Bowen Family System Theory Introduction In doing my studies on family/systemic counselling, I found Bowen’s theory intriguing. In my work and everyday life, I witness triangulation on a daily basis, from my own experience, without the awareness from this module, I was often entwined in triangulation. As a trainee therapist I decided to write my paper on Bowenian Therapy in order to gain a better understanding and develop my awareness. Murray Bowen, M. D. (31 January 1913 – 9 October 1990) was an American psychiatrist and a professor in Psychiatry at the Georgetown University.
Bowen was among the pioneers of family therapy and founders of systemic therapy. “The family systems theory is a theory introduced by Dr. Murray Bowen that suggests that individuals cannot be understood in isolation from one another, but rather as a part of their family, as the family is an emotional unit. Families are systems of interconnected and interdependent individuals, none of whom can be understood in isolation from the system” (Genopro. com 18/11/2010) Bowen’s interest in family began as he was practicing as a psychiatrist in the 1940s. He focused on schizophrenic patient’s emotional relationships with their mothers.
Others have called it a symbiosis relationship, but for him it was only an exaggerated natural process of emotional relationship. In 1954 he started to hospitalize the entire family of the sick (schizophrenic) person. He found out that the entire family suffered with the sick person emotionally. He also studied the relationship between mother-child symbioses. This involved a certain repetitive pattern, where he observed alternating patterns of closeness and distance. They portrayed sensitive emotional tensions caused by separation anxiety and incorporation anxiety.
In 1959 he started working with families with less severe problems. Surprisingly these families displayed the same problems as the disturbed families. He concluded that there is no discontinuity between the normal and disturbed families but vary along a continuum line of emotional fusion to differentiation. Bowen was one of the first to realize that the history of our family creates a template which shapes the values, thoughts, and experiences of each generation, as well as how that generation passes down these things to the next generation.
Bowen’s theory focuses on the balance of two forces – togetherness and – individuality. Too much togetherness can prevent individuality, or developing one’s own sense of self whereas too much individuality results in a distant and estranged family. The theory looks at the family as a system and describes the complex interactions that exist in any one unit. The way members of a family are connected and the way they react to one another makes the functioning of family members interdependent. According to the theory, mental illness happens as a result of emotional fusion.
This can happen when there is an increase in the level of emotions and anxiety in the family. Bowen introduced eight interlocking concepts to explain family development and functioning. Below I will provide an overview of each concept. Differentiation of Self The first concept is Differentiation of Self, or the ability to separate feelings and thoughts. Undifferentiated people can not separate feelings and thoughts; They have difficulty thinking logically because when asked to think they are flooded with feelings, so this makes It difficult for them to base their responses on their own logical thinking.
They also have difficulty differentiating between their feelings and the feelings of others. They look to their family to define how they think about issues, feel about people, and interpret their experiences. Differentiation is the process of freeing yourself from your family’s processes to define yourself so you can have different opinions and values than your family members, but are still capable of staying emotionally connected to them. It means being able to calmly reflect on a conflicted interaction afterward, realising your wn role in it, and then choosing a different response for the future. Triangles Triangles are the basic units of systems. They balance between closeness and distance. The third person or party brings unity and creates continuity in warring situation. The triangle brings stressed person into a manageable level of operation. This involves true listening and gives a true advice for a better solution. In it virtually all relationships are shadowed by third parties.
For example when a couple have an argument, afterwards, one of the partners may call their friend to talk about the fight. The third person helps them reduce their anxiety and take action, or calm their strong emotions and reflect, and make decision. People who are more undifferentiated are likely to triangulate others and be triangulated whereas people who are differentiated cope well with life and relationship stress, and as a result are less likely to triangulate others or be triangulated. The Nuclear Family Emotional Process
These are the emotional patterns in a family that continue over generations. This involves a modeling scenario where a family member models and imitates the behaviour and even the language of his or her parents. For example, a parent who teaches his or her children to be happy when things are ok and sad when things are bad shapes the future thinking of those children. Here the parent passes on an emotional view of the world (the emotional process), which is taught throughout generation from parent to a child, in a nuclear family.
Reactions to this process can range from open conflict, to physical or emotional problems in one family member, to reactive distancing. This will bring problems with family members like substance abuse, mental illness and irresponsibility. The Multigenerational Transmission Process This process entails the way family emotional processes are transferred and maintained over generations. This captures how the whole family joins in The Family Projection Process, for example, by reinforcing the beliefs of the family.
