Interview with Roberta Gilbert, MD: How to see a family emotional system

One question of historical importance is how Dr. Bowen managed himself to influence people to be able to think differently about what is a family emotional system and how do we participate in them?

I have published a few of a series of interviews with those who were influenced by Dr.Bowen.

This newest interview is with  Roberta Gilbert, M.D.  I asked her to reflect on how her relationship with Dr. Bowen influenced her life and her understanding of Bowen Theory.

I have known Robbie Gilbert since nineteen eighty when she first came to the Family Center.  In this interview you can hear just how Bowen used himself to provoke her to question how she understood emotional systems.

From a theoretical perspective the greatest challenge is to see one’s self as part in an emotional system and to be able to take actions to become more separate from the pushes and pulls of these systems. Bowen had a unique way of enabling people to step outside their own system and to see it differently.

Dr. Gilbert is the founding director of the Center for the Study of Human Systems and is on the faculty of the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family (formerly Georgetown Family Center).  She is a life fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.  In addition she is the author of five books that deal with applying Bowen theory to life.

Interview with Roberta Gilbert April 12, 2012

AMS- Thank you for taking some time to reflect on your relationship with Dr. Bowen and the place of Bowen theory in the world of ideas and in particular in psychiatry and mental health.

RG- My interest in family goes back to the mid 1960s.  At that time I read something about research and family in Life Magazine.  I was in my residency and was intrigued by the ideas. At some point I asked my chief psychiatrist, who was a psychoanalyst, about learning family and he said, “Maybe you should learn about group therapy first.  It is less complicated.  Then you can learn about family.  If you can find someone on the faculty to teach group, you may start a group.”

Since my chief was a psychoanalyst, family was very antithetical to his world.  No psychoanalyst would ever talk to family members because that was against the ethics of the times.

However I did find a faculty member, Dr. Larry Behan, MD, who had been trained in group therapy who agreed to be my supervisor and work with me.  He asked that I have a co therapist. A good friend of mine, Bob Goldstein, MD, agreed to be my co therapist and was a resident as well.  This was to become the first group psychotherapy at University of Buffalo medical school in the mid 1960’s.

The next contact I had with the field was probably in the early 1970’s at the

American Psychiatry Association’s Annual Meeting where people from Georgetown were presenting.

I listened to Dr. Bowen and then decided to speak to him. I went up to Dr. Bowen and said to him, “But you don’t understand my family. When I try to tell them about anything or about my problems, they just look at me and say we will pray for you, Robbie.”  Bowen just scratched his head and looked down at the ground and when he finally did speak he said, “I knew a guy like that once… and he never did very well.”  I wondered for a while what he meant by that and then later on in life I figured out that what he had done was put the problem back on me where it belonged.

AMS- I would call that a trick, maybe. Perhaps that was the first trick to make you think.

RG- I understood that no part of Bowen Family Systems theory is more important than another, but some concepts were harder to grasp. I could hear about cut off but of course I wasn’t cut off.  Eventually I could see I was. So in my practice I began to teach about cut off and I was getting these magnificent results from people who were able to understand.

To find out more about the theory I went to the Menninger Clinic for two years to take their family therapy course.  Eventually I met Dr. Don Schulburg, who came to Kansas City as a part of Menninger to teach Bowen theory and open a clinic there.

Then in 1980 I decided to come to Georgetown and study at the Center.

I commuted for five years. I had begun to write Extraordinary Relationships at the insistence of my brother.  As I had told him about what I was learning he said, “Robbie, this would be a wonderful book.”  And he kept on me about it. It took me about six months to write a first draft, and then I read it and realized it was no good.  Even after all the time I had spent at Georgetown I still didn’t really understand family.

Therefore I decided to have a meeting with Dr. Bowen. I talked to him and said, “What would you think about my moving to Georgetown? I’d like to immerse myself in what’s going on here at Georgetown.”

By this time he knew that I had written a first draft of my book.  In addition I was trying to get a one-to-one relationship with each of my siblings and my parents.  I had a one-to-one with my one brother but my father had a tendency to be harsh and critical of me. I needed to know more. So I said to Bowen, “If you don’t think it’s a good idea I’ll stay in Kansas City, and if you do I’m prepared to move here.” Dr. Bowen gave me the green light.  I moved and six years later Extraordinary Relationships was published.

I met with Dr. Bowen about once a month until shortly before his death.  A lot of people have said what a cold personality he had and how cold the theory was. I did not experience him that way.  I experienced him as warm and friendly. He had a big warm smile whenever I came to see him about life’s dilemmas. I would ask him questions about his theory and he quickly told me it was not his personal theory. Bowen told me his goal had been to fashion an impersonal theory and to give the theory to the world.

I read his paper on his own family and did not understand it.  So one day I went to see him and said, “Dr. Bowen I don’t understand this thing of triangles. I understand that the anxiety moves around from person to person in a family. I was curious about how triangles worked in your effort.”  Bowen said when you’re with people you think about the triangles, and put them together with the others in your talking.  I realize that what he had done was to get on the outside by putting the other two family members together. Then, if they could resolve their issues then you would be more on the outside of the fusion.

AMS- So it seems like Bowen starts out sometimes with people perhaps being kind of indirect and eventually he clarifies very directly?

RG- Yes, we started out in a rocky way, scratching our heads at each other and then eventually it was straight and direct.

