The main concept of Bowen family systems theory was that families develop patterns of interaction that are intergenerational. Families have instinctive patterns of automatic actions, reactions, and interactions that shape the relationships of the members of family. Essentially, our nuclear families influence always remain present in our lives. Unconscious family emotional patterns intrude on our lives, producing anxiety. A family functioning is “considered to be healthy when members can balance a sense of separateness from and togetherness with others, and can appropriately control their emotional lives with a developing intellect” (Brown, 1999).
According to general systems theory, a system is “a set of things—people, cells, molecules, or whatever–interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior overtime” (2008). Systems naturally form in dynamic interactions between individual parts. In the case of family systems theory, these parts are individual family members and the unique histories and characteristics each brings to the system. Once a system forms than unique behaviors for that system emerge. The emergent behaviors are fiercely defended by the system (unconsciously) to maintain equilibrium.
Bowen Family Systems Theory was developed by Murray Bowen and centers around intergenerational family of origin patterns of behaviors that therapists must understand and address during treatment of individuals and families.
Bowen family systems theory focuses on, of course, family systems and the emergent emotions (emotional system) of each individual family. Basically, the theory is based on “the premise that the understanding and behavior of an individual is determined by the family system in which he grew; and that personality, beliefs, and ideals are molded in the childhood family, and much of adult behavior is unconsciously determined by interactional processes learned as a child” (Barash, 1979).
Bowen’s theory provides “a comprehensive conceptual framework for understanding how emotional ties within families of origin (including extended families) influences the lives of individuals…” (Walsh and Harrigan, 2004).
The primary goal of Bowenian therapy is to reduce chromic anxiety by:
- facilitating awareness of how the emotional family system functions
- helping individual family members achieve greater differentiation of self, focusing on how to make personal changes rather than force changes in other family members.
History of Bowen Family Systems Theory
The Bowen family systems theory was first introduced by Murray Bowen (1913-1990) in 1966. Bowen originally trained as a psychiatrist and practiced within the psychoanalytical model. His early clinical experiences involved working with schizophrenic patients. By the late 1940’s, he invited mothers of the schizophrenic patients to attend the treatment. Bowen observed a direct link “between a patient’s symptoms and the interactional patterns of the patient’s family” (Barash, 1979). In 1954, Bowen made a notable shift to focusing on family systems rather than the individual.
We can best understand Bowen family theory through six interlocking concepts.
1. Emotional Fusion and Differentiation
According to Brown (1999), fusion or lack of differentiation means that individuals set aside their personal choices in order to achieve harmony within a system. Emotional fusion and differentiation are a primary cause of conflict in relationship systems. Many relationships experience the dynamics of balancing the needs of ‘we’ and ‘I’. A child emerging from their own family of origin, histories of trauma, and embedded insecurities seeks to fulfill fundamental expectations of a romantic relationship in adulthood. In attachment theory, we refer to these as internal working models.
The balancing battle for more autonomy or more connection rages in most relationships. Some people quickly feel engulfed while others rapidly feel abandoned. These opposing dynamics subsequently create a paradox, succoring to the abandonment needs of one partner, heightens feelings of engulfment in the other.
Martina Palombi explains that “the self of the child develops in the midst of two instinctual life forces, individuality, driving the child to grow to be an emotionally separate individual capable of thinking, feeling, and acting for herself, and togetherness, a counterbalancing force spurring the child and family to think, feel, and act as one” (2016).
Fusion is the intense feeling of responsibility for another’s wellbeing. Brown explains that ” a person in a fused relationship reacts immediately (as if with a reflex, knee jerk response) to the perceived demands of another person, without being able to think through choices or talk over relationship matters directly with the other person” (1999). Perhaps, strong fusion is associated with an unyielding need to please.
Fusion occurs when one member of the relationship sacrifices their “striving for differentiation in an attempt to balance the relationship” (Walsh and Harrigan, 2004). The fusion is a shared state by two or more people in the relationship, like a co-dependency, however the different members of the relationship may have different roles in maintaining the current level of fusion. None of the individuals in the relationship experience differentiation, even when the relationship system significantly favors the desires of a single member. The unifying acceptance of role behavior creates the fusion.
In some psychological literature, fusion is presented as enmeshment.
Differentiation refers to a person’s ability to function as an individual within a family unit. Total differentiation is never fully attained or the goal. The goal is to function smoothly as both an individual and as part of a system. Achieving a level of differentiation allows individuals to be “flexible, able to remain calm in social and interpersonal conflicts, and capable of resolving interpersonal problems efficiently and negotiate compromises.” Jessica Lampis et al., continue, “less differentiated individuals, on the other hand, tend to be overwhelmed by emotions and react to external and internal stressors with intense, irrational emotional activation” (2020, p. 91). These reactions often are maladaptive, impeding rather than moving toward primary relationship goals of closeness and intimacy.
