Has Anyone Seen a Theory to Explain a Family?

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I was compelled to write this blog after reading an editorial by David Brooks in the New York Times. I thought it is worthwhile to consider the way people generally understand or are mystified by human behavior, and what if anything Bowen Theory might have to offer. 
In an editorial, May 11, 2009, DAVID BROOKS writes about the Grant Study, which consists of following 268 men picked from those entering the Harvard Class of 1938.[1]


As you might predict they were the most promising of young men and were selected partially because they were the most “well adjusted.” John F. Kennedy was one of them. And yes, problems arose in their lives, despite their being the best of the best.


Some say these life stories highlight the life of promise and disappointments for mostly unknown reasons. What happed to these men, David Brooks claims, is beyond any theory to explain. 
“Their lives played out in ways that would defy any imagination save Dostoyevsky’s. A third of the men would suffer at least one bout of mental illness. Alcoholism would be a running plague. The most mundane personalities often produced the most solid success.” 
Freud also turned to literature to understand the twisted way that the lives of talented people often turned out. Generations of psychoanalysts have preferred the Greeks to the Russians for their way to highlight repeating dramatic patterns within the individual. 


Once anyone begins to look at how the individuals function in a social system, the way of thinking and theorizing is altered significantly. 


A new way of observing human behavior, or if you will, a new page was turned, when Murray Bowen placed the human’s vulnerability to emotional problems in biological process instead of in literature which focuses on what is wrong within an individual and often highlights a fatal flaw.  


Perhaps Brooks makes the claim that theory cannot explain what happens to people as they mature and develop because he has never heard of Family theory? If so, Brooks is not  alone in not knowing much about family theory or therapy. A focus on what is “wrong” with the individual still dominates heath care. 


There is much in our culture today that reverts back to psychoanalysis for explanations.  So Brooks may also have been influenced to give up on a theory because the man who ran the Grant Study for many years, George Vaillant, also gave up on psychoanalysis as a theory which could explain outcomes.[2] 
This search for the missing theory reminds me of the following joke highlighting people who are looking in all the wrong places.  In this story a very drunk man is hanging onto a light post for dear life. A policeman approaches him and asks, “What are you doing here?  The tipsy man answers, “Officer, I am looking for my car keys.”  “Where did you lose them?” “Over by my car.” “Then why are you looking here”  “Officer can’t you see, its dark over there, and the light is here.” 
The light in this case, only shines because a theory, provides a way of understanding.


Most of us have personal theories about how things come to be the way they are. A few take the search for a guiding theory seriously.


Bowen was so bugged by the holes in psychoanalytic theory that he developed a different way of understanding human behavior, anchoring his observations of the human family inside evolutionary theory.  
Most of us might acknowledge that there are mysteries about how people’s lives turn out while at the same time seeing how the repetitive interactions in a system work to make some more vulnerable than others. 


It is not by accident that people seem to make poor choices. There are subtle and blatant forces operating on sensitive people, almost “forcing” them, despite their intelligence to overreact and thereby make less optimal choices.  Over time, patterns of reacting to feel better under pressure can lead people into certain dysfunctional positions in life.


For those who are serious explorers of theories to inform us about human behavior, the great unknown, Bowen family theory has reasoned explanations for what happens in families.  We know that people who are more dependent on others are vulnerable to decomposition or dysfunction when the relationship system is stressed.


Another point is that even if Bowen family theory has been around for forty years perhaps those of us who know the theory do not know it well enough yet to explain the outcomes found in the Grant Study. Or we may not be able to write well enough to capture the public imagination. 
Those who can write well have an ability to communicate ideas to a broader audience, as in an essay Brooks mentions, “What Makes Us Happy?” by Joshua Wolf Shenk in the recent issue of The Atlantic. It is also available online. [3]

  Brooks notes: “Shenk’s treatment is superb because he weaves in the life of George Vaillant, the man who for 42 years has overseen this work. Vaillant’s overall conclusion is familiar and profound. Relationships are the key to happiness. “Happiness is love. Full Stop,” he says in a video.

