An overview of Bowen family systems theory – a different way of thinking

Given how much my book is about applying Bowen’s theory to understanding the commonalities of the families we all grow up in, it’s timely to use this excerpt (from ch. 3) as a mini blog to provide a crash course in family systems concepts. You will recognise them, described in everyday language, all the way through this book. 

Bowen researched his own family over the generations and came to see similarities in coping patterns with those families with more severe psychiatric symptoms. He noticed that there were two forces at work in relationships that drive predictable patterns of behaviour: these are the togetherness force and the separateness force, which are both essential for individuals in their relationships. The core concepts of Bowen’s theory describe the ways that family members react to the threat of loss of togetherness and explain the variations in how different families and individuals manage life challenges. These core concepts are: triangles, which describe how tension between two people gets detoured to a third party, such as when a wife discusses marital grievances with a friend rather than their husband or when a parent discuss parental grievances with a child rather than their partner; differentiation of self, which describes the extent to which family members can stay in their own skin — maintain their individuality — while relating to each other and still being part of the family group; fusion, the opposite of differentiation of self, where boundaries are lost in the pull for family togetherness; the nuclear family emotional system, which outlines the three ways that one generation of a family can reduce individual relationship discomfort — these are the conflict-and-distance pattern, the over- and under-functioning exchange between spouses, and the anxious detour onto a child. The family projection process explains how insecurities in adults can be managed through shifting the focus to the next generation; the multigenerational transmission process describes how parents’ anxieties are not transmitted equally to each child as each gets varying degrees of a parent’s worry focus; emotional cut-off is a common way that family members use distance to reduce the sense of loss of individuality in relationships; sibling position was seen by Bowen as formative in an individual’s relationship sensitivities; and societal regression process showed how the same anxious patterns in families can be seen in institutions in the broader society. All of these ideas, linked together, help show how every individual is part of a much bigger stage of actors in the same improvised play, building a storyline through their interconnections.

To see things from a systems perspective requires getting out of a ‘cause and effect’ way of thinking to seeing how every person’s impulses are part of a circuit of reactions that flow like electric currents around relationships. It’s as if relationships are a kind of dance, with each person responding intuitively to the dance steps of another. These circuits of emotional and behavioural responses in relationships shape how each individual develops. Hence getting real about ourselves in our original families requires us to get honest about how our emotional responses and behaviours flow onto others and influence how they appear to us. The good news, from a systems way of thinking, is that changing our emotional reactions and behaviours eventually flows onto changing the entire circuit of the system. That is if we can hold onto the principles that drive our change efforts in the face of others’ anxiety. This is how we can make a positive difference over time, not just for ourselves but for everyone we’re connected to.

 

Photo with permission: A Schara

Adopting a research attitude to your life in your significant relationships: a template to guide you

Dr Murray Bowen wrote, “A goal of this therapy is to help the other make a research project out of life” (Bowen, 1978, p. 179). What do you think of this as a counselling goal? – Not to fix, but to motivate a person’s learning journey about themselves in their family system. Nurturing a posture of curiosity through gathering as many facts about your family challenges and life course as possible is a worthy effort in growing a more aware and resilient self.

The personal research project below has been developed by a teaching psychologist in Washington DC, Dr John Millikin. It appears with his permission in the Appendix of the second edition of my book: Growing Yourself Up. I think it is a helpful template for learning to understand self in the bigger picture of one’s family of origin. It is a very different direction to the conventional mental health approach to focussing on symptoms. My own experience in life and clinical practice is that the effort to gather data about family is much more productive than investing in “fixing” effort directed at an individual or a relationship. Paradoxically the bigger picture approach can actually result in sustainable reduction of symptoms.

Perhaps you might like to begin your own family systems research project using the example below as a springboard. It requires a patient effort over time but may be one of the most growth enhancing projects you will undertake:

Another example of an excellent self -research template is:

Appendix 6

An overview of human development across the lifespan from a Bowen family systems perspective

A learning project for individuals and academic groups. Adapted from curriculum developed by John Millikin, PhD, LMFT, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Department of Human Development.

Cast of family and important people

  • Referring to the attached guideline in Appendix 5, construct your family diagram.
  • List other significant (positive or negative) friends, family friends and professionals such as therapist, lawyers, clergy.
  • Name other important or influential people.

Nodal events (births, deaths, illness, leaving home, marriages, divorces)

  • What were the nodal personal events that happened?
    • How did you respond to them? How did other key family members respond to them?
    • What were other nodal family events that happened?
    • How did you respond to them?
    • How did other key family members respond to them?
    • Describe any change in you and the family as a result of nodal events.
    • What were the family circumstances around the time of your birth? (Answer in the appropriate phase)
    • What was leaving home like for you? How old and under what circumstances? (Answer in the appropriate phase)
    • What was leaving home like for your parents? How old and under what circumstances? (Answer with the question above)

Stressors

  • What were general personal stressors (e.g., money, work, relationships, friends, school, sports)?
  • What were general stressors for others in the family?
  • What were significant stressors in the extended family?
  • Rate the intensity of stress and emotion in the family from 1–10.

Other changes and emotional events

  • Describe any abrupt changes personally and in the family.
  • Were there legal issues?
  • Were there sudden or chronic illnesses?
  • Were there episodes of abusive behavior?
  • If so, what were they?
  • Were there infidelities?
  • Describe any other extreme behaviors or events.

 

The Family Emotional Unit Relationship System

The primary triangle (parents/self)

  • How emotionally close did you feel to each parent? (Answer on a 1–10 scale)
  • How were you involved with each parent? (Also think in terms of conflict, distance, over- and under-functioning/involvement)

How were they involved with each other? (Also think in terms

of conflict, distance, over- and under-functioning/involvement)

»»Who did you take sides with more? (Your common triangle position)

»»Did you help one parent in difficulties with the other? How?

»»Who generally gave you positive attention? How much?

»»Who generally gave you negative attention? How much?

»»Who gave you approval? How much?

»»Who did not provide attention or approval?

»»What was each parent’s involvement like with their own parents (briefly)?

Siblings and sibling position

  • How was your sibling position and functional role in the family different?
  • How did sibling/s relate to you?
  • Were you or any sibling over-focused on? Labeled as a problem?
  • How did this affect your interactions (or perception of your sibling/s)?

General family emotional process (nuclear and extended)

  • Describe major conflicts in the family (blaming, criticism, hostility).
  • Who was involved and what was it about?
  • Describe major distance(ing) in the family.
  • Who was involved and what was it about?
  • Describe major cut-offs in the family.
  • Who was involved and what was it about?
  • Describe major over- and under-functioning in the family (imbalanced taking care of or being taken care of).
  • Who was involved and what was it about?
  • Describe major over- and under-involvement in the family.
  • Who made important decisions?

