Where Now Family…… Therapy?

One day an email arrived at The Murray Bowen Archives Project, TMBAP,  http://www.murraybowenarchives.org asking if someone would please write an article for the American Association for Marriage and Family therapy magazine, AAMFT.


The request from Kim Bryce, the senior editor, was to discuss the foundations of the field from the viewpoint of where family therapy is today compared to its early roots.


Photo by Andrea Schara 1978

Questions were: how did Bowen impacted the field, what aspects of his model are still in use today, and what interventions or approaches came from Bowen’s original work? Basically, how did he help shape what the field is today?

In addition, what would the founders think of the way Marriage and Family Therapy is practiced today. Has the field grown in a way that the pioneers would have expected or have we strayed far from the early visions of Family Therapy?

What an opportunity!

I quickly volunteered to write an article. My main idea was to have different individuals represent where they had taken Bowen’s ideas in order to draw attention to the importance of differences.  This might be one way to communicate thoughtfully about the differences in the field of mental health that persist and undermine progress today.

As in many fields tribal boundaries are set up by the different approaches to serious problems.  These differences can create divisions as to how we think about and treat emotional problems.  People can object to the word “emotional” and insist that you refer to mental health, and so it goes.

 The roots of family therapy go back to the early family researchers who began to clarify a system view of human behavior, after WW II. Mental health was the main casualty veterans suffered from after the war. In the 1950s, congress funded the National Institute of Mental Health. One of the initial researchers, Murray Bowen, M.D. was hired to research schizophrenia in the family.  Enough evidence had been found to implicate family dynamics and to warrant further study. At the same time, new drugs appeared, which treated the individual and reduced symptoms, but did not alter the social system around the person. And here we have mostly been ever since.

Bowen went in a far different direction from his early training in psychoanalysis. Instead of the individual being the focus, the basic unit of emotional functioning he saw as residing in the multigenerational family system.  Known as family system theory, Bowen connected human behavior to biology and evolution rather than to Freud’s use of metaphors and Greek myths.  Family systems theory became a small part of a larger field of marriage and family therapy. Bowen was the only one to develop a theory of individual functioning within the larger multigenerational family.  His focus was more on coaching one person to become the family leader thereby altering the family system.  This did not appeal to insurance companies.

Since the fifties, the numbers of professional interested in the family has increased yet the focus of main stream mental health remains on the individual.  This should not be too shocking since this is the direction that the family as an emotional unit takes. The family unit tends to worry about or blame one person thereby missing the system.  One person often has far more social pressure or neglect than others.  Just how the family unit manages anxiety, is not a part of conventional individual based psychotherapy.

Today the American Psychiatric Association has about 36,000 members. The American Psychological Association has about 77,000 members. The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) represent 50,000 marriage and family therapists, possibly there may be a couple of thousand individuals who have been trained in Family systems theory.

Below you can explore the different directions a few individuals have taken to move family systems theory along. I deeply appreciate those who had the time to write up where they have taken the ideas from Bowen’s original work.


Bowen, an oldest son of five, was a born observer of human behavior. Growing up in Waverley, Tennessee, his parents ran the local mortuary, allowing him to observe how families function after a death. After WW II, he saw many psychological wounds and became interested in psychiatry training at Menninger.

Taking careful notes on the impact relationships had on behavior, he saw how relationship shifts changed how people thought and acted. Selected as the first family researcher on schizophrenia at NIMH in 1956, he hospitalized several families for observation, asking the staff to discuss the relationship issues they, the staff had. The families could listen in and all records were open.  This research structure required the staff to focus on the strength of families and not to diagnose and tell others what to do, but to focus on self’s part in any problem. This coaching method enables family members to become more responsible and decreases the fusion between people.

Bowen based his theory in evolution and said he had merely pointed in a direction. The human family is part of evolution.   It has its reasons to survive just as the individual does. This opens the door to the unequal distribution of anxiety in social groups.  We have evolved to act for the benefit of the group, especially when under social pressure. Our feelings and thinking are always interacting but not always informing us accurately because there are hidden influences, blindsiding us.

The field of family therapy still credits Bowen for introducing the family diagram, the ideas around transmission of problems into future generations, triangles, sibling position and emotional cut off.  More difficult are the ideas that 1) the family is an emotional unit governing the behavior of its members; and 2) that differentiation is a way for motivated individuals to define a problem, take a position and get outside the emotional system, while staying in contact with others, thereby allowing the system itself to change.

There is a large national and international network of people who are interested in Bowen theory. Possibly the best way to understand where Bowen Theory has gone in the years since Bowen death in 1990 is to see where people have taken the theory.

Laurie Lassiter: In recent years, there has been more and more interaction between Bowen theory and the life sciences.  In addition, scientific discoveries suggest avenues for evidence for the theory, including in areas of neuroscience, animal behavior, and epigenetics.   One of the most important issues for the theory is its predictability.  Once trained in the theory, it is fairly easy to see in retrospect how family influences our productivity; relationships, including those outside the family; our physical health; and our overall well-being.  Once research breaks through to demonstrate the ability of the theory to predict the future–how the family determines the individual life course within limits–Bowen theory will gain mainstream interest.  In some ways, the current time, without the pressure of popularity, may be an especially rich period of development of the theory.  People who encounter the theory and seriously apply it to their own lives are often amazed at its power.  The theory makes possible a lifelong effort, as there is always something to work on, to increase differentiation of self, as relationships with others become more open, more free, more long-lasting, and more enjoyable.

Laurie Lassiter is in private practice, author of articles on Bowen theory, including:  2011 “Others,” in Chimeras and Consciousness. Ed. Lynn Margulis. MIT Press: an effort to communicate Bowen family systems theory to biologists.

2007 “The Regulatory Function of Triangles,” in Triangles: Bowen Family Systems Perspectives. Ed. Peter Titelman. Haworth Press.

Currently transcribing tapes of individuals’ sessions with Dr. Bowen to be edited for a book on his coaching.  Present at conferences, webcasts, working on several writing projects including her Triangle Hypothesis.  She organizes two online writing groups on Bowen theory, including FEST, a four-times-a-year opportunity to submit and read writing, and a Lunch Hour writing group.

Paul McLean.jpg
Photo by Andrea Schara – In keeping with Bowen’s turn toward evolution here is a photo of Bowen and Paul MacLean.  The triune brain is a model of the evolution of the vertebrate forebrain and behavior, proposed by the American physician and neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean. MacLean originally formulated his model in the 1960s and propounded it at length in his 1990 book The Triune Brain in Evolution.

Laura Havstad, Ph.D., I continue to lead Programs in Bowen Theory in Sonoma County in it’s 28th year.  We have a training seminar for mental health professionals, consultants, and clergy and educational conferences for professionals and the community on Bowen theory and it’s applications regarding current topics in biology, clinical science and practice, and emotional process in society. Along with leaders of other programs in Bowen theory I participate in a national network that meets twice a year in which more than a dozen leaders of similar programs work towards the advancement of Bowen theory.  I am working on papers for publication on a reliable method and a parsimonious framework for looking at shifts in the family emotional system as they affect the functioning and chronic anxiety of family members and changes in their symptoms. The goal is to contribute the ability to assess and control for the family system effects in clinical research occurring in the mainstream of the clinical sciences.   The same framework will serve as an organizing structure for developing a knowledge base of family systems data to be developed for family system researchers, particularly for those with hypotheses based in Bowen theory, in conjunction with the Princeton Family Center.  I am publishing a paper in a volume edited by Peter Titleman and Sydney Reed on Death and Loss in the Family making a connection between the trajectories of resilience that emerged out of the research of George Bonnano and his associates, and the shifts in the family system, as Bowen theory predicts following death and loss as anxiety is redistributed in the family system.

