Why the Foundation is More Important Now Than Ever
Let me state my case clearly from the outset—we must find a way to provide our financial support to the AAMFT Research & Education Foundation (hereafter, the Foundation) both collectively and individually. There are both historic and contemporary reasons why the Foundation is the key to ensuring the future of family therapy.
Many of you know that the Foundation, created in 1942, later became “AAMFT,” the professional association we now know. Why is this significant? The Foundation was created based on the cybernetic notion of systemic relationship, which was a new idea in that era. The cybernetic realization that what something is made of, or its internal organization, is less important than the information it carries in systemic relation to others changed science. The realization that systems are self-correcting allowed the introduction of purpose into scientific theory. The purpose of a system is its output. This idea allowed scientists to focus on relationships— marriages at first, then later, families. “Marriage and family” therapy emerged from putting cybernetic ideas about the importance of relationships into practice. The rocky roads of those early decades eventually led to a singular profession (recognized as one of the core mental health disciplines). Somehow, we have forgotten this history.
The idea that relationships are foundational to all biological life was indeed revolutionary when it emerged in the last century. Yet, we now live in a world that demands evidence of effectiveness. Along the way, this revolutionary idea became framed within the structure of a “scientific revolution” (Kuhn, 1970). In our successful quest to build the “profession” of marriage and family therapy, we have seriously neglected building the evidence in support of the idea and practice of family therapy. We were not originally organized by a profession, a license, or any of the other trappings that now come with our current professional experience.
Sprenkle (2012) recently offered a succinct summary of our current challenge. “Frankly, if CFTs (couple and family therapists), want to have their discipline taken seriously by the external world (including other disciplines, governments, insurance companies, and other third party payers), they will have to continue producing high-quality RCTs (randomized clinical trials) (p. 4).”
Some have criticized the reliability and validity of published research (e.g., Ioannidis, 2005). Further, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that the pursuit of evidence-based treatments is itself a fairly fruitless endeavor since, as Wampold (2010) points out, “the research evidence indicates that a variety of treatments, when administered by therapists who believe in the treatment and when accepted by the clients, are equally effective” (p. 71). The more recent focus on common factors in our field suggests a recalibration of our research agenda. As Sparks & Duncan (2010) recommend, “a focus on common factors is empirically informed, enhances the viability of systems therapy in the market, facilitates a framework for training and research, and is accountable to clients, respecting their unique diversity” (p. 382).
Where is most family therapy research produced, and how cohesive and organized is the research agenda for our field? Much of it has historically been produced by family psychologists, psychiatrists, and family sociologists. And, the relative cohesiveness and organization of the research in our field has been lacking. As Sprenkle (2012) noted when reviewing a recent compilation of family therapy research, “certainly, good work can be carried out in other contexts, and non-programmatic research can also be valuable, but it appeared to be hard to keep up with the full-time researchers in medical-related contexts when it came to high output-strong methodology research” (pp. 7-8). Granted, the faculty in our COAMFTE-accredited programs contribute a share of the research produced, but much more is needed and in a more organized and coordinated fashion. Yet, in moving forward, we must remember our past: we were first organized by systemic ideas and practice.
Here’s where the Foundation comes in. As a field organized by an idea and a practice, we need a place where we can support the development of high-quality research that will advance the field and benefit the clients we serve. “There is a great need for more cost research, for more replications by research groups not professionally related to the founders of the models, for more research on mechanisms of change, and for more investigations that approximate real-world clinical practice to enhance ecological validity” (Sprenkle, 2012, p. 12).
The Foundation “exists to fund systemic and relational research, scholarship, and education in an effort to support and enhance the practice of systemic and relational therapies; advance the health care continuum; and improve client outcomes.” The Foundation can become a center for innovative research on systemic treatment, with full-time researchers devoted to cutting edge investigations. The problem, however, in fulfilling this mission is primarily a lack of funds. I hope you will join me in being a contributor to the Foundation so that important systemic research can be funded throughout the years.
Ioannidis, J. (2005). Why most published research findings are false. PLoS Med, 2(8), e124. doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.0020124
Kuhn, T. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions (2nd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Sparks, J., & Duncan, B. (2010). Common factors in couple and family therapy: Must all have prizes? In B. Duncan, S. Miller, B. Wampold, & M. Hubble (Eds.), The heart & soul of change (2nd ed., pp. 357-391). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Sprenkle, D. (2012). Intervention research in couple and family therapy: A methodological and substantive review and an introduction to the special issue. Journal of Marital & Family Therapy, 38(1), 3-29.
Wampold, B. (2010). The research evidence for common factors models: A historically situated perspective. In B. Duncan, S. Miller, B. Wampold, & M. Hubble (Eds.), The heart & soul of change (2nd ed., pp. 49-81). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
James P. Morris, PhD, is faculty and clinical coordinator, Online Marriage and Family Therapy Program, Abilene Christian University, Dallas, TX. Morris is a Clinical Fellow of AAMFT and a contributor to the Foundation.