Bowen Family Systems theory

Bowen Family Systems theory

Dr. Murray Bowen developed his family systems theory to better understand how families function. A central element of the theory is that human relationships are governed by an emotional system that has developed and evolved over a long period of time.

Families who are respectful and supportive of all the members are usually happy and productive units. However, when there are tensions, pressures, disagreements, resentments, and other problems, not only the family becomes dysfunctional but also one or more of its members can exhibit mental or physical health issues. These, in turn, can create more stress within the family and further problems.

A healthy family encourages honest and open relationships and communication. There exist boundaries in behaviors and relationships that all respect. Additionally, there is a sense of unison, union, and bonding between members. Everyone is encouraged to express their opinions freely and disagreements are solved by calm and respectful discussion.

Every family is unique and not all deal with problems in the same way. Different cultural or religious beliefs can influence the way in which family life is conducted. Even in the best-balanced families, there will always be occasional moments of tension or stress. However, it is the way in which the family deals with them that makes the difference in the outcome. In a dysfunctional family where some members dominate and others are forced to submit, problems can develop out of control and destroy the family unit.

Bowen spent many, many hours observing the way different families behave and the systems that operate within them. He advanced his theory based on these observations. The development of his therapy techniques has helped many families to re-establish a healthy balance and peace in their family unit and to resolve the health problems of individual members.

Relationships within a family are complex. The close proximity that being part of a family implies means that relationships are intense and changing. Some people may try to isolate themselves from other family members to maintain their independence. However, the emotions and behavior of the rest of the family can put pressure on the person to conform. This can cause stress and disaccord. Family dynamics change. Alliances are formed and sometimes distances develop. Members vie for approval, support, and attention. Families have a deep effect on the emotions, thoughts, and actions of all members. A change in the way one member acts has an effect on all the others. This level of connection creates interdependence between family members.

This emotional interdependence developed to enhance the cohesion between family members to work together to supply the basic needs of the family, like food, shelter, and protection from attacks. However, this closeness can sometimes work negatively. If one person becomes stressed and anxious it can spread to other family members and escalate the original problem. As the tension increases some members may feel overwhelmed by their emotions and lose control. This in turn produces more tension and the problem escalates further. Some members of the family become more dominant and others more submissive. The member or members who try the most to diffuse the tension end up taking the most stress on themselves. This can lead them to both physical and mental illnesses and behaviors that can be detrimental to health such as alcohol or drug use.

What are the eight concepts of Bowen Theory?

Bowen’s theory consists of eight concepts that overlap and interlock.


A triangle is the relationship system that develops between any three family members. Triangles are the smallest stable relationship and the building block of all larger relationship systems. A relationship between two people, called a dyad, is by nature unstable and intolerant of tension. With a three-person relationship, the balance and alliances shift between the three elements which curiously gives it more stability.

Triangles have two people in alliance and one who is outside of it. This creates tension, but in a healthy triangle, the balance of those who are together and the outsider changes constantly in different circumstances. However, if the alliance becomes so intense that the third person is always the excluded one, this can cause increasing tension. No-one wants to be the left one out and that person will try different ways in which to swing the balance of power. The one who is excluded is always pushing to become accepted by one or the other of the alliance. If the pair remain faithful to their alliance the outsider feels rejected and undesirable. However, each one of the allies is also concerned that they may become the excluded one. If the tension between the pair results in one of them joining with the other person the balance changes.  It is this inherent transforming tension that actually creates stability in the triad.

Triangles normally have two harmonious sides and one that is in conflict. When tension levels are really high the outsider position becomes attractive because it becomes that of greater peace. In this case, one person of the dyad decides to provoke his previous ally into fighting with the original outsider. This allows him to take on the now more comfortable outsider position and watch to other two battle it out. Once things calm down again the new outsider will then push to regain his old position with his original ally. Triangles are powerful relationship units that provoke intense feelings and can trigger mental or physical illnesses.

2. Differentiation of Self

Social pressure in groups or families affects the way members act, feel, and think. However, some people are naturally more prone to conform under pressure than others. A person with a well-developed idea of who they are, or differentiation of self, is not so easily influenced by pressure from others.

People are born with an idea of “self”. During their developmental years, this can develop positively or negatively depending on the family dynamics. Once established, however, it is difficult for a person to change the self-differentiation that has been developed during childhood and adolescence.