Victoria Harrison, LMFT, uses the concepts in Bowen theory and the methodology described in Bowen’s writing and teaching to work with individuals and families where symptoms impact health and reproduction.  Her research and writing focuses on the family emotional system as part of evolution, the biological nature of family relationships, and the difference Bowen theory makes in psychotherapy practice.  One person alters self and the system changes.  This is a completely different method for reducing symptoms in a multigenerational system.  She serves on the faculty of The Bowen Center and directs Center for the Study of Natural Systems and the Family in Houston, Texas where she also maintains a clinical practice using biofeedback and neurofeedback for self-regulation in family systems psychotherapy.  She teaches nation-wide and internationally.  Her articles can be found in Family Systems Forum, the journal Family Systems and in other medical and mental health publications.

This is year four of an Observations of Change research project documenting changes in anxious physiology and patterns in the family associated with one person’s work on differentiation of self, the process of psychotherapy based in Bowen theory.   Fifteen participants from the Bowen Center Postgraduate Training program take measures of muscle tension, adrenalin levels, sympathetic nervous system activity, brain waves and cortisol four times a year while describing and dating the steps toward differentiation of self that they take.

Preliminary observations are that A) anxiety increases as people plan to contact family and handle themselves differently in triangles throughout the family and B) anxiety decreases and evidence of thoughtfulness increases over time with sustained effort.  The changes in physiological reactions and patterns of interaction, associated with decreasing symptoms within the family, indicate reversibility of the impact of epigenetic influences over the generations and adversity in one’s own lifetime.

Mkerr M Bowen Jack Calhoun.jpgMichael Kerr, Murray Bowen, and Jack Calhoun

John B. Calhoun (May 11, 1917 – September 7, 1995) was an American ethologist and behavioral researcher noted for his studies of population density and its effects on behavior (at NIMH). He claimed that the bleak effects of overpopulation on rodents were a grim model for the future of the human race. During his studies, Calhoun coined the term “behavioral sink” to describe aberrant behaviors in overcrowded population density situations and “beautiful ones” to describe passive individuals who withdrew from all social interaction. His work gained world recognition. He spoke at conferences around the world and his opinion was sought by groups as diverse as NASA and the District of Columbia’s Panel on overcrowding in local jails. Calhoun’s rat studies were used as a basis in the development of Edward T. Hall‘s 1966 proxemics theories.

Taking the High Road by James B. Smith, MS, Director, Western Pennsylvania Family Center, Pittsburgh, PA: We live at a time in human history that psychiatrist Murray Bowen described as a time of “societal regression”.  Human functioning is guided more by subjectivity, opinion and feeling than fact.  Observable facts are commonly exchanged for other more comfortable “facts” at the drop of a hat, in marriages, families, at all levels of society, and at all points on the political spectrum, allowing individuals to gain comfort in relationships at the expense of what is real in the issues and decisions at hand. I discovered Bowen theory 48 years ago in my first professional job as a state hospital psychologist, finding it to be the most accurate description of human functioning that I had ever come across. I still find that to be true. I have used it to guide the entirety of my subsequent personal and professional life. I have found it to be equally at home in my work with those living in or having grown up in North America, South America, Asia, Africa and Europe. I have found universal validity of the singular focus In Bowen theory on making the effort to become more emotionally mature.  An African colleague put it this way: “What Zambia needs most is more differentiation of self”. On the last page of his just published “Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom”, journalist Thomas Ricks writes: “The fundamental driver of Western civilization is the agreement that objective reality exists, that people of goodwill can perceive it and that other people will change their views when presented with the facts of the matter.” I have come to believe that the journey toward becoming more emotionally mature is the high road to realizing this, not only in the West, but worldwide. With more people taking to this high road the current course of societal regression may tilt to societal progression.

Andrea Schara, LCSWA: In 1976 while working as an alcoholism counselor at a psychiatric hospital I met Murray Bowen, MD. In the talk, he noted that alcoholism would decrease if you could figure out how to “de-twitch” rats. I wanted to know how to do this and was accepted in the post graduate program at the Georgetown University Family Center, despite having only two years of college. Four years later, 1980, I was hired as the audio-visual coordinator and videotaped his work with families, staff and faculty, believing that in the future there would be more interest in his effort to use science as the base for a theory which gives a broad look at understanding human behavior from an evolutionary viewpoint. From 1985 to 1995 I organized a pilot program for individuals in families with HIV/AIDS. This project considered how motivated individuals could altered their family relationships, impacting the immune systems of the HIV/AIDS patients. I used biofeedback and now neurofeedback to “de-twitch” or reduce anxiety which increases the ability integrate thinking and feeling. People who altered family relationships lived longer than predicted by T cell counts. This will be a chapter in a book on death edited by Peter Titleman and Sydney Reed on Death and Loss in the Family. I spearheaded the donation of 15 years of Bowen’s clinical videotapes with two families to the National Library of Medicine (NLM) .  NLM researchers have access to all Bowen’s videos, letters and papers.  As a founding member of The Murray Bowen Archives Project, I have worked with its Board of Directors to make Bowen’s work accessible to the public via the web.  Oral interviews and videotapes of Bowen are available on the Archives web site. the faculty of the Georgetown Family Center, 1993 – 2011 and am currently on the faculty of Navigating Systems DC, providing learning opportunities for consultants who serve family businesses or members of wealthy families. How to communicate useful ideas around the process of differentiation of self is covered in my book: Your Mindful Compass: Breakthrough strategies for navigating life/work relationships in any social jungle.

ams and M Bowen.jpg

Andrea Schara with Murray Bowen, MD at Walter Reed Army Hospital 1986


Navigating in Social Systems: The use of social interactions around illness and death

bowen and bobbie holt

            Murray Bowen and Bobbie Holt  1983 at a Third Thursday Meeting at Georgetown University

The origin of the human condition is best explained by the natural selection for social interactions – the inherited propensities to communicate, recognize, evaluate, bond, cooperate, compete, and from all these deep warm pleasures of belonging to your own social group. Social intelligence enhanced by group selection made homo sapiens the first fully dominate species in earth’s history. E.O. Wilson[1]


Adaptation and other Relationship Shifts

The death or the illness of a family member are the most obvious times when families are required to change and adapt to the coming and going of its members. How the ongoing social group interacts during these periods can be subtle or dramatic.  Some families pull together and can function at high levels while others fall into chaos. What is the difference between these families?

When a close family member falls ill or gracefully prepares for death, each family member is challenged to become more aware of the shifts in relationships. For some the automatic response is denial and for others there is opportunity to rethink and reorganize the part one has played in the family.

A social group maintains equilibrium and is dependent on individuals to function in specific ways. We probably “inherit” a position in our family depending on the family’s history, current needs and our natural abilities.

In other words, there is a general tendency to function according to one’s position in the group. The sibling position is an easy way to look at the “jobs” that are handed out by the family. Oldest are expected to be responsible, but not all oldest are leaders, not all middles are negotiators and not all of the youngest are funny.

Walter Toman, who did some of the original work on sibling position, noted that all things being equal, and often they are not, people function in predictable ways according to their sibling position.[2]

You might think of the family unit as a kind of ant colony where the colony “trains” its members to function in ways that can be useful to the way the colony has functioned over time. It is not really useful for members of the colony to see or recognize that they are being influenced to “do” or “be” for the colony. To be aware of relationship pressure is incredibly difficult for most people.

We can be blind to the obvious, and we are also blind to our blindness. Daniel Kahneman[3]

Shifts in relationships can usually be managed in a “stable” system, but losses of important members can throw off the balance in more fragile families. Anxiety increases as people react to how life has changed with the loss of an individual. The threat is very challenging if a death occurs in a relationship system in which people are highly dependent on one another in unseen ways.

Here are a few examples.

  1. A husband dies unexpectedly and his wife has never paid the bills and has no knowledge of the family’s financial situation.
  2. A husband is unable to cope with taking care of his children after the loss of his young wife.
  3. A child dies, and all the hopes for the future are lost.

There are many twists and turns in how tasks are divided between a husband and a wife and when you add children the complexity of the “need” for the other to function can become enormous.

The premise here is that people are dependent on each other in ways that are not seen or felt until something happens to the one we are dependent upon. The evidence of connection seems to be hidden until then.

