Ideas To Action

How Understanding Your Family System Can Change Your Life

5. Murray Bowen, M.D. and The Nine Concepts in Family Systems Theory

Introduction
Dr. Murray Bowen
Murray Bowen (1913- 1990) was the first and only psychiatrist to describe a theory explaining human behavior. He trained at Menninger and in 1954, Bowen became the first director of the Family Division at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). His research record and theory are well known.

Below you will find  a one brief one page summary of his theory and then a longer description that runs 6 pages.  Following this is  a short description of Dr. Bowen’s career along with his CV.

One Page Overview of Bowen Theory

Bowen family systems theory is a theory of human behavior that views the family as an emotional unit and uses systems thinking to describe the complex interactions in the unit. Bowen saw how the emotional systems which govern human relationships had evolved over millions of years. He postulated that differentiation (level of emotional maturity) among family members produced variation, as individuals became more of less mature from one generation to the next. In cases where multi-generational transmission, differentiation among family members becomes progressively lower, this can also generate clinical symptoms.  The goal of “Extended Family Systems Therapy” is to increase individual family members level of differentiation by the motivation of those who are capable of being in better emotional contact with those in the nuclear and extended family. This effort  requires knowledge of the emotional system and how to manage and define self in relationships.  Emotional, biological and environmental influences are considered as the individual adapts within the family unit over the generations.

The 8 basic concepts of Bowen’s family systems theory

1.      Levels of differentiation of self Families and social groups affect how people think, feel, and act, but individuals vary in their susceptibility to “group think”. Also, groups vary in the amount of pressure they exert for conformity. The less developed a person’s “self,” the more impact others have on his functioning and the more he tries to control the functioning of others. Bowen developed a scale to measure differentiation of self.

2.      The nuclear family This concept describes 4 relationship patterns that manage anxiety, marital conflict, dysfunction in one spouse, impairment of one or more children, emotional distance) that govern where problems develop in a family. 

3.      Family projection process This concept describes the way parents transmit their emotional problems to a child. Some parents have great trouble separating from the child. They imagine how the child is, rather than having a realistic appraisal of the child.  Relationship problems that most negatively affect a child’s life are a heightened need for attention and approval, difficulty dealing with expectations, the tendency to blame oneself or others, feeling responsible for other’s happiness, and acting impulsively to relieve the anxiety of the moment, rather than tolerating anxiety and acting thoughtfully.

4.      Multigenerational transmission process This concept describes how small differences in the levels of differentiation between parents and their offspring lead over many generations to marked differences in differentiation among the members of a multigenerational family. The way people relate to one another creates differences, which are transmitted across generations. People are sensitive and react to the absence or presence of relationships, to information about this moment, the future and or the past, and this, along with our basic genetic inheritance, interacts to shape an individual’s “self.”

5.      Sibling position Bowen theory incorporates psychologist Walter Toman’s work relating to sibling position. People who grow up in the same sibling position have important common characteristics. For example, oldest children tend to gravitate to leadership positions and youngest children often prefer to be followers, unless the parents disappointed them.  Toman’s research showed that spouses’ sibling positions when mismatched often affect the chance of divorcing.

6.      Triangles A triangle is a three-person relationship system. It is considered the triangle as the “molecule” of larger emotional systems, as it is the smallest stable relationship system. A triangle can manage more tension than a 2-person relationship as tension shifts among the three. Triangles can exert social control by putting one on the outside or bring in an outsider when tension escalates between two. Increasing the number of triangles can also stabilize spreading tension. Marital therapy uses the triangle to provide a neutral third party capable of relating well to both sides of a conflict.

 7.      Emotional cut off People sometimes manage their unresolved emotional issues with parents, siblings, and other family members by reducing or totally cutting off emotional contact with them. This resolves nothing and risks making new relationships too important.

8.      Societal emotional process This concept describes how the emotional system governs behavior on a societal level, similar to that within a family, which promotes both progressive and regressive periods in a society. 