Some literature suggests that differentiation within the Bowen family systems theory has two meanings. One meaning refers to an a person’s ability to differentiate between and balance their thinking and feeling states. The second and more common meaning within the Bowen theory is the differentiating between autonomous individuality and the self as part of the family (Walsh and Harrigan, 2004).
According to Bowen, “all intimate relationships are inherently unstable and require the availability of a third party to maintain stability” (2004, p. 385). Brown explains that “triangling is said to occur when inevitable anxiety in a dyad is relieved by involving a vulnerable third party who either takes sides or provides a detour for the anxiety” (1999, p. 95).
Often we think of the third party as a person, such as a child, however, the third balancing party may be a thing, or activity, such as work. For example, when the relationship creates extreme anxiety, one of the members of the dyad may escape through working longer hours. the work becomes the third side of the triangle. Walsh and Harrigan explain, “the price of intimacy is the experience of at least occasional conflict, and when in conflict people usually rely on a third person for mediation, ventilation, or problem-solving assistance.” They continue, “this is a normal and usually healthy process” (2004, p. 385).
Most triangles occur unconsciously. We don’t purposely seek a third party to balance the dyad. When unstable, we naturally default to avenues of stability. Since some triangles can be extremely unhealthy (affairs, avoidance, projecting problems onto an innocent child), bringing awareness to our triangles is essential to improve family dynamics.
Bowen explained that “the greater degree of fusion in a relationship, the more heightened is the pull to preserve emotional stability by forming a triangle” (Brown, 1999, p. 95).
3. Nuclear Family Emotional System
The nuclear family emotional system refers to the fusion of emotions in undifferentiated family members in a single generation family. Bowen posits that “relationship fusion that leads to triangling, is the fuel for symptom formation which is manifested in one of three categories: couple conflict, symptoms in spouse, or symptoms in child (p. 99). Some literature suggests a fourth category as “emotional fusion in which two members distance themselves from each other to reduce the intensity of their relationship” (Walsh and Harrigan, 2004, p. 385).
The couple is the most basic subsystem of the family system. In fused couples, autonomy is taken a sign of abandonment—an affront to the relationship. The dynamics of these fused relationships creates what I refer to as a drama relationship. Brown wrote that “A typical pattern in such emotional intense relationships is a cycle of closeness followed by conflict to create distance, which is followed by the couple making up and resuming intense closeness” (Brown, 1999, p. 96).
-Symptoms in Spouse
In this pattern of relating in fused relationships, each partner looks to other’s qualities to fit their learned patterns of relating. In a similar fashion to the psychological concept of projective identity the partner begins to take on these roles. Brown explains in this condition, both partners are “equally undifferentiated in that they define themselves according to the reactions of the other” (1999, p. 96). The spouse who makes the most adjustments to maintain harmony in the relationship is most likely to develop symptoms of helplessness and depression.
-Symptoms in Child
The third symptom of fusion in a family system is when a child develops behavioral or emotional problems. This condition is specifically covered in the primary concept of the family projection process. Basically, the parent’s anxiety is relieved through projecting problems onto the child. They (the parents) can unite in ‘fixing the child.’
The child may or may not have problems. However, the child is a likely scapegoat, as they are vulnerable and often absorb, and identify with the projections, serving as part of the triangling family process, helping parents avoid their own anxiety. This, of course, interferes with the child’s ability to differentiate, developing an individual identity.
Brown explains, “less anxious parents who are willing to take responsibility for their own difficulties may not automatically resolve the child’s problems, but may set the stage for a child’s behavior to be less of an automatic reaction to their parents and more an expression of their own individuality” (2008, p. 68).
4. Family Projection Process
The family projection process is a defense mechanism used by “conflicting and undifferentiated parents to decrease stress and anxiety between themselves by shifting or projecting the conflict on to the child” (Hickey,1984). Through projection, “children develop symptoms when they get caught up in the previous generation’s anxiety about relationships” (p.96).
Through the projection process, relationship drama becomes family drama. The child becomes the third side of a triangle to settle relationship anxiety between the parents. The child may become the target of anxiety over real or imagined problems. Consequently, the child then draws focus away from the struggles in the core relationship. Brown explains that the child being “under intense scrutiny of caregivers leaves them with little emotional breathing room to grow in thinking, feeling and acting for themselves” (2008, p. 61). Couples may seek therapy on how to deal with the ‘problem’ child. However, the crunch of the problem may be in their own relating with each other.