Parental expectations, hidden dependency and “freedom”

In another example, parents may depend on one offspring and another seems to be “free” of the parental expectations. But when parents get sick, the “freer” sibling may be the one who has the most intense symptoms. The free one may say he is too busy to help out and may refuse politely to help with the care of parents, and then a few months later when mountain climbing, he has an “accident” and breaks his leg. If someone asks him if his parent’s illness impacted him, he will deny that there is a relationship between the accident and his relationship with his parents.

A highly dependent person will still not see that stress is increasing. Neither can he see that the distant communication with parents and siblings are not reflections of freedom but rather a “run away” position in which the dependent person gives up responsibility to manage self responsibly in the relationship system.

Sometimes it is very difficult to know who is responsible for what. It is difficult to be a mindful observer of self and even to ask, “Am I relating well to others or am I pretending in order to get along and make things OK?”

Often the family dependency is denied. You can listen for the denial, but hopefully remember that you cannot cure denial with confrontation. If a person is admitted to the hospital with a broken leg, or a broken head, or a broken heart, and someone points out that the timing of the symptom is connected to a death in the family, then the person will often say some variation of: “That is a coincidence, it means nothing. It isn’t relevant. I don’t care about my parents. What happens to them is their business.”

When I worked in a psychiatric hospital my favorite research was doing a three-generation family diagram to see if there were clusters of symptoms or deaths around the time people were admitted to the hospital. Turns out a majority of individuals were admitted around a death in the family or the anniversary of a death. However, this data was not popular with the medical staff. Psychiatry is still focused on the individual and his or her symptoms, not on the state of the system.

When people deny attachments there is little that can be done to make them wake up. If one is mindful of the blindness in the family as a natural way to manage anxiety, one can be more neutral and less upset about the blindness.   If one can hypothesize that anxiety is going up and that people are reacting automatically to a threat, then more attention can be paid to reducing the threat than to trying to fix someone.

When something difficult happens in a family, one person often ends up dealing with the pain in the family because they are more observant and have a greater ability to maintain a more neutral stance. These are often the family leaders. If one is mindful of others suffering, then one is less likely to be drawn into the family emotionality or the drama. And then eventually the more observant person may find a way to be useful.

Anxiety can play out in predictable ways

The emotional process that surrounds death or threatened loss can seduce anyone to join in, take sides and try desperately to fix things. Siblings who at one time were in relatively good contact with each other can have a fight over the care of parents, or the will, or who said what to whom, resulting in a complete lack of ability to cooperate. The tension among people increases, people try to control one another and there is overall less mindfulness and less respect between family members.

Instead of open and calm communication there is the blame game that intensifies all interactions. The gossip network carries the latest news.   Joining in by anyone can lead to generations of cut off, altering the way the social system is able to function both in the present and in the future.

Jumping in, getting over involved, cutting off, being distant and fighting, getting sick, worrying and blaming others are all automatic ways people respond to threats. These are mindless interactions in which the anxiety in the system has begun to control family members.

Knowing Bowen theory gives people a basic understanding of the automatic way that systems function and gives us a method, differentiation of self, to work on our part in any problem.

As one becomes a better observer of emotional process, one has a greater ability to change the part one is automatically asked to play, and to choose to redefine self in the system. This is a crucial skill to have during times of heightened threat.

The Emotional Shock Wave

As noted, it is incredibly challenging for some to see an impending death or ongoing loss of function of important family members as automatically influencing the way individuals are able to relate to one another. To become more mindful and less reactive to changes in the family is our biggest challenge. When one sees this automatic reaction to threat unfolding, how we refrain from getting overly reactive?

There is nothing harder than to bear witness while someone in a family is dying or losing function. Some people “respond” by having affairs, working all the time, or cutting off relationships. What do you do when you see these challenges in your own family or when you see the difficulty families have in coming to grips with each other and with the way they are connected to one another? Can you put in different thoughts without judging and blaming?

The threat travels underground and it’s hard for people to understand that the anxiety in one relationship can end up being expressed in another relationship. Think of the challenge for the average parent in dealing with a teenager who wants to do what she or he wants to do during a time when one of the grandparents is ill.

In general people have a hard time seeing the connection between illness or death in one member of the family affecting others in the family. It is automatic and therefore easier to blame the child than to say something that both informs and disturbs the blindness like: “It might be hard for you to manage yourself now that your grandmother is not doing well.”

When automatically reacting, the teenager’s parents can end up being angry that the child is not coming home on time. The child can seek more distance away from the blaming/controlling parents. But neither of them sees that this anxiety is related to the illness of the grandmother.

In addition to the turmoil and disruption in relationships that can be created around an impending loss, when a family member dies there is a missing person, a void that has been created and people must respond to the actual loss.

Death family pressure and acknowledging each person’s contribution

Many thoughts and reactions mix and swirl around the death of a family member, depending on the kind of relationships people had with the person and how that person functioned in the family. Some think that the deceased lived a good and productive life and may find it easy to acknowledge all that he or she did. Or maybe the deceased did not live a productive life and was the family scapegoat. Nevertheless, an acknowledgment of their functional role in the family can go a long way towards acknowledging the pressure that people are up against and allow people to be more aware of how family pressure works to do in some people and give others an extra boost.

Individuals in more mature families can deal with their dependency on each other without threats and blaming for the small and even more serious problems that arise. They are aware that there is increasing anxiety around losses and are able to be more mindful about the tensions in the system. Less mature families try to deny the dependency and end up with increasing symptoms.


  1. What can we do to understand how death might impact relationships?
  2. What are the possible shifts and challenges to the social system?
  3. How has the system adapted to such threats in the past?
  4. Have individuals made plans as to living well at the end of their lives?
  5. Can they talk about these plans?
  6. Do rituals serve a higher purpose for the social group?
  7. What can the lives of Jesus and Buddha tell us about how life is lived as a strong expression of purpose?

What can enable people to be more thoughtful about the end of life?

The funeral provides an opportunity for the coming together of one’s family and friends to lend support around the death. An open casket allows people to see the body and recall the life of this person. The reality of life is seen and celebrated. Some religious groups consider it to be disrespectful to the dead to look the body.[4] In some traditions, a prescribed period of mourning provides daily gatherings for grieving families and friends to talk about the life of the person. Each belief has its reasons and one is free to pick whatever “belief” they would like. Often people pick the family tradition

Since cremation has become more popular there have been an increasing number of people who prefer to dispense with funerals and memorial services. They inadvertently may be seeking to avoid the reality of death and the honoring of a life. This appears to encourage greater weakness and discourages bringing up and dealing with difficult things in the social group.

Open and Closed Systems

Death is a part of life but how we deal with it may be determined by the kind of social system we are born into. Death comes to each of us. It cannot be avoided. But how one manages and copes with death is another question. One can hide from and avoid the death of loved ones or even of one’s pets. The thesis here is that there is a cost in denial or in hiding out. For most families it can make an enormous difference in the short and long term, if family members purposely see the stress related to death as enabling them to become a more resilient group.

It is not that people have free choices as to feeling overwhelmed and wanting to get away form the challenges. People are more likely to avoid the subject of death and the planning around death if they are born into a closed system where people are not at ease talking about difficult or personally meaningful subjects.

Closed systems are more intense and up tight than open systems. Most families are somewhere in the middle of this continuum. It is important for people to know that most people recover from the stress and strain around a death, and are as happy as they were before the loss after some time passes.

When people have some guidelines or hear about others who have done well after a death it gives them hope. This is another reason for people to work towards being more open and to be able to derive meaning and talk about their experiences with others.

When people are able to be open they have an easier time bringing up difficult and challenging topics. They are more open to both new people and new ideas. In addition new behaviors are seen as interesting and as representing something others can learn or appreciate. People in open families are often thinking of new ways to adapt rather than hide out and regard anything new as threatening.

  1. What do you do if you are born into a closed system and no one is allowed to talk about death, or make plans like wills or even to re-examine the old wills or possibly outdated trust agreements?
  2. Do you break the taboo and talk openly?
  3. If so what is the cost to you, to them?
  4. Can one person who makes an effort to be more open about death and illness alter a closed system? At what cost?
  5. Can the acceptance of death as just another life event give us more courage to adapt to the needed changes and be supportive of others without pity or criticism?