More on these concepts:  

Bowen Family Systems Theory                                      

Bowen theory describes the family emotional process over generations, and the way it influences how individuals can function as part of the family unit.  Some individuals are freer of the sensitivity to others and are freer to go in his or her own self determined direction. Others do not fit well with the needs and expectation of the family and may then be focused ion in a negative or an unrealistic positive way and thereby absorb more anxiety than is their fair share. Families are not perfect, they are organized to produce diversity in functioning to adapt to various circumstances. If all people were the same there would not be the variation in the ability to adapt to changing circumstances.  Any motivated family member can alter the family emotional process if they are willing to work on self and relate well to others, without asking them to change.  The ability to see how emotional systems are organized, in a neutral way, gives individuals more freedom by being less sensitive and less reactive towards those who may be caught in the automatic and reactive dance of life.

The Eight Basic Concepts: 1) Levels of differentiation of self  “The level of differentiation is the degree to which one self fuses or merges into another self in a close emotional relationship. The scale has noting to do with emotional illness or psychotherapy. There are low-scale people who mange to keep their lives in emotional equilibrium without developing emotional illness, and there are higher scale people who can develop symptoms under great stress. ” [1]Murray Bowen, MD.

Families and social groups affect how people think, feel and act, but individuals vary in their susceptibility to “group think.” Also, groups vary in the amount of pressure they exert for conformity. The less developed a person’s “self,” the more impact others have on his or her functioning and the more he or she tries to control the functioning of others.  Bowen developed a scale to measure differentiation of self. The scale has been seen as promising a way to measure functioning.  No concrete scale to measure levels of differentiation of self has yet appeared. Bowen wrote it as a way to see the enormous variety in functioning.  A system view considers the variation in functioning rather than focusing on diagnosing people. 

The scale goes from100-0, spanning four quadrants:  

0-25 The lowest amount of emotional maturity is a result of many generations of family process in which some unfairly absorb the anxiety of the group.  There is very little to no ability to stand up for self as a reflection of anxiety in the group. Many decision are made reactively to follow along or oppose others. Feeling “comfortable” dictates the life course. 

25-50 One can know the difference between facts and feelings, but intense and reactive feeling states, plus the levels of anxiety can degrade people’s functioning, highlight the decision to do things in order to feel better. People can lose sight of important principles to guide decisions.  When times are calm people can use principles and think carefully about relationships and decisions.  Principles can enable people to withstand the pressure to give in to relationships demands. Most people function in this area.

50-60 This is the area where people know the difference between feelings and thinking and are clear about the principles that they have defined as important. Decisions are more thoughtful and relationships are calmer, even in times of turmoil. If people develop symptom they recover well and are not caught in negative feeling cycles. People operate on principled and can be more open with others.  When opposed they do not get highly emotional. They consider the long-term implications of decisions. They can speak about difficult subjects thoughtfully and do not defending self against the attacks of others. 

60 -75 People are freer of the controlling emotional system and do not control others. . There is more freedom to be self and to let others be.  Decisions are clarified and connected basic principles. They can express beliefs without reactivity to upsets in others. They find satisfaction in both emotional closes and in goal directed activity.  They are more realistic about the way life is than those in the lower quadrants of the scale. 

75- 100 -This is an area that humans may evolve towards. 100 would be a perfect individual in emotional, cellular and physiological functioning.  “It has not yet been possible to check the scale on extremely high level people, but my impression is that 75 is a very high-level person and that those above 60 constitute a small percentage of society.”    (Murray Bowen, M.D., FTiCP , page 474)

There are ways to raise one’s level of basic maturity but it takes sustained effort to decrease the relationship sensitivity and the way people are confused in relationships and are “fused” with one another.   It is easy to say and hard to do to increase the ability to be more aware of principles and to separate Self from others while being aware of the deep connection with others. Separating one’s Self from the entanglements with others is the main discipline that one enters into as one begins to define who Self is, and what one will and will not do in relation to important others. In addition, our functioning is both inhibited and enhanced by many genetic-like psychological and physiological factors.

The scale uses numbers to indicate the variation and the general markers for emotional maturity as to how people are able to handle anxiety and be more mature and principle-based individuals.  We can be aware that we are living in the middle of an emotionally primed, interactive relationship system. We can do better by knowing that our functioning is influenced by the surrounding social system.  Especially during troubled times it is crucial to increase our level of emotional maturity or differentiation, and to become better defined individuals, able to separate out from the pressure in the surrounding emotional systems.  As this happens one by one, gradually the system as a whole becomes more mature.