Together and separate

  • Who was closest to whom in the family?
  • Could you be alone for long periods of time?
  • Could you be together with significant others for long periods of time?
  • How were you responsible for other family members?
  • Did other people get involved in your problems? How?
  • Who would typically bail you out of difficulties? Relationship difficulties?
  • Who were you most dependent on? (How would you scale it from 1–10?)

Feelings, reactivity and sensitivities

  • What were you anxious about?
  • How did you work with it?
  • What were others anxious about?
  • Did anyone worry about you? Who?
  • Who did you worry about?
  • What did you typically get reactive about?
  • What were you sensitive about?
  • What were some of the labels made about you?
  • Who said those?
  • Describe the basic impact of labels.
  • Did any family members think poorly of you?
  • Did any family members not pay enough attention to you?
  • Who got the most attention in the family?
  • Were you able to meet key family members’ expectations?
  • Did you feel you were a disappointment to others?
  • Were others upset with you or you with them? Did you feel responsible for their upset?
  • Who else was generally upset with whom?
  • How did you regulate and work with emotions? Go to someone? Cope by yourself?
  • Describe any other emotionally challenging events or interactions?

Medical, health and addictions

  • List any medical/health issues and major health issues for all family members. Did you have unhealthy habits, addictions?
  • Did any member have unhealthy habits, addictions?
  • Were there developmental issues for you or anyone in your family?
  • Were there any (standard) psychological issues or diagnoses?
  • Who showed more symptoms/disrupted behaviors? What were they?

 

Autonomy, Effectiveness, Principles and Defining a Self

Autonomy and acts of self

  • List areas of self-directed activities/pursuits.
  • What were self-directed activities not necessarily chosen or supported by others?
  • How much autonomy did you have in achieving goals?
  • Did you generally have space to be yourself with others?
  • How open were you with others about your core thoughts and
  • beliefs?
  • Did parents and siblings have a good sense of direction?

Personal and interpersonal effectiveness

  • How did you respond to the personal challenges in your adolescence and leaving home phase? To what effect?
  • How was the family a resource for you in meeting your challenges?
  • What were your talents? How were they connected to family?
  • How effective were family members in meeting challenges, especially parents?
  • What did the family do well as a group?
  • What did the family do well in encouraging autonomy?

Principles and defining self

  • How could you have functioned better in this growing up phase?
  • What do you see now as your responsibilities to yourself during this phase?
  • How can you have taken better responsibility with significant others?
  • If you could now change something about self in this phase, what would it be?
  • What were some the guiding principles involved in your interactions?

REPOST FROM THE FSI – Our Dog and our Family Systems

This blog began as a casual conversation in the kitchen at our office between Lily Mailler and Jenny Brown.  It was prompted by the site of Lily’s golden Labrador sitting in the back of her car for over an hour while Lily was working. She was sitting quietly and calmly on her blanket with a breeze cooling her through a partly open window. Lily had organised for her to be picked up by a family member some time that afternoon.

Jenny:  “Lily, I was quite struck to see your Labrador sitting so patiently in the back seat of your car. Two things struck me.  Firstly I can’t imagine my cocker spaniel Hendrix sitting so calmly knowing I was in the building and secondly, I can’t imagine myself being comfortable leaving him confined for an hour or so.  I would be working in the office with an ear out for his wining.  Neither of us would be as calm as you and your dog!  What do you make of this?”

Lily: “Yes, I have observed that my dog Bella has less separation anxiety than other dogs I know, for example she comes with me to the beach every morning and I tie her to a post at the surf club whilst I swim and do my thing, she does not whinge or bark like other dogs that are also tied up and waiting for their owners to come back. I think though that she does have a level of sensitivity to me, for example I have observed that she watches me intently whilst I swim and refuses to walk with someone she does not know when I am around.  I agree with Dr Bowen that no one is totally free from the sensitivity and attachment, I kid myself when I think that I am not disproportionately attached to my dog, recently I have found myself feeling a sense of panic when she did not bark at my arrival at home and found myself rushing outside to see if she is ok. , I believe her hearing is not as sharp as it used to be”

Bella came into my life at a time when I was too preoccupied with making a living and surviving.  I did not particularly want a dog as I felt that it would be another demand upon me. My eldest son and his girlfriend got the dog and they assured me that they would be responsible for it, of course things did not work out that way, they broke up, my son left to work in the Whitsundays and I was left with the dog. I learnt to love Bella but I made sure she was not to be another imposition on me, by making a conscious effort to be clear about what I would and would not put up with from her. I believe that as a consequence she is not demanding and she knows I am top dog. The kids do not understand how come she is so loving and obedient to me when I do not show her the level of attention they show her.

Jenny “Isn’t it interesting to think about what else is going on in our family’s at the time a dog enters?  Hendrix came along at a time when I was adjusting to adult children leaving home?  There is no doubt that he filled something of a void for me in terms of being needed and enjoying my attentions.  We have certainly developed reciprocity of sensitivity to each other. He is so alert to me giving attention to our older dog.  Our much older dog was quite self sufficient and non- demanding.  I agree with you that our pets are a part of our family emotional process.  After all emotional process is what we humans share in common with lower life forms…the limbic part of our brain that is instinctual rather than making thoughtful decisions. The position they occupy has a lot to do with what is happening with shifts in other relationships.

Lately I have been working on being a bit more functionally differentiated (less fused) and more thoughtful about my responsibilities as owner/pack leader with Hendrix.  May be seeing your calm with Bella and Bella’s calm with you, is an additional bit of a wakeup call for me?!  I had been coming to realise that I was to some degree drawing from Hendrix’s attentiveness and affection to steady myself during a time of change in our family.  I’ve been focussing more on being a leader to him—not letting him jump on our bed, or walk in front of me, or come through the door first.  He’s becoming a much calmer dog as a result.  Ironically I can enjoy him more when I’m not so wrapped up in him.  This sounds similar to what you observe with your relationship with Bella in contrast to your children.

I’ve been wondering if those of us who are vulnerable to a disproportionate child focus are also prone to a more fused projection onto their pets …especially when children are less present in our lives?  I can also see how Hendrix can be part of a triangle in my marriage.

