Deeper Change: Personal Growth, Therapy and Counseling Group

What is

Contextual Therapy?

What is Contextual Therapy?

Contextual Therapy is an interpersonal and systemic based style of therapy. Based in the foundational roots of forgiveness, ethics, fairness, and morality, Contextual Therapy also bridges intergenerational healing, reconciliation ,and acknowledgement into the practice. 

Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy is considered the originator of Contextual Therapy (Boszormenyi-Nagy, 1987; Nichols, 2007; Watson, 2007; Wilburn-McCoy, 1993.

Contextual therapists emphasize the ways in which generations are inherently bound to each other, while also considering intrapsychic and interpersonal elements (Boszormenyi-Nagy & Krasner, 1986). As a therapist considers these pieces, they contextualize their client’s difficulties and have a fairer and more balanced understanding. According to the Contextual Therapy model, people cannot be removed from their generational rootedness. They bring invisible loyalties extending across generations, even when starting a new family unit (Boszormenyi-Nagy & Krasner, 1987). Unlike many other treatment modalities, contextual therapists consider relational ethics, or fairness in relationships (Boszormenyi-Nagy & Krasner, 1986). Every relationship has a ledger of indebtedness and entitlements. The ledger is balanced when the relationship is fundamentally built on equitability. The ledger includes both legacy, acquired by family dynamics and experiences, and the record of an individual’s accumulated merit by contributing to someone else’s welfare. Legacy can be understood as continuing one’s role from their family of origin in their new relationships, whether healthy or not. In order for a relationship to become increasingly trustworthy, each party must deal with both indebtedness and entitlements. Trust is essential in healthy relationships.

Also, parent child relationships are initially asymmetrical as an infant is incapable of contributing to the welfare of another. These relationships should gradually shift to a more equally balanced ledger as the child grows older. Children should also not be required to sacrifice loyalty to one parent in order to remain loyal to the other, also called split filial loyalty. Contextual therapy uses the concept of a revolving slate to describe how a legacy is repeated across generations despite attempts to change. Considering pathology, Boszormenyi-Nagy and Ulrich (1981) wrote, “the breakdown of trustworthiness of relationship through disengagement from multilateral caring and accountability sets the stage for symptom development” (p. 171). 



Boszormenyi-Nagy, I. (1966). From family therapy to a psychology of relationships: Fictions of the individual and fictions of the family. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 7, 406-423.

Boszormenyi-Nagy, I. (1987). Foundations of contextual therapy. New York: Brunner/Mazel.

Boszormenyi-Nagy, I., & Krasner, B. (Eds.). (1986). Between give and take: A clinical guide to contextual therapy. New York: Brunner/Mazel.

Boszormenyi-Nagy, I., & Spark, G. (1973). Invisible loyalties: Reciprocity in intergenerational family therapy. New York: Harper & Row.

Boszormenyi-Nagy, I., & Ulrich, D. (1981). Contextual family therapy. In A. S. Gurman, P. Kniskern (Eds.), Handbook of family therapy (pp. 159-186). New York: Brunner/Mazel.

Boszormenyi-Nagy, I., Grunebaum, J., & Ulrich, D. (1991). Contextual therapy. In A. Gurman and D. Kniskern (Eds.), Handbook of family therapy (Vol. 2, pp. 200-238). New York: Brunner/Mazel.


Ducommun-Nagy, C. (2009). Forgiveness and relational ethics: The perspective of the contextual therapist. In A. Kalayjian, R. F. Paloutzian (Eds.), Forgiveness and reconciliation: Psychological pathways to conflict transformation and peace building (pp. 33-54). New York, NY: Springer Science + Business Media.

 Mason, N. (2010). In remembrance of insoo kim berg and ivan boszormenyi-nagy: A look into the conceptual frameworks and major contributions of two international marriage and family therapists whom the field “lost” in 2007. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation), The University of Louisiana at Monroe, Monroe, LA.

Nichols, W. (2007). In memoriam. Contemporary Family Therapy: An International Journal, 29(1/2), 3-8.

Watson, M. F. (2007). Ivan boszormenyi-nagy, MD: A testimony to life. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 33(3), 289-290.

 Wilburn-McCoy, C. (1993). Rediscovering nagy: What happened to contextual therapy?. Contemporary Family Therapy: An International Journal, 15(5), 395-404.