First, I wanted to thank my editor, Judy Ball, for going over this material at least eight times. That dose not indicate that every error has been caught and corrected but rather that she enabled me to have a conversation focused on to clarifying the points I was trying to make. It is an important topic so I hope you will enjoy the ideas in this chapter and that some of you will have as many good questions as Judy had.
The Thing In the Bushes: From a Focus on the Individual to an Awareness of the Family as a System
“Not until looking back did I realize how Lancelot Law Whyte’s writing (The Unconscious Before Freud) had influenced my formulation of increasing awareness as the major thrust of evolution.” John B. Calhoun, Ph.D. (March 31, 1973)
Increasing Knowledge of Social Behavior
If you are curious about human behavior, you too may stumble onto the same questions and even the same kinds of problems that plagued our ancestors. We all have our reasons to pursue knowledge. It happened for me, after my younger brother was hospitalized. This marked the beginning of my curiosity about what “the people in psychiatry” know. What made them say the things they said about my brother? Would I believe what they said?
In answering these questions I got to know generations of researchers focusing on describing different parts of human behavior. Remember the parable of the blind men. They thought they were describing the elephant, when in fact all they could describe was what they could feel, only a part of the whole. They were unable to see the whole. Human behavior is as difficult to see as the elephant was to the blind men. Human behavior is a thing hiding in the bush. It is all around us and in us. We feel it but we cannot either see it very well or describe it well enough to know it.
Psychologically blind but curious, in 1975 I began a job at a psychiatric hospital. Here I had the opportunity to learn through experience. I listened to the patient’s stories, listened to team diagnosis and treatment plans, and had access to the hospital’s library. The relationships between the patient and the staff seemed very similar to a family of teenagers. The staff was the parents and the patient need to behave.
It was in the library that I found the work of the early investigators of human behavior. I noted how many theories arose out of listening to clients and observing relationships in the psychotherapy hour. I began to see all the various theories as best guesses, as what I believe was the therapists’ hopes, little fallacies and assumptions. Wanting to build a knowledgeable base for managing myself, I could not accept on faith all that was held to be true. I had to weed through the various ways of thinking about mental illness, think these ideas through and try things out for myself.
As noted in the first chapter, the evidence suggesting that our brains are automatically tuned to react to people and situations is staggering. By considering briefly the long history of psychiatry, I began to see that even the geniuses in the field faced difficulty moving from a focus on the individual’s mind as the “pathology” to taking a giant leap forward to understanding the influence of family relationships over generations in shaping any individual’s current behavior.
The interactional world of the family was and still is difficult to see. Perhaps the thing in the bush, human behavior, can only be seen after all the other explanations are thoroughly explored and rejected as not fully reflecting the whole story. We have made giant steps in seeing how we, like other animals, get caught in traps. Our most painful trap is ignorance. We experience word traps, relationship binds, misperceptions and non-thinking reactivity, squishing us into intense emotions like blaming. Knowing a bit about the history of psychiatry gives us the opportunity to learn from clinical experience. It is here that the researchers have learned both from watching people’s actions and listening to stories of people caught in fantastic mind-bending traps.
We can learn how people have escaped psychological traps with help from the researchers of human behavior.
The effort to solve incredibly difficult mental problems was the goal of pioneers like Freud, Jung, Bowlby, Bateson, Jackson and others. The discoveries of these early investigators formed a knowledge base enabling pioneers like Murray Bowen, who trained as a psychoanalyst at the Menninger Institute after WWII, to gain a unique perspective. Bowen was able to leap beyond the focus on the individual and developed a theory that explains what he saw: a broad system of connected people organized by “rules” that are difficult to grasp and alter.
From his influence on psychiatry we understand that the thing in the bush is a bit easier to see once we are able to become objective enough to see the interwoven system we live in that is influencing us. No doubt, despite knowledge there will always be a continuing struggle to be a more self-aware and well-defined individual. Even if you see the thing in the bush, the pressure is there to fold each of us back into the way things were.
Seeing the family as a system runs counter to general cultural beliefs. The most accepted belief is that problems are in the individual. If you are trained in conventional psychotherapy and listening to one person, it is difficult for all but a minority of therapists to see the larger system in which the individual lives. Therefore it could easily take another hundred years for psychiatry to move to a system’s viewpoint. But that should not hinder your personal progress.
The following are clues that you are making progress at seeing a systems viewpoint:
(1) You know you are getting closer to a systems view when you have a more objective, factually based way of understanding events rather than the automatic mind set of “blaming others”.
(2) You can relate well to difficult people and avid sticky, murky relationship swamps, often filled with blame and shame.
(3) You will be able see some of the “rules of the game” and thereby avoid becoming reactive to others.
(4) You will not react automatically as often to challenging situations or the powerful and subtle influences of others.