Lily- “ My capacity to stay in my own skin with Bella does not mean that I have the same type of reciprocity with my children, I actually was so focused on my kids that there was less of the focus left for Bella and I believe that as a result she has functioned much better than all others in my immediate family system. It is interesting to note that Bella has not had any physical symptoms during the 9 years of her life but for the odd tick she has picked up from the bushes. It makes me wonder about how the relationship variables expressed in levels of sensitivity may be important predictors of her good health, besides her biological predispositions.  Her brother, who belongs to another member of my extended family, has had a number of physical ailments. There is plenty in the writings of Bowen and Kerr around this issue although the evidence is not conclusive”

Jenny “ I’ve heard an very interesting presentation at a Bowen Centre conference on triangles and domestic dogs, presented by  Professor Barbara Smutts, University of Michigan.  She studies the dynamics of social relationships in dogs (and other social mammals) by observing video-taped interactions in fine detail, using frame-by-frame and slow motion analysis.  Imagine being able to study our family process in this way!

http://www.lsa.umich.edu/psych/people/directory/profiles/faculty/?uniquename=bsmuts

There’s an interesting chapter in Peter Tiltelman’s (ed) book on triangles by Linda Flemming on triangles in a human, canine pack.  She describes the formation of an emotional triangle with 2 dogs with the dynamics of insiders and outsiders.  When she starts dating her future husband, new interlocking triangles are evident.  When one of her dogs becomes quite symptomatic, she draws from Bowen theory to deal with the system instability.  Her first step was providing more leadership, which helpfully shifts focus from the reactive pack member to managing self in a steadier manner.  She resisted focussing on the symptoms in her dog.  She writes, “As long as I was focussed on Shayne (dog) as the problem, we made no progress in changing behaviours. When I began to see the problem as residing in the system rather than on Shayne, we began to make progress.”  p237-8

Isn’t it interesting the parallel to applying Bowen theory when there are symptoms in a child? I wonder if sometimes it’s easier to see an effort towards more differentiation (more autonomy in relating) in our relationship with our dogs than with our children.  It’s a notch harder to make objective observations of ourselves in our own species.  It would be great to hear other’s observations about their dogs in their families.”

Refs-Flemming L. “Observation of Triangles in a Haman-Canine Pack”. Ch 9  in Titelman, P. (Ed.) (2008). Triangles: Bowen Family Systems Theory Perspectives. New York  Haworth Clinical Practice Press

See also the section in Jenny’s book “Growing Yourself Up” titled= lessons from puppy management. P119-20. www.growingyourselup.com

 

 

Original post on The Family Systems Institute website: http://www.thefsi.com.au/2013/01/20/dogs-family-systems/

Keeping a gracious view of family this Christmas/Holiday season


Gathering with extended family for any holiday season or milestone event reveals both what we share in common and the significant differences between us. I wonder if you’ve ever sat at the family festive dinner table and listened to a relative express a viewpoint that really irritated you. Do you walk on egg shells waiting in expectation for that relative to take offence? Have you observed how challenging it is for a family member to participate in the socialising? Perhaps you have observed how much a family member relies on alcohol to manage the occasion? Or do you have a relative who uses humour (somewhat inappropriately) as their method of conversing?
I often hear people declare that they just don’t like their sibling or aunt/uncle….. They consider that their life and values have taken a different direction and they would prefer to not have to continue an effort to be in contact.
A family systems view opens up a different way of thinking about the variations amongst family members. The young person in the family who was most focussed on (negatively or positively) will be the one who absorbs more of the immaturity of the whole family system. The more anxiously focussed on child may be the one born at a particularly intense time for parents, or is the same sibling position as a parent (or a parent’s troubled sibling), or who was the only child of one gender, or was a sick infant. Not all siblings leave home with the same capacities to cope in life. In turn, this means that others enter the challenges of adult life with greater or lesser emotional resources. The sister or brother who seems so different from you may simply represent what could so easily have been your own path if the family circumstances were a little different.
Can you see how this opens up compassion and grace towards the more challenging family members. It also enables us to reduce our reactive responses to the apparently more immature members of our family – previous responses which have contributed to fixing oversensitive patterns in place. If you are the member of your family that others seem to struggle to accept, it may be useful to understand how your position, in relation to your parents insecurities, have added to your heightened sensitivity to others. It can make sense of how quickly you take things personally when you are with family and how others distance when you get upset. This awareness of us and others can be helpful to refocus on managing our part and to shift away from blaming others.
Perhaps a good gift to yourself and your family at this year-end is consider your extended family as part of a system that has enabled some to manage stress and relationships more effectively than others.

You may wish to re- read Chapter 3 of my book Growing Yourself Up, titled:

Family ties that bind: Understanding our family of origin

In particular the section- Each sibling experiences a different family

An excerpt:

Have you ever paused to appreciate that each of your siblings experienced a different family to you due to the variations in the degree and tone of attention each received from your parents? Some siblings get a balanced amount of attention and assistance in line with their logical needs, while others get an exaggerated degree of positive or negative attention….
The useful thing to appreciate in your growing-up efforts is that you can’t have the same expectations of each sibling that you have of yourself. Each family member’s pathway to maturity is inevitably different from your own.
Before we move into blaming our parents for any challenging siblings, it is worth remembering the influence of our parent’s family systems:
Much of a parent’s reaction to each of their children comes out of an unconscious effort to relieve their own uncertainties and anxiety, not from a deliberate attempt to mess up their children. Our mothers and fathers came out of their own families with a level of tolerance for upset, discord, involvement and demands. In turn this is played out in their marriage and their reactions to each of their children. None of us, or our parents, has any say in the hand of maturity cards we are dealt as part of the inheritance of generations of families.
(Growing Yourself Up p.39-40)

Whatever your family heritage and tradition for gathering at this time of year,
I wish you a Merry Christmas and/or Happy Holidays, filled with grace for each family member.

*A CHRISTMAS REFLECTION: Systems theory assists me to cultivate more compassion and understanding towards other family members. Additionally and even more importantly, the Christmas message of God’s grace shown in coming down into our struggles as the son, Jesus of Nazareth, demonstrates an extravagant dose of undeserved favour and compassion towards us. In response to this I am compelled to nurture the same compassion towards others.

 

Once in Royal David’s City – Mary Chapin Carpenter.

Verse 2:
He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all,
And His shelter was a stable,
And His cradle was a stall;
With the poor and meek and lowly,
Lived on earth our Savior holy.

Knowing When to Ignore our Children – REPOST

How does a parent respond to a child slipping backwards in their functioning? – When children manage a new developmental task and then regress to behaving in an earlier more childish manner. In this current climate of anxious focus on children, giving attention to a child’s anxious or regressed episodes can happen automatically.  It often just seems the right thing to do. The challenge for the parent is to provide encouragement for the child’s growing capabilities and refrain from reinforcing their gestures of regression.