As the family continues this pattern over generations, they also refer back to previous generations (“He’s just like his Uncle – he was always irresponsible too” or “She’s just like your cousin Mary – she was divorced four times. “). Sibling Position Bowen believed In sibling order and that each child had a place in the family hierarchy. He believed that the oldest sibling was more likely to be seen as overly responsible and mature whilst the youngest as overly irresponsible and immature. Emotional Cut-off
Emotional cut-off refers to the techniques people use to reduce anxiety from their unresolved emotional issues with parents, siblings, and other members from the family of origin. Some people seek distance either by moving away physically or emotionally using silence, diversion or avoidance of difficult and hurtful topics. To avoid sensitive issues, they may move away from their families and refuse to go home regularly. This strategy may work in the short term to reduce immediate anxiety but over time, the deeper, unresolved problems are toxic towards other relationships.
An open relationship is the opposite of emotional cut-off. It is the best way to reduce a family’s over-all anxiety. Continued low anxiety permits family members who would like to, to begin the slow steps to better differentiation. Bowen wrote, “It might be difficult for a family with severe cut-offs to begin more emotional contact with the extended family, but any effort toward reducing the cut-off with the extended family will soften the intensity of the family problem, reduce the symptoms, and make any kind of therapy far more productive. Societal Emotional Processes The concept of societal emotional process describes how the emotional system governs behaviour on a societal level, promoting both progressive and regressive periods in a society. Cultural forces are important in how a society functions but are insufficient for explaining the rise and fall in how well societies adapt to the challenges that face them. The society’s attitudes towards for example different races, classes, genders and sexual orientation, have definite effects on the family.
In many ways, this is like the Family Projection Process scaled up to the level of a society as a whole. The way a family deals with prejudice, discrimination and persecution is instinctively passed on to their children so that they can survive in their unique environment. The coping practices of the parents and extended family may lead to more or less adaptive emotional health for the family and its members. Normal Family Development According to Bowen, all families lie along a continuum.
Bowen believed that all families lie on a spectrum or continuum and that it is difficult to try to classify families into types. If circumstances change, one type of family could change and become another type of family. For this reason, Bowen is credited with being one of the first culturally sensitive family therapists. A normal, adjusted family will have tensions and anxieties but will be balanced in terms of their togetherness and differentiation. A normal family will have good emotional balance and recognise that some problems are external and others come from the individual.
There are connections between the different generations in the family and also to the extended family. The transitions for example from adolescence to adulthood are smooth and supported by the wider family. Past pains and joys are shared. Bowen says no matter how we transform and forget the past, these memories of our relationship, still stay alive in us. The danger is the way our former family attachment will shape our new family. At various times difficulties in different relationships, sometimes called dyads, are resolved without drawing in others into their difficulties.
The ability to tolerate and support family members with different views supports differentiation and is a sign of a healthy family. Awareness of external societal influences as well as the unique family influences helps a family to become well adjusted. During times of grief and loneliness for example, family members give space and allow the person opportunity to grow. A positive emotional atmosphere with a belief in the virtues of family builds normal family development. Finally, when family members depend on each ther for feedback and support rather than in co-dependent ways, the family develops healthily. Family Disorders Bowen believed that family problems result from emotional fusion, or from an increase in the level of anxiety in the family. He believed that the member with “the symptom” is the least differentiated member of the family, and is the one who has the least ability to resist the pull to become fused with another member. This person absorbs the anxiety and worries of the whole family and has the least ability to separate their own thoughts and feelings from those of their family.
Families face two kinds of problems. Vertical problems are “passed down” from one generation to the next. Thus, adults who had cold and distant relationships with their parents do not know how to have warm and close relationships with their children, and so pass down their own problems to their children. Horizontal problems are caused by environmental stressors or transition points in the family development. This may result from traumas such as a chronic illness, the loss of the family home, or the death of a family member.
However, horizontal stress may also result from Social Emotional Processes, such as when a minority family moves from a like-minority neighbourhood to a very different neighbourhood, or when a family with traditional gender roles immigrates to a culture with very different views, and must raise their children there. The worst case for the family is when vertical and horizontal problems happen at once. Goals of Therapy Bowen’s therapy was not aimed at changing people or solving problems, it was basically geared towards: • Helping families to inquire and explore their own roles in family problems Making them assume responsibility for their own problems• People learning more about themselves and their relationships • Decreasing emotional reactivity• Improving self-focus • Modifying dysfunctional patterns • Evaluating progress of the family in terms of how they function now, as well as how adaptive they can be to future changes In general, the therapist accomplishes this by giving less attention to specific problem they present with, and more attention to family patterns of emotions and relationships, as well as family structures of dyads and triangles.
