Bowen Family Systems Theory

Woood couple Graphics courtesy of Bliss TherapyOpens in new window

As originally conceived by Psychiatrist Dr. Murray BowenOpens in new window, 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 within that unit (Kerr & Bowen, 1988). It is the nature of a family that its members are intensely connected emotionally.

Facts of evolution provide the foundation for Murray Bowen’s theory of the multigenerational family as an instinctually driven emotional unit. Bowen postulated that this emotional-instinctual system is a product of 3.5 billion years of evolution and is governed by two interacting life forces, individuality and togetherness.

  • The individuality force propels the organism to follow its own directives, to be an independent and distinct entity.
  • The togetherness force propels an organism to follow the directives of others, to be a dependent, connected, indistinct entity.

Differentiation of self is the central concept in Bowen theory. It refers to an individual’s capacity, or lack of capacity, to separate instinctually driven emotional reactivity from thoughtful, goal-directed functioning.

Bowen saw this capacity as falling along a continuum. Kerr notes that at the higher end of the continuum, differentiation of self involves the ability to act for oneself without beign selfish and the ability to act for others without being selfless (Kerr & Bowen, 1988).

It includes the capacity to be an individual while simultaneously being a member of a team.

In the human species, individuals vary in their levels of differentiation. Offspring resemble their parents in their functioning—some functioning at a slightly higher level than their parents, some at levels slightly below their parents, and some at about the same level as their parents—based on a generic-like multigenerational emotional transmission process.

It is assumed in Bowen theory that pair bonding, including marital choice, takes place between individuals who are at the same level of basic differentiation of self. Over time, one often begins to overfunction, and the other to underfunction.

The overfunctioner may look as if he or she is more differentiated than the other, but their basic levels of differentiation of self are similar.

The difference between the two is co-constituted by the borrowing of self. Their functional levels of differentiation—that is, their moment-to-moment functioning at the present time—are different as a result of the borrowing or lending of self from or to the other, but their basic levels of differentiation of self, their conglomerate functioning over time, are similar.

The emotional triangle is the smallest stable building block in all emotional systems. According to Bowen theory, a two-person system is stable as long as anxiety is low, but when it arises, the system automatically draws in a vulnerable third person and becomes a triangle.

In an emotional triangle, more than one individual can occupy a point in the triangle. For example, both parents can occupy one point, with the son at the second point, and his wife at the third point.

The emotional process in the family is always changing through constantly shifting triangular patterns in relationships that repeat over time, as family members come to occupy fixed positions in relation to one another.

It is predictable that in triangles two individuals occupy the close inside positions, and one the more distant outside position. When the family relationship system is higly anxious, the outside position is preferred, and when anxiety is low, the inside positions are preferred.

The degree to which people fuse with each other emotionally correlates with the level of differentiation, and chronic anxiety in the system can intensify the fusion in the presence of stressors. This is described in the concept, nuclear family emotional systemOpens in new window.

Resulting conflict, distancing and pursuit, and over- and underfunctioning predictably develop in this automatic nuclear family emotional process. One spouse can end up carrying more of the family anxiety than the other, which manifests as psychological, physical, or social symptoms.

Another mechanism for dealing with the combination of high anxiety and low differentiation is projected to and lived out by a child. One child may receive the brunt of the anxiety that originates in the parental couple’s relationship and in issues that both parents bring with them from their life experiences in their own families of origin.

This triangled child has a higher degree of unresolved attachment to his or her parent(s) and a lower level of differentiation than his or her siblings, who are a little better able to emotionally separate from their parents.

The child most caught in the parent-child triangle in adulthood may stay in a stuck-together closeness with the parent(s), or an emotional cutoff can develop between that child and his or her parent(s) in response to the overcloseness. This process is so ubiquitous that a concept, the family projection processOpens in new window is devoted to it.

The concept of emotional cutoffOpens in new window describes the emotional process between the generations through which “people separate themselves from the past in order to start their lives in the present generation” (Bowen, 1978, p. 382). Emotional cutoff is emotional distance that regulates the discomfort of emotionally struck-together fusion between the generations. It expresses the unresolved attachment of an individual to his or her parents. This process is postulated to be universal and it occurs along a continuum of intensity of parent-child fusion.

Bowen’s concept of the multigenerational transmission processOpens in new window involves the naturally occurring repetition of the family projection process over multiple generations, running through the life course of the family. Individuals choose spouses who are at the same level of basic differentiation of selfOpens in new window.

Those who were, as children, the primary object of the projection process over multiple generations produce family lines characterized by decreasing levels of differentiation, whereas the offspring of those who were freer from the projection process emerge with higher levels of differentiation of self.