People with a well-differentiated “self” have a clear idea of who they are and what they believe. They can take criticism calmly. remain clear-headed in moments of conflict, and handle rejection objectively. They are rational thinkers who do not allow their emotions to override the facts of the situation. While they are confident of their position they are respectful and supportive of others with differing thoughts.

Poorly differentiated people, however, do not really know themselves. They depend on the approval and acceptance of others and are often quick to change their opinion to that of the majority. They can also, however, be very dogmatic and try to pressure others to agree with them. Bullies are very often people who are poorly self-differentiated.

In the family, the level of emotional interdependence depends on the self-differentiation levels of each of the members. The more that they are dependant on each other the harder it is for the family to deal with problems and to adapt to stress.

3. Nuclear family emotional process

In Bowen’s family system theory, he defines four basic relationship patterns. The main driving force in the development of these patterns is emotions. When there is an increase in tension between family members the relationship patterns change. If the family cannot adapt to the tension and solve the problem symptoms can develop in their relationship patterns. The greater the stress the more severe the symptoms will be.

Different members or relationships absorb more or less anxiety to try and keep the family unit functioning. Those who absorb most anxiety are those who suffer the consequences most.

The basic relationship patterns are:

  • Marital conflict

When tensions rise, it is often the parents who exhibit symptoms in their relationship. They tend to blame their partner for what is happening. Also, one often tries to control the other, something that both of them resist.

  • Dysfunction in one spouse

One of the partners yields to the pressure of the other. When both do this to a small degree, harmony can be maintained.  However, if one partner yields too much self-control, they can feel threatened and anxious and tensions rise further.

  • Impairment of one or more children

The parents focus their hopes, fears, and anxieties on one of their offspring. Sometimes they have an overly idealized image of the child, or conversely, an overly negative one. This, in turn, forces the child to intensify his relationship with them, which reduces his differentiation from the family. He internalizes or acts out the family tensions which can affect his performance and relationships at school and affect his physical and mental health.

  • Emotional Distance 

When there is discord in the family, members may distance themselves from others to reduce the intensity of the relationships. This is quite normal, but if the tension persists people can find themselves permanently isolated.

4. Family projection process

Children inherit both strengths and weaknesses from their parents. When parents transmit their own emotional problems to their child these can become even more pronounced and debilitating in their offspring.  Some of the most common problems that children inherit from their parents are, the tendency to blame themselves, or others, of feeling themselves to be responsible for the happiness of others. Also, a heightened need for approval or attention, problems in dealing with expectations, or acting impulsively to try to reduce anxiety.

There are three steps in the projection process.

First, the parent fears that there is something wrong with the child.

Then, they confirm this fear by misinterpreting the child’s behavior.

Finally, they treat the child as if they really do have something wrong with them.

In this way, the fears and perceptions of the parents are passed on to the child. Often the parents try to remedy the problem, but in their desperation only end up exacerbating it further. In the intense triangular relationship between the parents and this child, the father is normally the outsider as the mother is most often the primary caregiver and worrier. Due to the intensity of the relationships in this triangle, often other siblings develop a more balanced and healthier relationship with their parents.

5. Multigenerational transmission process

While developing his family systems theory Bownes took detailed histories of the families he observed. He developed genograms that included as much information about the mental and physical health of family members as possible, as well as any traits or personality quirks, and their relationships. He tried to gather information for at least three generations. This information allowed him to see how differences in differentiation are passed on from generation to generation. These differences are passed on via relationships. Sometimes, transmission can be deliberate, but often it is part of the unconscious programming that occurs between parents and children.

In most families, some children develop a more developed idea of “self” than others. When they come to select a mate, they usually select a person with a similar self-differentiation to their own. That means that those who are well-differentiated will likely procreate offspring who are also well-differentiated. However, those with a low level of “self” will also, unfortunately, pass this onto their children.

Over generations, the difference becomes more marked and can cause more problems in the lives of the descendants. Bowen felt that by analyzing the past he could assist people to understand the root of their problems and to prevent the continued inheritance of negative traits to the next generation.

6. Emotional cutoff

When there are unresolved emotional issues within the family, some family members may decide to reduce or eliminate contact with the family. Some may physically distance themselves by moving away. Others may remain in physical contact but avoid discussing any sensitive issues.

Most families experience unresolved attachments to some degree. Well-differentiated people can handle them better than poorly differentiated ones. When the person who has cut themselves off from the family returns to visit, even when all have the intention to treat each other respectfully, the situation can often develop into a hysterical shouting match. Emotions run high and the old problems return.

Many people who cut themselves off from their family of origin begin to put more importance on their current relationships with friends, spouse, or children. This, in turn, can cause pressure and tension in these new relationships.

