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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

Virginia Satir and the Art of Family Communication.

To many, Virginia Satir was an instinctive therapeutic genius, whose invention of family therapy has instructed untold millions of husbands, wives, and children how to better communicate with each other and improve their relationships by doing real and substantial work on building up their own individual senses of self-esteem and appreciation of each other’s subjective value. To others, however, she was a character bordering on farce, whose naive sense of psychological theory and the sources of psychological distress, reliance on vaguely defined pop categories and awkward analogy, and crude attempts to systematize the practices that worked best for her represent an ungainly, almost accidentally effective, contribution to therapeutic practice.

That’s quite the opposition of opinion, and finding the true Virginia Satir (1916-1988) within the binary swirl of hagiography and condemnation that characterizes a goodly number of discussions about her is a difficult task. But we’ll try anyway. She was born the eldest of five siblings on a farm in Neillsville, Wisconsin on June 26, 1916. Neillsville was the county seat of Clark County, but was still very much a modest rural town with a population of around 2,000 which has grown all the way to 2,300 today. By her accounts, Virginia taught herself to read by the age of three, and by five had settled on the resolution of being a sort of children’s detective, investigating the mysterious lives of adults.

That decision might have been inspired by a religious conflict around the same time between her parents. Her mother, a Christian Scientist, was dead set against Virginia receiving medical attention when she complained of abdominal pains, and her father went along with it until her appendix ruptured, and he insisted she be taken to the hospital, where her life was saved. After a few months in the hospital, Virginia returned home and to the rural education that most country kids in 1920s America could expect - seven years in a single room school with the eighteen other children from the town whose parents bothered to educate them. Thanks to her voracious reading, Virginia was ready for high school by the age of thirteen, and the family moved to Milwaukee so that the children would have a better high school education than was available to them in Neillsville.

Satir graduated South Division High School just before turning sixteen, in the year 1932. This was, to say the least, not a propitious time to be heading towards a potentially expensive college education, with America firmly in the teeth of the Great Depression. She arrived at Milwaukee State Teachers College with three dollars to her name, and assured the understandably concerned registrar that, if he let her sign up for classes, she would find a way to come up with the money needed for tuition and books. And she did, by virtue of taking up a job at Gimbel’s (which most people today remember as the rival department store to the one Santa Claus worked for in Miracle on 34th Street) and another for Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal era Works Progress Administration (which employed some 8.5 million people from 1935 to 1943). In 1936, she received her BA in Education, and went on to a teaching post at Williams Bay, Wisconsin, a small town of some seven hundred individuals at the time. Here she began the habit of accompanying a different student home each day, to spend some time with their parents and attempt to engage the whole family unit in student support. It was a great idea from an era when teachers weren’t so bogged down with standardized testing pressures and administrative hoop-jumping that they had time to engage with the wider school community and interact with parents on a semi-regular basis, and it gave Satir crucial insights into how family dynamics work, and how different communication styles of family members contribute to the creation of tensions within the family unit.

Satir realized that, if she wanted to do more to help students and their families, she could use a wider familiarity with the current state of social work practice, and to that end she enrolled for summer courses at Chicago’s Northwestern University, beginning in 1937, before transferring to the University of Chicago for graduate work, where her grades began to falter, either as a result of gender discrimination, or of her own preference for self-constructed pragmatic solutions over more academic theorizing. Nonetheless, she received her Master’s Degree in 1948, a year before her first marriage, to a World War II soldier, ended in divorce.

Her private practice (and second marriage) began in 1951, and it is here that her career as “The Mother of Family Therapy” well and truly begins, as she followed her instincts and developed her insights into the processes that pull families apart. She insisted on seeing families as complete units during her sessions, rather than meeting with each individual separately, so that she could observe how they communicate, and show them how their communication styles impacted each other. She delineated five of these styles- the placater, the blamer, the distractor, the intellectual, and the congruent, the first four of which deflected real and equal communication between individuals, each dodging in their own unique ways honest engagement with, and acceptance of, others’ emotional states. Placaters accept too much responsibility for how things are, and don’t honestly communicate their own frustrations, blamers take too little responsibility and want problems to be somebody else’s fault, distractors are uncomfortable with emotional communication and revert to irrelevant questions or jokes to change the topic, and intellectuals (or computers) do everything they can to reduce conversations to their logical content and deny the importance of what is happening emotionally in a given situation, leaving only “congruent communicators” to acknowledge and defend their own worth while respecting the subjectivity and reality of the emotions around them.