Projecting relationship anxiety onto a child is a convenient way to avoid facing the reality of an imperfect bond and the work required for true intimacy. A child draws the focus of attention, assumed to be the cause of family emotional discomfort, and seeking solutions to cure the child deceives, posing as the honorable quest of compassionate parents. A true cure is never realistically achieved because that would dissolve the balancing triangle that supports the weight of relationship anxiety.
The projection process contributes to the multigenerational transmission process.
5. Emotional Cutoff
Emotional cutoff is ne method people use to manage the emotional intensity of fusion in family relationships. Eric E. McCollum explains “refers to the way many people use physical or emotional distance to regulate their unresolved attachment to their parents” (2004, p. 247).
Unable to deal with the anxiety of being different from family expectation, the individual distances themselves physically or emotionally (or both). A person using the emotional cutoff instead or remaining in the relationship but maintaining a level of autonomy is displaying an intense fusion to the family of origin. Instead of facing the anxiety of differentiation, they escape through a cutoff. Basically, the cutoff is “a person’s inability to resolve the anxiety related to fusion directly, and it may prevent (the) forming of an identity or satisfying relationships with persons outside the family (Walsh and Harrigan, 2004, p. 386).
David Lawson and Daniel Brossart explain that “individuation is distinct from emotional distance from the family of origin since it includes the concept of closeness with family members (i.e., intimacy) while simultaneously remaining autonomous” (2001, p. 430).
6. Multigenerational Transmission Process
The whole underlying concept to Bowen’s family process theory is that intergenerational patterns instilled in children pass on from one generation to the next. By understanding these family patterns, we may better resolve personal issues that interfere with intimate relationship than through exploring hidden elements in the self through psychotherapy.
We recreate family interactional patterns according to the theory. Basically, “relationships with parents are replicated with spouses/partners, children, and in other significant relationships (2001, p. 430). Our inability to extricate ourselves from the unhealthy patterns, resolving triangulations, is associated with difficulties functioning in intimacy demanding relationships as adults.
Lawson and Brossart explain that “the transmission process largely occurs by social learning within the primary triangle (mother-father-child) and extended family members (p. 431).
7. Sibling Positions
In interrelated systems, “each element is influenced and influences the other” (Feiring and Lewis, 1978). Each child matters both in relationship to the parents individually and collectively. Furthermore, the interactions of each child in relations to each other contributes to the system and influences overall emergent behaviors. Bowen believed that sibling position provided “useful information in understanding the roles individuals tend to take in relationships” (Brown, 1999, p. 97).
Martha Cox wrote that “individual family members are necessarily interdependent, exerting a continuous and reciprocal influence on one another.” Cox expands this, explaining “siblings provide experiences that foster skills instrumental to social, emotional, and cognitive development, including those related to conflict management, identity formation, toleration of negative affect, and social understanding” (2010, p. 95).
Because siblings are in different stages of development, the influence from one sibling to the next differs. Sibling position then impacts family roles and triangles. Typically older children take on roles of responsibility and leadership while younger children become more dependent, allowing others to make decisions. Middle children typically flexibly bounce between the two. In therapy, therapist work to pull clients from limiting views of sibling position.
Therapeutic Techniques in Bowen Family Systems Theory
A primary goal of therapy, according to Bowen, is to assist family members achieve greater differentiation, “where there is less blaming, decreased reactivity and increased responsibility for self and the emotional system” (Brown, 1999). Bowen wrote that as we begin to see the role we play in family patterns, we can begin “the more complex process of differentiating…from the myths, images, distortions, and triangles” that we previously had not seen (1978).
Therapists in the Bowen family system work to open up the system. Walsh and Harrigan explain that “change requires de-triangulation and the building of new alliances among family members of the nuclear and extended family.” They continue that “the practitioner attends to the goals of lowering family system anxiety, increasing the reflective capacity of the members, and promoting differentiation by emotionally realigning relationships within the family system” (2004).
The Bowen Model treats clients through three steps:
- Stage-1: helps the client reduce anxiety over the symptoms through teaching them that symptoms are only part of their engrained pattern of relating.
- Stage-2: focuses on the process of differentiation, assisting clients resist the pull of ‘togetherness’ in the family.
- Stage 3: Clients are coached in differentiating themselves from their family of origin, and taking greater self-responsibility within the nuclear family system.
A Few Words by Psychology Fanatic
The Bowen Family Systems theory provides a definable structure for understanding some of the complexity of family relations. We find within the theory many insights to expand our views, pulling us from our traditional narrow perspectives.
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