What is Bowen’s family systems theory?

Dr. Murray Bowen’s family systems theory considers the family to be an emotional unit that influences the behavior of its members. He developed his theory to better understand human behavior.

Murray was born in 1913 and died in 1990. He trained as a psychiatrist in Menninger. In the 1950s and 60s Murray, spent many hours observing the functioning of different families and the interactions and relationships between family members. From these observations, he developed his theory and revolutionized the way in which we regard families. He went on to devise family therapy based on this theory. This therapy has helped many troubled families to restore balance and order within the family unit and to improve the health of its members.

What is Bowen’s family systems theory?

Bowen used systems thinking to develop his theory and its eight interlocking concepts. This way of thinking enables you to get a broad perspective of the overall way in which the system functions. It allows you to focus on the patterns, cycles, and structures of the system as a whole, rather than focusing on the individual specific elements that make it up. Systems thinking is a holistic approach that concentrates on the interactions between the different parts rather than on each individual part.

In applying systems thinking to families, Bowen considers the family to be a complex social system. Its members interact with one another and influence their behavior, but Bowen concentrates on the system that allows this to happen, rather than on the individual people. By observing and understanding the dynamics of the family as a complete unit he was able to identify similar systems operating across different families. This gave him the ability to identify problem areas that could be corrected through therapy. Also, to predict future possible problems based on the systems that had developed in other similar situations.

In his family systems theory, Bowen considers the family to be an entity with interdependent and interrelated parts but which is something more than simply the sum of its parts. A change in one part of the system inevitably provokes a change in another part and in the system as a whole. If the system is functioning in a healthy way these changes allow positive growth as the system adapts and evolves, as necessary. However, families are a very emotionally charged environment, and disagreements often arise.

In Bowen’s investigations, he discovered that the way that the family deals with a stressful situation determines the health and happiness not only of the family unit but also of the individual members. His premise was to improve communication, confidence, and respect between family members and so provide a calmer, healthier environment for everyone to develop in. Bowen observed the relationships between parents and children, and between siblings, and found similarities between them that he used to create his theory. Murray also created genograms that recorded the family history going back at least three generations. From these, he could discover how behaviors had been passed on from generation to generation. This assisted him in family therapy to prevent negative traits and behaviors from continuing on from parent to child.


What are the basic goals of Bowen’s approach?

Bowen family therapy aims to increase communication, understanding, respect, and empathy between family members so that the family unit can evolve in a healthy way. Families who are dysfunctional often are so caught up in their own issues that they cannot take a step back and observe the bigger situation.

Therapy based on Bowen’s theory is given by a qualified therapist who has a master’s degree in a relevant subject. Additionally, they have completed many hours of supervised therapy and are highly trained and professional people. Initially, therapy sessions are with the whole family. This allows the therapist to observe and analyze the systems that are at work within the family unit. It is also a time when the therapist builds trust and confidence with the family members. It is vital for therapy to be successful that a bond and empathy exist between the family and their therapist. As therapy advances, the family will be dealing with difficult emotions and problematic behaviors and so need to have confidence in the guidance and knowledge of the therapist.

The family therapist will decide what therapies are appropriate for the situation. Frequently, the first stage of therapy involves setting boundaries so that each family member understands their place and role within the family unit. Promoting calm exchanges of thoughts and ideas between family members requires skill, and the therapist will encourage people to express their own thoughts without attacking or blaming other family members. They may use a number of different techniques including enactment and roleplaying as often it is easier to guide behavior in a hypothetical situation and then apply it to the real one.  Sometimes the therapist will work only with part of the family to achieve the results needed to change the dynamics of the unit. The family will be encouraged to take a step back and look at their problems in a different light with the help of the therapist.

Bowenian family therapy is used around the world and has enabled many families to find solutions to problems that seemed to be unsurmountable and has encouraged positive changes in behavior in family members.


What are the eight concepts of Bowen Theory?

There are eight concepts that makeup Bowen’s family systems theory and these interlock and overlap.

  1. Triangles

For any family, the first relationship that develops after the pairing in marriage is triangular. It consists of the couple and the first child. The birth of the first child changes the existing dynamics between the couple. Pregnancy and childbirth can be stressful times and the understanding and support between the couple will influence how they react when the child is born. A new baby brings with it many changes in daily life, new responsibilities, as well as new hopes, and dreams. The triangular relationship that exists between these three family members is the building block for all other relationships in the family.

When there is clear communication and understanding between the couple the triangle will develop positively. It is natural that there are sentiments that cause friction within the triangle. Often one person feels excluded but this is usually transitory and as time passes alliances are made and changed frequently. The triangle is a stable relationship that can adapt to changes in a positive way.  With the arrival of subsequent siblings, other triangles will be formed within the family. These frequently bring support to family members when tensions within one particular triangle become too difficult to handle.

  1. Differentiation of self

This is a particularly important part of Bowen’s theory and one that we will be looking at in closer detail later.

  1. Nuclear family emotional process

Bowen defines four distinct relationship patterns within the family unit.

Marital conflict. Frequently it is the parents who absorb the most stress when there are tensions within the family. Often, one partner blames the other one for the situation and holds them responsible for the malfunctioning of the family.