The idea of the unseen thing is the bush is about how difficult it is to see how we are being influenced in ways we are not even aware of. We have to train our eyes to see differently. Otherwise the fallback position is to see what is wrong “out there.” The focus on “fixing” the other or “blaming” others will shift as more people become mindful of how systems influence each of us. We will participate in this shift when we acknowledge that we play some part in the problems we see and do something to change our part in the systems we live in.
By considering a brief historical perspective on the changing focus in psychiatry, from the focus on the individual to seeing the family as a system, you will see the steps people have taken to see and describe the thing in the bush, human behavior.
Early Thinkers on Human Behavior
The following description of the early thinkers on human behavior is my personal take on the work of those who spent a lifetime developing profound ideas. Each summary can easily be challenged by anyone who is an expert in understanding the work of people like Freud, Jung, Bowlby, Sullivan Bateson or Jackson. I am not an expert on these people or on their work. I am simply demonstrating that systems thinking is both an outgrowth of accumulated knowledge and a very different way of thinking about human behavior.
Long before Freud, (1856-1939) and over two hundred and fifty years ago, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, (1749-1832) gave evidences of a unity of design within organisms. Not much was made of this viewpoint until Darwin (1809-1882) wrote his famous books, giving us the evidence and laying the ground work for the idea that universal laws organized living organisms. In the modern era, Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1901-1972) formulated the mathematics for a systems view of biological entities.
Yet, despite this impressive body of evidence it remains difficult to see, much less prove, how systems are organized. Slowly we are finding that there are rules that organize specific biological systems. But we do not yet have a science that can measure the impact of multiple variables on ants and bees much less on the personality of human beings.
The earliest explorers began with a focus on the mechanisms in the mind. Eighty years before Freud published his first book, J.F. Herbart spoke of the conflict of the unconscious and introduced the notion of repression. Freud was not the first to think about the unconscious and the dangers of repression. There was a general belief that the mind itself was the location of mental problems. Man was not yet an animal to observe in relationships. The early explorers followed the clues from the mind, often describing the past of their patients in non-logical ways that were hard to decipher.
Both Herbart and Freud observed that people don’t always know what they are up to. It’s natural, they noted, to be blind to the struggles of one’s inner world and to be frustrated in achieving goals. Freud saw that symptomatic people are limited by psychic blindness to the struggles in their inner world. Freud thought this unawareness resulted in irrational behavior.
Nietzsche noted that in the battle between “my memory and my pride, my pride wins.” Personal perceptions, right or wrong, good or bad, determine our stories. And our stories then determine our future. How then, these early investigators asked, can we change our perceptions, our stories and ultimately our future? They believed that power was in our heads to become more aware and integrate our inner turmoil.
The early investigators saw that we humans are often a mystery to ourselves. They noted how we are influenced by the brain’s perceptions, describing how our automatic deceptive mechanisms function. By recounting in great detail how we humans automatically don a mask of rationality, enabling us to float through the emotional seas, these investigators pointed out that our defenses are not sustainable. Things break down and the little engine of the mind compensates for problems in ways that are “dysfunctional”.
Psychoanalysis described how humans react in very indirect ways to those who either threaten or love them. People react and are not able to be thoughtful, they seem to be acting out a hidden agenda. Therefore analysts developed ways of allowing people to consider their more primitive feelings in a safe environment. Through analysis the patient could discover ways to unlock the past, using dreams and/or free associations to see the truth and to manage self more coherently.
Freud was able to write beautifully about the impact of the love-hate ambivalent relationships, borrowing terms from Shakespeare. In one of his greatest observations Freud showed how patients reenacted their family relationships with the analyst. Describing in great detail how imagination and reality interacted to form intense close two-person relationships with the analyst, Freud called this dance transference and counter-transference.
A well-trained psychoanalyst could observe feeling states in others and offer insights or questions to the patient that helped the patient understand how they projected feelings onto the analyst. These feelings in patients had often not been integrated with thinking. It took painstaking time to discover and categorize the wide variety of psychological disturbances. But in doing so time and again, Freud and others discovered the automatic nature of our well-entrenched defense system. The struggles of the ego and the defenses against reality have continued to beguile the public and generations of therapists. There is no better fodder for compelling stories than sex and death and these were often the roots of psychoanalytic problems.
The Freudian analyst is trained to carefully listen, and then make comments offering an insight about the story or dream that the client offers. Consider these comments as a needle of insight, puncturing the heightened emotionality and/or “false beliefs” around some experience, which the client could not comprehend. A well-aimed jab at irrational beliefs would often jump start an integrative process, allowing people to understand the blows and frustrations encountered in life.