2) The nuclear family This concept describes four relationship patterns to manage anxiety: 1) marital conflict, 2) dysfunction in one spouse, 3) impairment of one or more children, and 4) emotional distance. These mechanisms are automatically activated as anxiety and stress increase. As anxiety is absorbed, the history of sensitivity in relationships plays itself out and governs where problems are likely to develop in a family. Families tend to function at higher levels if they use many mechanisms and not just one.  It is possible for people to become aware of the automatic nature of how we relate to one another and to then alter our behavior in them.

3. Family projection process. This concept describes the way parents transmit their emotional problems to a child. Some parents have great trouble separating from the child. They imagine how the child is.  They do not have a realistic appraisal of the child.  An extreme example would be that a child is born blind and the parents treat the child as though she or he can see. Parents unknowingly project the anxiety about self or their marriage onto the child by “worrying” about the child.  Children often accept the projection of the anxiety and act out the projection so the parents appear normal. The child is the symptom carrier for the parental anxiety. What an observer would see in a family, that uses this mechanism to manage anxiety, are the following behaviors: an intense focus on the child, very little focus on self, a need for attention and approval, confusion when it comes to realistic expectations for the child, and often for the adults, increasing blame on self or others, pervasive feeling of responsibility for others’ happiness, and acting impulsively to relieve the anxiety of the moment. The bottom line: many of these kinds of feelings and verbal messages are about one person putting a “demand” on others to be more for them, and less in favor of the other’s ability to be more defined and a less automatic Self. Here is where the mechanisms of fusion and confusion come to be played out. As it becomes challenging to know: “Where do I begin and end and where do you begin and end.” People can make assumptions about others, based on projection, partially as this is how the brain works.

4) Multigenerational transmission process. This concept describes how small differences in the levels of differentiation between parents and their offspring may lead over many generations to marked differences in functioning among the members of a multigenerational family. The way people relate to one another in one generation may create intense sensitivities, which are transmitted across generations. Some may drink in one generation and not in another, but the anxiety about drinking in one generation may manifest in another generation around drug use or other behaviors, for example eating disorders. People with more anxiety and less maturity can pressure others to make up for what has happened in the past and in doing so make people more vulnerable and even symptomatic. For example family stories tell us what people in the past have reacted to.  When the next generation arrives a habit or a talent can remind parents of people they knew or have heard about in other generations.  The association of one person with a memory of another person can conspire to decrease the ability of a child to develop a real identity in the family.  “You must be a great chess player like your great grandfather was.”  This kind of projection can put a “demand” on the child to be what the other needs him to be. Love with such a demand can confuse children. Does the child want to be great, or have ability for greatness? The potential of the child and the way family members relate to the child, along with his or her basic genetic inheritance, interact to shape the individual’s level of maturity or “self.”

5.  Sibling position: Bowen theory incorporates psychologist Walter Toman’s work on sibling position.  There are common characteristics of each sibling position. For example, oldest children tend to gravitate to leadership positions and youngest children often prefer to be followers, unless their parents disappointed them. Toman’s research showed that spouses’ sibling positions, when mismatched, often increase the chance of divorce.There is a great deal to be learned about the influence over the generations when for example parents can not understand a child as they are youngest and he or she is an oldest. A child’s sibling position can be different from the child’s functional position in one generation and that can have an impact on the next generation.   For example, an oldest sibling is often in the functional position of being responsible for other siblings, but if that oldest falls ill, the functional position will shift to the next most able child. If the oldest is ill and cannot function well then the family may worry about the functioning of the oldest child in the next generation. Sibling position gives us clues as to what the average demands are on the various positions

6. Triangles: A triangle is a three-person relationship system. It is considered the “molecule” of larger emotional systems because it is the smallest stable relationship system. A triangle can manage more tension than a two-person relationship as tension shifts among the three people in the triangle. Triangles can exert social control by the threat to put one person on the outside of a two-some or of a group.  De-triangling occurs when strategically someone comes into a polarized situation and makes an effort to not take sides, and to relate well to each person.  In mediation we often see efforts to bring in an outsider when tension escalates between two individuals. Sometimes the mediator can relate to each side without taking sides, and in this case the tension will resolve.  Increasing the number of triangles by forming useful alliances (which do not polarize or blame people) can also stabilize spreading tension. Marital therapy uses the triangle to provide a neutral third party capable of relating well to both sides of a conflict.