How does a parent respond to a child slipping backwards in their functioning? – When children manage a new developmental task and then regress to behaving in an earlier more childish manner. I was chatting to a Mum last week about her 7 year old who was crying about not wanting to do swimming lessons in the school holidays. She had been learning swimming with her older sister throughout the year, and while she hadn’t been enthusiastic, she was making progress and participating.  On the cusp of the holiday swimming program this little girl declared that she was afraid of the water and didn’t want to be made to do swimming. I explored with the mother her possible responses to this protest. She was clear that swimming lessons were important due to the family’s proximity to the beach. For her it was not just an extra-curricular activity, it was about ocean safety. She did reflect that this younger child tended to become anxious and slip backwards just as she was making some maturing progress. Her responses had often been to sit down with her daughter and try to talk through her worries. She would suggest strategies for managing her fears but found that the more she reassured her daughter the more her daughter seemed to express her apprehensions.

In this current climate of anxious focus on children, giving attention to a child’s anxious or regressed episodes can happen automatically.  It often just seems the right thing to do. A parent can try to get to the bottom of their child’s setbacks by focusing on their fears and feelings. It can be quite disillusioning when the child then regresses further in response to such attention. A parent may then get frustrated with the child or teen and shift their positive attention to more negative cajoling: “Come on you can get yourself to swimming lessons; you’ve been doing it all year. You’re just being difficult!” The negative attention often leads to more ‘stuckness’ for the child and parent and the tone of their interactions easily becomes tense.

I recall a period in my own parenting, after an inter country move, when my then 3 year old began showing distress when I left her at her nursery school. She had previously been very happy to have me leave and had commenced her new ½ day pre-school with excitement and confidence. When she showed her 1st sign of separation distress I recall the staff becoming anxious about the child who had travelled all the way from Australia. They strongly encouraged me to stay with her to assist her in the transition and this synced with my own concerns about by child’s vulnerability. Some weeks later I was still sitting beside my daughter in the welcome circle joining in the children’s action songs and assisting with the afternoon activities. I often think I should have been put on the pay roll. Predictably my daughter did not increase her autonomy but became habitually distressed with the first inkling of separation. At the time I did not see the part that I had played in reinforcing her regression.

Bowen observed that when a child is focussed on anxiously they respond with increasingly impaired behaviours. This can happen in families, in schools, in psychological treatment. It is predictable that as a child reaches a new developmental milestone of more independence and mastery of skills, that they exhibit episodes of retreat to an earlier stage of dependence on caregivers. This is part of the growing up trajectory. The challenge for the parent is to provide encouragement for the child’s growing capabilities and refrain from reinforcing their gestures of regression.  In essence, they ignore the child’s reversion behaviours and invitations for the parent to treat them as if they were back in a more dependent stage. When the child resumes their age appropriate functioning, the parent attends to the child with calm reassurance.

What might this look like? Drawing from the example of the 7 year old’s protests about swimming lessons: Firstly the mother will recognise her own uncertainties and steady herself so as not to inject her sensitivities into the child’s situation. When the objections arise the Mother can demonstrate with a brief comment that she will not entertain such protests. This is followed up by ignoring continued winging/wining from the child. The parent does not give attention to the child’s upset in the form of concern, advice or stern lectures.  Any parent will find this challenging and will need to attend to their own discomfort in reaction to their upset child. It is predictable that the child will up the ante of their upset for a time. They will give this up when they can sense that the parent is going to maintain their resolve. When the child moves back into participating in their swimming classes, as they previously had been able to do, the parents acknowledge the child’s efforts and show interest in what they have mastered. They take care not to ‘over- focus’, through exaggerated praise or reward for what is simply the child’s appropriate engagement in their life activities.

Looking back on my own nursery school internship with my then 3 year old I can see how helpful it would have been to ignore the initial displays of separation distress – To give the usual loving gestures of good bye and to leave calmly. At the afternoon pick up I would show an interest in her activities but not give my attention to discussing her earlier upset. With the passing of 25 years it is much easier to see a way through. At the time I was working through my own separation challenges from my extended family and I can see how this made it difficult to distinguish between my insecurities and my child’s emotions. Growing ourselves up as parents (or carers) requires managing our own insecurities so as not to allow them to spill over into our relating with our child.

The current tide of parenting is all about attending to a child’s distress and showing sensitivity to their needs. Challenging this ethos guarantees emotive counteractions from many ‘child experts’ and conscientious parents devoted to the path of tuning into their child’s emotions. Of course there are apt times to listen well and support a child as they face real challenges. This is different to attention that reinforces a child’s natural moments of resisting steady steps towards increased maturity. A parent who can see their part in these patterns can be the very best resource for their child’s resilience.

Key questions for reflection

  • How do I respond to my child when their behaviour is a step back in age appropriate maturity? { e.g. might be tantrums, thumb sucking, sleeping in parents bed, separation distress, refusal to do tasks or participate]
  • Do I attend to such regressions either positively (reassurance, affection) or negatively (lectures, threats)? Am I reacting to the other parent by attending with the opposite tone?
  • What do I observe of the effects of such attention over time on my child’s resilience?
  • What are my own internal struggles in the face of seeing my child’s increased neediness or immaturity? How can I keep myself calm and thoughtful? Can I recognise when my child’s increased neediness of me steadies my own insecurities?
  • What ways do I support my child’s steps towards more autonomy? – With acknowledgement and interest that encourage progress or with exaggerated praise, and rewards that promotes immature entitlement?

 

To read more see: p 106 – 129 in Growing Yourself Up: How to bring your best to all of life’s relationships. Jenny Brown

If you’re going to assist your child to grow their resilience, the first step will be to increase your own resilience in tolerating your child’s upset without feeling compelled to rush in and smooth over everything for them. The grown-up parent, who really wants to be a loving resource to their child, is prepared to work on themselves and not make a project out of their child. P 108

Relevant Quote from Murray Bowen MD

The process begins with anxiety in the mother. The child responds anxiously to the mother, which she misperceives as a problem in the child. [The father usually plays a role – he is sensitive to the mother’s anxiety, and he tends to support her view and help her implement her anxious efforts at mothering] The anxious parental effort goes into sympathetic, solicitous, overprotective energy, which is directed more by the mother’s anxiety than the reality needs of the child. It establishes a pattern of infantilising the child who gradually becomes more impaired and more demanding. Once the process has started, it can be motivated either by anxiety in the mother, or anxiety in the child. In the average situation there may be symptomatic episodes at stressful periods during childhood which gradually increase to major symptoms during or after adolescence. P 381 FTCP

‘Knowing when to ignore our children’Jenny Brown

 

A Tale of Two Courtships

How reactions and relationship to parents has shaped 2 contrasting courtship experiences. 