Dysfunction in one spouse. In healthy marriages, there is give and take on both sides. However, if one spouse exerts their authority over the other causing them to give up too much of their self-control, they will feel threatened. This can lead to more tension and greater anxiety within the family unit.

Impairment of one or more of the children. It is natural that parents have hopes, fears, and expectations for their offspring. However, problems arise when they focus their attention, either negatively or positively, on one child. This puts undue pressure on that child and can provoke resentment in the others. Frequently, the child on whom most attention is focused on experiences an overly intense relationship with his parents. This can cause him either to act out his tensions in unacceptable behaviors or to internalize them which can negatively affect his mental health.

Emotional distance. When relationships are tense and there is disaccord in the family, it is common for one or more members to seek refuge from the emotional barrage by distancing themselves. They do this by refusing to be drawn into sensitive discussions or confronting complicated issues, and by putting up emotional barriers.

  1. Family projection process

Parents can pass on both good and bad traits to their children, and the family projection process can occur both intentionally and subconsciously. Frequently parents worry that their child may have something wrong with them, and then interpret the child’s behavior as confirmation of this. Eventually, they become convinced that something is wrong with the child and they continue treating them as if they really have a problem. This causes an intense triangular relationship between this child and the parents.

  1. Multigenerational transmission process

This is the natural extension of the previous concept. As parents pass their behaviors onto their children these, in turn, will pass them onto theirs. In the process, the self-differentiation between the child and the parent becomes reduced even further and the problem escalates. Additionally, people with a low level of self-differentiation will typically seek out a partner with a similarly poor definition of self. This will lead to their offspring being even less differentiated. Bowen placed great importance on genograms which mapped out these traits in previous generations and allowed him to predict how they would manifest themselves in the present and future generations. His family therapy aimed to break this cycle.

  1. Emotional cutoff

Sometimes when the emotions within the family are out of control, one or more family members may decide to distance themselves from the family. In doing so, they shield and protect themselves from the continuous turmoil that is causing excessive stress in the family. It is often the result of the person’s inability to accept their own part in the turmoil. A level of stress is inherent in all close relationships, and the family unit is no exception. However, the negative systems that develop in many dysfunctional families will not allow a solution to be found. When members who have distanced themselves return, almost inevitably the same tensions and disaccords rise again as the underlying issues remain unresolved.

  1. Sibling position

The psychologist Walter Toman investigated the similarities between siblings who were born into the same position in the family, and Bowen incorporated this work into his family systems theory. Firstborn children frequently take a leadership position, while younger children commonly became followers. Interestingly, when someone marries a person with a similar sibling ranking to their own, there is a greater chance that the marriage will function well.

  1. Societal emotional process

This concept refers to how the family systems theory can be expanded to other groups such as social and work organizations. The same emotional systems that control behavior within the family unit also apply in wider applications and in society in general.


What is differentiation of self in Bowen’s theory?

Differentiation of self refers to the level of emotional maturity of an individual. At birth, we inherit genetically an idea of self that has been passed down to us by our ancestors. During our childhood and adolescence, our level of self-differentiation is influenced by the emotional, environmental, and biological aspects of our family of origin.

People with a high level of self-differentiation are usually confident and can handle criticisms and defuse conflict in a calm and productive way. They are often people who are active in their communities and who can hold down responsible jobs and raise their families in a balanced and nurturing way manner.

People who have low self-differentiation tend to merge or fuse with another person when in a close emotional relationship. These people are easily influenced by others or they can also be bullies forcing others to join them in their beliefs. They need the support and approval of others to function. However, many people with low self-differentiation can find the balance they need to lead a stable emotional life.

Bowen developed a scale to measure the different levels of differentiation of self. He used it as a tool to help him to understand the variations in functioning as a system, rather than the effect on individual people. He wanted to illustrate the enormous range of different self-differentiations.

He gave a score of 0-25 for those with the lowest level of emotional maturity. These people prefer to go along with the will of the group and rarely stand up for themselves. Additionally, they are prone to absorb the anxiety of the group which can lead to both mental and physical illness.

People with a score from 25-50 are those people who are fine when things are calm. They rely on their principles and are capable of reasoning and reacting based on facts rather than emotions. However, when feelings become intense, they tend to lose control and often act impulsively to try and make themselves feel better in a stressful situation.

Scores between 50 and 60 reveal a person who has clearly defined principles and is capable of reaching decisions through clear and logical thought. These people communicate openly and do not become over-emotional when opposed, nor do they tend to fall into negative thought processes.

People with scores between 60 and 75 have a more highly developed ideal of self and are content in their own freedom and are willing to leave others to theirs. They have a realistic outlook on life and tend to be balanced in their relationships and in their emotions.

Currently, people with scores from 75 to 100 are virtually unknown, but Bowen felt that this was a level of functioning that humans could eventually evolve to. Murray felt that most people scored less than 60 and that those with a score superior to this made up a very small percentage of society.

As we have mentioned, people are born with a self-differentiation level which is then influenced during childhood, and once they reach maturity few people will change their level. However, with conscious effort, individuals can become aware of their emotional immaturity and take steps to increase it. Family therapy can assist people in identifying their emotional problems and encountering ways to remedy them.




Murray Bowen, M.D. and The Nine Concepts in Family Systems Theory





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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