I don’t think anybody seriously argues against the value of Satir’s methods for allowing family members to realize the shortcomings of their communication styles, appreciate their own worth, and work on recognizing the existence of others as subjects in their own right. The tensions tend to come when we talk about Satir’s work in the 1960s after moving to California. She began attending sessions at the Esalen Institute, a retreat in Ben Sur that catered to a wide range of New Age interests, and which still exists today as a place where wealthy people can go to discuss the flow of their energies, what animal they want to be reincarnated as, and their experiences with extraterrestrials (at the time of writing, I see I am able to sign up for a weekend workshop on “Primordial Qigong: Vibrant Health, and Harmony with the Tao” for a mere $1000 to $10,000, depending on whether I want to sleep in a bag or in the “South Point House”) . In later talks with Barbara Jo Brothers, Satir expressed the great change in her thought wrought by her time at Esalen, and it shows in her work. Her previous interest in lack of self-esteem and opportunities for self-actualization as key players in family conflicts morphed into a model of energy flow whereby inspirational energy from the heavens and grounding energy from the physical world merge, propelling us along our life’s path in a seed-like growth that taps into the overall energy of the cosmos. Likewise, the generally valuable instinct from her experiences of troubled families that a focus on “potential over pathology,” i.e. on how individuals can build themselves into better persons instead of a hyper-focus on what was wrong with them, was a useful therapeutic practice, changed into a guiding philosophy that all humans are essentially good, and seeking to achieve the growth of their own personal energy seeds, and that all problems, therefore, including that of global-scale war, can be treated by centering individuals in the overlapping energies around them, and achieving a “third birth,” when they become the fullest versions of themselves and their own decision makers, on their way to a “fourth birth,” when they join all consciousness. (By the by, in case you were wondering about the math of it, Satir’s stated estimate was that, if 6% of the global population were to adopt this approach towards the self and its relation to the energy of the cosmos, that would be enough to end war.)

These sorts of thoughts, as expressed by Satir and elaborated upon in almost messianic tones by her followers, made professionals from many different disciplines uneasy. Psychologists were not too keen about the wholesale dismissal of pathology, feeling that it misled people with very real and biologically grounded neural conditions requiring treatment down roads of false promise. Historians and social theorists decried the reduction of world conflict to a matter of self-esteem. Feminist theorists were uncomfortable with the waving away of deep cultural and economic factors in explaining the position that women found themselves with regard to their families. And physicists just plain didn’t like the analogical appropriation of some popular explanations of quantum effects that tended to crop up in the Satir school of self.

However, these were never the people Satir was attempting to win over. She did not care about theory, only about what she observed in the trenches of practice, and the effectiveness of her techniques for those she attempted to help. In this, she was tireless, sometimes spending upwards of 350 days a year on the road, answering calls for help, holding teaching seminars and public demonstrations, and doing her level best to introduce her techniques to countries traditionally closed to input from the West. She met with tens of thousands of individuals over the course of her career, and energized a new generation of therapists with her unconventional ideas about how humans could be made whole, and families united, through a mutually realized path of self-discovery. There are reams of testimonials from husbands and wives, sons and daughters, speaking to the change to their families, the shift in their common perspective, brought about by just a single meeting with Satir.

All of which brings us back more or less to where we started - what are we to make of Virginia Satir, considered as a whole? Can we separate the important contributions she made - the treatment of the family as a unit rather than as individuals, the use of communication stances as a therapeutic tool, the highlighting of self-esteem as the issue underlying many familial surface problems, and the turn from pathological micro-analysis to constructive potential seeking- from the somewhat vaguely defined smorgasbord of New Age concepts she and her followers increasingly draped those core techniques in over the last two decades of her life?

The answer is, of course we can. As humans, we have plenty of experience in honoring our innovative pioneers, even those who drifted into realms of near self-parody later. Virginia Satir helped thousands of people, created a new approach to therapy, and did it all on her terms, for better and worse, and the sheer audacity with which she lived her life, and resoluteness with which she approached her purpose, combined with her real and true gift for identifying what works and what does not in opening the lines of actual and honest communication between individuals, will linger on in the annals of family therapy long after Esalen runs out of well-heeled rubes to bamboozle, and long into the age when we all feel well enough about ourselves and others that we do, in fact, have slightly less inclination to blow up each other (and ourselves) at the least provocation.


I’m not entirely sure what to tell you. Well-Being Writ Large: The Essential Work of Virginia Satir (2019) by Barbara Jo Brothers is one of the most comprehensive accounts of Satir’s thought you can easily get, and if when reading the above, you thought to yourself, “Gosh, Dale, you’re being too harsh on the post-California turn in Satir’s thought,” then this is probably a good book for you, as it very distinctly believes that turn represents peak Satir. Virginia Satir: The Patterns of Her Magic (1999), is useful for the presence of a verbatim transcript of one of Satir’s therapy sessions, to give some insight into how she dealt with people face to face. Of her own works, Conjoint Family Therapy (1983) and Peoplemaking (1972) are easy to flag down copies of, and form a good direct introduction to her methods.

And if you want to read about more great women in the history of psychology and neuroscience, keep your eyes peeled for my History of Women in Psychology and Neuroscience, which is coming in the Spring of 2024 from Pen and Sword books!


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