Psychoanalysis, however, can take twelve years. It includes meeting several times a week with the analyst. Personal analysis has become and remains a solution for people with money and time and not too many serious psychological problems. But the strict “analytic” method does not work well with people who suffer serious delusional problems, schizophrenia, personality disorders, brain trauma, addictions or even PTSD. For those with symptoms that can be treated by psychoanalysis, it is still a miracle of healing. Freud’s worldview allowed us to see for the first time ever an amazing and compelling picture of our sexual desires, our fears and secrets, all located in the spooky house called the unconscious.
Let’s take his first case and think about the different kinds of questions we might ask if we were looking at Freud’s cases through the lens of Family Systems Theory.
Freud’s World: Medical Psychology and the Case of Anna O
In 1900 Sigmund Freud had to understand complex problems without being able to rely on controlled experiments or logical facts to “prove” his theories. Freud found that each case offered him ways to learn and see. His friend, Dr. Breuer, provided Freud with his first well-known case. This case enabled him to develop several of his first theoretical ideas about the ways in which the mind becomes illogical or irrational while still having a story to tell.
Breuer asked Freud to take over the case of Anna O., a young woman who had spent most of her time tending her ill father. When she became severely symptomatic and could no longer take care of him she began seeing Dr. Breuer.
Breuer’s cure involved a form of hypnosis. During hypnosis Breuer discovered a reason for Anna O’s inability to drink water from a glass. She saw a woman drink from a glass that a dog had drunk from and thereafter she was disgusted at the thought of drinking water from a glass, though she had repressed the “reason” she had this feeling. Even though in a conscious state she could not recall any event that led to feelings of disgust for the water, once she was hypnotized she could recall the event. Once she made sense of her irrational behavior, she was no longer disgusted by the thought of drinking water out of a glass.
This cure demonstrated the importance of hypnosis in allowing the mind to mend. But all was not well with Anna and her therapist. The relationship between the two of them had created another level of symptom in Anna. Dr. Breuer became highly anxious when Anna O. told him that she was pregnant with his child.
It started so innocently. Anna felt she needed to hold her physician’s hand for the hypnosis to work. Then she began to imagine a love affair with him. Eventually she confessed her love for him and told him of the signs and symptoms of pregnancy. At this point Breuer called Freud.
Some might wonder if Dr. Breuer had inadvertently passed on his anxiety about Anna, resulting in this imagined pregnancy. But in that era no one could imagine anxiety playing a central role in one’s reactivity and sensitivity to others. Instead Freud eventually understood this event as part of a mechanism he called counter-transference.
Anna O. in claiming her analyst had made her pregnant, demonstrated that her feelings for her physician had also crossed a mind/body boundary. Her deep wishes seem to have enabled her body to manifest a false growth. This led to Freud’s speculation about the incredible power of repressed sexual feeling. This case also clarified how one’s judgment becomes suspect when there are deep fears surrounding a loved ones impending death. Basic theoretical knowledge arose by hypnotizing the patient.
Later Freud explained how he went from hypnosis to free association when he delivered his first five lectures in the United States at Clarke University.
Now hypnosis, as a fanciful, and so to speak, mystical, aid, I soon came to dislike; and when I discovered that, in spite of all my efforts, I could not hypnotize by any means all of my patients, I resolved to give up hypnotism and to make the cathartic method independent of it.
Since I could not alter the psychic state of most of my patients at my wish, I directed my efforts to working with them in their normal state. This seems at first sight to be a particularly senseless and aimless undertaking. The problem was this: to find out something from the patient that the doctor did not know and the patient himself did not know.
Looking back we can see that the interactions between the therapist and the patient were crucial in the healing process. We can also see how the depth and strangeness in the unconscious mind was both scary and irrational. People in 1895 woke up to find they were under the influence of strange and disagreeable desires and thwarted primitive wishes. No wonder maintaining secrecy about what was said in the consulting room needed to be assured. Of course the relationship with the analyst would become more and more intense making everyday life pale by comparison.
Freud enabled us to see the usefulness of a disciplined relationship. Thanks to his relationship with Anna O, Freud realized the deep importance of the close two-person therapeutic relationship. Freud was able to reveal the unconscious workings of the mind, finding a way to integrate distorted and cut off experiences with more rational understanding.
Fifty years later Murray Bowen wrote that Freudian theory gave him a different way of thinking about what could be seen in the transference and what might be missed.
The family movement probably began with the development of psychoanalysis, which has concepts about the ways one’s life influences another. However the basic concepts were developed from the patient’s retroactive memories about his family as remembered in the transference. The family was outside the immediate field of interest. Murray Bowen
Family Systems: A Different Focus
Bowen used to say a well-trained family therapist could get to a similar integration of a client’s life in half the time it took a psychoanalyst. If Bowen’s assumption was accurate then what questions would a systems therapist ask Anna O? How difficult would it be to shift the focus from the inner workings of her mind to eliciting her observations on the family as a system? We know a great deal about her current relationship with her father but know little about how her mother had influenced her, or if and how her mother influenced her relationship with her father? Now this is just looking at the nuclear family system. Other questions might include who in her extended family was there to be useful in her care-taking effort for her father? What would she see as the purpose of her life? What if the therapist considered breaking the conventional rules and seeing other family members? How would Freud’s viewpoint have changed if Freud worked with Anna O’s father as he did in the case of “Little Hans?”