In his professional life, Vaillant has lived out that creed. He has been an admired and beloved colleague and mentor. But the story is more problematic at home. When he was 10, his father, an apparently happy and accomplished man, went out by the pool of the Main Line home and shot himself. His mother shrouded the episode. They never attended a memorial service nor saw the house again.He has been through three marriages and returned to his second wife. His children tell Shenk of a “civil war” at home and describe long periods when they wouldn’t speak to him. His oldest friend says he has a problem with intimacy.” [4]

Clearly people, even those who have personal problems with intimacy, (a very common issue when 50% of first marriages end in divorce, and second marriages have an even higher failure rate) are still able to make great contributions to society.
I would like to write well enough about family systems so people could see what kinds of interactions produce what kinds of states in a family system.  But each family is so complex it’s very hard to hold all the variables in mind and to see the impacts each individual has on every other individual.  Family stories do make the system come alive and gives people a better understanding of what it is people are up against in dealing with problems in any family. 


After all people have a deep hunger to know and understand.  People will tell you their story and feel better about it as long as you are reasonably neutral.  Many people who want answers now follow various authority figures, watch gurus on TV or on the web and buy self-help books to figure out what to do.


However there are few if any short cuts to learn how to manage one’s self in intense social systems. There may be general ways of understanding what we are up against in being our best, but the point is it is always a risk to change. The risk increases anytime one takes meaningful action.  Almost every emotional system functions automatically even if there are negative consequences. This is just the way nature is. 



Accepting the way things are is a big deal in any kind of effort to organize self and not focus on altering others.  I suggested in my book, that people write up their own version of their family history to help him or her get out of the personal focus and think about broader patterns over generations.


  • Following are a few questions people have found useful in becoming better observers of any emotional system they live or work in?
    • What do you do first when you sense someone is having a problem?
    • Can you slow down to consider other possibilities? 
    • What is it that makes you want to change how you have been interacting with others?
    • Is there a principle involved or do you just want to feel better? 
    • Can you predict who will be upset if you change? 
    • What is the evidence that altering your part in an interaction makes a difference? 
    • How much are your worries and actions like those of the past generations in your family? 
    • How much are your worries, actions and reactions the opposite of the past generations in your family?
    • Do you stay in good contact with three generation of your family?
    • Who are the easy people to contact?
    • Are they easy to contact because they think like you do? 
    • What would it take for you to contact and stay in contact with someone in your family who doesn’t think at all like you do?
    • How do triangles alter your ability to relate one on one to people?  (If your mother/father/husband/wife/boss did not like them can you?)


Perhaps one is unable to even consider these types of questions unless one can somehow see that the mechanisms forming a system are impersonal.


One explanation of the nuclear family system
One of the main assumptions in Bowen theory is that people are born into a family with a relatively fixed level of emotional maturity.  Then they are subject to the anxiety generated both in relationships and by events. 

1) Every individual is shaped by a mixture of genetic influences, sensitivity to relationships and the importance of principles, which have evolved over the generations in his/her family.


2) The generational history of relationships leaves an impression of some kind on each developing person. When people leave home to start their own family/friendship systems, they form new relationships, which are highly influenced by the sensitivity to the old relationships in the family they were born into (their family of origin). 


3) Some individuals are freer of relationship sensitivity than others. This leads to diversity of functioning in the nuclear family. 
4) Much of one’s vulnerability to anxiety is determined by one’s position in the nuclear family, sibling position, the degree of cut off of the current generation from the past, and the degree of projection of worries and negativity onto others.


5) There are only four mechanisms to handle anxiety and most people in a family use all of them with a stronger preference for two.  The four are:


 (1) Distance:  whether geographical or  “psychological”

 (2) Conflict:  whether manifest in high sensitivity upsets or deadly anger. 
 (3) Physical:   emotional or social symptoms can occur as a function of reciprocal relationships in which one begins to function up or down in relationship to the other. This is difficult for people to see. One spouse can have an illness or a drinking problem and somehow that person may be carrying the symptom for the others.  Consider how a mother may feel needed if the child or husband is helpless.  


4) Projection:   parental problems are projected onto one or more children. 

Bowen used to say two individuals in a marriage fight for the ego strength and one becomes more dominant almost like if you hook up two horses, one steps out first and appears to be dominant. In the case of humans, one can pin the other one into a one- up position so they look dominant.  What’s really happening is that the person acts dominant while giving into to the other’s need to appear less dominant.


The back and forth movement results in compromises in order to form a common “we.”  You can think about this as a loss of one’s self to the common self.  (Page 110 in Family Therapy in Clinical Practice by Murray Bowen) 


Fighting for “rights” to be “happy,” to think for self, to have an extra treat, etc. creates conflicts.