Those who seek to avoid difficulty and stress are more likely to be depressed. Yes, when people state they try to avoid stress, this answer was shown to predict greater difficulty in the years ahead. This was a ten-year study done by the Veterans Affairs in Palo Alto, California, demonstrating that the more one tries to maximize happiness and pleasure, the greater the conflict and problems, and the less meaning in their lives, and the greater the disruption in their community.[5]

 Other species and behavioral responses to death

gorrilasmother gorilla

Chimps “Mourn” Nine-year-old’s Death?

Our instincts about life, reproduction and survival are not that different from other species. Can we watch the way other animals manage the illness and loss of a member of their social group to learn more about the basic adaptation to loss? Other animals participate in rituals enabling these animals to successfully adapt to the changes in the social group.

Mammals may not have rituals or a belief in a God or an afterlife, but they seem to understand that rituals like the cleansing of bodies and the visiting of the dead, serves them well. Even for elephants and chimps, the caring for the other does not end with the physical ending of life.

Elephants keep track of the health of their members. If one is sick they look after them, nudging them back to health. As an elephant approaches death the other animals nudge them towards the family burial spot. Elephants routinely visit these bone filled graveyards, and carefully touch the bones of ancestors. They seemingly come to pay respect or perhaps to remember.   (You Tube Elephant Grieving BBC-Wildlife)  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C5RiHTSXK2A

Clearly the brain has to be adaptable for social learning as so many challenges occur in a lifetime. Our brains cannot have fixed responses. We need room to think, to reflect on what is happening, or did happen or might happen and what should we do about it?

Social learning, not instincts, enable us to solve problems in the here and now and not rely as much on what worked in the past. This is vastly different than for many mammals. Only the brain of the elephant is close to the human capacity for social learning.

These animals are matriarchal and require high levels of cooperation within the social group to promote survive. One speculation is that the attention paid to the death of one animal makes it easier for the troop to adapt to the loss and to find a way to replace the functioning of that animal. For example, a new matriarch is chosen or in the case of the death of the young, to move on and to reproduce once again.

There has been no documentation (that I can find) of an elephant troop failing to function after the death of one of its members. However there have been reports of elephants seeking revenge against poachers who have shot and killed animals.

Social interactions and selection:

Interactions occur in response to the history of interactions or habits plus the perceived or real changes in the environment.   There can be grunt of recognition followed by a stare, a downward glance, which might be a reaction to shifts in relationships or in strategy. Has one animal or person entered into the relationship to dominate another or to cooperate? The way the hierarchy is formed, by either force or by invitation, can produce two very different kinds of social groups.

As E. O Wilson pointed out, evolutionary biology has been forced to return to group selection as a way to see how social groups are selected for as to a group’s ability to adapt and cope. The group is formed by the way in which interactions play out.

Consider the long history of funerals and the advantages that accrue to those who practice such rituals. Researchers have found burial grounds of Neanderthal man dating to 60,000 BC with animal antlers on the body and flower fragments next to the corpse indicating some type of ritual and gifts to the deceased. One of the first examples of this was unearthed in the Shanidar cave in Iraq; Neanderthal skeletons were discovered with a layer of pollen.[6]

One of the most prescribed death rituals takes place among the Hindu and requires intense cooperation and obedience to ritual.[7]

In all these examples of a ritualized way of dealing with death, the advantages to the ongoing social group are not always clarified. The guess is that the reasons such funeral practices have been found in every human society is that funerals enable the group itself to maintain a way of relating. If the group can find ways to promote survival of its members, these rituals may enable greater survival and therefore rituals around death would be selected for. This does not rule out selection for the individual members of the group. Selection for both individual traits and for a group may occur.

Strong individuals in a cooperative group may fare well as may weaker individuals in a strong group.   But weaker individuals in a weak group will not fare as well.

Questions remain as to be how to be a “strong person” who is contributing to a “strong group?” Bowen’s observation was that if an individual could be more of a “differentiated” self that persons would not be as controlled by the emotionality in the group. Therefore, overtime the group itself would become stronger, less feeling driven and able to make more thoughtful decisions.

Family Strength:

The hypothesis is that social groups that can manage the emotionality and expression of feelings around the death of a significant person can move with more strength into the future.

Three indicators of strength to consider:

  • People find ceremonies and rituals useful in allowing a public expression of respect for those who die.
  • The memories of the person are useful. Recall how even elephants visit the bones of the ancestors.
  • People are able to build new relationships that in some sense “replace” the function of the person who died. When a father dies a son becomes more involved with a distant uncle.
  • Preparing for one’s own death. There are many details that one can attend during one’s life that can relieve the pressure on others. These range from funeral arrangements, the memorial service and obituary, to medical consents and powers of attorney, to speaking more openly with people.

Summary: Striving towards Clarity

Social interactions are key to how families are organized. Much of the way one interacts is influenced by the history of the social group. Death is one of the upheavals that forces social systems to change, for better or worse. The effort to manage relationships and responsibilities sets the stage for the future.   Each of us has some idea about what kinds of relationships are worth striving towards, no matter if the person is dead or alive. Finding ways to relate well to others, during times of great upheavals, are our gifts to the future.



1 Wilson, E.O. The Meaning of Human Existence, 2014, W.W. Norton, Page 75        2 http://birthorders.com/theory.html, and Family Constellation: Its Effects on Personality and Social Behavior, 4th Edition 4th Edition by Walter Toman PhD                                          3 Levitt, Stephen and Dubner, Stephen, 2014, Think Like A Freak, Page 172             4 Viewing a corpse is more likely to bring to mind opinions on how the body appears, or an emotional reaction that is more tied to how we feel when seeing a dead person or grappling with our own mortality. None of these truly honor the deceased. https://au.answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20130528054143AAMZTFW               5 McGonigal, Kelly, The Upside of Stress, Page 84                                                                     6 http://thefuneralsource.org/history.html                                                                7 http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Hinduism/2001/02/Rites-Of-Transition-Hindu-Death-Rituals.aspx?p=2

Abstracts of Interesting Readings:


“70% of family-owned businesses fail or are sold before the second generation gets a chance to take over. Just 10% remain active, privately held companies for the third generation to lead. In contrast to publicly owned firms, in which the average CEO tenure is six years, many family businesses have the same leaders for 20 or 25 years.  https://hbr.org/2012/01/avoid-the-traps-that-can-destroy-family-businesses.

2) In 1838 Darwin read Malthus’s assertion that human population would skyrocket if not for natural controls such as famine and disease, Charles Darwin has a new insight: other a nimals’ populations must also be kept low by a struggle for existence, in which only the best adapted survive. The theory of natural selection is born. From Evolution:“Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”

Malthus believed that unless people exercised restraint in the number of children they had, the inevitable shortfall of food in the face of spiraling population growth would doom mankind to a ceaseless struggle for existence. Out of that unforgiving battle, some would survive and many would not, as famine, disease, and war put a ceiling on the growth in population.

These ideas galvanized Darwin’s thinking about the struggles for survival in the wild, where restraint is unknown. Before reading Malthus, Darwin had thought that living things reproduced just enough individuals to keep populations stable. But now he came to realize that, as in human society, populations bred beyond their means, leaving survivors and losers in the effort to exist.

Immediately, Darwin saw that the variation he had observed in wild populations would produce some individuals that were slightly better equipped to thrive and reproduce under the particular conditions at the time. Those individuals would tend to leave more offspring than their fellows, and over many generations their traits would come to dominate.[8] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/library/02/5/l_025_01.html

3) Hare studies how chimpanzees and bonobos solve problems, and in 2007 he happened to see one of our closest evolutionary relatives die. He was at a bonobo orphanage in the Democratic Republic of Congo when Lipopo, a newcomer to the orphanage, died unexpectedly from pneumonia. Although the other bonobos could have moved away from his body and travel anywhere in their very large, heavily forested enclosure, they chose to stay and groom Lipopo’s corpse. When their caretakers arrived to remove the body, the vigil morphed into a tense standoff.