Hayley and Dan met at a mutual friend’s wedding. They experienced an immediate spark and keenly saw each other several times the week following their introduction. They both sensed that they shared much in common and matched each other creatively.  It was easy to talk for hours, as if only minutes had transpired.  In the early weeks of their relationship Hayley and Dan relished setting up dates for each other at favourite restaurant’s and cultural events. They lost interest in other friendships and immersed themselves in the pleasures of their apparently perfect connection. After a passionate 2 months of romance and intertwining of lives, Dan proposed to Hayley on a surprise weekend luxury retreat. Hayley unquestionably accepted and they set about planning a wedding 4 months later. The first time they met each other’s parents and siblings was after their engagement was announced.

Pete and Trish were introduced by mutual friends 6 years ago. They had begun dating and seemed to get along well and have shared values. When they began courting they were both in their early 30s and established in their careers.  Their friends were all getting married at the time and Pete sensed that he should make an effort to connect with Trish or he might miss his chance to find a life partner. Trish was keen for the relationship to move towards commitment as she was ready to settle down and found Pete attractive and interesting. Both appreciated that they shared the same religious faith and moved ahead in their courtship with openness for romance and love to grow. Pete was slow to take initiative in the early days and Trish began to make suggestions for their get-togethers. As the months proceeded Pete became increasingly ambivalent about the relationship. He didn’t want to lose the friendship with Trish but he was reluctant to allow things to become too close. He used the busyness of his demanding work to slow the pace that he sensed Trish was angling for. They often gathered with friend’s and had frequent dinners with each of their parents. As the months and then years rolled by, friends increasingly encouraged Pete to step up and commit but the more he experienced other’s pressure the more he struggled to imagine a future with Trish. Rather he would find fault with her and become irritated easily when they were in their family and friendship groups. Trish lost patience a number of times and separated. She was however quite attached to Pete and felt drawn to helping him manage his life. Pete was lonely without Trish and would convey this when they were apart.

These two courtship stories appear to be an antithesis.  One is hastily and passionately committed to within 6 months. The other proceeds ambivalently over 6 years. What they share in common is a driving force of unresolved attachments in their families of origin.

Both Hayley and Dan had distanced from their parents in their late adolescence. They had experienced their parents as an imposition to their freedom as emerging adults. They each had been very close to one of their parents as children but this had become tense during their high school years. They had competitive, strained relationships with their siblings and were pleased to distance from this family intensity. They occasionally visited family on special occasions but things were kept quite superficial. Dan felt some guilt about distance from his mother as he knew she struggled in a tense marriage.  He was completely cut off from his father who he viewed negatively. Hayley experienced her parents as exceedingly proud of her during her growing up. She was a high achiever and she sensed that they admired her and were quite invested in her academic success.  Hayley had relished her father’s pride in her especially during her school years. She liked to be admired but could become reactive to the intensity of her parent’s expectations. She saw her mother as needy and her father as demanding.  Of course this was intensified as she increasingly pulled away from them. At the time she met Dan in her mid-twenties she was almost completely cut off from her family.

Pete and Trish also had quite intense relationships with their parents but instead of using distance or cut off to manage this they remained highly involved with their families. Pete was a youngest son who had always felt very close to his mother. He would tell her everything about his life and depended on her advice in making life decisions. His mother remained his closest confidante well into his 30s. Trish was very involved as an eldest daughter in caring for her aging parents. Her father had some chronic health problems and she remained central to organising health care and supporting her mother in the task of managing life with a dependent husband whose capacities were low. Trish was comfortable as an over-responsible daughter. For both Trish and Pete their families remained central to their life functioning. Much of their relationship energies went towards their parents – albeit in different ways. Pete was quite dependent, Trish was a responsible carer.

I wonder if you can see how reactions and relationship to parents has shaped these 2 courtships. The intensely fast tracked courtship of Hayley and Dan is driven by the degree of ‘cut off’ from their families. This had left them needy of replicating an admiring togetherness in a love relationship. The intensity gap they left in distancing from their parents had been waiting to be filled by someone who shares a similar need for being special. Rather than growing away from their parents in becoming independent adults they had each broken away. They ran away from quite fused relationships only to replicate a high expectation fusion in their relationship with each other.

Pete and Trish also experienced quite intense involvements with a parent as they moved into their adult years. They didn’t run away from this but instead were quite dependent on the roles they had in their families. Pete was so close to his mother that it was hard for him to invest in intimacy with another. Trish was so responsible for her parents that she equated closeness with being in charge.

For Hayley and Dan their cut-off from parents and siblings transmitted into an intense fusion with each other. For Pete and Trish their fusion with their parents translated into an ongoing distance with each other. Both relationships had many challenges ahead.  One of the keys to giving the relationship a chance to flourish was to build a more mature relationship back to each parent. To be connected in a genuine way without being overly sensitive or overly involved. Parents of course can have an important part to play in contributing to a better resolution of shifting attachments from one generation to the next. Parents can reduce the various ways they depend on their children and work on their marriages and peer relationships so that their relationships with their children are not primary. Distant parents can work on gradually increasing non-intense contact with adult children; Being interested in their lives, without imposing expectations.

There is an interesting directive in the Judaeo Christian scriptures (Genesis 2:24) about one generation leaving their parents to cleave to their spouse. The idea is that a ‘leaving and cleaving’ is necessary to establish a new generational family. The leaving however is not a running away just as the cleaving is not an over involvement.  I value Bowen’s idea of growing away from parents rather than breaking away.  A gradual shifting of attachment allegiance lays important groundwork for courtship and marriage. It can avoid the ‘hot housing’ of a relationship and all the pressures that unravel from this. It can also prevent excessive anxieties about commitment that contribute to either serial short relationships or long term ambivalent courtships.

CAVEAT – continuum not categoriesThese 2 examples are based on real scenarios with identifying details changed. Each represents a quite polarised position, from overly hasty to overly cautious. It is useful to remember that each serious dating relationship will fall somewhere on a continuum between these positions. In Bowen theory there are NOT neat categories but rather a CONTINUUM that represents the level of differentiation and tendencies to either cut off or fusion that we have inherited from our family emotional system. You may find it helpful to reflect:

Was/Is my courtship more a reflection of diving into the new relationship with some distance from my parent/s?

Or was/is my courtship more a reflection of a tension between my pull to past attachment to my parent/s/family and the investment in my future priority attachment?

