Bowen Family Systems Theory

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Bowen Family Systems Theory: 

Bowen Family Systems Theory Theory of human behavior views family as an emotional unit and uses systems thinking to describe complex interactions in the unit. Functioning of family members is interdependent: change in one person’s functioning is predictably followed by a reciprocal change in the function of others. Emotional interdependence will intensify under heightened tension (anxiety will escalate) Result: individual becomes overwhelmed, isolated, out of control. This is the person who accommodates the most to reduce tension in others. Person literally “absorbs” anxiety and is prone to problems (i.e. drugs, alcohol, etc.)

Characteristics of Systems: 

Characteristics of Systems Whole is greater than the parts Systems comprised of independent elements that share some common goals, interrelated functions, boundaries and an identity Systems are composed of subsystems Systems prefer homeostasis Systems are adaptive Contains boundaries (open vs. closed)

Two Major Force Within Each Individual: 

Two Major Force Within Each Individual Togetherness Force Natural instinct, highly emotional reaction to environment Adaptive process described by the degree: Maintain harmony w/others Assume responsibility for others Automatically think of others before ourselves More “other” oriented Emotion (bonding) Result in Fusion

Two Major Forces: 

Two Major Forces Individual Force Based on careful thought and shows the degree to which the person assumes responsibility for his/her own happiness and direction in life More “self” oriented Objective, Rational Result is Individual

Characteristics of Forces: 

Characteristics of Forces Both are continually in action and act in opposition to one another. All families lie on a Fusion-Differentiation Continuum If emotions and rationality are not distinct enough in an individual, they are referred to as FUSED Emotions tend to be stronger than rationality If emotions and rationality distinct then person is more DIFFERENTIATED


Anxiety Very easily transferred among family members Stronger the bond between family members, the more sensitivity to anxiety Family with strong emotional bonds (fused families) have a very strong reaction if anxiety appears in any member Family members lose sight of own goals and focus on what other says/wants High fusion families More vulnerable to development of major life problems Distancing

Bowen’s 8 Concepts: Triangles: 

Bowen’s 8 Concepts: Triangles Three person relationship system Building “molecule” of larger emotional systems (smallest stable relationship system) Odd man “out” (generates anxiety) Someone is always uncomfortable in triangle and pushing for change Feelings of rejection Tension: Spreading tension stabilizes system but nothing gets resolved When mild/moderate tension between insiders: Uncomfortable one moves toward outsider “New” outsider makes moves toward outsider At high levels of tension, outside position becomes the most desirable One insider may opt for outside position by getting current outsider to fight w/other insider Maneuvering insider watches other two fight, when tension and conflict subside, he/she will try to regain an insider position

Bowen’s 8 Concepts: Differentiation of Self: 

Bowen’s 8 Concepts: Differentiation of Self Relates to the impact of others on your functioning: Conformity versus independence: the less developed your sense of “self”; the more impact others have on your functioning and the more you try to control (actively or passively) the behavior of others. Basic building blocks of “self” are hardwired Early childhood/adolescent primarily determines how much “self” you develop Once established rarely changes UNLESS a person makes a structured and long term effort to change it. Characteristics of Poorly Differentiated Self Chameleons: Depends heavily on acceptance of others Bullies Extreme rebel: pretends to be “self” by routinely opposing positions of others. Characteristics of Well Differentiated Self Recognizes realistic dependence on others Less emotionality, principled decision-making Can act selflessly but is a choice Family with intense interdependence troubled by stressful events

Bowen’s 8 Concepts: Nuclear Family Emotional Systems: 

Bowen’s 8 Concepts: Nuclear Family Emotional Systems Four Basic Relationship Patterns Marital conflict: As family tension increases and spouses get more anxious, each spouse externalizes his/her anxiety into the marital relationship Each focuses on each other, each tries to control the other, and each resists the other’s efforts at control Dysfunction in one Spouse: One spouse pressures the other to think and act in certain ways and the other yields to the pressure Under extreme tension, subordinate spouse may yield self-control to the point of medical or social dysfunction Impairment of one or more children: Spouses focus their anxieties on one or more of their children Parent’s worry excessively and usually have an idealize or negative view of the child More the parent’s focus on child; more the child focuses on them Process undercuts the child’s differentiation from family and make him vulnerable to act out or internalize family tensions Emotional Distance: This pattern is consistently associated with others People distance from each other to reduce intensity of relationship, but risk becoming too isolated.

Bowen’s 8 Concept: Family Projection Process: 

Bowen’s 8 Concept: Family Projection Process Describes the primary way parents transit their emotional problems to a child Children inherit problems and strengths through their relationships with their problems Problems that affect them most are relationship sensitivities: Need for attention and approval Difficulty dealing with expectations Tendency to blame oneself or others Feeling responsible for the happiness of other or that others are responsible for one’s own happiness Acting impulsively to relieve the anxiety of the moment rather than tolerating anxiety and acting thoughtfully. Projection process follows three steps: Parent focuses on child out of fear that something is wrong (scanning) Parent interprets child’s behavior as confirming that fear (diagnosing) Parent treats child as if something is really wrong with the child (treating) Parent’s fears and perceptions so shape child’s development and behavior that he grows to embody those fears and perceptions Siblings may be more mature; Parents both involved in process

Bowen’s 8 Concepts: Multigenerational Transition Process: 

Bowen’s 8 Concepts: Multigenerational Transition Process How small differences in the levels of differentiation between parents and their offspring lead over many generations to marked difference in differentiation among the members of a multigenerational family. We develop levels of differentiation similar to our parents Relationship patterns of nuclear family emotional systems often results In one member of sibling group developing a little more and one a little less “self” We select a mate with levels of differentiation of self that match our own Sibling lines diverge with levels of differentiation also diverging Level of differentiation can affect life functioning Longevity Marital Stability Health Educational Accomplishments Occupational Success Outcomes

Bowen’s 8 Concepts: Emotional Cutoff: 

Bowen’s 8 Concepts: Emotional Cutoff Describes people managing their unresolved emotional issues with parents, siblings and other family members by reducing or totally cutting off emotional contact with them. Physically remove avoid sensitive issues Unresolved attachments: Person feels more like a child when at home and looks to parents to make decisions for him that he can make for himself Person feels guilty when he is in ore contact with his parents and that he must solve their conflicts or distresses Person feels enraged that parents do not seem to understand or approve of him Outcome

Bowen’s 8 Concepts: Sibling Position: 

Bowen’s 8 Concepts: Sibling Position Based on Walter Tomas’s work on sibling positions People in the same sibling position have important common characteristics Sibling and rank positions are complementary Due to differentiation, expectations may change Youngest becomes “functional oldest” Parent’s sibling position is important Child of two youngest vs. child of two oldest Family Business Roles Expectations for behavior Family role impacts business role

Bowen’s 8 Concepts: Societal Emotional Process: 

Bowen’s 8 Concepts: Societal Emotional Process Each concept applies to nonfamily groups, such as work and social organizations Bowen uses to explain periods “progression” and “regression” in human society Believed we are in a state of regression: Tend to act to relieve anxiety not problem Symptoms: Growth of crime and violence - drug abuse epidemic Increasing divorce rate - greater polarization of races More litigious attitude - less principled leaders Increase in bankruptcy - focus on rights/responsibilities Current regression is related to: Population explosion Sense of diminishing frontiers Depletion of natural resources Bowen predicted that the current regression would, like a family in a regression, continue until the repercussions stemming from taking the easy way out on tough issues exceeded the pain associated with acting on a long-term view. Predicted this would occur in the 21st Century and result in human beings living in more harmony with nature.