husband and white-trash upbringing. Melanie finds herself engaged to the city’s most eligible bachelor and has to return to Alabama to request a divorce from her first love and confront her past (“Alabama,” 2002).
Boundaries are drawn between family systems and anything which is external. Boundaries influence the movement of people in and out of the family system, and regulate the flow of information to and from outside sources. The boundaries within a family are what distinguish one family from another. Families have varying boundaries, some more open than others, whereas in other family systems, its members are restricted on where members may go and who may be brought into the family (“Systems theory,” n.d.). Boundaries also control what information will be brought in and out of the family. Some families have strict boundaries and strict family rules.
Two families are referenced in the movie Sweet Home Alabama. The first family includes Melanie, her mother and her father. This first system has an open set of boundaries without restrictions or limitations, where information and other family systems are allowed to move freely in and out. The second family consists of a mother-son system. The mother is a wealthy, prominent Judge in New York City and her son is the city’s most eligible bachelor running for political office. The second system’s boundaries are ridged; other systems have a difficult time being accepted by and into the family. Family information is guarded and the family system is difficult to penetrate.
in the examples given above, two family systems exist. Both are considered to be open systems, however, one is more open than the other. Each system has a boundary which is open to some varying extent. This openness makes it possible for other systems and information to pass into and out of its system. Input from within a family or from other systems puts pressure on the family to make changes. Sometimes these changes are not wanted and disrupt the family dynamic.
“If not enough change is allowed to occur, the system is said to be closed.”(Becvar ; Becvar, 1999, p. 23) While there is no type of system which is entirely closed, there are some systems that lack beneficial energy or input to stay balanced.
Entropy is a term used to describe a force that is present in all family systems. If the system is lacking a sufficient amount of social exchange, the family relationship tends to weaken and breakdown. Melanie and Jake are a perfect example of entropy. They were so in love in the beginning of their relationship. Melanie wanted more from her life, more than what she could have in Alabama with her husband. Instead of communicating within her family system Melanie shutdown all information input within her relationship.
Negative entropy can be thought of as energy or influence within a family system. The influence could be communication, affection, education, or food. Negative entropy can be anything that increases order or harmony within the system. Melanie’s husband, Jake is a good example of negative entropy within the family system. He understood Melanie and why she left. He knew that she wanted more out of life than what he could offer. He moved forward with plans of furthering his career, so he would be able to offer her more than he could before. He was trying to restore balance and harmony with the family system.
The concept homeostasis explains how family systems strive for stability or a steady-state (Becvar & Becvar, 1999). Families are continuously changing, responding and adapting to events in and out of the system. When balance is not found, the family will search for ways to restore order (“Systems theory,” n.d.). When the mother of the political candidate found out that her son was to be married to someone she did not approve, she tried sabotaging the relationship. First she tried demanding a long engagement. When that did not work she hired an outsider to snoop out negative information about her son’s fiancé, to no avail. The only other action the mother could take to restore family order was to change her way of thinking.
Morphostasis and Morphogenesis
A system seeks stability. “Yet to continue to be healthy, the system must also be willing to change.”(Becvar ; Becvar, 1999, p. 22) As previously mentioned, the mother in the second family, tried everything she could do to end the relationship with Melanie and her son. When she was not successful in restoring morphostasis (stability) she had to adapt to the changing needs of her family. This adaptation is referred to as morphogenesis (change) (Becvar ; Becvar, 1999).
Negative feedback is corrected feedback that helps to maintain the system within an operating range. This feedback provides information to indicate how far off track a system is straying and what is needed to return the system to a status quo (Nichols, 2010). In reference to the first system in the movie, Melanie was in a bar with her old friends and husband. She had too much to drink and was acting drunk, mean, and crazy. One of her friends told her that she was behaving badly, and that she was running from her problems, living a lie. This type of information could be considered negative feedback because Melanie used the information to make corrections and get the system back on course.
“Positive feedback is information that confirms and reinforces the direction a system is taking.”(Nichols, 2010, p. 88) In Melanie’s case, her running from her past is an avoidance issue. Melanie avoiding her family, friends and husband has left her family system frustrated. When Melanie comes back asking for a divorce, not one, two or three times, her husband continues to put her off. The action from the husband is positive feedback because the lack of response to Melanie’s requests, have left her feeling out-of-control. All systems need a balance of both positive and negative feedback.