Techniques that are most prominent in the practice of Bowenian family systems therapy. Genogram: Bowen used what he termed a “family diagram” to collect and organise important data concerning the multigenerational family systems. In 1972 Guerin renamed the family diagram the “genogram. ” The main function of the genogram is to organise data during the evaluation phase and to track relationship processes and key triangles over the course of therapy.
In the process of assessment, the following are noted: the history of the presenting problems, exact dates are noted, history of the nuclear family, when the parents met, their courtship, their marriage, child rearing, where the family lived especially in relation to the location of the extended family, history of both spouses birth, sibling positions, facts about childhood, past and current functioning with parents The Therapy Triangle: This technique is based on the theoretical assumption that conflictual relationship processes within the family have activated key-symptom-related triangles in an attempt to re-establish stability; and the family will automatically attempt to include the therapist in the triangling process. If they succeed, therapy will be stalemated. On the other hand, if the therapist can remain free of reactive emotional entanglements, in other words, stay detriangled ,the family system and its members will calm down to the point where they can begin to work out solutions to their dilemmas. Relationship Experiments: Relationship experiments are carried out around structural altercations in key triangles.
The goal is to help the family members become aware of systems processes and learn to recognise their role in them. Thomas F. Fogarty developed experiments for use with emotional pursuers and distancers (lartin-drake. com 28/12/2010). Pursuers are encouraged to restrain their pursuit, stop making demands, and decrease pressure for emotional connection and see what happens in themselves and in the relationship. The exercise isn’t designed to be a magic cure, as some people have hoped, but to help clarify the emotional processes involved. Distancers are encouraged to move toward the other person and communicate personal thoughts and feelings, in other words, to find an alternative to either avoiding or capitulating to the others’ demands.
Coaching: Coaching is the Bowenian alternative to the more emotionally involved role common to most other forms of therapy. By acting as a coach, the Bowenian therapist hopes to avoid taking over for patients or becoming embroiled in family triangles. The goal is increased understanding, increased self-focus, and more functional attachment to key family members. The I-Position: Taking a personal stand, saying what you feel, instead of what others are “doing”, is one of the most direct ways to break cycles of emotional reactivity. Bowenian therapists not only encourage clients to take I-Position, they also do so themselves. Another assumption in Bowenian therapy is that confrontation increases anxiety and decreases the ability to think clearly and see options.
Therefore, displacing the focus, making it less personal and less threatening, is an excellent way to increase objectivity. This forms the basis for two related techniques, multiple family therapy and displacement stories. Conclusion In conclusion I believe that Bowen developed a comprehensive theory of family therapy which inspired generations. His theory describes how the family shapes the interplay of individuality and togetherness using six interlocking concepts which are: differentiation of self, triangles, nuclear family emotional process, family projection process, multigenerational transmission process and sibling position. In 1970 Bowen added two additional concepts: emotional cut-off and societal emotional process.
Bowenian therapy is a process of active inquiry in which the therapist helps family members get past blaming and fault finding in order to face their own roles in family problems. The goals of Bowenian therapy are not to change people or to solve their problems. Instead they see therapy as an opportunity for people to learn more about themselves and their relationships so that they can assume responsibility for their own problems. Contents Introduction Differentiation of Self The Nuclear Family Emotional Process Triangles The Multigenerational Transmission Process Sibling Position Emotional Cut-off Societal Emotional Processes Normal Family Development Family Disorders Goals of Therapy Conclusion Bibliography Bibliography http://www. abacon. com/famtherapy/bowen. html (14/12/2010) http://www. anzjft. om/pages/articles/78. pdf (14/12/2010) http://www. bukisa. com/articles/293438_what-is-the-concept-of-bowen-family-therapyixzz14iOkMQpM (16/12/2010) http://www. genopro. com/genogram/family-systems-theory/ (22/10/2010) http://www. houd. info/bowenTheory. pdf (22/10/2010) http://www. lartin-drake. com/distancer. pdf (22/10/2010) Bibliography http://www. abacon. com/famtherapy/bowen. html http://www. psychpage. com/learning/library/counseling/bowen. html http://www. bukisa. com/articles/293438_what-is-the-concept-of-bowen-family-therapy http://www. thebowencenter. org/ http://homepages. wmich. edu/~macdonal/SW 6680. 05/Friedman. Bow… Contents Introduction