What are the dominant forces of sensitivity in my relationships?

It is useful to appreciate that all humans have versions of the 4 instinctual relational sensitivities of attention, approval, expectations and distress.


Julia described the way she came unravelled when others were given acknowledgement for
tasks she has contributed to. She wondered why she was so sensitive to her boss’s approval and how tied it was to her work performance.

 

The forces of sensitivity in our important relationships are powerful. They exist at an instinctual level and are driven by our need for close connections with others to maintain our sense of well-being. These sensitivities can pull us towards people and equally drive us away when things get uncomfortable. For example, when things are comfortable in my marriage I am drawn to wanting more time with my husband. When a negative reaction gets triggered in our interactions I am inclined to avoid closeness.

I have found it helpful to consider 4 relational sensitivities that have been utilised in the writing and teaching of *Dr Michael Kerr.

He says that all of us grow up in our families with heightened sensitivity to our parents:

  • Attention-(& inattention),
  • Approval- (& disapproval),
  • Expectations-( met or unmet) and
  • Distress-(am I the cause of or the fixer for?)

Many people have commented that they have found it extremely useful to consider the way each of these sensitivities was shaped during their childhood. I regularly ask people to reflect on- which of these is highest on their relationship radar? While all are part of family relationships there is usually one that has been most activated in our relationship with parents and siblings. One woman I’ve chatted to about this has identified that meeting her parents’ expectations was clearly a driver of her relationship energies. She sensed the comfort of measuring up to preforming well and avoided the emotional disruption of letting her parents down – her father in particular. Recognising this dominant sensitivity has helped this woman to see how it has shaped her functioning at work where she strives hard to meet the perceived expectations of her bosses and is easily derailed when she senses that she has not met high standards.

For myself I have particularly been shaped by sensitivity to attention. In early childhood I experienced a large increase in attention at times I was unwell. I was aware that this elevated me to a place of specialness in the group of 5 siblings. As I began to perform well and take on leadership roles in later high school this attention platform shifted. Parental attention no longer focussed on my sick role but on my positions of importance and achievements. Much of this wasn’t verbalised but was conveyed through the emotional tone of interactions. This has primed me in my adult life to gravitate to situations where I have a profile in a group that brings me positive attention. I look back on my dealings with early supervisors and trainers and see how much I relished their emotional attention when I performed well. I would borrow confidence and energy from such relationship exchanges. As I’ve learned more about borrowing maturity compared to growing maturity, I can see that much of my self-assurance has been dependent on this attentive relationship dynamic. In order to work on a more solid maturity I have needed to consciously choose to be in situations where I am less important and receive little attention. For example, I have deliberately pulled out of some work tasks that have put me at the front of an event and have made room for others to take on the spotlight. Similarly in my extended family I have noticed my discomfort about being left out of conversations. This observation and awareness has helped me to practice being more at ease when I’m on the periphery of a social interchange. I work to enjoy listening in on others conversations and not trying to push into the discussion. My successes and setbacks in these “growing up” pilot projects ebb and flow.

It is constructive to appreciate that all humans have versions of the 4 instinctual relational sensitivities of attention, approval, expectations and distress. While there is considerable overlap between the 4 triggers I think there is usually one of these that dominate our relationship experience. The sensitivities that dominate can also be influenced by the particular relationship context and may indeed vary between home and work. They develop in the circularity of our growing up relationship experience, in conjunction with our inbuilt social biology. The degree to which these sensitivities dictate our lives does vary according to the level of maturity we experienced in our family of origin. Perhaps you may find it useful to reflect on which one was a central driver in your exchanges with each parent. It has provided me with some awareness and direction in working to be less relationship dependent and more consistent in my functioning.

Questions to consider:

  • What response from either of my parents was most steadying for me? Their positive attention and/or approval? Meeting their high expectations? Being able to relieve their distress?
  • What response from either of my parents was most unsteadying for me? Their negative attention and/or approval? Not meeting their high expectations? Not being able to relieve their distress – or sensing that I contributed to their distress?
  • How did I sense my position of approval, attention, expectations and distress was different to each of my siblings (or the other parent)?
  • In what ways do I seek out relationship situations that are similar to the steadiers I experienced with either parent?
  • In what ways do I become reactive in relationship situations that are similar to the de-steadying scenarios I experienced with either parent?
  • How do the above questions help me to understand my triggers in current relationships? – at work, with friends and in my family?
  • In what ways can I practice being more steady without other’s attention, approval, expectations or neediness?

*Reference for Dr Michael Kerr
Presentation at FSI conference 2007: Why do siblings often turn out very differently?

Why Do Siblings Often Turn Out Very Differently?
Chapter in Human Development in the
Twenty-First Century: Visionary Ideas from Systems Scientists
Editors: Alan Fogel, Barbara J. King, and Stuart Shanker
Cambridge University Press – 2008
Michael E. Kerr

Help that Doesn’t Assume

grandmother washingRecently I chatted with a woman who was distressed by the developing tension with her daughter –in- law. She was devastated that her son’s wife and mother to her 2 young grandchildren had conveyed that she no longer needed her regular visits. I asked about how she had been interacting with her son’s family and she reported that she had made every effort to be as supportive as possible. I heard that when she was on ‘grand parenting duty’ she’d take on a range of jobs to assist her son and daughter in law manage with their full time workloads and the demands of their young family. This included doing vacuuming, washing and other domestic chores. Additionally she would add extra things to the children’s routine that her daughter in law had written out for both grandmothers. Her thought was that an extra trip to the park would surely be helpful and guarantee the children a better night sleep. She was shocked to hear from her son that these acts of service had been interpreted as a negative judgement on her daughter in laws domestic standards and a lack of respect for their parenting practices. How painful for her to find that her well intentioned acts of help were experienced as intrusive!

I can certainly identify with the propensity to assume I know what will be helpful for others and to just dive in and action this. Throughout my growing up years I developed a strong sensitivity to others struggling to cope. My own mother was burdened by the load of caring for her elderly father as well as her 5 children and I discovered that ascertaining ways to help my grandfather, and in turn reduce her stress, was rewarded with a close appreciative response from my mother. Hence I entered my adulthood with a well-honed tendency to mind- read what I think others need without actually finding out what they think.

Having awareness of my priming to assume what will be helpful to others has enabled me to pause before rushing in to other’s space. It may sound incredibly basic but I am practicing asking others what I can do to be helpful – NOT jumping in as if I’m the expert on their emotional state. When one of my family members was recently going through a time of distress I made sure that I did nothing without checking in first, asking what they would like from me. I readily offered a few ideas of what I was able to do to lighten their load but I ensured that I was not invested in doing any of these things. It was entirely the call of the members of the household. This still doesn’t come easily to me as I can impulsively be ‘overly helpful”. I have come to see however that over- helping and assuming I know the perspective of another is actually an invasion of their privacy and personal space.