Conflict goes away when one gives into the other and “loses self.” One gives in and becomes a slightly bigger “no -self” in relationship to the other. Over time the one who gives into to the verbal or non-verbal demands of the others is then vulnerable to physical, emotional or social symptoms. 


Outside relationships, especially those in the extended  family can help to stabilize a marriage and the mechanisms manifest less intensity. Those who are more invested in each other and have fewer stabilizing relationships in the extended family will have more conflicts or other symptoms.  If people have outside relationships they need fewer mechanisms to handle anxiety.


The use of mechanisms to handle anxiety results in people functioning at a less than real self level. It can happen so fast that it is hard to see all that goes into one giving in to the other/s.  It takes a disciplined approach for one to see the system that one is born into and to see the part one plays in the system. 
More objective observers can see people in an emotional system like chess pieces or ants in a colony or people in a Shakespearian drama. 


A see saw dynamic comes to live in marriages in which one spouse appears to be functioning better than the other. We often hear and see that one person becomes “done in” by the relationship’s dynamics. One is dominant and is often critical of the other.  Sometimes both are critical of each other and there is a race to the bottom. But when one person accepts the criticism and “gives in” to the other’s perception we can see the fusion between the two people.  People are “borrowing” energy from the other by positioning self as better that the other, or as the others care taker.  Think of two cells where one takes the other’s blood supply as in cancer.  In this case neither person is a well defined self they have simply been caught in an ongoing lending and borrowing of self making them more vulnerable to future stressors.


This process of giving up self to enable the other is easier to see in addiction problems. Often we see a dynamic emerge whereby one spouse “allows” the other to drink and “looks after them” in a pattern that has been called enabling behavior.


There are many explanations for alcoholism and or drug dependency. But if one is focused on the dynamic in the marriage or between an adolescent and parents then one can clearly see that there is tremendous denial or distance and/or cycles of negative blaming.


Anyone interested in breaking these kinds of patterns, “inherited” from the past,  can start just by breaking any cycle of thinking and talking negatively about or to the other.


Those who are ready to break past patterns have to (1) be prepared to let the other one fall and pick him or herself up and (2) at the same time deal with their own loss of the helping role. 


  1. Changing self is hard to do and hard to understand. It is also one thing to change your way of dealing with others and then another thing when your near and dear begin to change and challenge you. canalJPG


Coaching 101 
The following are a few ways I try to coach people who are caught in negative cycles on interaction.


The tone of family interactions is highly determined by the way one has “learned” to focus on the other. People are born into systems that have ways reinforcing certain  values and each emotional system has expectations for behaviors. If ones behaviors deviates from the norm then that person become a negative focus as attempts are made to get the person back into the fold. 


Christopher Buckley described this family emotional process in the last blog.  He understood that what was allowed to be talked about was not necessarily the truth. 


There in an automatic negativity which focus on others who do not behave in accepted ways. 


  1. Feelings that you should go along with the way things are do have a big part in maintaining a  habitual way of interacting.


People who can understand this are motivated to observe and take the time to alter automatic behavior with others by acting rather than reacting. 

When the issues get hot, try writing both in one’s own journal (to clarify ones feelings) and then to the other person.  In this way one begins to be more objective rather than communicate negative feelings around issues.


A few ideas that can guide more neutral interactions are:

1) Don’t put much pressure on others for anything.

2) Stay with “I” statements and throw away the YOU word.

  1. 3) Set limits by saying. IF – THEN statements: Like IF you want to do x, y or z   then I cannot stop you, but IF you do it THEN I will have to…

4) John Gottman http://www.gottman.com/research/  has identified a 5 to 1 positive ratio for marital interactions. This may also be needed in one’s own thinking process. 
5)  Can I weed my mental garden by not letting negative thoughts dominate? 


6) Can I be happy by to working on personal goals to balance out my need for relationship happiness? 
If any of this was useful to you, you will be ready to analyze the Grant Study families.  And you will even be able to think more clearly about the next story someone tells you about how a talented person fell into an unexpected abyss.  Perhaps Bowen Family Systems Theory can enable you to understand the natural forces operating on individuals.

Hope some of this was useful for you.  

I also wanted to thank Judy Ball for continuing to edit these blogs.

Judy helps me slow down and enlarge on my quick explanations and focus on the details.  

What a gift!  

And of course many thanks to all the grandchildren who are an inspiration for the future of the family.


A moment of happiness from Madeline and me!

