Encyclopedia of Couple and Family Therapy

2019 Edition
| Editors: Jay L. Lebow, Anthony L. Chambers, Douglas C. Breunlin

First-Order Change in Family Systems Theory

  • Jason P. AustinEmail author
  • Benjamin J. Evans
  • Ruoxi Chen
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-49425-8_273

Name of Concept

First-order change in family systems theory


First-order change refers to a change within a system (i.e., couple or family) consistent with the rules governing that system. In couple and family therapy, a first-order change results in the maintenance of the status quo or family homeostasis (Watzlawick et al. 1974).

Theoretical Context for the Concept

First-order change is one level in a two-level theory of change proposed by Watzlawick et al. (1974). This concept of change is fundamental to the MRI brief therapy approach (Fisch et al. 1982) and characterizes how problems are created and maintained in family systems governed by rules. Rooted in family systems theory (Keeney and Ross 1983a), first-order change can best be characterized as a cybernetic explanation of how systems stabilize. The cybernetic complementarity of stability/change implores us to help systems stabilize how they change and change how they stabilize by “prescribing both stability and...

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  1. Fisch, R., Weakland, J. H., & Segal, L. (1982). The tactics of change: Doing therapy briefly. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  2. Keeney, B. P., & Ross, J. M. (1983a). Cybernetics of brief family therapy. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 9(4), 375–382.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Keeney, B. P., & Ross, J. M. (1983b). Learning to learn systemic therapies. Journal of Systemic Therapies, 2(2), 22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Watzlawick, P., Weakland, J. H., & Fisch, R. (1974). Change: Principles of problem formation and problem resolution. New York: WW Norton & Company.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jason P. Austin
    • 1
    Email author
  • Benjamin J. Evans
    • 1
  • Ruoxi Chen
    • 1
  1. 1.Marriage and Family Therapy and Counseling StudiesUniversity of Louisiana at MonroeMonroeUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • David Kearns
    • 1
  • Bahareh Sahebi
    • 2
  1. 1.Iowa CityUSA
  2. 2.The Family Institute at Northwestern UniversityEvanstonUSA