Freud’s 1909 paper on the treatment of “Little Hans” was unique. His work with the father instead of the child is consistent with family methods in which the designated patient is not a part of the psychotherapy . Murray Bowen
Today many family therapists would put much greater focus on understanding the relationship world in which clients live. They would be curious about the types of interactions taking place in the family, including the quality and quantity of relationships maintained in the extended family. A family therapist might be wondering just how much people understand the story they are telling and how much responsibility they assume in righting relationships gone a muck.
Clearly in every era people learn to see what they have been trained to see. So how do we keep some awareness in our minds of just how much we do not know? It will always be a challenge to keep our own focus while we listen to the ideas and work of others. Bowen put it this way:
The family field is too new to have a body of knowledge about which there is general agreement. Each investigator is so immersed in his own thinking system that it is difficult for any to really hear and know the work of others. There is always inaccuracy entailed in comparing the work of one with the other.
Murray Bowen, M.D.
One of Freud’s early disciples, Carl Jung, was not satisfied with Freud’s view of the unconscious. After ending an intense five-year relationship with Freud, Jung began a sixteen-year effort to deepen dream analysis. He thought that there was a spiritual dimension to the mind and that great creativity could be unleashed and understood through dreams. Jung was the first to examine different cultures, demonstrating how ancient human memories surfaced in dreams. The similarities in various cultures indicated that there must be universal themes that Jung thought were profound gifts, increasing awareness and understanding.
My entire life consisted in elaborating what had burst forth from the unconscious and flooded me like an enigmatic stream and threatened to break me. That was the stuff and material for more than one life. Everything later was merely the outer classification, scientific elaboration, and the integration into life. But the numinous beginning, which contained everything, was then. Carl Jung
For the individual, Jung’s analysis of dreams identified where a patient was stuck in his or her growth and development. Dreams provided the deeper clues of how repressed or hidden negative or overly positive feelings were stunting one’s growth. What were people afraid of? How could the patient see the conflict and make it useful rather than a source of fear?
In one example, Jung describes a young man who dreams that his father is drunk and driving the car. Jung says that the analyst could tell the son that the dream reveals that this is your real unconscious relationship with your father, you are angry with him. However a more mature analyst would interpret the dream as useful in helping the son to see the unconscious strain he felt in separating himself from his father and becoming his own man. Instead of seeing the son as angry over this dependency, Jung preferred to allow the son to see that he needed the dream in order to see that his father was not perfect and therefore he did not have to be perfect, and was freer to become his own man.
Bowen also saw his method as being able to get at the inner psychic process through dreams as he said in the quote below.
After a relatively brief period with family therapy, therapists saw that this method [family therapy] could do anything that was possible with individual therapy, plus much more. If the goal was to analyze the transference, then every nuance that might come to light in the transference was vividly present in living detail in all ready-existing family relationships. If the goal was to get at the family members’ inter-psychic process through dreams then one had only to analyze the dreams of that family member – and obtain the added dividend of the thoughts and fantasy reactions to the dream.
Questions from a Systems Perspective
A family therapist might also see or hear that the son and the father have a reciprocal relationship where one of the two was more impinged upon than the other. Instead of just working on the two-person relationship, a family view would bring in the nuclear family triangle, the mother, father and son, and see how the threesome functioned. In addition a multigenerational history would indicate how past efforts to separate from parents had occurred. It is a different world-view to consider how any two people act towards one other in the light of the other important relationships surrounding them.
A three generational history would allow one to see how the failures and fears or cut off from others in the past can underlie the problems in the present. Cut off from past generations leads to increasing focus on the next generation thereby intensifying the sensitivity in relationships between parents and children. It’s almost like the child has to make up for past failures. The inability to separate from the father is often a function of the cut off from past generations. Being able to comprehend a broader view allows us to consider more options about the influence of the multigenerational forces in any child’s development.
Freud as a Family Analyst:
Some say Freud was also the first family therapist since he analyzed his daughter, Anna Freud. It may have improved his relationship with her but it did not lead to a look at the multigenerational system. However, Anna determined that psychoanalysis should provide a framework to understand relationships. She embarked on studying children’s relationships with teachers. During the war Freud and his family were forced to flee to England. It was here that Anna Freud began working with war orphans. She observed that children made psychological gains when they were able to establish meaningful relationships with teachers, most predictably when they chose the teacher. This work is known as “The Hampstead War Nursery” research. She told her father that many children suffering from the loss of parents made strides without analysis.