In the video Hare took, Mimi, the group’s alpha female, stands guard over Lipopo’s body. When the caretakers try to push the corpse out of the enclosure with long poles, Mimi fights them, viciously. She grabs the poles with both hands, wrenching them away from Lipopo. She calls to other bonobos, who help her fend off the humans from two sides. Even when the vet arrives with a tranquilizer gun, Mimi stands her ground, her mouth open wide in a scream that’s inaudible in the silent film. Mimi wasn’t related to Lipopo. In fact, she barely knew him, Hare told me. But Mimi was willing to risk an encounter with a gun to protect the body of a mere acquaintance. “That’s why I started to cry,” Hare said. “I don’t know why she did it.”


4) Scientists have watched chimpanzees, bonobos and other primates deal with death in ways that look strikingly like our own informal rituals of mourning: watching over the dying, cleaning and protecting bodies and displaying outward signs of anxiety. Chimps have been seen to make loud distress calls when a comrade dies. They investigate bodies as if looking for signs of life. There are many cases of mothers refusing to abandon dead infants, carrying and grooming them for days or even weeks.


When the scientists at the park realized Pansy’s death was imminent, they turned on video cameras, capturing intimate moments during her last hours as Blossom, Rosie and Blossom’s son, Chippy, groomed her and comforted her as she got weaker. After she passed, the chimps examined the body, inspecting Pansy’s mouth, pulling her arm and leaning their faces close to hers. Blossom sat by Pansy’s body through the night. And when she finally moved away to sleep in a different part of the enclosure, she did so fitfully, waking and repositioning herself dozens more times than was normal. For five days after Pansy’s death, none of the other chimps would sleep on the platform where she died.


5) The pictures of a baby elephant in Borneo, nudging and nuzzling the body of its dead mother in obvious distress and bewilderment, cannot fail to move us. Allegations that up to ten pygmy elephants were poisoned, perhaps by local farmers, are upsetting — perhaps because elephant emotions seem so like our own, so heartbreakingly close to human sorrow and grief. Any scientist knows how dangerous it is to project human feelings on to an animal, to force them into human molds or ‘anthropomorphize’ them, but it’s equally dangerous to ignore a wealth of scientific data based on decades of observation in the wild.

We may never know exactly what goes on inside the mind of an elephant, but it would be arrogant of us to assume we are the only species capable of feeling loss and grief. I have been filming animals in the wild for more than 20 years, and that has often meant being around elephants: they live across a huge range of habitats. But mass poaching has put them into terrible decline — around 40,000 elephants a year are killed by poachers and, according to some estimates, since the Sixties the population has been culled from 3.5 million to just 250,000.

6) Elephants are widely believed to mourn the deaths of members of their herd, and even pay homage to long-dead elephants. A 2005 study in the UK found the creatures displayed traits similar to humans and, coming across the remains of an elephant, would gently touch the skull and tusks with their trunks and feet. They are also believed to display a ritual around death, with several elephants travelling to visit a dead body and touching the corpse with their trunks. Some elephants have been seen to weep and others make sounds associated with grief as they cover the body with leaves and branches before keeping a silent vigil.
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2090915/Well-forget-Elephants-say-sad-farewell-month-old-calf-died-heart-defect.html#ixzz3inoaI0Iw
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7) Like humans, elephants must learn behavior as they grow up. They are not born with the instincts of how to survive.[24] Elephants have a very long period in their lives for learning, lasting for around ten years. One comparative way to try to gauge intelligence is to compare brain size at birth to the fully developed adult brain. This indicates how much learning a species accumulates while young. The majority of mammals are born with a brain close to 90% of the adult weight,[24] while Humans are born with 28%,[24]bottlenose dolphins with 42.5%,[25] chimpanzees with 54%,[24] and elephants with 35%.[26] This indicates that elephants have the highest amount of learning to undergo next to humans, and behavior is not mere instinct but must be taught throughout life. It should be noted that instinct is quite different from learned intelligence. Parents teach their young how to feed, use tools and learn their place in the highly complex elephant society. The cerebrum temporal lobes, which function as storage of memory, are much larger than those of a human.[24]

8) Elephants are the only species of mammals other than Homo sapiens sapiens and Neanderthals[citation needed]known to have or have had any recognizable ritual around death. They show a keen interest in the bones of their own kind (even unrelated elephants that have died long ago). They are often seen gently investigating the bones with their trunks and feet while remaining very quiet. Sometimes elephants that are completely unrelated to the deceased still visit their graves.[15] Elephant researcher Martin Meredith recalls an occurrence in his book about a typical elephant death ritual that was witnessed by Anthony Hall-Martin, a South African biologist who had studied elephants in Addo, South Africa, for over eight years. The entire family of a dead matriarch, including her young calf, were all gently touching her body with their trunks, trying to lift her. The elephant herd were all rumbling loudly. The calf was observed to be weeping and made sounds that sounded like a scream, but then the entire herd fell incredibly silent. They then began to throw leaves and dirt over the body and broke off tree branches to cover her. They spent the next two days quietly standing over her body. They sometimes had to leave to get water or food, but they would always return.[35]


If the elephant’s gargantuan cerebellum—as well as its intricate olfactory and temporal lobes—equip the creature with sensory superpowers, what features of the elephant brain account for its more sophisticated, more abstract mental talents: for its cooperative problem-solving, understanding of death and self-awareness? Based on what we know about brains generally, this type of intellect arises from the cerebral cortex. Manger and Herculano-Houzel’s recent investigations confirmed, however, that despite having a brain three times as large as our own, the elephant’s cerebral cortex contains surprisingly few neurons and is nowhere near as dense as the human or chimpanzee cortex. Yet the elephant is clearly capable of astounding intelligence.

9) Benjamin Hart of the University of California Davis has speculated that the elephant cortex derives its intellectual prowess not from local density but from widespread interconnectivity. He suspects that, whereas the human and chimpanzee brains have evolved many tight-knit networks of nearby neurons throughout the cortex—akin to states packed with highly populous cities—the elephant brain has favored lengthy connections between far-flung brain areas, building the equivalent of an extensive cross-country railroad system. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/brainwaves/searching-for-the-elephants-genius-inside-the-largest-brain-on-land/

10) Quotes from Bowen’s chapter on The Family Reaction to Death
Direct thinking about death, or indirect thinking about staying alive and avoiding death, occupies more of man’s time than any other subject. Man is an instinctual animal with the same instinctual awareness of death as the lower forms of life. He follows the same predictable instinctual life pattern of all living things. He is born, he grows to maturity, he reproduces, his life force runs out, and he dies. In addition, he is a thinking animal with a brain that enables him to reason, reflect, and think abstractly. With his intellect he has devised philosophies and beliefs about the meaning of life and death that tend to deny his place in nature’s plan. Each individual has to define his own place in the total scheme and accept the fact that he will die and be replaced by succeeding generations.[9]

[1] Wilson, E.O. The Meaning of Human Existence, 2014, W.W. Norton, Page 75

[2] http://birthorders.com/theory.html, and Family Constellation: Its Effects on Personality and Social Behavior, 4th Edition 4th Edition by Walter Toman PhD

[3] Levitt, Stephen and Dubner, Stephen, 2014, Think Like A Freak, Page 172

[4] Viewing a corpse is more likely to bring to mind opinions on how the body appears, or an emotional reaction that is more tied to how we feel when seeing a dead person or grappling with our own mortality. None of these truly honor the deceased. https://au.answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20130528054143AAMZTFW

[5] McGonigal, Kelly, The Upside of Stress, Page 84

[6] http://thefuneralsource.org/history.html

[7] http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Hinduism/2001/02/Rites-Of-Transition-Hindu-Death-Rituals.aspx?p=2

[8] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/library/02/5/l_025_01.html

[9] Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 321). Jason Aronson, Inc.

The Murray Bowen Archives of Leaders for Tomorrow (LFT)


Bowen and Family Diagram300


There are archives for many famous people available to those interested in investigating the life, times and works of people like Darwin, (http://darwin-online.org.uk/) and Einstein, (www.alberteinstein.info/ ).


For those of you who come to my blog to read about the various ideas generated by Bowen Theory, I want you to know about the Murray Bowen Archives, and the non-profit organization (Leaders for Tomorrow or LFT) that was created for the purpose of archiving the collected works of Murray Bowen, MD.  Below is an explanation about the archives and its new leadership.

