What is Bowen Theory?

Bowen family systems 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. It is the nature of a family that its members are intensely connected emotionally. Often people feel distant or disconnected from their families, but this is more feeling than fact. Family members so profoundly affect each other’s thoughts, feelings, and actions that it often seems as if people are living under the same “emotional skin.” People solicit each other’s attention, approval, and support and react to each other’s needs, expectations, and distress. The connectedness and reactivity make the functioning of family members interdependent. A change in one person’s functioning is predictably followed by reciprocal changes in the functioning of others. Families differ somewhat in the degree of interdependence, but it is always present to some degree.

The emotional interdependence presumably evolved to promote the cohesiveness and cooperation families require to protect, shelter, and feed their members. Heightened tension, however, can intensify these processes that promote unity and teamwork, and this can lead to problems. When family members get anxious, the anxiety can escalate by spreading infectiously among them. As anxiety goes up, the emotional connectedness of family members becomes more stressful than comforting. Eventually, one or more members feel overwhelmed, isolated, or out of control.

These are the people who accommodate the most to reduce tension in others. It is a reciprocal interaction. For example, a person takes too much responsibility for the distress of others in relationship to their unrealistic expectations of him. The one accommodating the most literally “absorbs” anxiety and thus is the family member most vulnerable to problems such as depression, alcoholism, affairs, or physical illness.

·Murray Bowen, M.D.

Dr. Murray Bowen
Murray Bowen (1913- 1990) was a psychiatrist who created a theory that strives toward a science of the human family. 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 1) a brief summery of his theory and then 2) a short description of his career along with his CV.·

·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 manage 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 are:

·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.·

 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.

·This summary was written by Dr. Michael Kerr of the Bowen Center, Laura Martin, and Andrea Schara and reprinted here with their kind permission. For more information visit www.thebowencenter.org and www.ideastoaction.com.