Madeline and me






[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Eman_Vaillant

[3] http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200906/happiness

[4] http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/12/opinion/12brooks.html?_r=1

Family Rules and the Social Atom


Recognizing  Patterns in Social Systems

May 3, 2009 

Recently there were several stories highlighting relationship process in the families of well-known people.  Two individuals, Bill Gates and Christopher Buckley benefit from their family experiences and emerged as stronger individuals while the Astor family is described as repeating destructive family patterns. 

In addition to how family emotional process guides individual behavior we can also take a look at other ways of studying human behavior. Mark Buchanan, a theoretical physicist, in his book The Social Atom points to the many studies where behavior is being tested and modeled.  His thesis is that we are something like social atoms, acting on the basis of simple rules, while also being benefiting from our on-the-fly adaptability to changing circumstances.  Like family emotional processes many of these simple rules are operating out of awareness.

We can ask what differences will it make that we are more aware of how these simple rules and emotional forces operate on all of us?

I would answer that in a world of chaos and confusion it is amazing for any of us to discover a few steps towards clarity to see how we are constrained and what we might become. People can learn about the nature of emotional process from observing ones own story or even others’ family stories. Murray Bowen made many observation of the family but he described togetherness and individuality as the primary forces.

In families and in work systems, togetherness can be identified as the way in which family members are identified as being alike in terms of important beliefs, philosophies, life principles and feelings. [1]   

In considering how togetherness forces play out in a larger unrelated social field Buchanan in his chapter called “Together, Apart”, attempts to explain the larger social dynamic that can lead to ethnic cleansing.  “You are either with us or against us,” and unsaid is “we already know which side you are on and have taken steps to see that you pay or are paid.”  

After every individual had interacted with others for a thousand times the world was stopped.  What they saw was counter intuitive.  The third strategy was the one that almost three-quarters of the individuals had turned to. 

A natural segregation of the world by color emerged. By cooperating with only their color, individuals met with cooperation in almost all of their interactions.

“In a world of bigots only bigots survive.” Prejudice at the most basic level of human activity is effective at promoting protecting the in-group and at making the outsiders the enemies.

How different is this from togetherness pressure in the family?   People are pressuring important others to be the same or like me in behavior and/or values in order to enhance cooperation at a very basic level.  

Computer simulations can help us understand the simple rules that lead to counter intuitive outcomes for large groups.  Hopefully these simulations can also us to see that the pressure in families arise from some of these same basic, perhaps instinctual, rules. 

In families there are many ways to configure the system and to reorganize in order to have greater tolerance for both diversity and dealing with increasing anxiety.  Perhaps families have a specific set point for differences.  If people are too different from the family values these “outsiders” might need to drink in order to tolerate the negativity that can get focused on one individual’s differences.

Is it possible to increase a set point around the ability of a family to better deal with differences?

In order to alter a dynamic first one has to see it.  To be able to observe a set point we need to understand the level of “togetherness” in the family system.

One way is that in this ever more complex world you can just count or observe how people use pronouns: the “we,” the “ you should,” the “everyone believes or does it this way,” the “it is wrong” and the more intense versions as in “you must” and the “YOU are wrong.”

I use to say I did pronoun therapy! I explained it cost a lot to use the word “I” in a meaningful way that creates differences that people will eventually find useful.  

The ability to define a difference and remain in relationship with others is the force Bowen called differentiation.  In this state people try to separate out from the group or the family to state their principled differences as respectfully as possible.  People do this at some cost to self.  It is important to state a principle and leave the other free to make a decision for self from within self.  One example is to say, “This is what I stand for, and what I will do or not do based on “x” which is an important principle of mine.” 

By not putting pressure on others to conform one can assumes greater responsibility for one’s own happiness comfort and well-being.

Bowen defined a scale whereby more mature people could integrate thinking and feeling.  Those who were more emotionally maturity were able to avoid thinking that tends to blame others or make demands on others to make one’s self feel or function better.

In any family story highlighting differentiation or the emergence of the individual you can hear the predictable tension arise as individuals try to be more of a self in relationship to important others. 

One example of this process as it worked its way through the family set point for tolerating differences concerns the pre teenager Bill Gates. 

The future software mogul was a headstrong 12-year-old and was having a particularly nasty argument with his mother at the dinner table. Fed up, his father threw a glass of cold water in the boy’s face.