Anna Freud’s research findings were not easily integrated into the way the analysts had been taught. There was no transference relationship. The problems of the child were not directly focused on. This was very different than the value placed on the imagination of the patients and their problems. Her broader vision met resistance in the analytic community. Freud did not know how much weight to give this new information vs. his own clinical data, therefore he left it to future generations to sort out the implications of seemingly conflicting data.
Anna Freud noted: “If you want to be a real psychoanalyst you have to have a great love of the truth, scientific truth as well as personal truth, and you have to place this appreciation of truth higher than any discomfort at meeting unpleasant facts, whether they belong to the world outside or to your own inner person.”
This focus on the parent-child relationship continues today as psychiatrists at the Menninger institute, where Bowen was trained, continue to work with the Anna Freud Center at the University College of London (UCL).
John Bowlby – Evolution and Attachment Theory
Anna Freud gave her support to John Bowlby who was also investigating the mother-child relationship by observing the relationships not just hearing about them. Bowlby went beyond the confines of Freudian theory and connected his observations of parental behavior to evolutionary theory. One of his discoveries was that there are relationship mechanisms in all mammals promoting attachment to a parenting figure and that we humans are similar to other mammals in our need for attachment. The function of these mechanisms he said is to promote the survival of the child. This was a very different explanation of attachment than found in psychoanalytic theory at the time.
In addition Bowlby replaced introspection with a more objective observation of the two-person relationship. He noted that those who maintained close connections with caretakers increased their chances of survival.
In his lifetime Bowlby was marginalized, but today attachment theory has become popular. It does not expand into the multigenerational family nor does it address the many triangles and coalitions within the nuclear family but it does connect human behavior with the instincts that guide other species.
To Bowlby, the inner world gave clues about how humans constructed mental models of relationship influences that were useful in adult life. Bowlby joins the long list of those who have the ability to make important discoveries but who fail to convince the general public. He left us with the idea that observation of relationships within a theory grounded in evolutionary principles has much to teach us.
Harry Stack Sullivan
Sullivan was the first psychiatrist to clarify how one’s personality was a result of ongoing interpersonal relationships. As you recall, psychoanalysis originally saw the mind of the individual as “the problem”. It was through free associations and dreams that the confusion of our inner world was revealed and people in families communicated.
Sullivan described how anxiety and our need for security skewed our perceptions and therefore our relationships and communications with others. It was the anxiety-ridden situations in which individuals found themselves that perpetuated “unfortunate actions”. To understand one’s plight, he advised his patients to become co-researchers or participant observers. Patients would take careful notes as they observed themselves in real life anxious situations.
Sullivan believed that most two-person relationships are skewed by misperceptions. He noted there are also internal mechanisms that automatically distort reality allowing us to project onto others our own issues and anxieties. One clear and present danger, Sullivan noted, is the automatic way we make errors about “the other fellow.”
Perry, his biographer, noted that Sullivan’s own experiences influenced the development of his theory. “One can imagine the family explanation given to Harry when he was older: Your mother was very ill when you were two and a half, she wasn’t well at all, so you went to live with your grandmother, and she took care of you. She used to put a spider at the top of the stairway going down to the cellar and so Sullivan became deathly afraid of spiders and wouldn’t go near the steps.” Sullivan’s experience of a schizophrenic episode was linked to his history and to his later penetrating insights and gift for understanding schizophrenic psychosis.
Sullivan’s research showed how our deeply personal views of “reality”, our stories, could be altered in on-going relationship by focusing on our strengths. He objected to the diagnostic (and pathological) focus in psychiatry as misleading and negative. By looking at communicating as the primary way to promote peace and well being, Sullivan noted we could find ways to enhance our ability to understand one another.
Sullivan researched schizophrenia at Sheppard Pratt Hospital near Washington, DC. He showed how the interactions between people became fixed as a series of interlocking behaviors. These “I-You” behaviors were meant to elicit a specific response, a function of rigid patterns left over from childhood. Sullivan died in 1949.
Communication Theory: Theodore Lidtz , M.D., Gregory Bateson, and Don Jackson, M.D.
Meanwhile in 1949 Theodore Litz, was at John Hopkins University School of Medicine doing research describing the make up of families with a schizophrenic member. He saw 50 families, noting that only 5 had what he called favorable home environments. 20 famiy members had lost a parent at an early age and many of these people had mental problems. In addition 33 had parents who were incompatible in their marriage. 18 were raised in a bizarre way. Litz’s research focused on events causing the trauma leading to mental illness.
By 1957 Litz altered the focus of his research, looking more closely at how parents were communicating in a wide range of families. While Freud was often seen as blaming the mother, this research identified five patterns of pathological fathering. Lidz pointed out that while marital discord, with each parent undermining the worth of the other, existed in so-called normal families; better functioning parents had ways of coming back into contact with each other.
