Family process in eating disorders: A test of Minuchin's Psychosomatic Family Model

Jonathan Charles Cohen, Fordham University


Minuchin's (1975, 1978) system model of the psychosomatic family (which includes eating disordered families) is one of the best known and most influential theories in the field of family therapy. Yet in a review of the literature in the area of family systems theory, including Minuchin's own work, little empirical evidence for this conceptualization of the psychosomatic family model could be located. The present study was concerned with attempting to validate Minuchin's "Psychosomatic Family Model"--an important step in furthering our understanding and treatment of eating disorders--using a standardized coding system to rate interactions in families with a daughter hospitalized with a diagnosed eating disorder. Nine verbal behaviors from the KPI, a standardized coding system for behaviorally measuring verbal and nonverbal communication between individuals, that were theorized to relate to Minuchin's four transactional patterns--enmeshment, overprotectiveness, rigidity and lack of conflict resolution--were compared between eating disorder subtypes. Thirteen families consisting of a daughter carrying a diagnosis of anorexia nervosa and her parents and 12 families with a daughter carrying a diagnosis of bulimia nervosa and her parents were investigated. The results indicate that on a group basis families with an anorexic daughter do exhibit behaviors which reflect greater enmeshment, lack of conflict resolution and in some ways overprotectiveness than do families with a bulimic daughter. Contrary to published results, anorexia nervosa families were more critical than bulimia nervosa families. Supplemental analyses demonstrated that all three anorexia nervosa family members contributed to the group's greater enmeshment behavior while anorexia nervosa parents accounted for the group's lack of conflict resolution. Anorexia nervosa mothers accounted for the greater number of critical remarks for that group. Daughters from both groups had more self-disclosing behavior than their parents. However, without a control group of "normal" families the generalizability of the study was limited to a degree. It was concluded that, in part Minuchin's psychosomatic model was validated. Anorexia nervosa parents may be stifling their daughters' budding independence by loosing boundaries and discouraging independence of thought relative to bulimia nervosa parents. However, importantly, not all anorexia nervosa families (nor bulimia nervosa families) were found to exhibit the same patterns of behavior.

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Recommended Citation

Cohen, Jonathan Charles, "Family process in eating disorders: A test of Minuchin's Psychosomatic Family Model" (1990). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9026730.