Bowen Theory: A One Page Summery


Beginning in the 1950’s, Murray Bowen (1913-1990) developed a new theory of human functioning. 

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 those who are capable of being in better emotional contact with those in the nuclear and extended family. This requires knowledge of the emotional system and how to mange 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.  Symptoms and maturity are the outcome of the interactions of these 8 variables.

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 seperating from the child. They imagine hows the child is rather than having a realistic appraisl 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 they were disappointed by the parents.  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 “molecule” of a 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 escelates between two. Spreading tension can also be stabilized by increasing the number of traingles. Marital therapy uses the triangel 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 summery was written by Laura Martin with a few ideas by Andrea Schara 

One comment

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