A Guide to Bowen Family Systems Therapy
What is Family Therapy?
Family therapy involves interventions that assist family members to identify and change maladaptive relationship patterns. The family unit itself is the primary unit of treatment, not the individual. Instead, family therapy works at resolving issues within the family to help individual members cope better.
Most approaches to family therapy aim at altering the system to produce change in the individual members. Goldenberg and Goldenberg (1995) explain that, “A change in one part causes a change in the other parts and thus the entire system … adequate understanding of a system requires the study of the whole." Family therapy can help family members understand each other better, leading to closer family bonds.
The Focus of Family Systems Therapy
Some Family Therapy Approaches
There are diverse orientations to family therapy, but they share the important principle that each individual in the family is connected in a system, and when one part changes, it affects the other parts.
Marriage and Family Therapy educator Diane Gehart in her book, Mastering Competencies in Family Therapy, covers the main schools of family therapy including those listed below. Her book assists clinicians to move from the theory to competency in family therapy
The treatment approach in each of the family therapies addresses the family in the larger context as well as the symptom expressed by the individual member. Listed below, are eight family therapy approaches.
- Bowen Family System
- Cognitive - Behavioral
Dr. Murray Bowen
Dr Murray Bowen, a psychiatrist, developed the family systems theory starting in the mid 1950s. After completing his medical training, and serving in the army, he worked at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) where he conducted research with families of diagnosed schizophrenic patients. Later he moved to Georgetown University where he taught until his death in 1990. At Georgetown, Bowen began his multigenerational research on families including is own.
Murray Bowen developed the family systems theory which evolved from psychoanalytic principles and practices. His theory offers a transgenerational view of the family system, and operates on the premise that families can be best understood from a three-generation perspective. This is significant because a pattern of interpersonal relationships connects the functioning of family members across generations.
About Murray Bowen's Family Systems Therapy
Bowen's 8 Interlocking Concepts
Bowen emphasized the need for a well-articulated theory as a guide in practicing family therapy. He identified eight interlocking concepts as central to his theory
1. Differentiation of Self
The foundation of Bowen’s theory is the differentiation of self. This involves psychological separation of the intellect and emotion, and independence of one’s self from others. Differentiation of self is the ability to think through issues, and not react automatically to emotional pressure. Individuals who are differentiated can choose between being guided by their own feelings or thoughts. For example, while they are capable of strong emotions, they also possess self-restraint.
Differentiated individuals are able to think things through, decide what they believe, and then act according to their beliefs. Undifferentiated people, on the other hand, are moved to act emotionally, and tend to react impetuously towards others. This is because they find it difficult to maintain their own autonomy, have issues separating themselves from others, and tend to fuse with the dominant emotional patterns in the family.
2. Emotional Triangles
Anxiety easily develops in relationships, and especially intimate relationship. As anxiety increases between two people, they may include a third person in the relationship to reduce to the anxiety and gain stability in the situation. This is called triangulation, and the involvement of the third person reduces the anxiety in the couple by spreading it across the three relationships.
The tension between the original pair might decrease, but the underlying conflict could worsen over time. For example, for a couple with unresolved issues, the wife may become more involved with their daughter. As she spends more time with the daughter, this may take some pressure off the husband and wife’s relationship. However, this does not resolve the issue that caused the conflict between the couple, and could undermine the daughter’s independence.
3. Nuclear Family Emotional Processes
This describes an excessive emotional reactivity or fusion in families. Lack of differentiation in the family of origin may lead to an emotional cutoff from parents. This could result in fusion in the new marriage relationship, where each person’s thoughts and emotions are not easily distinguished from the other. This unstable fusion could cause marital problems, emotional distance between spouses, and projection of the problem on one or more of their children.
4. Family Projection Process
This is the process by which parents pass on their lack of differentiation to their children. When two undifferentiated individuals marry, the reactive family dynamics of the previous generations are transmitted from one generation to the next. In the example cited, the mother is attached to one of her children because there is marital conflict. That child would be the object of the projection process. Within the context, the child achieves the least differentiation of self, and becomes more vulnerable to problems.
5. Multigenerational Transmission Process
Roberta M. Gilbert, M.D., in her book, The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory, describes each concept, including the multigenerational transmission process in detail. This process describes how anxiety is transmitted from one generation to another.
The child who is most involved in the family’s fusion in each generation has a lower differentiation of self, and more anxiety than those who are less involved. This child, in the second generation, also has less differentiation than his parents. He or she selects a spouse who is at the same level of differentiation, just as his parents did.
The new couple establishes the emotional atmosphere in their family. If a couple has less differentiation than his parents, the level of anxiety will be higher. When there is more anxiety, marital conflict, and spouse dysfunction, then dysfunction in their child will be greater in this second generation, and the cycle will continue.
6. Sibling Position
The research of Walter Towman, Ph.D, which indicated that children develop personality characteristics based on their position in the family, was incorporated in the concept of sibling position in Bowen’s theory. Each child has a place in their family hierarchy, and children who grow up in the same sibling position have important common traits which influence how the behave in their own families.
Older children often identify with responsibility and authority and tend to be leaders, and the youngest children often prefer to follow, and this could be complementary in a relationship. Further, younger children are most likely to favor their freedom.
