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Bowen family system theory Expository Essay

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Updated: Apr 25th, 2019


The pioneers of family therapy long identified the social and cultural factors that shape our perception regarding ourselves and our immediate relations, our notion of what is regarded “normal” and “healthy”, and our prospects about how the world works. However, Bowen was the first person to recognize that our family’s history significantly shapes the values, perceptions, and experiences of each generation, along with how that generation passes down these things to later generations.

Bowen’s theory centers on the balance of two forces: togetherness and individuality. He points that too much togetherness creates fusion and curbs individuality, or developing a sense of ego. The theory posits that it natural for members of a family unit are closely linked emotionally.

Relations in a family deeply affect each member’s thoughts, feelings, and actions in such a way that it always appears as if these persons are living under the same “emotional skin” (Hare-Mustin, 1978, pp. 190). The members seek each others’ approval, care, and support and respond to each other’s needs, anticipations, and suffering.

The togetherness and reactivity makes the working of the family members interdependent, hence an alteration in one member’s working is followed by a corresponding alteration in the working of the other members. Although different families vary in the level of togetherness, it is always present to some level (McGoldrick, Pearce, and Giordano, 1982, pp. 73).

Bowen’s theory also focuses on systems that develop in families so as to diffuse tension and anxiety. A key source of anxiety in families is the thought of either too much closeness or too much distant between them. The level of anxiety in any one family unit will be governed by the current levels of outer pressure and subtle to specific subjects that have been passed over from the previous groups. Bowen’s theory aims to reduce chronic tension by aiding in the awareness of how emotions function (Goodnow & Lim, 1997, pp. 35).

The Bowenian theory is made up of eight interlocking conceptions that explain family development and workings. The 8th concept tries to link his theory to social developments, and therefore has limited applicability to the use of his therapy (1991, pp. 25).

Bowens 8 Concepts

Differentiation of Self

Differentiation of self is regarded as the most important concept among all eight, and is defined as the ability to detach feelings and thoughts. Some texts define this concept as a person’s ability to separate his/her intellectual and emotional functioning from that of the family.

When differentiation of thoughts and feelings does not occur, a person becomes flooded with feelings and cannot think logically when they are required to do so. In addition, they find it difficult to separate their own feelings from others as their families significantly shape how they think about situations, feel about people, and interpret their experiences.

Differentiation is the process of freeing oneself from family. This implies being able to have differing opinions from your family members while still ensuring an emotional connection with them. It also implies being able to soberly reflect on a conflicted situation, realizing one’s role in it, and finally choosing a different reaction should a similar or related scenario occur in the future.


In family systems, whenever there is an altercation between any two members, one or both parties will enlist the help of a third person, hence forming a triangle (James, 1989, pp. 179). Basically, a triangle consists of the two family members in disagreement and a third entity brought in to diffuse the situation or to gang up against the other member in case of chronic anxiety. The two family members originally involved in the conflict are initially regarded as insiders (James, 1989, pp. 180).

The insiders may exclude the participation of a 3rd member when tensions are low between them, however, this may cause the third party to feel distant and he/she may strive to get closer to one of the insiders (Quadrio, 1986. pp. 185).

Consequently, the most uncomfortable insider will move closer to an outsider leading to exclusion of the other insider, who then becomes an outsider while the original outsider becomes an insider. In an event of a severe disagreement or tension, one insider takes an outside position while the outsider takes his/her position to fight with the other insider and once calm has been restored, the outsider will attempt to regain his initial position.

Nuclear Family Emotional System

By forwarding this concept, Bowen focused on the effect of ‘undifferentiation’ on the emotional working of a particular generational family. He affirms that relationship fusion, which causes the formation of triangles, is the catalyst for symptom development which is demonstrated in one of these three categories: couple disputes, symptoms of a partner, and extension of a disagreement onto one or more children.

Bowen suggested that couple conflict can be beneficial for a strained relationship for the following reasons: it can provide a strong sense of emotional contact between the couple, it can explain the couple’s maintaining of a comfortable distance between them without feeling guilty, and it can allow persons to project tensions they have about themselves onto the other, thus protecting their positive view of self (Kerr and Bowen 1988, 192).

Bowen notes that a parent can pass on an emotional view of the world that can be passed onto subsequent generations, including, but not limited to behavior, substance abuse, emotional responses.