7. Emotional cut off: At times people manage their unresolved emotional issues with parents, and other family members by reducing or totally cutting off emotional contact. This can be a geographical or an emotional cut off.   Cut off makes people feel better in the short term but the cut off decreases relationships flexibility. It is often an outgrowth of intense blame and the inability to see ones part in a problem.  No resolves takes place, Anger is frozen in time, increasing relationships sensitivity, which reduces the ability to be emotionally flexible and puts intense demands of other relationships to be “perfect.”  Cut off carries forward unresolved emotional issues in one’s family of origin into future nuclear families and sensitize any new relationships these individuals create. 

8. Societal emotional process. This concept describes how the emotional system governs behavior on a societal level.  The emotional system in society can promote progressive or regressive periods just as it does in a family. [2]  The simplest description is that under stress the family members can be too nice or too mean. Parents that are too nice begin to give in to demands for short-term solutions to chronic problems.  Just as in a family, leaders in society have a hard time identifying the nature of problems and a regression begins by giving in or trying to solve big problems with little answers.  Mechanisms offer us ready solutions to increasing anxiety: conflict, distance, reciprocal functioning and illness can absorb the increasing anxiety but only postpone solving the problems.  People react to disharmony and demand more short-term solutions in order to be comfortable now. A regression is a return to an earlier period in development where there is less principle-driven behavior, some degree of giving in and seeking comfort, and perhaps overall less ability to recognize and respect individuals and to be able to cooperate.  Since the arrow of time is always moving forward, new problems often demand new ways to adapt, forcing us into the discomfort zone.


 
 


Who was Murray Bowen, M.D.?

Following medical training, Murray Bowen served five years of active duty with the Army during World War II, 1941-1946. He served in the United States and Europe, rising from the rank of Lieutenant to Major. He had been accepted for a fellowship in surgery at the Mayo Clinic to begin after military service, but Bowen’s wartime experiences resulted in a change of interest from surgery to psychiatry. During his study of psychiatry at The Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas from 1946-1954, Bowen read extensively in biology and the study of evolution.  His changing view of human functioning led to development of a research project at the National Institute of Mental Health in which 18 families with a schizophrenic member were studied over a five-year period. Later he went to Georgetown University where he developed Bowen Family Systems Theory.

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During his study of psychiatry at The Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas from 1946-1954, Bowen read extensively in biology and the study of evolution. His changing view of human functioning led to development of a research project at the National Institute of Mental Health in which 18 families with a schizophrenic member were studied over a five-year period. From 1954-1960 Bowen was the first director of the Family Division at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

There are many factors to consider in understanding the reasons motivating Dr. Bowen to develop his theory. Dr. Bowen grew up in a small town, Waverly, Tennessee. As the oldest of two younger brothers and two sisters, he was a clear responsible oldest from an early age. His father was the mayor of the town. Dr. Bowen often spoke of how his father would observe people and point out how the way people walked and talked told you something about them. His parents lived on a farm during his youth and Dr. Bowen developed a strong connection to nature. His father owned the local funeral home and several stores in town. As a young man Dr. Bowen would ride in the ambulance and help out with the funerals.

One can guess that perhaps even early on Bowen could see the differences in how individuals and families functioned. Certainly early on he was provided with a window to observe who was able to deal more effectively with the most difficult fact of life, death.

Dr. Bowen was a master clinician while at Menninger. Here he began experimenting with bring the family into contact with the patient. He also began to experiment with having para-professionals spend time with patients in an effort to modify relationships. Many times Bowen stated that he learned the most from dealing with people who were labeled schizophrenic. In making sense of the challenges these people faced, Bowen learned to be a master of paradox.

