Happy 95th Birthday Dr. Bowen

Yes, Dr. Bowen, if he were alive, would have been 95 on January 31, 2008.  Since his video tapes and his writings are still available, one can consider him to still be  an “living” influence. I am one of many who can easily say that my life has been affected by his thinking. People read or learn the theory and then live it out and practice it in many different ways. Since Dr. Bowen is no longer alive to comment on how various people live theory there is a growing diversity among people who say they understand and “live” theory.   Darwin would like that.  It is neither good nor bad, its just what has happened.  Robbie Gilbert, M.D. sent me the following piece from the Chicago Tribune as an example of how theory influences and spreads in unusual ways.    Make of it what you will. Andrea 

Out of the picture

A loved one in your family has cut you off emotionally — and seemingly forever. Dare you dream of healing the rift? YES.

| Special to the Tribune

Since Rudy Giuliani stepped into the presidential race in 2006, his children, ages 17 and 21, have been noticeably absent from his campaign. Giuliani is publicly enduring a situation that millions of Americans deal with in private — a phenomenon that psychologists call an “emotional cutoff.”

Here’s the scenario: A parent, an adult child, a sibling or someone else who stars in your family constellation cuts you off. Whether gradual or sudden, it’s always a knife to the heart.Psychologist Mark Sichel, author of “Healing From Family Rifts,” describes these estrangements as being “buried alive.”

Shame and embarrassment abound among people who experience such rifts. Although few statistics are available on the incidence of family estrangement in the U.S., the Australian Institute of Family Studies reports fully 20 percent of adults are cut off from a sibling.

“I do believe that estrangement is quite common and that families feel ashamed of it because such distance flies in the face of what we think families are supposed to be about,” said Tribune advice columnist Amy Dickinson.An estrangement that develops gradually is less likely to be accompanied by a dramatic exit and slamming door. Many people simply drift away from loved ones when they are unable to reconcile their issues and sort out emotional aches of the past. Because it’s often subtle, they frequently don’t realize that if not dealt with directly, temporary distancing often becomes permanent.Divorce and its aftermath are common sources of family rifts. Giuliani’s relationship with his two children has been strained since Giuliani’s surprise announcement at a 2000 press conference that he was leaving their mother, Donna Hanover. In 2003, he married Judith Nathan, a woman he had described in 2000 as “his very good friend.”Evanston resident Amy Krause, now 37, was 7 when her parents divorced. Her dad remarried almost immediately, and Krause quickly grew to love her stepmom and the two children born into her father’s second family. Everything was going great until her father divorced again, starting yet a third family.”I was angry and hurt,” said Krause, who was largely cut off from her father for the last 20 years. Six years ago, when her father discovered he had cancer, he and Krause forged a tentative reconciliation. Her dad recovered, and his cancer went into remission. Last year, when the cancer returned, Krause traveled considerable distances on several occasions to offer love and support to her dad and his family.Fox River Grove resident John Mazurek, a therapist with a private practice in Arlington Heights, says he committed “the biggest mistake of my life” after a bitter divorce 30 years ago. He unwittingly put his daughter, Martha, into the uncomfortable position of arranging her own visits to him.”I later realized that she felt pulled between two warring parents and thought she had to make a choice between us,” said Mazurek, who has not seen his daughter in 17 years. While Martha never said, “I don’t want to see you anymore,” the cutoff eventually became a way of life.When repairing a family relationship simply isn’t feasible, an alternative that psychologist Sichel calls “the second-chance family” often satisfies the human desire for a core group of loving supporters. Peter Monaco of Batavia has experienced substantial rifts with his family of origin, but he and his wife’s family have established a lasting bond of affection.Monaco’s mother-in-law, Marlyne Olson, lives in Portland, Ore., and stays in touch with her daughter and son-in-law via regular telephone conversations.Statistics are unavailable on the number of emotional cutoffs that are eventually mended, perhaps because the process is unscientific at best.”I believe that, depending on the circumstances, families can and do find ways to heal from estrangements and bridge the gap between them,” Dickinson said. “Sometimes the birth of a grandchild or a serious illness can bring people together. In my column, I urge people to grab these opportunities to come back together — even in the smallest ways.”This much is certain: Mending a broken relationship is a journey for the tortoise, not the hare, demanding patience, hard work and forgiveness.Krause and her father have navigated the shoals successfully; the two say they are now closer than they’ve been since her childhood.”It’s by no means perfect,” Krause said. “I had to give up the dream of a ‘traditional’ father-daughter relationship.” But, after all these years, “it seems like, at last, we’ve established some common understanding of our relationship.”- – –