Litz noted that in pathological situations it is almost as though the parents are fighting over the children and the children are trying to gain parental sympathy or attention and as a result, the system (and symptom) becomes fixed.
Bowen’s Summery on the Field of Family Therapy
In his 1977 book Bowen summarized what he saw in the field of family therapy as it increased in popularity in the period after WW II.
“By the 1940’s there was an increasing use of casework for the relatives of adult patients in individual psychotherapy. Ackerman, who had been thinking family for many years, began writing in the mid fifties. Bell in 1951 heard about individual psychotherapy for family members while visiting a clinic in England. He devised a method that he put into clinical operation. Most of the generators came from psychoanalytic backgrounds. Almost no child psychiatrists have been associated with the family movement.
Family research appears to have been motivated by the search for more effective treatment methods after WW II. The strict admonition against contaminating the transference relationship may have accounted for the isolation of the early work and the slowness to report this supposedly unacceptable practice in the literature. Clinical observations of the entire family together provided a whole new spectrum of clinical patterns never really seen before.
The great majority of therapists think in terms of individual psychopathology and of the therapeutic relationship as the modality for emotional growth. The systems therapist thinks of systems in terms of disordered family relationships and of therapy as a way to help the families restore relationships and achieve better communications or a higher level of differentiation.” Murray Bowen
Communication and the Social Situation
Gregory Bateson was an anthropologist, investigating communication patterns in humans, dolphins and even octopuses. He thought that any animal with enough mental complexity would have to deal with complex messages from the environment.
Bateson received a grant to study communication patterns in 1952, enlisting Jay Haley and John Weakand to work with him. In 1954 he received a grant from the Macy Foundation and hired Don Jackson. They began the Palo Alto Group, publishing in 1956 the Double Bind Theory of Schizophrenia.
Their hypothesis was that when a vulnerable child receives conflicting or double message, the effort to find a way to communicate with the parent leads to great frustration since there is no way to answer a command that is contradictory. For example, a mother gives her son two shirts. When the son wears the green one she says “you didn’t like the blue one?” The next day the son wears the blue one and his mother says, “you didn’t like the green one?” The son believes that the only solution to get along with his mother is to wear both shirts. His actions get him labeled as the crazy one.
The way the authority person communicates forces the other individual into a panic or a rage because they cannot solve the problem and they cannot escape this “relationship field.”
The problem of conflicting messages led the authors to an investigation of paradox in which people believe they must do things, which are impossible or unsolvable. For example, parents know they must feed children. But what do they do if they have no money and they are not allowed to steal? People can solve this by deciding that feeding their children is more important than not stealing.
Things get dicey when you look at the language of suffering people. They may claim very firmly, “I just drink to relax and I can not help it if it upsets you, that is your problem.” Another tricky one is “I might kill myself but I do not intend to hurt anyone.”
Clearly paradox involves two conflicting messages in which following one of the messages means you fail to understand and follow the other injunction or message.
In the nineteen sixties, therapists began developing methods of therapy that were focused on undoing the paradox. For example, a child comes to the therapist with a history of physical symptoms. The child takes the position. “Help me, but I’m not going to let you help me.” The parent or the therapist sees that no matter what he/she does he/she will fail to alter the symptom in the child/patient. The paradoxical injunction would be to say that the only option is the child must live with the pain. In this way the child can not ask for or refuse help, therefore the over-helping and or blackmailing game is stopped. This requires the therapist to step outside the relationship between the parent and child, for example, to examine the rules that set the stage for the way they communicate.
I like to think of this skill as rather like a chess game. When the pawn attacks you have to know the rules for all the pieces, how they got where they are and what they might be able to do next. It is not just about the move of one individual pawn or the literal message that is sent. Those who see the whole board and know the rules of the game understand that there is a history to the game and that one’s moves are informed by knowledge and experience.
This is a very brief overview of conflicting messages and how innocently people begin to live in frustrating relationships and how it is we can reflect rather than react to the literal meaning of messages we receive.
Jackson developed the most comprehensive approach to a theory of communication and was the only person Bowen said was a family theorist. Bateson and Jackson were also making an effort to tie the human’s way of learning with other mammals. They knew the difficulty people face when confronted with mixed messages. For example, the message, to stay home followed by go out to be successful, is confusing and seems impossible to do both. We are all familiar with the command to think for yourself but if you love me you would not do x, y or z.
They saw that by initially rewarding an animal to do the right thing, and then rewarding the animal in an inconsistent way, that the animals would display very unusual behavior. Frustrating people in a thoughtful way can lead to great creativity and freedom but without thought, frustration can lead to destructive interactions.