Eventually Bowen saw that he could invite the family in and become more of a participant observer of the confusion in the family. From this position out side the relationship field, Bowen could be more of a researcher. In doing this he saw that he was more useful to people. Clearly Bowen had altered the psychoanalytic relationship to one of coaching family members, willing to work on changing self in important relationships. This person was usually not the patient but rather an important family member, therefore the beginning of the ideas, which lead to the development of family psychotherapy.

In addition Bowen’s willingness to change his position in his extended family and present that at a professional meeting altered the way people thought about family psychotherapy and the importance of Family System Theory.

Bowen’s paper about how he unearthed the emotional process in his own family was the anonymous paper. It was first presented to a shocked audience of psychotherapist in 1967. This marked a new beginning for the emerging field known as family psychotherapy. The observations and theoretical reason for his actions are out lined in his book Family Therapy in Clinical Practice. By clarifying his understanding of the emotional processes in his own family he separated himself from all other professionals. Few people really understood what he accomplished by studying his own family and then placing his theory in the midst of evolutionary biology.

Bowen was a genius at observing the human behavior in relationships. Eventually by using his power of observation he was able to describe a totally different order of view of human behavior. Instead of mental illness in one person, Bowen was able to see how one person was a part of an emotional system. People were influenced by relationships and were usually totally unaware of this. Human social systems were following lawful rules. By observing parts of the system interact one could predict what the systems rules were. If people were able to observe their reaction in social system they could alter their part in automatic ways of interacting.

Bowen effort was to observe human behavior from a systematic orientation. This was in stark contrast to Freud’s focus on the internal mechanisms in the minds of individuals. As Bowen saw it psychoanalysis did not meet scientific criteria. Freud listened as individuals described the hidden desires and frustrations of life. By creating a safe place and allowing people to develop transference relationships Freud through carefully listening could offer interpretations on internal conflicts. These interpretations were based in the world of literature. The two-person relationship could be considered scientific as it was predictable but the interpretation could not function as highly predictive in every case. The fact that a two-person relationship will go through predictable changes, that is, transference, makes it a functional fact.

Despite progress there is still a lack of basic understanding and predictability to make psychiatry into a true science. Even evolutionary theory is still not a universally accepted fact.

Bowen theory uses biological terms to explain human behavior. This is an effort to allow for the exchange of information with all other areas of knowledge. There are many specialties from anthropology to sociobiology, which are interested in the growth and development of individuals who are a part of social systems. Humans are as vulnerable as other social animals in regard to the maintenance of healthy relationships over the generations.

Bowen spent his life developing his theory, which details the “rules” of the human emotional system. He understood that few people could see how they were influenced by three or four generations of an emotionally interconnected family system. Bowen saw that the emotional forces connecting each of us to the forces that exist even in cellular life.

Offical Bio by Murray Bowen, M.D.
Date and Place of Birth: January 31, 1913, Waverly, Tennessee
College: University of Tennessee, Knoxville, B.S. 1934
Medical School: University of Tennessee Medical School, Memphis, MD 1937
Family Background: Family in Middle Tennessee since the Revolution. Oldest of five. Father died in 1974 at 87. Mother died in 1982 at 95. All siblings are living. Married to second of three daughters. Four children, ages 42 to 37.
Internships: Bellevue Hospital, New York City, 1938; Grasslands Hospital, Valhalla, New York, 1939-41.
Military Training: Five years active duty with Army, 1941-46, in the United States and Europe. Rank: 1st Lt. to Major. Had been accepted for fellowship in surgery at Mayo Clinic to begin after military service. Interest changed from surgery to psychiatry during WW 11.
Psychiatric Training and Experience:
Menninger Foundation, Topeka, Kansas. 1946-1954. Fellowship in psychiatry, personal psychoanalysis, and on staff. Background interest in science led to a new theory, which uses evolution and systems ideas to replace Freud. Enough promise for the theory to seek full-time research in a neutral center.
National Institute of Mental Health, Bethesda, Maryland, 1954-1959. Previous years on theory made research go rapidly. Live-in parents, with one adult schizophrenic child, provided a dimension for all children. Family therapy was a by-product of theory. It began the first year, about two years before it was known nationally. Concepts integrated with the new theory, emerged one after the other. None had previously been described in the literature, and none could have been “seen” with Freudian theory. They are now known as the “Bowen Theory.” Long-term research terminated by Institute for short-term research studies.
Georgetown University Medical Center. Washington, DC 1959 – present. Clinical Professor, Department of Psychiatry, Director of Family Programs, and founder of a Family Center. Half-time research and teaching. Each concept was extended, and woven into physical, emotional, and social illness. It has already gone far beyond another family systems theory. Through association with medicine, knowledge has been extended to every medical specialty, and even the prodromal states that precede medical diagnoses. The future is promising. As long as psychiatry exists to diagnose and treat emotional illness, its potential is limited. The theory is directed to human life rather than symptomatic cubicles. National popularity indicates the theory will eventually replace Freudian thinking. It may well contribute more to all of medicine than to psychiatry alone. At Georgetown since 1959.
Other Faculty Appointments and Consultantships. Visiting Professor in a variety of medical schools. More permanent included the University of Maryland, 1956-1963; and part-time Professor and Chairman, Division of Family and Social Psychiatry, Medical College of Virginia, Richmond, 1964-1978. Closed-circuit television in Richmond was used to integrate family therapy with the larger theory.
Current Appointments and Activities. Half-time, Clinical Professor in Psychiatry, Georgetown University Medical Center, and Director, Georgetown University Family Center, 1959 to present. Private practice, parttime, family psychotherapy, Chevy Chase, Maryland, 1954 to present,