Out of the picture


Find a skilled therapist. Not only can a wise therapist help you work through the feelings caused by emotional cutoffs, he or she also can help you devise a strategy for trying to resolve the issue, or help you determine how to proceed if reconciliation isn’t possible or desirable (perhaps, for example, because of a situation involving abuse). Robert Noone, executive director of the Family Service Center of Glenview, Kenilworth, Northbrook and Wilmette, says that helping people explore the family dynamics that contribute to family cutoffs is almost always enlightening. Noone recommends checking out thebowencenter.org and clicking on “Bowen Theory,” then “Emotional Cutoff” for background on the subject.

Don’t play the blame game. “We live in such a blaming society,” says E. Maurlea Babb, a licensed family and marriage therapist and founder of Chrysallis, the Center for Individual and Family Therapy, in Wheaton. “Most parents do the best they can.” Babb believes reassurance, affirmation and a non-judgmental attitude can repair many relationships. “I’ve seen a lot of miracles,” she said.Forgive. Rev. Elizabeth Andrews of Chicago’s 4th Presbyterian Church recommends that the door to possibility remain open. “Allow space for grace to come in.”

Don’t let the cutoff define your life. Although one can do everything in his or her power to heal an estrangement, it’s possible to move forward and live a good life, even if a cutoff is never repaired.

– – -Books that offer help* “Difficult Conversations” (Penguin, $15) by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen and Roger Fisher offers practical guidelines on how to initiate and direct the sticky, uncomfortable conversations that are an inevitable part of life. The authors are affiliated with the Harvard Law School and the Harvard project on negotiation.* “Healing From Family Rifts: Ten Steps to Finding Peace After Being Cut Off From a Family Member” (McGraw-Hill, $15.95 paper) by Mark Sichel abounds with compassion and insight from a psychologist who has experienced emotional cutoffs in his own life. He provides a 10-step program that addresses the painful experience of dealing with familial ruptures.* “I’m OK, You’re My Parents: How to Overcome Guilt, Let Go of Anger, and Create a Relationship That Works” (Henry Holt, $24) by Dale Atkins is intended for the adult child in the parent-child relationship. Rather than blaming one’s parents for everything that hasn’t worked out as one would like in life, Atkins helps the reader identify ways to work through anger to create a working relationship with one’s parents. She offers examples and strategies to move through them successfully.- – -A personal journey of reconciliationThe phenomenon of emotional cutoffs is every bit as heartbreaking as it sounds.When my then-18-year-old son, Colin, cut me out of his life six years ago, I was devastated.Colin stopped calling me, ignored my letters and chose not to walk me down the aisle when I remarried four years ago. I despaired of ever regaining a loving relationship with the tall, handsome and engaging young man whose face and sense of humor so resemble my own.Reflecting on our difficulties, recently resolved, Colin, now 24 and a recent graduate of the University of Illinois, put it this way:”Our cutoff began with my extremely poor high school performance. There was great frustration on all sides. When my mom decided at the beginning of my senior year after a particularly bad (and loud) argument that I had to go live with my dad, I blamed her for the drastic changes brought on by that move.”Initial feelings of anger and resentment eventually subsided, and in their place a feeling of emotional numbness took over.”But by the middle of my college years, I realized I missed my mom. After a slow, gradual and difficult process, we began rebuilding. Now, things are great between us.”A willingness to set aside past differences and acknowledge that we really love each other were critical factors in our reconciliation.”– Betsy Storm




    1. The following article debunks Bowen’s theory of triangulation. Basic psychological research has failed to confirm Bowen’s theory.

      Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, Oct 2004 by Miller, Richard B, Anderson, Shayne, Keala, Davelyne Kaulana

    2. Gary:

      I read this piece and was thinking, these people have as much trouble as researchers in quantum physics do, trying to measure light particles or find the elusive wave.

      People find what their research instruments are designed to find.