Bowen’s concept of sibling positionOpens in new window is based on the research of Walter Toman (1969) describing the characteristics of the oldest, youngest, intermediary, and only siblings in a family and how these positions relate, which are determined by their interactions with their parents and with individuals who occupy reciprocal positions in their own families of origin.

Sibling position also describes how spouses, as well as parents and their children, reciprocally interact, based on their birth positions. A family’s level of differentiation determines how rigidly or flexibly these positions will be lived out. For example, when the projection process is directed at an oldest, that individual may, if he or she is severely impaired, function like a dependent youngest. Or if that child’s level of impairment is moderate, he or she may function as an autocrat.

The final concept, emotional process in societyOpens in new window, describes how the previous seven concepts play out in the arena of society.

The two main clinical processes of the Bowen theoretical-therapeutic system are reducing anxiety manifested by emotional reactivity and increasing basic level of differentiation of self. AnxietyOpens in new window can be either acute or chronic. According to Kerr (1988):

Acute anxiety occurs in response to real threats and is time limited. Chronic anxiety generally occurs in response to imagined threats and is not time limited. Chronic anxiety often strains or exceeds people’s ability to adapt to it. Acute anxiety is fed by fear of what is; chronic anxiety is fed by fear of what might be. While specific events are usually the principal generators of acute anxiety, the principal generators of chronic anxiety are people’s reaction to a disturbance in the balance of a relationship system. (Kerr & Bowen, 1988, p. 113)

Emotional reactivity is essential for life. It can be defined as an individual’s anxious behavioral response to his own or another person’s anxiety, whether real or imagined. Emotional reactivity occurs along a continuum from mild to intense. Overreactivity is a poorly differentiated mode of responding to anxiety.

Reducing anxiety in the clinical context can create considerable functional change, but basic change only occurs when there is an increase in an individual’s capacity to separate the processes of emotionally reactive feeling responses to others from thoughtful, self-directed responses to others.

This occurs over time through the coached research of patterns and processes in one’s family and a coached effort to modify one’s position in relationships in the family. In Kerr’s (2009) words, increasing differentiation is “a way of thinking that is translated into a way of being. . . . Thinking differently precedes acting differently” (n.p.).

In the Bowen theoretical-therapeutic systems approach, neutrality and detriangling are related but not synonymous concepts that describe two significant basic therapeutic processes. Neutrality is a way of thinking, the capacity to apply systems thinking to the situation at hand, and detriangling is a planned action or behavior intended to maintain or bring about a neutral position in relation to two individuals, groups, or larger societal entities while remaining actively involved with both parties.

Neutrality for Bowen meant being able to see the issues from the perspective of each member of the family, whether present or not, without taking sides. It requires that the therapist be able to “think systems” rather than think in terms of cause and effect. It requires that the neutral third party not be polarized on one side of an issue with one individual in opposition to the other.

“Thinking systems” is a phrase often used by Bowen-trained therapists to refer to the ability to move from linear cause-effect thinking to seeing the interdependence of the family emotional system, for example, moving beyond blaming self or other as the casue of the problem to seeing family relationships as the nexus of interpersonal difficulties.

Detriangling is a process in which the therapists stays in open connection with each of the other two people in the triangle without becoming caught in the emotional process between them. When this happens, emotional issues between the two insiders are, or can be, resolved. The therapist must be free from the intensity of the emotional field between them, while at the same time actively engaging with each of them.

Other important functions of the Bowen-trained therapist are:

  1. demonstrating differentiation by taking “I” positions during the course of the therapy when anxiety is high, which allows one (or both) member of the couple to establish his or her “I” positions;
  2. teaching the functioning of emotional systems; and
  3. coaching one member of the couple (or both) to work toward differentiation of self in relation to his or her family of origin and extended family when anxiety is lower.
See also:
  1. Tremblay, G. C., & Philips, M. (2009). Child, family and couples therapy. In D.C.S. Richard & S.K. Huprich (Eds.), Clinical psychology: Asessement, treatment, and research (pp 329 – 349). San Francisco: Elsevier.
  2. Byrne, M., Carr, A., & Clark, M. (2004). The efficacy of behavioral couples therapy and emotionally focused therapy for couple distress. Contemporary Family Therapy, 26, 361 – 387.
  3. Greenburg, L.S., & Johnson, S.M. (1988). Emotionally focused therapy for couples. New York: Guilford.
  4. Jacobson, N.S., & Addis, M.E. (1993). Research on couples and couple therapy: What do we know? Where are we going? Journal of Consultign and Clinical Psychology, 61, 85 – 93.
  5. Johnson, S., & Lebow, J. (2000). The “coming of age” of couple therapy: A decade review. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 26, 23 – 38.