Organizations. List limited to those with a potential interest in a single theory. American Psychiatric Association, Life Fellow; American Orthopsychiatric Association, Life Fellow; Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry, Life Member; Diplomate in Psychiatry, American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, 1961; American Family Therapy Association, Terminated membership 1989 after two consecutive terms as first President.
Biographies. Listed in Membership Directories. American Psychiatric Association, since 1950; Directory of Medical Specialists, since 1952; American Men of Medicine, 1961; World Who’s Who in Science, 1700 B.C. to 1966 A.D. (3700 years in one volume), 1966; International Biography, since 1968; Personalities of the South, since 1976; Who’s Who in America, 1978.
Recent Awards and Recognition.
Originator and First President, American Family Therapy Association, 1978-1982.
Alumnus of the Year, Menninger Foundation, June 1985.
Faculty, Evolution of Psychotherapy Conference, Erickson Foundation, Phoenix, December 1985.
Graduation Speaker, Menninger School of Psychiatry, June 1986.
Governor’s Certificate, Tennessee Homecoming ‘86, Knoxville, 1986 Distinguished Alumnus Award, University of Tennessee-Knoxville, October 1986.

Publications. About fifty papers, book chapters, and monographs based on new theory of human behavior. The most important ones are in my book, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, Jason Aronson, Inc., publisher, Northvale, NJ, 1978, which contains twenty years of theory. Other papers are referenced in the book. The past ten years, most of the concepts have been described in detail in about twenty videotapes. A list of tapes, both theoretical and clinical, are available at the Georgetown University Hospital.
Practical Issues. New concepts introduced by the “Bowen Theory” include evolution to replace most of Freud; the part of Freud that is relatively scientific; and natural systems theory to combine the two. Numerous variables prevent clear writing when the reader is “hearing” Freud. The differentiation of self and emotional systems are essential for the theory. Therapists use the correct words, but use their own heads to interpret meaning. Beyond that, the theory includes the family diagram; a summary of a differentiation scale; triangles; fusion; cut-offs; projection of immaturity to succeeding generations, to minorities, or to the weakest link in the chain; extended family patterns; emotional objectivity; the multigenerational transmission process; sibling position; the extension of family process to work and social systems; societal regression; and a precise integration of the amalgam which is the family. Most patients and clients can change themselves if given a chance. Most therapists are trying so hard to be therapeutic, they cannot “think” theory. Good therapy is determined by the way a theorist thinks about human problems. When the therapist cannot think theory, the theoretical gap is closed by some fixed version of Freud, the therapy is less efficient than it could be, and the therapist is vulnerable to becoming the author of yet another personal procedure.
Theoretical Future. The theory will probably replace Freudian Theory within the coming decades. There are indications it may influence the whole of medicine, more than psychiatry and mental health. When theorists have become aware of its potential, the theory may move on to a “science like” baseline in which theory governs everything that occurs in the field. Good theory is never final. It can always be changed with new knowledge, but change is not frivolous or personally determined. It is interesting to guess what may have occurred by the middle of the 21st century.
Addresses: Department of Psychiatry, Georgetown University Hospital, 4380 MacArthur Blvd., NW, Washington, DC 20007, or 4903 DeRussey Parkway, Chevy Chase, Maryland 20815.
Washington, D.C.

