Murray Bowen’s Family Systems Theory

Murray Bowen’s family systems theory changed how we treat people with emotional disorders. He is considered to be the father of human behavior as a science, and he challenged the traditional Freudian-style treatments that centered solely on the patient. Bowen believed that the family was an integral part of the development of a problem in one of its members. He saw the family as an emotional unit with complex systems functioning within it. These systems governed the way in which family members acted and reacted.

Bowen’s theory was based on close observation of many families. In 1954, he began a research project into schizophrenia while working at the National Institute of Mental Health. Initially, he began studying the relationship between the mother and the schizophrenic child. As the project progressed, it became obvious that not only the mother but the entire family were involved in the development of the condition. He began to define patterns of behavior that were common between all of the families. Later, he included more families with members with less severe problems. He discovered that the same patterns of behavior occurred within them also. His observations allowed him to identify patterns of behavior in relationships, and the consistency of these patterns allowed him to predict the probable outcome in different situations.

Bowen believed that human behavior is the result of evolution and is linked to biological functioning. His aim was to identify facts about our emotional functioning and to include information from other fields of knowledge to add weight to his theory. One of the most important concepts of his theory is that of self-integration which interacts with the level of anxiety to produce emotional instability.

Bowen discovered that in situations of acute anxiety most organisms react and adapt quickly and reasonably. It is in the presence of chronic anxiety that enduring tensions develop. This can produce dysfunctions in the relationship system and precipitate negative symptoms. These can manifest themselves in physical or mental illnesses, emotional instability, or as a social illness with characteristics such as withdrawal, impulsiveness, or social misbehavior.

Murray Bowen’s theory is often illustrated by the baking analogy. When a cake comes out of the oven it is much more that than the flour, eggs, oil, and baking powder that went into it. Equally, a family is much more than the individual people that are part of it. A family is defined by how these people come together,


What are the eight concepts of Bowen Theory?

After six years of research, Murray Bowen published his eight concepts of family systems theory. These overlap, interconnect and interact within the relationship systems.

  1. Differentiation of self

This is the most important concept that Bowen developed in his theory. It refers to the level of idea of “self” that a person has. It is the point of fusion between the intellectual and the emotional functioning of the person. To better understand these different ways of functioning, he created a hypothetical scale from 0-100.

Less-differentiated people scored at the lower end of the scale. These people are more dependent on the approval and support of the people around them. They frequently change their opinion to coincide with the majority, and they lack the ability to think and act objectively. They are less adaptable and flexible than those with a higher level of self-differentiation and they allow their emotions to govern their lives. Less differentiated people create a “pseudo-self” based on the pressures from others. They lack solid beliefs, principles, and convictions and can be inconsistent in their thinking and their behavior, randomly switching from one viewpoint to another.

Well-differentiated people adapt to changing circumstances easily and are more emotionally independent. They have a clear idea of who they are and what they think and do not feel threatened by criticism or conflicting beliefs or ideas. They are confident and better able to cope with stress, and they differentiate clearly between emotional and intellectual functioning. They have a solid concept of self, based on their clearly defined principles and beliefs, and they take responsibility for their decisions and actions.

Babies inherit an innate concept of self, and during childhood, their self-differentiation develops in response to their relationships within the family and with their parents. Some children will become more self-differentiated than their parents, others less, and some the same.

  1. Triangles

These are the building blocks of the emotional system. The primary triangle is made up of the mother, father, and the first-born child. The triad relationship is the smallest stable relationship and maintains its balance between shifting alliances. There are usually two people in alliance and one outsider. In times of low stress, the changing of alliances is smooth and maintains the equilibrium. The outsider is usually the one trying to break the existing alliance and establish his own. However, in moments of high tension, the position of outsider becomes more attractive as it is now the place of greater peace. If tensions become unbearable the triangle will need to interact with another triangle to restore the balance.

  1. Nuclear family emotional system

In the immediate family, Bowen describes four common patterns of behavior used to reduce tension and anxiety.

Emotional distancing is present in most families to some extent. It is natural way to protect oneself in a stressful situation. It becomes a problem, however, when distancing makes the resolution of situations impossible as family members refuse to participate in discussions on delicate subjects. Putting up emotional barriers can also eventually lead to isolation from the rest of the family.

Marital conflict occurs when the spouses are unable to find a balance in their roles. They both could be trying to be the primary decision-maker, or they could both be shunning decision making. This leads to tension and blaming the other person for the family’s problems. Often, couples in these situations alternate between intense closeness, then a period of conflict, and then one of emotional distance, before repeating the cycle.

Dysfunction in one spouse happens when one partner under-functions and is totally dependent on the other person. One partner is dominant and the other submissive. Often the partner who has lost their sense of self may develop a physical or mental illness or have social or emotional problems as a result.

Child focus is when the couple focuses all their energy and attention on one particular child. This can relieve the tension between the couple but puts excessive stress on the child. Different children may receive either positive or negative pressure from their parents who use them to diffuse their own problems.

  1. Family projection process

It is natural for parents to focus their hopes, fears, and expectations on their children and the family projection process exists to some degree in virtually all mother-father-child triangles. It becomes problematic when parents imagine certain traits, either positive or negative, in a child. They then reinforce these ideas by their interpretation of the child’s behavior. Eventually, they believe that the child is as they imagine, either deficient and problematic or super-talented with enormous potential. Either belief puts undue pressure on the child who often develops a very intense relationship with his parents or rebels.