There may be no greater challenge than to make sense of distorted or intense, highly conflicted and emotional talk. We may be bombarded with mixed messages or polarizing statements such as you are with me or against me, or one of us is going to die. Many of there messages make no rational sense but upon reflection we can see and feel the frustration that is bound up in irrationality. Anxious people talk all around the bush. They can not say what they do not know so they hint at it. The listener becomes frustrated too. Often all this happens in intense interactions, with no time to reflect on the meaning of the words or where they the people who are suppose to be in a relationship. But what kind of relationship can be achieved when there is great doubt and frustration? The situation deteriorates; one still has a bit of a choice.
Is it possible to break this chain of frustrating interactions? Is it possible to move to a higher level of conversation? Is it possible to loosely relate to the words or the meaning you sense that the other is trying to convey? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, you have room to breath, to think and to communicate. This is one way to consider not being caught in frustration by the spin of words and anxious feelings generated in relationships during anxious times.
People did not really understand what Bateson was saying. They heard a small part of his thinking and made assumptions, which most people do. Some heard Bateson blaming the mother for all the problems of the children. They could not hear the difficulty and frustration in understanding how to communicate. People could not understand Bateson’s thinking about a system of interactions that over time is capable of producing predictable symptoms.
My thesis is that only those who find a way to observe without judgment and learn to see “what is,” are able to take a new position in regard to old problems and challenging relationships.
Murray Bowen see a Different Way of Being
Murray Bowen, M.D., had left medical school intending to become a heart surgeon, but WW II intervened. Serving in the Army, he could not help but note that most of the problems the troops experienced were mental rather than physical. The staggering numbers of suffering soldiers attracted his interest. Little was known about helping soldiers recover. How was it that some could handle the stress while others experienced major breakdowns? What made some more resilient than others? Bowen knew that here was a field, psychiatry, which was wide open to new ideas and discovery.
To discover answers, Dr. Bowen began a psychiatric residency at The Menninger Clinic, founded in Topeka, Kansas, in 1919 by Karl Menninger and his father, Charles Frederick. Bowen began his analytic training, soon realizing that many of Freud’s ideas, interesting as they were, were not grounded in science. Dr. Bowen asked himself the question: “What would make the study of human behavior move closer toward an accepted science?”
For Dr. Bowen there was too much subjectivity in both the patients’ stories and in the many ways the therapists interpreted them, to form a scientific foundation for human behavior. At this time he was reading widely in the other sciences and was struck by the way Darwin defined emotion in animals and man. This opened a door for Bowen to find a basis for his theory about human behavior in the biological sciences.
As part of his research at Menninger, Bowen began to bring in family members of the patients he was working with. This allowed him to see a different kind of data, which was at odds with a psychoanalytic view. Bowen wanted to move to a more formal research setting but realized he first he had to extricate himself from the relationships he had at Menninger. It took him time to manage those relationships and to be free to move to Washington, D.C. He designed a research project focusing on families who had a child with schizophrenia. He conducted research with these families at The National Institutes of Health between 1956 and 1960. As Bowen notes below, he began looking at the mother-child relationship and soon expanded that to observing the whole nuclear family as a system. He also observed how the families interacted with the staff and noted what happened as he changed the rules of the staff-patient interactions.
Bowen focused his effort on toning down what some saw as a power struggle or controlling the other, but Bowen saw the mother child tugging at one another. If the staff would not take sides one of the parents would begin to stop tugging at the other and begin defining him or her self to the family system. Bowen noted it took decreasing the blame and increasing the focus on one’s own behavior for change to occur. Some of this we hear in the Bowen quote below.
Important assumptions from psychoanalysis: mother was emotionally unable to give up growing child in later years. This one child might fulfill the mothers emotional needs sufficiently so that her other children would not be as incorporated. The relationship was conceptualized as locked in responsiveness that required the complete submission of one for the comfort of the other, and that neither of them wanted this self-perpetuating enigma in which either could block the effort of the other to free self.
The hypothesis further stated that the patient’s life growth force had been blunted in this intense relationships relationship and that the growth force could be freed in a specific therapeutic milieu that toned down the tugging between mother and patient.
This hypothesis was designed to help the therapist understand the mother patient relationship as natural phenomena for which no one is blamed, even by inference.
Murray Bowen NIH to Georgetown University
The staff was required to stop diagnosing family members and to begin describing how each relationship formed. The staff began looking at the process in the relationships: who, when and where did someone become anxious and who was calm. They learned to describe these shifts in the functioning of different family members. Bowen observed that if none of the staff would solve the patient’s problems then one of the family members would emerge as a leader.
In describing the emergence of the leader he noted that often a family leader would rise up after a predictable time of testing. First, the family members would try to get the staff to provide the answers to their problems. Only after the family was sure there was no outside help coming, would a leader emerge from within.
After leaving NIMH Dr. Bowen went to Georgetown University where he had the time and motivation to develop his theory to explain how the human family operates as a system. The cornerstone of his theory is the individual’s level of emotional maturity or differentiation of self.