Dr Bowen observed the tendency of humans to move into either ‘over responsibility’ or ‘under responsibility’ when there is insecurity and stress in a relationship. The ‘over responsible’ one steadies her/himself through feeling useful to the other while the ‘under responsible’ one stabilises her/himself by drawing strength from the attentiveness of the other. The overly helpful person can easily burn her/himself out and neglect addressing their less interpersonal responsibilities such as financial management and administration. The under functioning one becomes gradually more unsure of him/herself and may become vulnerable to symptoms of depression, substance misuse and/or inability to manage life’s tasks. Help that affects a person’s ability to manage their own life responsibilities is actually not help at all. Help that assumes what another needs is also not help but is a contributor to misunderstandings and relationship discord.

Pulling one’s self out of such patterns is a way of addressing one’s own part in a relationship disruption. While misunderstandings in relationships can be deeply discouraging, being able to adjust how we respond to others needs or helping gestures provides a basis for bringing good to another and to our relationship. For the distraught mother in law who had been trying too hard to help her daughter in law, she could find an alternate path of asking her son and daughter what ways they would like her to assist them. This enables people to interact more respectfully without stepping into territory that belongs to others. Of course this woman’s son and daughter- in- law were contributing to the misunderstandings, however the most helpful thing any of us can put our energy towards is averting attention from blaming or mind reading the other to addressing our own part in unhelpful patterns.

Relevant Questions from “Growing Yourself Up” about ‘over – helpfulness’.

“Caretaking is an easy way to cover over unaddressed insecurities in much the same way that leaning on another as a prop can be.” P 89

“If a parent confided in us or leant on us when things were tough…we’re likely to be at easing giving advice but less comfortable accepting it from others.” P 38

“She needed to find a way to be real about how much she cared for [the other] without this compulsion to take care of [them]. Caring about another would come to mean something very different …than taking care of another.” P 59

“I am committed to not taking over and doing for another what they have the capacity to learn to do for themselves. (Not crowding another’s breathing space so they can develop their own capabilities and coping skills)” p 228

This grandmother “could see how much she had assumed her role as grandmother without asking her son what he thought.”  P 204

In Family Therapy & Clinical practice Dr Bowen wrote of the problem of being overly helpful as a counsellor/ health care clinician:

“When the therapist allows him/herself to become a “healer” or “repairman,” the family [client] goes into dysfunction to wait for the therapist to accomplish her/his work,” P 158 FTCP

‘Help that Doesn’t Assume’ – Jenny Brown

Wishful Thinking

Heaven- Is this just wishful thinking?faith

I am fully aware of how easily we can find the evidence to confirm any of our biases. Confirmation bias is everywhere and I can be as vulnerable as anyone in applying this to my own questions

I recall as a 6 or 7 year old asking my mother, “How do you know that there really is a God and a heaven?” The answer stored in my memory is, “Jenny I believe it but even if it turns out not to be true I think it is the best way to live my life”. I was somewhat unsettled by her answer which I guess is why it has stayed with me all these decades. It vaguely made sense to me and quietened my questioning at the time but I was hoping for more assurance about what I was taught at Sunday school.

Last month I faced a tragic loss in my broader family. The details are not necessary to write about but what has been a growing up challenge for me is a reigniting of questions about life beyond the grave. I was confronted with a fresh challenge to the basis of my Christian belief, in particular of the hope of a better eternity and a renewed heaven and earth. There is nothing like the invasion of unexpected sadness to either turn a person to considering spiritual faith or conversely to challenge the faith foundations of any believer. Can I really trust a God who allows such pain? Is the hope of heaven just wishful thinking to ease the sharp edge of grief?

A number of people have said to me that they know my faith will carry me through this sad time but this doesn’t quite capture the tumult of my spirit when facing pain. Faith in itself isn’t a comfort, it is the object of my faith that I need to be sure of. Hence over the past weeks I have re-examined the basis and object of my faith. I have needed to revisit the historical life and death of Jesus who claimed to be God revealing himself in human flesh (the word became flesh and dwelt among us John 1:14; John 3: 16-17).

Most importantly I have considered as rationally as I can the evidence for the physical resurrection of Jesus; the hundreds of eye witness accounts and the dramatic change in life priorities of his followers as a consequence of seeing first-hand the mind-boggling presence of one who came back from the grave. (Acts 1:3; 1 Corinthians 15:6). It would not be sufficient for me to base my hope on just one person’s isolated revelation.

In one of the many recent conversations about my experience of questioning the basis of my faith, I heard another express that she is not looking for any faith that speaks to what happens after death. For her the important thing about any belief system is living a good and ethical life in the present. I get this priority. It reminds me of my mother’s previous ‘back up’ rationale if the heaven promise turns out not to be true – at least its teachings provide a basis for a life lived well now. There are many spiritual, philosophical and religious bodies of wisdom that speak to living better in the present. And yet when tragedy and death confronts us, so often our natural yearnings want more. Social researcher Hugh Mackay reports in his just released book ‘Beyond Belief’, that 68% of Australians claim some kind of belief in God although regular church/ temple/mosque attendance is under 15%. He writes about many reports of how a crisis turns even hardened atheists to praying. Mackay writes, “For some people, calling on God in a crisis is simply a case of ‘nothing to lose.’ For others, it’s a return to a faith they once had….or perhaps a last-ditch test to see if there is a God who might somehow intervene.” (p 19 Sun Herald Sunday Life, May 1 2016) While our society is predominately secular, spiritual questions are prevalent for many, especially in the face of adversity.

With my own spiritual journey I am fully aware of how easily we humans can find the evidence to confirm any of our biases. Confirmation bias is everywhere and I can be as vulnerable as anyone in applying this to my own questions. I am committed to reading widely the reasoning of different positions and making every effort to not just create my own subjective version of belief. Recently I have devoured writing about the varied works of many eminent scientists in the study of the origin of life (i.e. Signature in the Cell, S Meyer). Dr Bowen’s writing about the degree to which emotional and relational process can shape our belief systems has been helpfully provocative for me and challenged me to stay open to information that might not sit comfortably with my inherited or assumed viewpoints. If I am not willing to allow my beliefs to stand up to an examination of contrary thoughtful explanations then it doesn’t say much for the strength of my faith platform. While one reviewer of my book on Good Reads wrote that my discussion of my Christian faith runs the risk of alienating some readers my view is that is the tone of discussion rather than content that unhelpfully alienates people. My effort is to communicating considerately, without emotive dogmatism and to being genuinely interested in differing positions expressed respectfully.

