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Jay Haley, 83; Family Therapy Pioneer Advocated Direct Approach

Jay Haley sometimes clashed with colleagues who used more traditional forms of therapy.
Jay Haley sometimes clashed with colleagues who used more traditional forms of therapy. (By Michael Yapko)

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By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 2, 2007

Jay Haley, 83, a psychologist recognized as a pioneer of family therapy and a co-founder of the Family Therapy Institute in Chevy Chase, died Feb. 13 of cardiopulmonary failure at his home in La Jolla, Calif. At the time of his death, he was a research professor at the California School of Professional Psychology at Alliant International University.

Mr. Haley was a proponent of brief therapies that focused on solving concrete and immediate problems rather than delving into the past for root causes. Developed by Mr. Haley's mentor, Milton H. Erickson, the approach also shifted the focus from the client in isolation to the social context, particularly the family unit.

"Working with more than one family member in therapy was a radical idea at the time," said Scott Wooley, a colleague at Alliant International University.

Mr. Haley once wrote that "my most significant contribution is breaking therapy down to a practice of specific skills -- of simple ideas, skills and techniques. This is quite different from the non-directive ideology the field had when I first got into it."

His direct approach occasionally brought him into conflict with colleagues who relied on more traditional approaches, as the New York Times noted in a 1985 article about a conference in Phoenix attended by a number of psychotherapy luminaries.

In a heated confrontation with a New York psychoanalyst who specialized in long-term treatment of troubled adolescents, Mr. Haley said: "When you say an adolescent had such-and-such a development history, that's just your dream, based on fantasy or hearsay. You'll never really know what happened in his past."

Mr. Haley insisted that it was "the therapist's job to change the patient, not to help him understand himself."

At the Phoenix conference, as the Times reported, he came under attack from two renowned therapists, Carl Rogers, founder of client-centered therapy, and Rollo May, a best-selling author and existential therapist. They said that Mr. Haley's approach was manipulative and dangerous.

"Those who do long-term therapy say it is shallow just to focus on change, but at least the patients get over their symptoms," Mr. Haley said.

Michael D. Yapko, a California therapist who considered Mr. Haley a friend and mentor, recalled that Mr. Haley also could be a sharp-tongued critic of those who agreed with his approach and that he had little patience for well-established practices pertaining to session lengths, session frequencies and fees.

Yapko quoted a line Mr. Haley wrote in 1988: "Of the many ways to set a fee, the most obvious is to charge for the cure of a symptom rather than the number of hours sitting in the presence of a client."

Jay Douglas Haley was born in Midwest, Wyo., and grew up in California. After serving in the Army, he graduated from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1948. He also received an undergraduate degree in library science from the University of California at Berkeley in 1951 and a master's degree in communication from Stanford University in 1953.

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