Overall he noted that a family leader has to become a more separate person to be able to make and stick to difficult decisions, which will often be opposed. To lead, one cannot be too dependent on the love and approval of others. Those who could not separate out a self from the demands and expectations of others were not able to manage the family or group anxiety.
Once a person becomes overly sensitized, fused (or confused) by others, he or she becomes a part of the family clump or the family’s “group mind”. This vulnerability to fuse and be confused with others is extended into one’s relationships with people outside the family. This process can be easily seen in extreme cases, such as how little ability people have to think or be for self in cults. In these extreme cases no individual has a mind apart from the group.
The opposite of a fused self is a more differentiated self. A person who is a more mature, better-defined self has the capacity to consider others’ points of view while making their own decisions based on principles. They are more aware and mindful of the forces surrounding them and able to define themselves as different from others in the group. The evidence is seen in how the person says, “This is who I am, this is what I believe, what I stand for, and this is what I will or will not do in any given situation.”
Dr. Bowen pointed out that the degree of anxiety people experience when changes occur (in their jobs, their marriages, their family structures) has to do with how well people were able to separate from their family of origin, in particular their nuclear family. There is a correlation between how people manage self in close family relationships and how successfully an individual emerges as a leader and manages him or herself in any human gathering.
Dr. Bowen wrote that if “. . .individuals’ intellectual functioning can retain relative autonomy in periods of stress, they are more flexible, more adaptable and more independent of the emotionality around them.”
Eight Concepts in Bowen Theory
The cornerstone of Bowen theory is the eight 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. The understanding of any family system requires the deep knowledge of the emotional, biological and environmental influences that every individual has had to adapt to over many generations.
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 on individual members 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. It is divided into four quadrants to reflect the various levels of self in relationship to the surrounding pressure from others.
2. The nuclear family: This concept describes four relationship patterns that manage anxiety and govern where problems develop or are located in a family. They are (a) marital conflict, (b) dysfunction in one spouse, (c) impairment of one or more children and/or (d) emotional distance between individuals.
3. Family projection process: This concept describes the way parents transmit their emotional problems to a child. Some parents have great trouble separating from the child. They imagine how the child is, rather than having a realistic appraisal 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 on 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 the parents disappointed them). Toman’s research showed that spouses’ sibling positions, when mismatched, often increase the likelihood of divorce.
6. Triangles: A triangle is a three-person relationship system. It is considered the “molecule” of larger emotional systems because it is the smallest stable relationship system. A triangle can manage more tension than a 2-person relationship as tension shifts among the three individuals in the triangle. Triangles can exert social control by putting one on the outside or bringing in an outsider when tension escalates between two individuals. Increasing the number of triangles can also stabilize tension that’s spreading to many individuals and triangles. Marital therapy in family systems theory uses the triangle 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, promoting both progressive and regressive periods in societies.
Murray Bowen is the only psychiatrist so far to have left us a complete theory of the family as an emotional system. The evidence of the emotional system, which he collected as data on several families who lived at the National Institute of Mental Health, is currently archived at the National Library of Medicine (NLM) in Washington, DC. Also archived at the NLM are over fifteen years of videotapes of his monthly coaching sessions with two families.
Researchers will be able to interpret his research and interactions with these families in the light of future knowledge, just as we have done with the data from Freud. The fact that each of us has family and culturally trained eyes will not change. What can change is how we think about and relate to others through the accumulation of knowledge.
Even in some far off distant future it will still be automatic for most people to think, “I see the truth and I am right and you are wrong.” These people are lost in the bushes. They will continue to follow the herd, reacting and blaming one another with little awareness of how human nature spins its web. When people focus on other people as “the problem” the relationship blinders are on and it is extremely difficult to make progress. Once people begin to be aware of the system surrounding them it becomes second nature to see and alter one’s part in ongoing problems. There is a bit of relief in both seeing we are playing some part in problems that bother us and in knowing we can become more objective about how mother natures functions and decrease the impulse to blame. In this way we begin to see the “thing in the bushes”.
 The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud
Translated by A. A. Brill (1911)
 Freud: Five Lectures on Psychoanalysis,(Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, James Strachey (Editor), Peter Gay (Introduction) 1990
 The Red Book (2009). Sonu Shamdasani. ed. Liber Novus. Carl Jung Translated by Mark Kyburz, John Peck and Shamdasani; introduced by Shamdasani. Philemon Series & W.W. Norton & Co. (Quote found on the back cover)
 Dreams, C.G. Jung, Translated by R.F.C. Hull, P. 103
 Anna Freud: A Biography. Young-Bruehl, Elisabeth (1988). New York: Summit Books
 A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development, John Bowlby, 1990
7) Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology by Gregory Bateson, 2000
8) Pragmatics of Human Communication: A Study of Interactional Patterns, Pathologies, and Paradoxes, Paul Watzlawick , Janet Helmick Beavin, Don D. Jackson
9) Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, Murray Bowen