Has Anyone Seen a Theory to Explain a Family?

mts adn umbrallasJPG

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


  1. Apart from the depression and despair experienced by people who kill their own children and family members, there’s a reason for insane behaviour by otherwise normal appearing men and women.

    I’m pretty sure these men were on benzodiazapines, probably Klonopin or Xanax. These drugs are evil and extremely damaging to the brain. They might work in some extreme cases of psychotic persons, but remain largely unexamined as a cause for extremely violent, senseless behaviour, i.e. murder and suicide.
    People in general are hurting these days, true, but I bet the vast majority do not take these mind altering drugs so loved by the big pharmaceutical companies and the doctors they pay to hand them out.

    • Somehow your comment missed the importance of the family as system. You seem very focused on what wrong with people and blame irresponsible behavior on the drugs people take.

      I am not at all sure how to understand your thoughts related to the blog. But I do know it is hard to look at relationships. I also know it is hard to see the importance of theory.

      What I hear is that you have found solace in blaming the pharmaceutical industry for the ills of humanity. It is one viewpoint but one I do not share.


      • Andrea, Cool idea to bounce Bowen Theory off of a NYT article. At the end, you also give us the Tricks of the Trade.

        Gonna keep weeding that damn garden in my head!

        See you soon, Eric M

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s