Bowen Family Systems Theory and Therapy
Murray Bowen, M.D. developed a way of understanding and observing the relationships between individuals in a family that reliably improves interpersonal, work system and family functioning. Dr. Bowen was the first person to treat the entire family in a therapeutic milieu. He studied the families of severely mental ill patients in a clinical setting at the National Institutes of Mental Health in Washington, D.C. during the mid-1950s into the 1970s. Over time, he and his associates combined medical, biological and mental health science observations to derive 8 theoretical concepts that help us understand the complex interactions in human functioning. There are laws of nature like the Law of Gravity, that describe an inviolable Truth. There are theories, which are models that help us understand most situations in which humans find themselves. The field of psychology is full of theories because it is an imprecise science. Then there are hypotheses which are ideas that have been confirmed by observation in some situations but not in all. Dr. Bowen put together a comprehensive Theory of the Human, which he hoped would become a Science of Human Behavior. Observations over the course of 50 years by numerous clinicians, and researchers and others outside the fields of mental health have confirmed Dr. Bowen’s theory. The 8 interlocking principles have been applied successfully and widely in individual and family mental health treatment, in organizational consultation (business, legal, educational, church/synagogue, medical and political systems) and in the biological sciences, with which Bowen theorists and therapists keep open, ongoing and ever deepening dialogue. This method of thinking about human functioning tracks well with thinking about all living systems. You may want to check out the website for the Bowen Center www.thebowencenter.org for more information.
How is a family defined?
A family is defined as any group of individuals gathered around an emotional nucleus. To find the family, first locate the emotional nucleus. An emotional nucleus is the center, present or absent toward which individuals are emotionally oriented. This definition frees the therapist to observe the gathering of individuals as they are, not necessarily as cultural norms dictate they should be. It also allows the therapist to apply the following principles to any organization and thus track interactions between individuals within the context of organizational functioning.
The Eight Core Concepts of Bowen Theory
Triangles – Whenever two individuals attempt to relate to one another, invariably they will stabilize their relationship by locating a third party or object. These triangles occur in nature as in human systems. Triangles increase in emotional charge as the tension or anxiety rises in the family system. Triangles also proliferate in anxious organizations. The key to reducing the tension is to identify the person in the system who can remain in emotional contact with the others without collapsing her or himself into the system or the needs or demands of the others. The therapeutic relationship, when it works well, is an example of one such triangle which is helpful in reducing the tension that individuals in families may experience.
Differentiation of self – Those in families who can calmly remain in emotional contact with others in the family and be themselves are said to be differentiated. This term comes from biological science, where it refers to successful adaptation to environmental conditions. The better differentiated a person is, the fewer symptoms of distress they experience. When they experience distress, the experience is transitory and balance is retained.
Nuclear family emotional system – The source of human behavior is the basic family unit, which is usually made up of parents and children. This unit is called the “nuclear family” and takes a wide variety of configurations in the multi-cultural context of Northern California. It is important to first look at the emotional interactions between individuals in the nuclear family because individual functioning often can be described as a reaction to family functioning.
Family projection process -- Unfortunately for everyone in the family, when tension or anxiety arise and symptoms develop in a family, one individual usually becomes the bearer of the symptoms. Some theorists have called this individual the “identified patient”. At it’s worst, it begins to look like the ancient practice of scapegoating. This is hurtful to all in the family. As the tension is reduced in one member of the family, it often travels, almost like a virus, to other individual(s) in the family. The healthy family manages to reduce the level of projection and allows each individual the freedom to be themself within the cultural context of the family. This principle applies very nicely to and has been observed in all organizations and in nature. It is difficult to see, when you are in the system. However, those who begin to see the projection process are better able to dis-entangle themselves from maladaptive patterns. As they do this, the family system tends to calm down and discover a new sense of balance.
Multi generational transmission process – By diagraming a family backwards to previous generations, the therapist can map the emotional interactions and observe patterns that have automatically carried from one generation to another in a family line. The FAMILY DIAGRAM otherwise known as a “genogram” resembles a family tree, but allows for a systematic way of observing relationships across the generations of a family.
Emotional cut-off – There are individuals who cannot be in emotional contact with others in the system and automatically opt for no contact. Sometimes the family reactively expels or terminates certain individuals. This “no contact” position is usually temporary because these individuals remain in the family memory or consciousness. It is an ineffective way to reduce tension or anxiety in the individual or in the family. Short of complete cut-off, most individuals can be observed to slide back and forth along a continuum between emotional closeness and distance or togetherness and separateness. As one member increases the distance, the other pursues in order to maintain the familiar sense of closeness. Likewise as the pursuer tries to draw nearer to the other, the distancer moves away in order to maintain the familiar emotional distance in the relationship. The greater the tension or anxiety in the system, the greater the movement of distancing an pursuit. At times it goes so fast, it looks like a dog chasing it’s tail.
Sibling position – Following on extensive observations conducted by Walter Toman, M.D. in the 1950s in Europe and in the United States, Dr. Bowen observed predictable patterns among siblings in a family. Some of these patterns relate to the anxiety and responsibility afforded to the first born or the lack of structure evident in the youngest of brothers and sisters. Others relate to gender and allegiances to the mother or the father figures in families. In organizations these patterns may relate to the level of freedom or authority afforded to various members of the organization by the organization itself.
Societal emotional process – As one looks beyond the family to nodal events in human history, trends where the increase in societal tension or economic hardships, or relative periods of calm and prosperity may be tracked. Individuals and families alike react to these trends. Together families both reflect and cause what may be known as a societal regression. Thus, this comprehensive theory allows individuals the ability to track human behavior in the basic terms of emotional triangles as in large historical movements. Theorists have observed that issues in one generation can be traced to automatic reactions of individuals in previous generations to individuals in still earlier generations.
Dr. Bowen maintained an open system of thinking including the possible inclusion of a 9th concept, that of beliefs and their effect on differentiation of self. Therefore, Dr. Bowen urged all of his psychiatric residents and trainees to carefully identify their beliefs in order to foster differentiation of self and keep the therapist from contaminating or imposing their beliefs on others. This allows the individuals in the family system the freedom to discover for themselves what they believe and still remain in emotional contact with others who may have different beliefs.