7. Sibling position

Along with his own observations, Murray Bowen incorporates the work of psychologist Walter Toman on sibling position into his family systems theory. This concept is that across all families, children born in the same sibling position display similar traits and behaviors. The older children tend to be leaders and the younger one’s followers. The youngest child frequently likes to be in charge, but they are not leaders in the same way as the older children. In a healthy family situation, the different positions complement each other.

Toman’s research also showed that marriages have a better chance of success if the two people have a similar sibling rank position in their families of origin.

8. Societal emotional process

Bowen’s family systems theory can also be extended to non-family groups. Each of the concepts can be observed in social or work organizations and even in society as a whole. The societal emotional process concept explains how the emotional system governs behavior in society and how it can create periods of both regression and progression. An increase in the crime rate, violence, delinquency, divorces, intolerance, bankruptcy, drug abuse, among others, are all symptoms of societal recession.

We are currently experiencing a recession and Bowen predicted that it would take until the middle of the twenty-first century for society to face up to the issues affecting it instead of seeking an easy way out. He predicted that our society, just as in a family, needs to implement a realistic long-term plan, that might be painful, but that is necessary for things to improve. He envisaged a greater harmony and respect for nature as being one of the core elements needed for societal change.


What is family systems theory?

Family systems theory believes that evolution has created our emotional system and this is responsible for how we handle relationships. From this perspective, symptoms in an individual family member are seen as a result of unresolved conflicts in the relationships within the family unit. The family is seen as a unit with a complex social system that influences how family members react and interconnect. Understanding the systems that are functioning within the family can allow a therapist to assess how these have influenced the condition of a particular family member.

Genograms form an important part of Bowen’s theory. Creating a history of the relationships in a person’s family can help to identify where problems have come from. A potential limitation of the family systems model could be that the needs of a particular family member can be overshadowed by the needs of the system.

What are the basic goals of Bowen’s approach?

Bowen’s primary goal in family therapy is to improve communication and tolerance between family members. By promoting a healthier functioning of the family unit so problems in individual members also improve.

In family therapy, the therapist assists the family to identify, set, and maintain healthy boundaries. This allows each family member to have a clear view of their place within the family and the responsibilities that their role implies. Once this has been achieved, the next step is to promote clear and calm communication between family members. This allows the development of a sense of cohesion within the family unit and encourages empathy, trust, and understanding between them. Finally, it is possible to identify problem areas and find ways to resolve them and reduce conflicts between members.

Family therapy uses many different techniques that allow families to develop the skills they need to face and overcome challenging situations. Therapists are highly trained with a master’s degree and many hours of supervised training. This allows them to choose appropriate therapies to help the family. Establishing a relationship of trust between the family and the therapist is essential for therapy to be effective. Sometimes therapists work with the entire family, or with different combinations of members.

Therapy often uses role-playing and enactments. These techniques can produce excellent results as they allow the family to distance themselves from their own situation and learn how to act out the scenario in a different way to how they would normally react. Later they will be able to apply their new communication skills to solve problems before they become too detrimental to the health of the family and its individual members.

When did Bowen create family systems theory?

Bowen started to develop his theory in the 1950s. He spent many years observing and analyzing the relationships where one family member was schizophrenic. He advanced his family systems theory by the late 1960s, and in the 1970s included the genogram as part of the model. He identified four basic family communication patterns that influence the functioning of the family. These are known as consensual, pluralistic, protective, and laissez-faire.

Bowen’s theory included either a structural approach to family therapy where therapy sessions are used to evaluate and modify the behavior of the family unit, which in turn modifies the behavior of the individual patient. He also used a strategic approach, where there are no therapy sessions, and which seeks rapid and effective solutions to problems with a more hands-on approach directly working on relationships within the family unit.

Many psychologists have since used, adapted, and advanced Bowen’s original model, but his theory remains largely intact and still used as the base of family therapy today. Murray Bowen’s work changed how we view the family and has brought help and comfort to many families over the years. Bowenian family therapy is widely practiced around the world today.






author avatar
Angel Rivera
I am a Bilingual (Spanish) Psychiatrist with a mixture of strong clinical skills including Emergency Psychiatry, Consultation Liaison, Forensic Psychiatry, Telepsychiatry and Geriatric Psychiatry training in treatment of the elderly. I have training in EMR records thus very comfortable in working with computers. I served the difficult to treat patients in challenging environments in outpatient and inpatient settings

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