And many thanks to all of you who have shown interest in and/or supported the mission of (LFT), to make Murray Bowen’s work available to the public. LFT is a one-of-a-kind collection of documents and audiovisual materials chronicling the development of Bowen Family Systems Theory (http://murraybowenarchives.org/).

The good news is that LFT is expanding in a meaningful way.  Carol Jeunnette is the first Executive Director of Leaders for Tomorrow (LFT).  As an LFT board member I am very pleased. Carol has already made a difference by enabling Joann Bowen, who remains the president of LFT, to finish a long list of tasks.  Carol is personal, intuitive and organized; she listens to people, and finds a practical set of actions to move forward.

Joann Bowen sent the following note to the board of directors: I’d like you to have a short summary of Carol’s background and interest in Bowen Theory and Murray Bowen’s archives.  In 1996, Rabbi Edwin Friedman introduced her to Bowen theory.  It was in the context of congregational leadership as a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  Since then she has been an avid student of the theory, including multiple years of study at the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family.  Carol is a licensed professional counselor and holds a Ph.D. in Religion and Psychological Studies with a focus in Bowen theory.  For a decade, she has chaired the Voyagers, a clergy group that meets regularly to consider congregational leadership using Bowen theory.

The Work on collecting “Bowen Stories”

As head of the oral history project for the Bowen Archives, I took part in obtaining over 40 interviews from professionals who knew and worked with Bowen.  Stories from those whose lives were impacted by meeting and dealing with Murray Bowen can explicate the depth of Bowen Theory as a guide for action.

Other volunteers who conducted the interview process were: Priscilla Freisen, Kathy Wiseman, Frank Gregorsky, Monica Bague, Randy Krabel, and Pam Allen. LFT hired Ellen Chapman to transcribe the audiotapes using ELAN software. Laurie Lassiter was asked to identify topics to use to search a database so that future researchers can look for common themes with regard to how Bowen interacted with people and how they responded to him.

Overall these interviews will shed more light on the many ways one can go about building meaningful relationships and strengthening social systems.

The Significance of Bowen Theory

There is much to learn from the stories of those who knew and were influenced by Murray Bowen, M.D.  I saw him as a master observer with an amazing ability to communicate to others what he was seeing. This made a difference in how people were able to function around some challenge in their family. What was his secret? What was he doing in his interactions with folks?

People tell us in these interviews what they were able to do in their families after contact with Bowen. Apparently he could penetrate the emotional fog to see the system in action. Bowen was using his theory to see various ways out of life’s predicaments and help others see some ways out too.

Of course his ability to communicate systems ideas was also dependent on people having the courage to risk and change self. This interactional process is brought to life in these recorded stories.

To change self in a social system requires one to learn a new way to understand problems, to see beyond the current focus on symptoms, and to deeply understand the automatic nature of evolutionarily designed social systems. If you can see beyond what you have been taught to see, then problems and symptoms can be fascinating. Understanding the family as a unit and your part in it allows you to become something like a maze runner, someone who is freer to relate to others beyond the emotional constraints (the maze), which are present in every family system.

Bowen understood and conveyed in stories, or with questions or even a long lecture, just how a self-focus could decrease the “other focused” anxiety in the system. Simply put, symptoms can decrease as more resilient relationships are developed. Such a different theoretical approach to problems in one’s family is far removed from today’s accepted beliefs about mental illness.

Bowen believed the family unit functions as an evolutionary guided social system. The “conventional wisdom” and automatic tendency is still to focus on fixing the sick one, while other family members and society in general often are left blaming, rescuing and becoming polarized. Can this be due in part to society being uninformed about the nature of a family system under pressure?

After all, when the idea of family psychotherapy first emerged, many in society heard it as blaming the family, not that knowledge of family can be a resource for seeing life more broadly.

When first reading the Bowen Anonymous paper in 1976, it struck me that Bowen had redirected the anxiety in the system away from individuals that people in his family were worried about and onto himself. He communicated with people in a way so as to draw attention and present the family with a different view of what might be going on.

For those who have not read it, perhaps you may read it as an epic of how Bowen struggles to define the way the emotional world is functioning out of our awareness.

The radical idea, that the family governs the development and behavior of its members, was brought into focus by Murray Bowen’s efforts in his own family. This paper shocked the professional community, which had not yet integrated the new ideas of Bowen Theory.

There are many letters in the Bowen archives showing how Bowen made an effort to open communications with others, how he discovered who his ancestors were and how to make more sense of his own past. His comments on how society functions, the role of polarization and the response to the pressure of increasing populations and diminishing resources are but a few of the topics he discusses in his letters.

Now, with the addition of the recorded stories of those who spent time with Dr. Bowen, we have a fuller idea of who Bowen was. This collection of life stories shows how others were impacted by Bowen and went on to live in a bit more aware and self-defined way.

There are many wonderful and funny stories of how Dr. Bowen both shocked and challenged people to rise up to be a bit more free of the emotional morass everyone is born into. You can see how Bowen both tricked and inspired people to be able to both think systems and become a resource to others. These stories are valuable examples of how Bowen lived theory and knew more than he could tell us.

You may have your own story of understanding the system and altering your part in it. So you too know that Bowen discovered a completely different way to improve the ability of individuals and families to function at higher levels.

Thank you again for your interest in and or for supporting the Bowen Archives Project of Leaders for Tomorrow. I have enjoyed and am honored to be learning from these recorded stories and seeing how people are making a difference in their own lives.

original photo of mb

Ideas about Murray Bowen and his Theory on what would have been Dr. Bowen’s 99th Birthday

Murray Bowen, MD (1/31/1913-10/9/1990)

Happy 99th Birthday to Murray Bowen, MD (1913-1990)

On this anniversary of his birthday, I wanted to acknowledge my gratitude for being able to have a relationship with Dr. Bowen for the last fourteen years of his life.  I had both the opportunity to study Bowen theory and to watch and interact with Dr. Bowen.  Towards the end of his life Dr. Bowen gave his theory to the world to do with as we might. The theory is a gift to us and people are free to interpret it as they choose.  The theory contains as impersonal as possible observations about how Bowen saw human behavior.  (I have added a time line of the development of the theory at the end of this piece.

People read his book, watch his videos and find there is a different way to think about the human condition.  Bowen enabled us to see how it is we are so very sensitive to one another. How we are often being hurt by or hurting the ones we love the most.  Bowen pointed to the difficult ways of becoming more of a self. He would joke about having to give up love and approval. As you will see below I consider my relationship with Dr. Bowen a challenging gift, enabling me to observe and question just how relationships function.

One of Bowen’s fundamental contributions was his understanding of the complexities of relationships that are imbedded in an ancient emotional system. A gift from our primordial ancestors,  the emotional system, among other functions, promotes the shifting of anxiety from one member to another.  Some claim this is the origin of power and scapegoating in social units. Bowen did not use these kinds of words because he preferred biological explanations for human behavior.

Relationship alliances are often beyond words to explain and understand.  Plus there are painful, exasperating limits in communicating any deep understanding of one another, but hopefully that doesn’t stop us from making the effort to tell our more personal “story”. Bowen was a complex man with many different kinds of relationships.  If you read his letters to people you will find a constant and very personal effort to describe relationship binds.  There are probably a thousand different views of the man and perhaps just as many of his theory.

Bowen’s book, Family Therapy In Clinical Practice (FTCP), presents his observations of emotional process in his and others families.   It takes time to deeply understand and appreciate his very different description of the human condition that Bowen offers as contrasted to the “conventional wisdom” of the time.   The following are a few snippets and stories about Bowen that I thought about around his birthday.

Murray Bowen, M.D, was my mentor and I was his apprentice. In an effort to learn all there was to know about families I found a job in a psychiatric hospital, read about and was fortunately able to meet Bowen.  I was intrigued by Bowen’s ideas and motivated to learn more to get myself out of personal problems.” The motivation was to get myself out of personal problems.  My problems were not that different than most people face, including but not limited to the family reaction to death and the surrounding chaos that ensued.  One thing I knew even before meeting Dr. Bowen was that I had been trained from birth on to look after others and that I was not up to the job.

