One of the theories that is hallmark to the social work profession is the systems theory, meaning the study and understanding of individuals within systems, that of family, peer relationships, work, religion, culture, community, globally. Think of a system as a mobile, like those that we hang above an infant’s bed. Pull one string and the others move in response. We are not individuals living in isolation; rather we are individuals living in relation to others. Problems are often not problems per se; rather they are problems within a particular system.

I use this often when working with parents who are divorced. What once worked in the marital relationship does not work any longer, as the relationship is now different. Let’s take a look at some examples.

Snoring: This is not necessarily a problem. If someone who snores is in a relationship with someone who is a deep sleeper, then no issue arises. Yet, if this same person is in a relationship with someone who is a light sleeper, then World War III may ensue.

Emotionality: Some cultures are more expressive, open to conflict, talking with emotion, and engaging in heated debated. I am Italian; do I need to say more? This manner of communicating may work for your family, so you may be surprised when you get a call from your child’s teacher expressing the perception of other children that your child is “aggressive.” It may just be that this style of communication does not work within the playground environment.

Top-Less Bathing: And this applies to other cultural norms such as not eating pork or wearing a hijab. Head over to Lake Michigan and take your top off, at least for women, and you are likely to be arrested for indecent exposure. Go to Europe and you are the minority if you have your top on.

Terrorism: This one I am sure will be controversial. Yet, I want you to think outside of the box. To you and me, events like 9-11 and the bombing of the Boston marathon are unfathomable. We cannot even begin to understand what these terrorists are thinking to engage in such behaviors, killing innocent people. Yet, from their beliefs, they are waging a war and causalities are inevitable and even honorable. I am in no way justifying this thought process and behavior, only trying to provide insight.

I say these things because often it is easy to deny that a problem exists or that we are contributing to difficulties. If instead we focus on contribution rather than blame, and view contribution in terms of systems, it can be easier to acknowledge issues and our role in them and therefore take steps to resolve these issues within the systems in which they present.