NCE – Symbolic Experimental Family Therapy

According to Metcalf, (2011) Symbolic Experimental Family Therapy “Focuses on here-and-now experiences, playfulness, humor, intuition, craziness, spontaneity, and personal growth. It is a pragmatic, atheoretical method for treating families. Incorporates growth of the therapist and clients as the ultimate motivation, and focuses on circular, recursive patterns in a family that lead to mutual benefit and interpersonal context” (p147). Another unique aspect about this theory is that it normalizes pathology.  As I see it, this theory focuses on familial cultures, (i.e. shared meanings, beliefs, thoughts, symbols, and perspectives).  Entering in the “family’s symbolic world” (Metcalf, 2011, p. 148) is the goal here since change is conceived to result from the therapeutic process.

Founder – Carl Whitaker

Stages of Therapy

Symbolic Experimental Therapy is focused on the present.  The  first of therapy begins with the clients’ first contact with the therapist.  It is at this stage, that the therapist is “responsible for setting the tone of therapy.” (Metcalf, 2011, p. 149).   Whitaker, describes the therapist as a foster mother/investigator since, at this point, family morale and information gathering are the focus (Metcalf, 2011). Once therapy has been initiated, it is the family’s responsibility to “take charge of their own experiences…[in an] anything goes  [manner]” (Metcalf, 2011, p. 149).  Interestingly, during the early stages, the therapist is a disconnected observer who, while “joined with the family”, (Metcalf, 2011, p. 149), steps back and lets the family play out their own shared reality.  However, as therapy progresses the therapist pushes the family to address the symbols and meaning that underlies their pain.  This allows them to develop a new perspective upon which to understand their shared experience.  During the termination phase, the therapist begins to disengage as the family learns to adapt to new positive shared experiences.

View of the client

This perspective seems to focus on the shared symbolic meanings that underlie shared family dynamics.   Change happens by understanding the symbolic meanings that give rise to these family dynamics.  Change can happen if the client is willing to work with it.  Within each pathological dynamic is an opportunity for growth, therefore it is conceived as evidence of potential and not malady.  Individual human choices can be contextualized within a shared familial reality since it is from here that we develop our beliefs, values, and cultural identity.   “Families should preserve, protect, and maintain a sense of self while understanding how their being/growth influenced by family history (Metcalf, 2011, p. 150).”

Assumption about marriage

  1. “Marriage is a third entity. In therapy, the clients are the husband, wife and the marriage.
  2. Marriage is greater than the sum of its parts.
  3. People choose partners on the basis of set core beliefs and values
  4. Marriage is legally and emotionally binding. A marriage constrains two persons from getting emotionally involved with other people outside the marriage.
  5. Marriage must learn to grow and resolve unexpected and predictable impasses that occur occasionally. (Metcalf, 2011, p. 151)”

How Change Happens.

Change can happen simply by examining how we choose to interpret our shared experiences.  “Failure is one’s only teacher; success allows one’ the courage to fail.  [Change happens through]personal growth, symbol relief, character development, resolution of dependency, ability to experience emotion/anxiety, & increased spontaneity/creativity (Metcalf, 2011, p. 152).

Basic skills of a therapist

  1. “Able to tolerate pain, anxiety, etc in his own life
  2. Understructure of caring
  3. Able to listen to personal intuition
  4. Ability to become family’s foster parenting and balance nurturing with toughness during therapy
  5. Belief in continuous personal growth…
  6. Ability to interweave beliefs, assumptions, and biases into therapy.” (Metcalf, 2011, p. 152)

Key Concepts

  1. SYMBOLS:  comprise an unspoken underlying meaning that defines our experience.  It gives the meaning to the pain we experience and the options available to us for change and growth.
  2. CRAZINESS:  “allows a person to not be constrained by socially accepted realities, and be more spontaneous and symbolic.” (Metcalf, 2011, p 156).  There are three types of crazy: (1) driven crazy (2) going crazy & (3) acting crazy.  Driven crazy refers to being repelled from intimacy.  Going crazy refers to an intense and neurotic distress.  Acting crazy is a technique that involves regressing into crazy behavior during periods of heightened stress/anxiety.
  3. SPONTANIETY – “rooted in intuition and the use of craziness. Is an unconscious process. Is a key aspect for any personal interaction in therapy…..” (Metcalf, 2011, p 156)
  4. CONFUSION – “Confusion is a symbolic way to open up the infrastructure of the family and disrupting old patterns.”  (Metcalf, 2011, p 156).
  5. FANTASY –  “a form of play that allows the therapist and family to address their separate symbolic worlds & meanings.”  (Metcalf, 2011, p 156)
  6. GROWTH – “growth is the ultimate motivation of thus approach to family therapy. Growth occurs thru play” (Metcalf, 2011, p. 156).

A working template

Change happens by reshaping the “symbols and language used by the family[this provides a]  corrective experience for the family when discussed openly” (Metcalf, 2011, p. 157).  Essentially, this section of Metcalf’s (2011) discussion provides a reiteration of the therapy stages except in terms of the therapist’s objectives….

  1. PHASE ONE  – Build Rapport by upholding a foster parent role by stepping back and observing while relating “to the family as a peer” (Metcalf,2011, p. 157).
  2. PHASE TWO – Once rapport has been established it is possible to begin investigating the problem.  This happens by interviewing each family member without interruption individually.
  3. PHASE THREE:  The next step involves assessing the family dynamics and their desire for change.  “The goal is to understand the past symbols underlying the family’s pain” (Metcalf, 2011,p. p157)
  4. PHASE FOUR:  Develop familial goals.
  5. PHASE FIVE:  Amplifying change by  “getting into a family and then out as soon as possible is the goal, so you don’t leave any marks of your presence behind.” (Metcalf, 2011,p. p157)
  6. PHASE SIX: Termination.


Linehan, M. (1997). Validation and psychotherapy. (pp. 353-392). American Psychological Association. doi: 10.1037/10226-016
Gilbert, P. (Ed.). (2005). Compassion: Conceptualizations, research and use in psychotherapy. Routledge
McKay, M., Wood, J. C., & Brantley, J. (2007). The dialectical behavior therapy skills ​workbook. Oakland: New Harbinger.
Metcalf, L, (2011). Marriage and family therapy: A practice oriented approach. New York: Springer Publishing Company


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