After reading Bowen’s work, meeting him and signing up for his courses, I noticed that he had a strange way of dealing with people. They would speak positively to him and he would push them away.  Once he saw me watching him and came over and pointed out a few couples to me and asked me,  “Who’s in charge?  “What is it costing them to get along with each other?”  I couldn’t answer as to the cost but I could see one person seemed to be more “in charge”.

By observing Bowen I saw a very different way to interact with people. After reading Bowen’s early paper, On the Differentiation of Self, (FTCP: Pages 468- 528), I understood his focus on becoming a better observer which leads to the eventual ability to separate a self while staying connected.   Bowen wrote “I believe that that the family therapist usually has the same problems in his own family that are present in families he sees professionally, and that he has a responsibility to define himself in his own family if he is to function adequately in his professional work.”   (FTCP: Page 468) What could make more common sense?

Bowen’s paper was written three years after he made a professional presentation on his effort to be a more separate individual and relate to each individual in his family.  The family of a family therapist as he noted has many of the same emotional mechanisms that are present in any family: superficial relationships, projection, triangling and cut-off to name just a few.  Therefore his plan was to use his family story as a way to illustrate the differences between actions based on his theoretical understanding of the emotional system vs. that of other theories like psychoanalysis. In essence he was also prepared to separate from the family of family therapists as he had done in his own family. One example of how he did this was when Dr. Carl Whitaker was asked to comment on Bowen’s presentation and he said “… Dr. Bowen, I wish I were your brother!”  Dr. Bowen’s response: “Ackerman is.” (FTCP: Page 524)

Bowen went on to say, “Differentiation begins when one family member begins to more clearly define and openly state his own inner life principles and convictions.” ( FTCP: Page) 437 “An anxious group is one in which members of the group are isolated from each other and communication between members is in underground gossip. Anything that improves communication will reduce the tension, as an initial step to more defined efforts to modify the system.” (FTCP: Page 436 )

Being more defined can take years. It can take a long time to be confident in self’s observations and beliefs when others oppose your actions.   Differentiation is a hard process because people are stuck in relationship habits that sustain distance and conflict.  When one person changes, people object but eventually it helps the system reorganize. With a differentiated head, there is no pressure on others to change but there is internal pressure to stand for your own perceptions and beliefs.  The greatest challenge is to observe others without one’s own bias, preconceived ideas, feelings, and the gossip in the system.  Being objective about others is a work out. It does not come naturally. Reacting to others and to differences comes naturally.

Often people can hear a few things that make sense about separating out a more mature self from the automatic ways we react to one another.  People would say, “Dr. Bowen what you said makes so much sense.”  And Bowen would respond, “Use it if you like, but it could mess up your little old head.”

A southern man, Bowen had a twinkle in his eye and a way of using both thinking and emotion to push and challenge one and all with whom he came in contact.  The paradox, the interruptions, the confusion and the bottom-line: you are responsible for how you use me, and I will be responsible for challenging you. Everyone was fair game, everyone a new research project. That is how I see him still.

Bowen knew how to convey a different viewpoint about the confusion we all have.  He was an advocate of life-long learning. By telling people they were risking it all in falling into pretend thinking, and seeking love and approval, he alienated some.  He used to say  “I go and give a talk and 49% of the people think I am crazy, 49% think its interesting and never give it another thought and 2% want to know more.  Of the 2%, half give up along the way. “

People would say,  “Dr. Bowen I need to take your course so I can get a certificate so I can make it in the world out there.”   He would laugh and say,  “Good luck to you,” and advise they go elsewhere.   He picked up on ways of challenging people to think for self.

If you had the courage to speak to him then you could expect a million questions from him like how come you function the way you do? Who got you to think this or that way? How much were you “snookered” by your own unexamined beliefs and the people who claimed to love you? How did you know your compass worked? What do you do to get along with your boss? What made you choose those shoes or that dress?

If you could take the heat then you might get to listen to the homespun tales from his life in Waverly, Tennessee, his time in medical school, the Army, and what he saw and learned at Menninger as he slowly discovered he needed a better theory about how humans functioned.   If you stuck around you might get interested in science or physiology or germs or cancer or your own functioning or why you felt the need to save or quit your marriage, your kids or even the world.

Somehow Bowen was able to always see life as a fantastic puzzle.  He would come to meetings saying he was ready to die, and then start telling us about some insight he gained from the shuttle launch or a football game or his fascination with the jumping genes, or the social behavior of chimps.  All  this and more appeared to be ways of both keeping his mind going and keeping his own intellectual space in the group.  If you said stuff he thought was silly he would pound the table. He might dismiss your effort.  He might say you will make it in another lifetime.  He manifested a genuine curiosity in understanding how living systems functioned.  For most of his  life and still today,  Bowen theory is ignored by the dominant “medical model” and psychiatry, therefore professionally he was isolated and marginalized and was “messed with” by his peers, including those who became disciples and those who dismissed him and his theory.

As one who made mistake after mistake but still dared to speak to him I was able to learn a great deal and he learned something as well or so he said.  This is how Bowen was.  He would interrupt my way of thinking and being, challenging and watching to see if I recovered.

Bowen was constantly looking at the part he played in relationships.  Below is a personal communication from Catherin Rakow about her research on Bowen’s original papers at the National Institute of Mental Health.

Bowen thought he played some part in all problems.   This goes back to his Menninger years.  It was one of the observations of people in a regressed state.   They hear a casual comment as a command or directive, they can get symptomatic in an unpredictable environment, and any thing close to

mothering can set off symptoms.   Bowen’s “A Psychological Formulation of Schizophrenia” article lays this out including how he used these observations to manage himself.”   


One person working to be a bit more separate in a social system is best seen in this observation by Stanley Milgram, who noted the following.   “With numbing regularity good people were seen to knuckle under to the demands of authority and perform actions that were callous and severe. Those, who are in everyday life are responsible and decent, were seduced by the trappings of authority, by the control of their perceptions, and by the uncritical acceptance of the experimenter’s definition of the situation, into performing harsh acts.


It may be that we are puppets—puppets controlled by the strings of society. But at least we are puppets with perception, with awareness. And perhaps our awareness is the first step to our liberation.

There are many steps in becoming a more aware person.  One way to grow a stronger self is to see what it takes for any of us to be more separate with those in our own family.  To be more separate implies that each person is a bit more responsible for self.

When there is less blaming and confusion, people are able to be more objective, less reactive, and to see more about how problems come to be over the generations, and how to change one’s part in the system. In this way the system changes.   One person at a time begins to alter the way he/she sees the problem.

It is in our families that we have the opportunity to learn and understand social pressure and take on the challenges of defining a self.   In becoming more objective and aware of how we participate in social systems, we may even be able to see that we are not that different from ants or gibbons.  We all influence others, and are influenced by others.   Dr. Bowen saw how courageous individuals can alter the reactivity in relationships, altering lives and leading to deeper understanding of one another and of the life force itself. These are the gifts he left for all of us to find.

Andrea Schara with Dr. Bowen,  September 1985 Milwaukee

photo by Kathy Mcabe


Prepared by Catherine M. Rakow, MSW

January 28, 2012

Sept. 1937  Bowen finishes four years of medical school at University of Tennessee.[1]

1946             Menninger School of Psychiatry opens and Bowen begins work at Menninger.

1940’s          “The most important change in the 1940’s was a solitary effort to create a more scientific theory of human adaptation.”[2]

1947             ”In about 1947, a library study was started to discover how each professional discipline had used science in its basic formulations.”[3]

1948-1954     “in addition to the other programs, a form of anaclitic therapy was started for a series of severely impaired patients whose families lived at a distance.  Theoretically, schizophrenia was considered the result of maternal deprivation in infancy and early childhood… From this experience came new psychotherapeutic principles and techniques used in the effort to resolve the symbiotic attachments, and in the other psychotherapy programs.  The difficulty in resolving the symbiotic attachments led to a new approach, the final step in this eight-year evolutionary process.  The final stage was to discourage intense relationships with any family member, to leave the intensity of the process within the family, and to relate peripherally and supportively to various members of the family unit.”[4]

1948             Bowen becomes a candidate in psychoanalysis.[5]

1949-1954 “Beginning in about 1949 I began an informal research study in which I began seeing multiple members of the same family (patient had schizophrenia) in individual psychotherapy.”[6]

1951             “Began Jan 1951-invited mother to come for extended visit-spend all day with patient…Experience led to suggestion that a section of hospital be set aside for mother and other relatives to live in hospital with patient.[7]

By 1952       Bowen had begun to include some fathers in his study but the main focus was on the mother/child symbiosis.