Bowen family systems theory is a theory of human behavior that views the family as an emotional unit and uses systems thinking to describe the complex interactions in the unit.

Bowen believed that the emotional systems that govern human relationships had evolved over millions of years. He postulated that differentiation (level of emotional maturity) among family members produced variation, as individuals became more of less mature from one generation to the next. In cases where multi-generational transmission, differentiation among family members becomes progressively lower, this can also generate clinical symptoms.

The goal of “Extended Family Systems Therapy” is to increase individual family members level of differentiation by the motivation of those who are capable of being in better emotional contact with those in the nuclear and extended family. This effort requires knowledge of the emotional system and how to mange and define self in relationships.

The cornerstone of Bowen theory is the 8 interlocking concepts that influence the counterbalance between togetherness and individuality. No one concept can be explained by another concept. No one concept can be eliminated or isolated from Bowen theory.

Emotional, biological and environmental influences are considered as the individual adapts within the family unit over the generations.

The 8 basic concepts of Bowen’s family systems theory:
1. Levels of differentiation of self Families and social groups affect how people think, feel, and act, but individuals vary in their susceptibility to “group think”. Also, groups vary in the amount of pressure they exert for conformity. The less developed a person’s “self,” the more impact others have on his functioning and the more he tries to control the functioning of others. Bowen developed a scale to measure differentiation of self.
2. The nuclear family This concept describes 4 relationship patterns that manage anxiety, marital conflict, dysfunction in one spouse, impairment of one or more children, emotional distance) that govern where problems develop in a family.
3. Family projection process This concept describes the way parents transmit their emotional problems to a child. Some parents have great trouble separating from the child. They imagine how the child is, rather than having a realistic appraisal of the child. Relationship problems that most negatively affect a child’s life are a heightened need for attention and approval, difficulty dealing with expectations, the tendency to blame oneself or others, feeling responsible for other’s happiness, and acting impulsively to relieve the anxiety of the moment, rather than tolerating anxiety and acting thoughtfully.
4. Multigenerational transmission process This concept describes how small differences in the levels of differentiation between parents and their offspring lead over many generations to marked differences in differentiation among the members of a multigenerational family. The way people relate to one another creates differences, which are transmitted across generations. People are sensitive and react to the absence or presence of relationships, to information about this moment, the future and or the past, and this, along with our basic genetic inheritance, interacts to shape an individual’s “self.”
5. Sibling position Bowen theory incorporates psychologist Walter Toman’s work relating to sibling position. People who grow up in the same sibling position have important common characteristics. For example, oldest children tend to gravitate to leadership positions and youngest children often prefer to be followers, unless the parents disappointed them. Toman’s research showed that spouses’ sibling positions when mismatched often affect the chance of divorcing.
6. Triangles A triangle is a three-person relationship system. It is considered the triangle as the “molecule” of larger emotional systems, as it is the smallest stable relationship system. A triangle can manage more tension than a 2-person relationship as tension shifts among the three. Triangles can exert social control by putting one on the outside or bring in an outsider when tension escalates between two. Increasing the number of triangles can also stabilize spreading tension. Marital therapy uses the triangle to provide a neutral third party capable of relating well to both sides of a conflict.
7. Emotional cut off People sometimes manage their unresolved emotional issues with parents, siblings, and other family members by reducing or totally cutting off emotional contact with them. This resolves nothing and risks making new relationships too important.
8. Societal emotional process This concept describes how the emotional system governs behavior on a societal level, similar to that within a family, which promotes both progressive and regressive periods in a society.
This summery was written by Laura Martin with a few ideas by Andrea Schara
Who was Murray Bowen, M.D.?
In 1960 Dr. Bowen went to Georgetown University where he was able to develop Family Systems Theory.

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