7. Emotional Cutoff
Emotional cutoff describes the way people manage the lack of differentiation, and reduce unresolved emotional issues from their families of origin. There is more likely to be an emotional cutoff between parents and children when there is a high degree of fusion. This emotional cutoff can take varied forms, such as physical and psychological avoidance. For example, some children seek physical distance from their family of origin, while others avoid personal conversation and interactions.
8. Societal Emotional Process
This last concept that Bowen developed is the societal emotional process. He recognized the social influence on how the families function. Thus this concept refers to the tendency for anxiety and instability to increase in people in the society at certain times than others. Factors such as epidemics, economic hardships, and scarcity of natural resources could contribute to regression in the society. However, individuals and families with higher levels of differentiation are better able to deal with these negative influences.
Bowen Family System Therapy: The Eight Concepts
Important Concepts in Bowen Family System Therapy
Therapeutic Techniques in Bowen's Family Therapy
While therapists who practice the Bowenian approach are interested in decreasing anxiety and relieving its symptoms, even more, they aim at increasing each family member’s level of differentiation of self. If there is to be significant change in the family system, there is the need to open closed family ties, and actively engaged in the de-triangulation process.
Bowen was more interested in understanding the family than the use of specific techniques. However, important strategies used in the approach include genograms, process questions, relationships experiments, detriangling, coaching, taking “I” positions, and displacement stories. The techniques focus on ways to differentiate each family member from his or her extended family of origin system. The result is that family members have healthy self-concepts and are better able to deal with their anxiety in stressful situations.
The process begins with assessing the family. The information from the assessment is collected and organized in a genogram, which is a pictorial layout that covers at least three generations. This genogram gives more than just family history, it includes issues such as family conflicts and triangles, and indicates alternative ways of relating and handling problems. It helps both the therapist and the family to understand the significant turning points in the family’s emotional processes, and assesses each spouse's level of fusion to each other, and his or her extended family.
- Process questions
These questions are designed to explore what is going on inside family members and between them. For example, a therapist might ask, “When your husband ignores you, how do you respond to it?” Process questions help clients to think through the role they play in the interpersonal problem. Since each person is a part of the relational unit, these questions emphasize personal choice of change in relation to others.
- Relationship experiments
Relationship experiments help family members to recognize that it is not just their actions, but how they respond to other people's actions that cause the problems to persist. Clients recognize the own roles in system processes, and experience what it is like to act opposite to their usual automatic emotional responses.
- The I-Position
This “I-position” helps family members to say how they feel instead of what others are doing. This is an important way to break the cycle of reactivity in families. For example, there is a difference when a wife says to her husband, “You never help me with the children,” and “I wish you would help me more with the children.”
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Summary of Main Concepts in Bowen Family Systems Theory
8 Interlocking Concepts
Differentiation of self
This is the ability to think through issues and act rationally instead reacting automatically to emotional pressure.
In stressful situations two people, who are in a close relationship, may include a third person to reduce the anxiety and gain stability in the situation.
Nuclear family emotional process
Weak differentiation in the family of origin may lead fusion in the new family relationships. In such case, the couple’s thoughts and emotions are not easily distinguished from the other.
Family projection process
This is the process by which parents pass on their lack of differentiation to their children. The child who is the object of the projection process achieves the least differentiation of self.
Multigenerational transmission process
The child who is most involved in the family’s fusion in each generation has a lower differentiation of self and more anxiety than children who are less involved. This child is more likely to pass on the un-differentiation in the next generation.
Each child has a place in the family hierarchy, and children who grow up in the same sibling position have important common traits that affect their relationships.
Some people use physical or psychological avoidance to manage their unresolved emotional issues from their families of origins.
Societal emotional process
Social influences affect how families function, and so there is the tendency for anxiety and instability to increases in the society at certain times.
Summary: Key Concepts in Bowen Family Therapy
The focus of Bowen family system therapy centers around eight key concepts: differentiation of self, triangles, nuclear family emotional systems, the family projection process, emotional cutoff, the multigenerational transmission process, sibling position, and societal emotional process.
Bowen family system approach takes a trangenerational view of family systems, and emphasizes the need to separate thought and feelings, and self from others, and so a major goal of therapy is differentiation. Differentiation is a very useful concept for understanding interpersonal relationships in families.
Bowen family systems theory is considered to be well-developed and articulated by many in the field of family therapy. The approach to therapy does not focus on techniques and interventions but uses the genogram to promote insight to achieve differentiation.
References and Further Reading
Gehart, D. (2014). Mastering Competencies in Family Therapy: A Practical Approach to Theories and clinical Case Documentation (2nd. ed). Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.
Goldenberg, I. & . & Goldenberg, H. (1995). Family Therapy. In Corsini, R. J & D. Wedding (Eds.) Current Psychotherapies (129-261). Itasca, IL: F.E. Peacock publishers, Inc.
Nichols, P. N. & Schwartz, R. C. (2005). Family Therapy: Concepts and methods (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education.
The Bowen Center. Org (2013). Bowen theory. Accessed August 19, 2013.
Vermont Center for Family Studies (n.d). Dr Murray Bowen. Accessed August 19, 2013.
This content is for informational purposes only and does not substitute for formal and individualized diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed medical professional. Do not stop or alter your current course of treatment. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2013 Yvette Stupart PhD