AMS- It seems like a very useful way to enable people to think for self.  The idea I get is that if you’re going to work on yourself and then if you can ask him honest questions, Bowen is more direct and tells it to you straight.

RG- Bowen and I addressed many theoretical questions. One of the first tasks I had to do was to reconnect with my family, parents and siblings. My father had a tendency to be critical and harsh with me. I would defend myself and explain things but none of that ever worked.  Finally, I was able to say, and really mean it, “Dad, I know you see it that way but I don’t.”  After that I don’t think he was critical of me like that again.  Before we got to that point I had to see my emotional contribution, and change it.  Overall, it is slow and painstaking work, which we all do to get into better relationship with people.

A few years later I had an opportunity to sit with my mother and just be. Probably this is a familiar idea to those who are working on self.  I had evaluated my relationship with my mother and it seemed kind of distant. I felt closer to my father. Then an opportunity came up for me to be closer to her around my parents deciding to move into a retirement community.  It was going to be near my brother but my mother was up in arms about it and very emotional.  She just did not want to go.  So I decided to go be with them and just be present. I had some principles as guidelines and I spent a few days there with her. I was not going to make any kind of a decision for them.  My brother had stepped up and said he would like for them to move near him but my mother was still reacting.

Finally, they were able to go and see the place that my brother wanted them to live in.  They didn’t want to live with me.  My brother found an ideal place. And as soon as my mother went there and saw it she loved it. They lived there for several years. Mom died at 91 and my dad at 97.

AMS- Bowen noted in his book that when he was teaching psychiatric residents only about 25% of the residents would get interested in the extended family and work on those relationships. I was wondering if he directly talked to you about going to visit your extended family and having person-to-person relationships with your parents and siblings or if he was more indirect about this.

RG- I would ask him questions about theory and then I would figure stuff out for myself.  My parents were such a “oneness” on the phone, it was like talking to one person.  Theory told me to get a one to one. I don’t think Bowen told me to do it. When I went for a family visit, then I could get time with each one separately.

AMS- Did Bowen talk to you directly about the triangle with your parents?

RG- I don’t remember if he did but I think I just figured it out from studying, and asking him questions about the theory.

AMS- I remember in your book, Extraordinary Relationships, you wrote about the transition from thinking Freudian, as an inner psychic theory, to thinking broadly about natural systems. I was wondering if this transition in thinking was a privilege or a burden for you in relationship to the other people you knew in psychiatry?

RG- I put myself right in the middle of the family world by moving to Georgetown and after that it (the conflict with analysis) really wasn’t a problem. I didn’t have that much contact with other psychoanalysts. Family systems were in my thinking and I had to deal with the reactions as part of all that I had to learn.

AMS- Now you’re thinking about writing a book of guidelines for therapists?

RG- People have asked me to write something for therapists. I would like to do that.  As we are speaking we are also attending a conference sponsored by the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family. It features both therapists and scientists looking at the brain and family relationships. This morning we heard a talk about a whole family moving to another level of functioning by someone who has also studied the family and worked on self for years. You never see anything like this in psychoanalysis. Here, over the years, I have seen many people present on well thought out efforts to move self to another level of maturity and then the whole family changes.

I saw this with my son.  He was a painter at forty years of age.  Now he wants to get his PhD and be a Bowen therapist.

Today, at the conference, Mark Flinn suggested that we gather all these stories from people whose lives have been changed in such dramatic ways because this is a body of scientific facts. (See foot note on Flinn’s talk at the conference) ]

Bowen said he went to NIH to see if his theory was accurate.  There he could study the family living together in a hospital for years.

The question is how can we bring all these hundreds of people’s stories together to become a body of knowledge?  How could we gather up retrospective studies, in the experiences of these therapists that demonstrate that theory is scientific?

If people know enough theory to better manage self, then they will see a different outcome. There is no other theory that can describe how to manage self, as well as Bowen theory, in my opinion.

I think we have to get the word out not to just therapists but to the public.  Readers contact me with questions and I hope they continue to do so. I know Bowen did not show any harshness. He was supportive and he got whole faculty to read my first book and give me ideas.

AMS- I hear your ideas about the future and the responsibility you have to let people know what you have seen and experienced.  If other things come up we can meet again.  Thank you very much.

Hormones in the Wild: Mother-Child Synchrony to Coalitionary Bonds – Mark Flinn, PhD.
Results from a longitudinal study of family relationships indicate that synchrony of mother-infant hormone profiles is associated with subsequent child health and other developmental outcomes. We are interested in the process of entrainment in family relationships and the ramifications for the coalitionary behaviors of humans.

Dr. Gilbert’s Books and Web Site:

Extraordinary Relationships: A New Way of Thinking About Human Interactions by Roberta M. Gilbert (Dec 6, 2006)


The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory by Roberta M. Gilbert (Feb 28, 2004)


Extraordinary Leadership: Thinking Systems, Making a Difference by Roberta M. Gilbert (Dec 15, 2006)

The Cornerstone Concept by Roberta M. Gilbert (Oct 1, 2008)

Connecting With Our Children: Guiding Principles for Parents in a Troubled World by Roberta M. Gilbert (May 15, 1999)



One comment

  1. This is an outstanding interview. Great questions and very thoughtful answers. It reminds us how hard this work is, how much it is about doing the work and how important a good coach can be. There is little magic here. Just good thinking guided by theory. Thanks to both Andrea and Roberta for this interview.

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