“Thanks for the shower,” the young Mr. Gates snapped. Bill Gates Sr., Bill Gates and their family shared many details of the family’s story for the first time, including Bill Gates Jr.’s experience in counseling and how his early interest in computers came about partly as a result of a family crisis. The sometimes colliding forces of discipline and freedom within the clan shaped the entrepreneur’s character. 

Ms. Gates encouraged her kids to study hard, play sports and take music lessons. (Bill Gates tried the trombone with little success.) And she imparted a discipline that reflected her upbringing in a well-to-do family. She expected her kids to dress neatly, be punctual and socialize with the many adults who visited their home. For the most part, young Bill dutifully abided.

“She was the most engaged parent and she had high expectations of all of us,” says Libby Armintrout, Bill’s younger sister. “Not just grades and that sort of thing, but how we behaved in public, how we would be socially.” Then, at age 11, Bill Sr. says, the son blossomed intellectually, peppering his parents with questions about international affairs, business and the nature of life.

“It was interesting and I thought it was great,” Mr. Gates Sr. says. “Now, I will say to you, his mother did not appreciate it. It bothered her.”

The son pushed against his mother’s instinct to control him, sparking a battle of wills. All those things that she had expected of him — a clean room, being at the dinner table on time, not biting his pencils — suddenly turned into a big source of friction. The two fell into explosive arguments.

Eventually the parents brought their son to a therapist. “I’m at war with my parents over who is in control,” Bill Gates recalls telling the counselor. Reporting back, the counselor told his parents that their son would ultimately win the battle for independence, and their best course of action was to ease up on him.[2]


The way in which family members are aligned with one another is generated by a system of automatic responses to verbal and non-verbal contact.  These mechanisms regulate relationships and are largely out of awareness.

Every family has minor emotional stimuli that can trigger an overly intense response from the other. People wonder, “how come that person got so mad at me, all I did was …”

There are both negative and positive stimuli. So we can innocently drive the other into an angry or distant state, while others are so positive that one family member may spend an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to elicit a special smile or a kind or interested word. 

In either of the following two stores you will read beautiful descriptions of how people react to one another and how the problems then escalates leaving the people far removed from real contact with one another.

One written by Christopher Buckley is about how his relationships with his parents played out as though it were a symphony just slightly off key. In the new book, Mum and Pup and Me he revisits childhood memories of his parents as he sought a balance of togetherness and individuality to maintain a relationship with his father.

Pup and I had engaged in our own Hundred Years’ War over the matter of faith. Our Sturmiest und Drangiest times were over religion. Pup had the most delicious, reliable, wicked, vibrant sense of humor of anyone I knew, yet his inner Savonarola was released at the merest hint of (to use his term) impiety. Finally exhausted, I adopted — whether hypocritically or cowardly or wisely — a Potemkin stance of being back in the fold. My agnosticism, once defiant, had gone underground. I no longer had the desire to nail my theses to his church door. By now I knew we didn’t have much time left, and I didn’t want to spend it locking theological horns, making him heartsick with my intransigence.

My only consolation now was that I had finally stopped lobbing feckless, well-worded catapult-balls over Mum’s parapets. I didn’t even say anything to her about the Incident of July 2006.

However when he did call to let his father know [know what?] you can watch how the triangle unfolded and see how loyalty (similar colors) influenced the cooperation between the two parents over the reality issues of the moment. 

I breathed into a paper bag for a few days and then called Pup. “Well,” I said, “that sounded like a fun dinner. Sorry to miss it.” He feigned ignorance of the Skakel episode; perhaps he had excused himself early and gone upstairs to short-sheet her ladyship’s bed. He was, anyway, past caring at this, my 500th howl about Mum’s behavior. He tried to wave it away with a spuriously subjunctive, “But why would she say something like that if she weren’t a juror at the trial?” (Pup would have made a superb defense attorney) and changed the subject back to what kind of explosives work best for dislodging aristocratic British houseguests.



For another look at how the nuclear family emotional process continues to be played out over the generations just read: Fight for Astor Estate Mirrors Battle 50 Years Ago By John Eligon Published April 25, 2009 in The New York Times.

I will not spoil the fun by over interpreting this story. Please do let me know what you think about the emotional process and how togetherness and the “in” and “out” groups might function in this family. These kinds of examples may make it easier for you to identify relationship patters that live below people’s awareness.   

Many thanks to Judy Ball for her editing efforts.






[1] Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, by Murray Bowen, page 218

[2] Raising Bill Gates, by Robert A. Guth