July 1953     NIMH Clinical Center opened.[8]

1954             “In 1954, the hypothesis from the previous work was incorporated into a formal research study in which schizophrenic patients and their mothers lived ‘in residence’ on a psychiatric research ward.  Each patient and each mother had individual psychotherapy.”[9]

Dec. 1954    ‑‑”project to check belief that presence of the mother is beneficial to the treatment of schizophrenia”[10]

1954‑1959 “First important nodal point in the development of the theory…research study…”  “live‑in project source of a wealth of new facts about schizophrenia.[11]

1955             Live-in project–“…led to the development of a method of family therapy.”11

With admission of whole families—parents required to be responsible for patient.

“The effort to investigate the three generation idea began in 1955 with the statement of our consultant, Dr. Lewis Hill that it requires three generations for schizophrenia to develop.”[12]

Feb. 1955    Bowen writes saying he is “itching to try a different kind of ward communication system.  For instance one could begin by never having a meeting between staff members in which patients were not invited or welcome.”

August 1955          “discussing the plans for also including fathers in our ‘mother-daughter’ studies in schizophrenia”.[13]  By August 9 the patient group meeting is operating.

Sept.  1955 “Beneath the social organization, man is still an animal with basic patterns shared with or evolved from lower forms…“… science, which is really the conversion of the unknown to the known” [14]

Dec. 1955    –“A shift from seeing schizophrenia as a process between mother and patient or as an illness within the patient influenced by the mother to an orientation of seeing schizophrenia as the manifestation of a distraught family that becomes focused in one individual.”[15]

1955‑1956 “…in order to deal with this wealth of new clues, I revived my background thinking from the 1940’s about the use of discrepant thinking models, and also the ‘far out’ hunches about the biological ‘animal in man.’”[16]

January 1956         “The (unit) meetings were adapted to family therapy immediately after admission of the first father, mother, patient family.”  [17] After six months there was no doubt but the family therapy would be continued.

June 56         “…we have used the term ‘family psychotherapy’ for this method in which all family members attend all the family meetings together, and which is designed as a method to replace individual psychotherapy.”[18]

1956             “informal outpatient studies of less severe forms of emotional illness”[19]

“It was the comparison of the intense patterns in schizophrenia with the less intense patterns in others that eventually became the basis for the theory.“19

“By 1956, I knew within me, that the theory contained the necessary variables to become an accepted science in the future.”[20]

After 1956  “After 1956, my main effort was to conceptualize the research findings in terms that would be understood by theorists who knew biology and evolution.”[21]

March 1957            “the first national meeting for papers devoted to the family.”[22]  “.In my paper I referred to the ‘family psychotherapy’ used in my research since late 1955.  I believe that may have been the first time the term was used in a national meeting.”[23]

August1957           Extensive three generation family history on second family admitted to the research compiled into family diagram.

Sept. 1958  “The major work of the section during the year has focused on two main areas.  One is the area of ‘the family as a unit’ and the other is ‘family psychotherapy.’…After working at this problem for three years, we have been going in the direction of some kind of a system that deals with the ‘function’’of a person in the family rather than the static situation implied with our present diagnostic labels.”[24]

June 1959   Family live-in project terminated.

1959             “moved to Georgetown University Medical Center, where the main focus was on less severe emotional problems”.

1959‑1962 “detailed multi‑generational research was carried out with a few families,                                           including one case in considerable detail going back more than 300 years.”[25]

During 1960’s       “there were increasing comments about emotional patterns in society being the same as the emotional patterns we had come to know so well in families…The connecting link came much closer for me in the period.”

After 1961   “..the concept of ‘sibling position’ was used with every family after 1961.”[26]

about 61-62           “…I began to perfect the concept of ‘triangles’ so well that the concept could be used predictably in the clinical situation…People behave the same in a triangle whether they are in the family or outside the             family….Now I could know predictably that emotional patterns in larger social and work systems followed identical patterns as those in the family situation but a trustworthy connecting link with society was still missing.  The use of the term ‘systems’ which began in the early 1960’s was a help in seeing the specific ways that smaller systems fitted into larger and larger systems and the ways the smaller system could influence the larger, and the obverse.”[27]

1960‑1965 “…the six interlocking concepts of Family Systems Theory were developed in detail.”25

Late 1960’s            “In the late 1960’s I began to shift toward the term SYSTEMS THERAPY which is more accurate theoretically than either Family Psychotherapy or Family Therapy, but more inconsistent with the concept ‘therapy.’”[28]

1974             Societal emotional process added as new concept to the total theory.[29]

1974             “…changed the name of this theory to Bowen Family Systems Theory or…Bowen Theory.”29

1975             Emotional cut-off added as a new concept to the theory.

[1] Letter.  October 13, 1987 to Dr. Bowen’s family following 50th reunion from medical school

[2] Drafts of ‘Odyssey’-In Theoretical Principle” by Murray Bowen, M.D.

[3] Printed Papers in Odyssey, Part 1 of 2.  Murray Bowen, M.D.

[4] “Family Patterns in Families with a Schizophrenic Family Member” by Murray Bowen, M.D. Combined Clinical-Staff Presentation NIH 1956

[5] Letter.  February 10. 1963

[6] Dr. Bowen working papers

[7] “Outline for Proposed Report about Family research Project” (July 1960)

[8] Correspondence/Patient

[9] “Theoretical and Technical Approach to Family Psychotherapy in Office Practice” by Murray Bowen,     M.D. Presented at a regular meeting of the South Florida Psychiatric Society, Miami, Florida,     December 13, 1965

[10] Analysis of NIH Program Activities Project Description Sheet

[11] Family Therapy in Clinical Practice,  pg. XVII

[12] “A Family Concept of Schizophrenia” in file 1950’s

[13]File name: CLIN RECORD COPIES.   !/3/56 Admission note on the D family written by Dr. Bowen

[14] File Name: Mtg Notes October 1954 Paper “The Current Status of Man in Relation to Mental Health”

[15] Analysis of NIH Program Activities Description Sheet

[16] Letter.  August 17, 1977.  Symposium 1977

[17]Typed papers-draft- “Psychotherapy of the Family as a Unit” Rough Draft- ORTHO- March ’58

[18] “Family patterns in families with a schizophrenic family member” by Murray Bowen, M.D.

in file: Combined Clinical-Staff Present NIH 1956

[19] Family Therapy in Clinical Practice,  pg. XVII

[20] Kerr, Michael and Bowen, Murray, Family Evaluation, Chapter: Epilogue An Odyssey toward Science;  It can also be found in a handwritten draft in the file: Drafts of “Odyssey-In theoretical Principle”

[21]The Place of Family in the Future of the Behavioral Sciences” by Murray Bowen, M.D in  40th Anniversary, June19-22, 1986, Topeka, Kansas,

[22]: Working Papers, chapter on the Origin of the family movement.

[23]  Family Therapy in Clinical Practice,  pg. 351

[24]  3 East Project “Clinical Investigations, NIMH General Staff Meeting, 9/12/58”  hw note from Dr. Dysinger saying he, Dr. Brodey, Mrs. Basamania, Miss Kvarnes and Bowen contributed to it.

[25] Family Therapy in Clinical Practice,  pg. XV

[26] File Name: Papers in Odyssey, Part 1 of 2

[27] File 1950’s single page 9 discussing societal emotional process

[28] Acc. 2007-073, box 3 file: Working Papers chapter on the origin of the family movement

[29] Bowen, M., Family Therapy in Clinical Practice,  pg. XVII