      Others can read and decide how theory and “research” fit. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3658/is_200410/ai_n9438077/pg_1

      Obviously I see right away that they are using definitions for theory that are not in Dr. Bowen’s writings.

      The discussion on emotional cut off is far from his observations: cut off he wrote occurred between the generations not between people of the same generation.

      Many have expanded the concepts of the theory. They are often far from where Dr. Bowen was. Emotional cut off was defined as occurring between generations not between those in the same generation.

      These subscales are Emotional Cutoff (“I need to distance myself when people get too close to me” and “I would never consider turning to any of my family members for emotional support”)

      People are measuring the outcome of how they define theory not where theory would guide a clinician in understanding how to think.

      The empirical examination of Bowen theory has been dependent on the development of a valid and adequate measure to test its key concept, differentiation. The development of a psychometrically sound measure of differentiation has been a delayed process. Bowen himself discouraged this effort by claiming that differentiation could only be accurately measured after months of interviews and interaction (Bowen, 1978). He suggested that clinicians could use a differentiation-of-self scale ranging from 0 to 100; however, he provided few guidelines to help clinicians reliably and accurately assign an appropriate score. Indeed, he claimed that the concept was not quantifiable for researchers. Consequently, Bowen’s scale has been useful only as a theoretical tool.

      I would love to know the names of the “Bowen experts,” who know or think they are able to convert Bowen’s ideas into
      a subscale.

      Two experts of Bowen theory reviewed the pool of questions and the definitions of the subscales to assure that they were consistent with Bowen’s conceptualization of differentiation.

      I could spend more time on this but hopefully the point has been made clinical understandings vs. basic research are worlds apart.

      Research is difficult. It is far easier to understand how families organize over the generations and how to be a more mature person in your own family or with others.

    3. I love my brother so much. I miss him every day. I often cry myself to sleep just thinking about the relationship we could have had if only I had a broader view of life. I don’t blame either him or myself. This is just a spiritual journey that we are both on. We simply need to heal and learn to love each other. Anger is not the answere. I realize that now.

    4. Tony-

      I am hopeful that you are a serious person, making an effort to alter your part in the relationships with your brother.

      The negative attachment and intense reactivity to siblings is a common theme, dating back to the story of Adam and Eve’s children.

      Lowering anxiety when one has clearly seen his or her over reaction to others is crucial.

      Herbert Benson has a well proven method called the relaxation response, which could offer a way to lower anxiety and allow you a differnt perception of your part in the emotional system that surrounds you.


      Of course it can be far easier to stay in an uncomfortable attachemnt than to change self.

      I would also recommend a Bowen coach in your area and or finding a trainer from http://www.zengar.com

      Otherwise telling your story on this web sites has a very limited upside for your life.


    5. If you think staying in an uncomfortable attachement is easy for me you are mistaken. I am a serious person and will give what you have said deep consideration. Thank you.

    6. I no longer blame my brother. However, I do not feel that I can take credit for this. I read no self help books. I did not join a self help group or join a meditation art such as Tai Chi. I do not understand what happened.
      I am not confused, but I have no explantion.

    7. One gift is to be able to see the big picture.
      Another gift is to go to a fun movie that reminds us of the importance of standing up for principle.

      Tamara J. Hawk, ( http://www.theprairiecenter.com ) send me the following movie suggestion.
      Hi Andrea
      I know you like movies so I thought I would write and tell you about Flash of Genius (also a book and true story) if you haven’t already seen it.
      Great DOS movie. Bob Kearns, Phd (Greg Kinear) takes a hard stand when Ford Motor co rips off his invention and he decides to fight. His symptoms get to a psychotic level when he is pressured by everyone he cares about (partner and friend, wife and kids) to give up his position. He levels out but doesn’t quit, just goes at it differently. (according to the movie)
      Interesting piece: it costs him his marriage. The stance reveals the fusion in the marriage and the accommodating position he has settled for based on his wife’s definition of him. His kids flourish. They hold up well and stand behind him, gaining self from their dad’s refusal to sell out. His ability to hold up, even with his wife’s exit, is a good example of how he began to put self above the accommodating stand he had taken in his marriage.
      Anyway, if you havne’t seen it, I think you would enjoy.

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