The Family Projection Process

This is an extension of the previous concept and points to the fact that the family member who has a ‘problem’ is triangulated and works to stabilize a dyad in the family unit. For instance, a son who rejects his mother’s advice may cause the parents to come closer as they seek to find a solution to their common problem.

However, under this concept, Bowen posits that children may develop certain indications when they are caught up in the earlier generation’s anxiety regarding relationships (Quadrio, 1986. pp. 184). He further says that the child who is least separated from the parents emotionally is at the highest risk of developing symptoms. This occurs when the child reacts to tensions between the parents. This results into the formation of a triangle with attention shifted to the child.

Emotional Cutoff

This concept is defined as a way by which family members cope with fusion between generations. A cutoff is realized through detachment or other ways of withdrawal. It is a severe reaction to the Family Projection Process, i.e. it involves a complete or near complete separation from the family.

Bowen differentiates between ‘breaking away’ from the family and ‘growing away’ from the family, stating that the former is seen as part of differentiation and mostly occurs at adulthood, while the latter, also known as a ‘cutoff’, is more of like an escape- people opting to completely turn away from their families. A person who has been cut off may will have very little or no contact with the family. However, persons who cut off their family have a higher probability of repeating the emotional and behavioral patterns they were taught.

Multi-generational Transmission Process

This concept explains the way emotional processes in a triangle are passed over and preserved over the generations from parent to child. The effect will be dissimilar for each child and will relate to the degree of triangulation between the children and their parents (James, 1989, pp. 179).

This shows how the entire family joins in the Family Projection Process, for instance, by strengthening the values of the family. As the family upholds and passes over this pattern over generations, they also refer back to earlier generations (“He is just like Aunt Betty- she was always irresponsible too”). McGoldrick (1982, pp. 47) writes,

By learning about your family and its history and getting to know what made family members tick, how they related, and where they got stuck, you can consider your own role, not simply as victim or reactor to your experiences but as an active player in interactions that repeat themselves.

Sibling Positions

In this concept, Bowen suggests that sibling position can facilitate a comprehension of the roles individuals tend to take in relationships. For instance, eldest children are more probable to take up on responsibility and leadership roles while younger siblings are more contented with being dependent and letting others make choices on their behalf while middle children are more flexible to shift between responsibility and dependence.

Bowen stressed that these generalized qualities are not universally valid and that it is possible for a younger sibling to become the most responsible and independent among all of his/her siblings. Bowen did extensive research on the sibling position that was more likely to create a triangle with the parents.

Societal Emotional Process

The concepts in Bowen’s theory can be applied to relations outside the family setup. This concept describes how emotion shapes behavior at the communal level and functions to encourage certain behaviors, both positive and negative. Cultural forces are critical to understanding how a society works but are deficient in clarifying the dynamics of how societies cope with their challenges.

Societal emotional processes are defined as social beliefs regarding racial and class groups, the behaviors for each gender, among other aspects, and their impact on the family. For instance, families that cope with discrimination or oppression will pass onto their offspring the ways they learned to survive these adversities. The survival tactics of the parents and other family members may lead to more or less adaptive emotional health in subsequent generations.

What Bowen is trying to achieve in therapy

Bowen viewed all families to exist along a continuum and while some texts may try to classify them into distinct categories, he maintained that there are really no ‘types’ of families, and any family of one type may change to another type if certain conditions changed. Bowen work was among the first to consider cultural differences in family therapy (McGoldrick et al, 1982, pp. 73).

Bowen’s work was aimed at assisting families towards to achieve a greater degree of differentiation characterized by less blaming, reduced reactivity, and improved responsibility among all members. Indeed, the most unique facets of Bowen’s therapy are his accent on the therapist’s background, the core role of the therapist in guiding conversation and his/her minimal emphasis on children. Bowen’s goal of family therapy can be deduced from his view of therapy, which he summarized in three broad steps:

  • The first step aims at reducing the client’s anxiety by making them realize that their symptoms are part of their pattern of relating;
  • The second step aims to increase the degree of differentiation among adult clients;
  • In the final stages of therapy, adult clients are trained on how to differentiate themselves from their family of origin, the assumption being that an increase in the degree of differentiation will correspondingly cause a decrease in anxiety levels and enhance responsibility within the nuclear family unit (Goodnow and Lim, 1997, pp. 35).

