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A Guide to Bowen Family Systems Therapy

Updated on September 16, 2017
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Dr. Yvette Stupart is a clinical counselor and educator. She gives insights on how to experience emotional health and relational well-being.

No member of the family system can be understood in isolation because family members never function separately.
No member of the family system can be understood in isolation because family members never function separately. | Source

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
  • Strategic
  • Structural
  • Experiential
  • Psychoanalytic
  • Cognitive - Behavioral
  • Solution-Focused
  • Narrative

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.

According to Bowen family system theory, the major problem in families is emotional fusion, and so the aim is to achieve healthy differentiation.
According to Bowen family system theory, the major problem in families is emotional fusion, and so the aim is to achieve healthy differentiation. | Source

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.

  • Genograms

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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Relationship experiments help each family member to recognize the role he or she plays in perpetuating the problem.
Relationship experiments help each family member to recognize the role he or she plays in perpetuating the problem. | Source

Summary of Main Concepts in Bowen Family Systems Theory

8 Interlocking Concepts
Key Points
Differentiation of self
This is the ability to think through issues and act rationally instead reacting automatically to emotional pressure.
Triangles
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.
Sibling position
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.
Emotional cutoff
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.

© 2013 Yvette Stupart PhD

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      ihsan khan 5 months ago

      How it possible to convenience a family or a couple who fused.??

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      Yvette Stupart PhD 19 months ago from Jamaica

      Hi chainfreeliving, welcome to HubPages and thanks for your encouraging comments. I look forward to your writing on areas of family therapy.

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      Rebecca C Mandeville MA 19 months ago

      As a licensed Psychotherapist specializing in Family Systems, I am THRILLED to see this article here. I wonder at times if Family Systems expertise is a dying art; I was fortunate enough to be trained by someone who was personally mentored by Bowen, Satir, and Minuchin, which sparked my passion for this approach toward healing individuals and systems. Thank you again for this piece. Best, Rebecca

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      Yvette Stupart PhD 2 years ago from Jamaica

      Thank you Leticia.

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      Leticia 2 years ago

      Its like you read my mind! You seem to know so much about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you can do with a few pics to drive the messgae home a bit, but other than that, this is wonderful blog. A great read. I'll certainly be back.

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      Yvette Stupart PhD 2 years ago from Jamaica

      Thanks Mark. Bowen Family Systems approach is a helpful way to understand and treat families.

    • Mark Tulin profile image

      Mark Tulin 2 years ago from Santa Barbara, California

      Really liked your in-depth discussion of Bowen Family Therapy. It serves as a valuable reference for therapists. Thanks

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      Yvette Stupart PhD 4 years ago from Jamaica

      Thanks MsDora. I'm happy to explain, as family therapy is an area of my work.

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      Dora Isaac Weithers 4 years ago from The Caribbean

      Thank you for the introduction to the terms and explanation of Bowen's concepts. Your article summary is definitely a plus. Voted Up!

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      Yvette Stupart PhD 4 years ago from Jamaica

      Hi krillco, thanks for your observation with respect to adapting Bowen's approach to the Jamaican cultural context.

      Bowen's approach focuses on the nuclear family. But the fact is, in Jamaica there is a high percentage of single female headed families. Sociologists define our society as a matriarchal one that persists from slavery. In these families, another family therapy approach might like structural family therapy, might be more effective.

      The above said, there are still many nuclear families in Jamaica, and Bowen's approach can be applied using the strategies outlined in the article. I think the aim of decreasing anxiety and relieving its symptoms, as well as increasing each family member’s level of differentiation of self, is relevant to our context.

      Thanks again for your comments.

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      William E Krill Jr 4 years ago from Hollidaysburg, PA

      I see you are from Jamaica...I'm wondering since Bowen was American, are there cultural adjustments needed in the approach if being used in say, Jamaica?

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      Yvette Stupart PhD 4 years ago from Jamaica

      Thanks krillco. I really tried to write in simply language so that the approach could be easily understood. I'm happy I succeeded.

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      William E Krill Jr 4 years ago from Hollidaysburg, PA

      Well done, great review in plain language. Voted up.

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      Yvette Stupart PhD 4 years ago from Jamaica

      Wow! I am glad you gained insight, and found my hub helpful, Denise. Thanks for your feedback.

      Bowen explains that couples who are not differentiated are guided by their emotions and are very reactive in the face of anxiety. This emotionally reactivity is passed to the next generation. Many families share this experience, but help is available through family therapy.

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      Denise W Anderson 4 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      Reading this hub is like reading a textbook about my own family! I know that we have issues with these, as both my husband and I have carried emotional baggage into our marriage from our birth families. It has been a learning process all the way around, and we have passed some of it on to our children. The information given here was very helpful to me. Thanks!

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      Yvette Stupart PhD 4 years ago from Jamaica

      Thanks again Goodpal for your insightful comments.

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      Goodpal 4 years ago

      You are very correct. There is significant impact of family environment on any individual, especially children. Ignoring this vital factor and trying to understand their behavior is highly inadequate.

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      Yvette Stupart PhD 4 years ago from Jamaica

      Goodpal, thanks for your comments. Family therapy approaches, like Bowen's, aim at changing family systems and the interactions among family members. So the symptomatic behavior of, for example a child, is understood to arise from the context of family relationships, and as such intervention should include the family.

    • Goodpal profile image

      Goodpal 4 years ago

      What a wholesome feeling of relief reading this hub. In this age of individualization and fragmentation of families and societies, it is refreshing to find that there are still people around who have a holistic approach. What is called modern science of medicine has gotten haywire, in my opinion, and confined under the microscope looking for chemicals or into sensors trying to catch brain signals to understand human behavior focused on the individual. I am often dismayed when I find "experts" using statistical studies to "conclude" something obvious to perhaps any mature and intelligent person without a medical degree.

      Leaving aside the technical aspect of how the Bowen system works for the experts, it offers, in my view, a refreshing direction towards the real and sustainable well-being of the people, families and societies.

      Thanks for writing on a topic totally monopolized by one-dimensional approach focused on individual person.