  1. Multigenerational transmission process

This is the extension of the family projection process over generations. It is common for one child to receive more attention from the parents and to develop a lower level of differentiation from them than his siblings. The other children who are not so involved with the emotional process of their parents will become more self-differentiated from them.  In this process, some children will emerge at a lower level, the same, or a higher level than their parents. When a person marries, they usually choose a mate who is similarly self-differentiated. That means that the same process will occur in each generation and the resulting differences become more noticeable. When there are descendants with lower and lower levels of self-differentiation, dysfunction is likely to occur. Bowen used genograms to map the processes going on in families over several generations. These allowed him to predict where future problems could occur and to prevent them from being passed on to the next generation.


  1. Sibling position

Murray Bowen incorporated the work of the psychologist Walter Toman into this concept. Toman studied the personality profiles of siblings born into different positions in the family. He documented how children born into a similar position in the family frequently showed similar behavior and characteristics. Of course, not all children fit into the “normal” pattern, but Bowen applied the information to better understand the systems operating within a family.

  1. Emotional cutoff

Bowen added this concept to his theory in 1975. Unresolved emotional issues between parents and children can result in them distancing themselves either physically or emotionally. Often, children will move a long way away from the family home only visiting infrequently and for short periods of time. During these visits, there is almost always disaccord as the underlying issues remain unsolved. Sometimes children may remain geographically close but simply choose not to have anything to do with their parents. If the child has very low self-differentiation, they may remain in the parent’s home but lead a detached and indifferent existence to them.

  1. Societal Emotional Process

Bowen considered from the early stages in developing his theory that the systems operating within the family were also reflected in society, although initially, he did not include this concept in his theory. Over time, he began to observe more indications that society is experiencing a level of anxiety that is causing people to react more emotionally and to become emotionally ill. He felt that society was experiencing stress due to overpopulation, contamination, decreasing food, and water supplies. A society shows symptoms such as increasing crime rates, drug use, and abuse of the rights of others when it is dysfunctional. Just as with a family, Bowen felt that the solution for society is to face up to the problems and seek logical, effective solutions to them to cure its members.


What is the family system theory?

Bowen’s family systems theory believes that individual family members cannot be separated from the network of relationships that surrounds them. He believed that changes in one member’s behavior changes the functioning of the entire family. Equally, he believed that changing the dynamics of the relationships with the family unit affects the behavior of individual family members.

In Bowen’s theory, a family who is the subject of sustained, chronic anxiety will lose contact with their intellectually determined principles. The family will begin to operate more on emotionally based decisions in an attempt to alleviate the anxiety of the moment. Eventually, dysfunction occurs and the family operates at a less efficient level.

Murray Bowen’s theory provides guidelines to better understand the way that families function. Of course, no two families are the same, and so it is somewhat surprising to discover that families do follow similar systems in their functioning. By identifying and documenting repeated patterns, Bowen was able to develop his therapy based on the family systems theory that has helped many families and individuals to overcome emotional challenges in their lives. His theory centers on the relationships and dynamics within the family.


What are the basic goals of Bowen’s approach?

Bowen’s aim is to identify systems of emotional behavior within the family unit that are having a detrimental effect upon its members. Mapping the genogram of the family allows therapists to discover patterns of behavior that have been passed on from generation to generation and are currently manifesting themselves in serious emotional problems.  During therapy, practitioners of the Bowenian theory use this historical information, combined together with their observations of the actual situation, to guide the family to discover ways in which they can improve their situation and break the cycle.

Bowenian family therapy focuses on developing better communication systems and relationships within the family. Skilled therapists use a variety of techniques which allow the family to discover new communication skills which strengthen the unity and security of the unit and so support each induvial member.


What are the four subsystems in family systems theory?

  1. Marital

This refers to the relationship between the husband and wife, or the same-sex partners.

  1. Parental

This is the relationship between the parents, or caregivers, with the children.

  1. Sibling

Refers to the relationships between the children with their brothers and sisters.

  1. Extended family

Considers the interactions between the members of the nuclear family and the extended family.

Establishing the boundaries between these subsystems is important. This helps to define the place and responsibility of each person in the family. Boundaries exclude and include different members of the family. They also establish who can be involved in the family system and who no.

Individual members of the family, and of the subsystems that exist within the family relationships, are mutually dependent on one another and mutually influenced. Subsystems will change depending on the ages and needs of the family members and Bowen’s theory emphasizes the need for permeability and change within the systems.

Families with clearly defined yet permeable boundaries tend to be more open and honest. They respond better to outside help to solve problems when this is necessary.  Families where the boundaries are strictly defined and where there is little interaction, tend to be more secretive and have greater difficulty in accepting outside assistance and applying it to their situation.

Establishing healthy boundaries within the relationships in the family is an important part of family therapy. Respect and calm, clear communication is essential to maintain healthy boundaries to promote the harmonious functioning of the family.

Family therapists are highly trained and professional people. They have a master’s degree in a related subject and they also pass many hours in supervised therapy situations before being allowed to practice on their own. Establishing trust and rapport with the family is essential for therapy to be effective. Once a therapeutic relationship has been achieved, and boundaries within the family unit defined and maintained, the therapist will use different techniques to help the family to identify and solve their problems. Family therapy often uses role-playing to encourage family members to act out their roles in an imaginary situation. The skills that they learn in this process can then be applied to their real-life situation. Therapists encourage communications where each person takes responsibility for their actions and does not blame others for their situation. They help families to step back from their problems and encounter new ways to confront and change them.

Family therapy based on Murray Bowen’s theory is used around the world and has allowed many families to reestablish balance and harmony in the system functioning within the family and so promote the good health of each family member.






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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