How to use systemic theory in person-to-person therapy

The systemic theory can be used to undertake therapy in a number of situations. A family therapy involving one person generally focuses on differentiation of the individual from the family.

The therapist assists the person to stop seeing family members in terms of their positions or roles (brother, decision maker, caretaker, and so on) they played, rather, they should start seeing them as people who have their own weaknesses, strengths, faults, wants, and so on.

The individual learns to be aware of triangulation, and take some steps in either accepting or rejecting it whenever it occurs. The individual client should have good awareness into the family (this is where genograms become important), and be very much inspired to take drastic steps in altering his/her life, or in the family.

Bowen’s family system theory can be used to differentiate a person from his/her family such as the one I described in the Genogram Reflection paper. For example, once I have known the family that my subject came from, it becomes easier to identify why they bear certain emotions.

Supposing I had a client who had a background similar to the one described in the genogram reflection, it would be easier to establish the sources of his/her emotional responses. The fact that the subject’s father grew up in a family stricken with poverty can best explain his (the father) poor work ethic, a habit of saving money, and incessant disputes over money issues.

The father’s preoccupation with money issues mainly stems from his humble background as he did not want the same situation that afflicted them as children to repeat itself in his family.

Once the subject gets to know of this information after a therapy session, he/she will understand and indeed begin to appreciate the father’s efforts towards their well-being. In addition, this insight will enable the subject to differentiate himself/herself from the father’s background and this will correspondingly decrease anxiety levels and enhance responsibility within the family.

Use of a Genogram

A genogram can help the individual gain an insight into the various elements relating to the family such as the persons belonging to his/her family lineage, how these persons relate to each other emotionally, socially, and family relationships (McGoldrick and Gerson, 1985, pp. 21).

For instance, a genogram will not only tell you that your sister Helen and her husband Mark have four children, but that their eldest son dropped out of college, that their second eldest child refuses to listen to his parents’ advice, that the second last is schizophrenic, that the last one suffers from regular bouts of depression, that mark is an alcoholic and that Helen suffers from breast cancer and recently lost her job.

This information can be helpful in systemic counseling as it might help the client to find the reason for the nature of relationship he has with his sister and may help to differentiate himself from the sister’s family.

The nature of a client’s childhood may have a significant influence on their emotional functioning (McGoldrick and Gerson, 1985, pp. 6). Fortunately, a genogram can help unravel a client’s childhood and find solutions to their emotional problems.

For instance, a genogram could reveal that a client not only came from a large family, but the home was run in a military fashion, that the parents paid strong attention to education, that the father was abusive and that the large nature of the family affected family relations, hence the client was not very close to the parents. By asking questions that encourage differentiation, a therapist can help a client to overcome his/her childhood experiences and be more responsible for their own situation, rather than blame it on their upbringing.

In the genogram reflection, the nature of the client’s father and mother’s childhood is seen to have a significant effect on their lives. While the mother suffered from a severe alcohol problem that seem to have affected her all of her life, the father, coming from a background where poverty was common, is seen to be similarly affected by his childhood to an extent that he is constantly embroiled in disputes involving money.

He also rules his family with an iron fist, regularly beating his children and occasionally his wife. This information would be very critical in therapy of any member of a family.


Goodnow, K. K. and Lim, M. G., 1997. Bowenian Theory in Application: A Case Study. Journal of Family Psychotherapy, 8(1), 33-41.

Hare-Mustin, R., 1978. A Feminist Approach to Family Therapy. Family Process, 17(3), 181-194.

James, K., 1989. When Twos Are Really Threes: The Triangular Dance in Couple Conflict. ANZJFT, 10(3), 179-189.

Kerr, M., and Bowen, M., 1988. Family Evaluation: An Approach Based on Bowen Theory. NY: Norton.

McGoldrick, M. and Gerson, R., 1985. Genograms in Family Assessment. NY: Norton.

McGoldrick, M., Pearce, J. and Giordano, J., (Eds), 1982. Ethnicity and Family Therapy. NY: Guilford.

Quadrio, C., 1986. Analysis and System: A Marriage. Journal of Psychiatry, 18(22), 184-187.

Wylie, M. S., 1991. Family Therapy’s Neglected Prophet. The Family Therapy Networker, 43(17), 25-37.

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