It’s been good to ask questions of the basis of my faith at this time. I am not grateful for the painful circumstances of grief but I am thankful for the opportunities to re- ask my deep and challenging questions of life and of God. I’m in good company with the ancient Israelite King David who often in the psalms directs his troubling questions to God: “Why o Lord, do you stand so far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1)While not all my questions can be simply and fully be answered I have come to a deeper confidence in a supernatural resurrection faith. It’s interesting to look back on my mother’s faith journey as she faced the ramifications of her incurable cancer in her early 50s. As I watched her face death it was clear as she spent much time reading her Bible and praying that her trust in God’s promises of heaven were not just wishful thinking. She had travelled well past her ambivalent answer to my childhood probing’s to a personal and confident relationship with the Good Shepherd of David’s Psalm 23. At this time in my own life I have asked hard questions of the God of my faith and have not been left empty. Even though walking through a dark valley I have not been alone. My experience is that I have been met, not with an apparition or mysterious hallucinatory voice but by a historical person, Jesus of Nazareth, who claimed to be God and backed up this audacious claim with many solid eye witnessed evidences*. I have cherished the gift of a presence of God’s love and sustaining and a renewed confidence that “goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”*

* What constitutes reliable historical evidence? I found this discussion drawing from credible academic ancient historians helpful. – More info

Dr Bowen writes about a mark of higher functioning people:

These are principle oriented, goal directed people who have many qualities that have been called “inner directed”. [While] sure of their beliefs and convictions they are not dogmatic or fixed in their thinking. They can hear and evaluate the viewpoints of others and discard old beliefs in favour of new. They are sufficiently secure within themselves that functioning is not affected by either praise or criticism from others. They can respect the self and identity of another without becoming critical or becoming emotionally involved in trying to change the life course of another. FTCP P 164

 

For any who are interested to explore an evidence perspective on the Christian faith these are books I recommend

  • New Evidence that Demands a Verdict – More info
  • The Christ Files – More info
  • The Reason for God – More info
  • Hugh MacKay’s book referred to: Beyond Belief – More info
  • Another fine Australian journalist and social researcher who has a different conclusion to MacKay is Roy Williams. His book God Actually documents his journey of investigation into the evidence for God – More info

 

‘Wishful Thinking’ – Jenny Brown

 

 

How our family of origin affects us AND how we affect each family member

family diagramThe desired outcome of Bowen’s family of origin coaching of an individual was for them to move beyond blaming or labelling family members as saints or sinners, and towards being able to accept the patterns over the generations that shape the relationship positions that each person comes to occupy

Most of us are interested in how our family of origin has shaped us. I have found that many people think in terms of cause and effect about how a parent or an event from the past has made life more difficult for them in the present. Much therapy takes this linear approach to exploring the past. For example, a detrimental parenting relationship is used to explain a person’s current sensitivities. In contrast a systems approach always looks at how each person and each generation affects the other in a circular (back and forth) way. For example one’s parents are understood in the context of their marriage, involvements with each child and the position they had with their parents growing up. The current sensitivities are understood through identifying family of origin relationship triangles that one participated in (I.E. How one related to each parent and how alliances impacted the relationship with other family members). A bigger picture of interactions across the generations diverts from blaming a parent for one’s current life difficulties.  This blog is an excerpt from an article I wrote and published in 2008 explaining a Bowen systems approach to looking at family of origin. I trust this will be of interest not just to therapists but to any who seek to constructively understand the influence of their previous generations.

Family of Origin Psychotherapy in a Nutshell

Coaching an individual to research their own patterns in their family and to redefine themselves in less anxiety driven ways is aimed at increasing their level of differentiation of self. This is not identical to the concept of individuation (Jung, 1954) or self-actualisation (Maslow, 1968) which focuses on growing away from family symbiosis through realising intra-psychically one’s separateness. Bowen’s concept of differentiation places an equal emphasis on staying meaningfully connected to significant others, as it does on expressing individual thoughts and beliefs. “The ability to be in emotional contact with others yet still autonomous in one’s own emotional functioning is the essence of the concept of differentiation.“(p.145, Kerr and Bowen, 1988)

Prior to focusing on the family as a system, Bowen had trained in psychoanalysis and undertook many years of his own analysis. In reflecting on the outcome of his early analytic training, he stated that “during my psychoanalysis there was enough emotional pressure to engage my parents in an angry confrontation about childhood grievances that had come to light in the snug harbour of transference. At the time I considered these confrontations to be emotional emancipation……The net result was my conviction that my parents had their problems and I had mine, that they would never change, and nothing more could be done.” (p. 484, Bowen, 1972)

Bowen was not satisfied with this outcome as he began to see from his clinical research that each family member participated in a reciprocal (circular) process of making compensations for others. This meant that with careful research of family patterns it was possible for an individual to begin to relate more from self and less in reaction to others, and that over time the efforts of one person might shift the functioning of the whole system. The desired outcome of Bowen’s coaching of an individual was for them to move beyond blaming or labelling family members as saints or sinners, and towards being able to accept the patterns over the generations that shape the relationship positions that each person comes to occupy. From this more neutral position, the individual is able to develop a person to person (not person to group or couple) relationship with each member of his/her family where differences can be expressed without attacking, defending or withdrawing. Bowen referred to this approach as ‘coaching’ as opposed to ‘therapy’ because the emphasis was on preparing for change efforts in the clients natural system of relationships, rather than a healing emphasis in the relationship between therapist and client. This has been likened to the coach of a sports team who is “on the sidelines. Both serve as teachers/consultants who prepare the players/clients, but the players/client(s) need to translate the learning into action on the playing field and the family turf.”(p. 22, Titelman, 1987)

Given that most clients of psychotherapy are motivated to address a problem in the here and now, a family systems therapist will begin with a focus on the problem bearer and gaining symptom relief (working in the foreground). Nonetheless, as family members start to understand their part in the interactions that maintain the symptom and how patterns of managing relationship anxiety are passed down the generations, they may choose to continue working with the therapist to look at the broader generational context. In the early stages of this work the focus is on gathering information about the family relationship history and exploring the functional roles the client occupied in their family. (Examples of functional roles are: problem solver – problem maker; anxiety generator-anxiety soother; supporter-collapser; energy lender-energy borrower)

A three generational family diagram/genogram is used as a way of mapping family history and looking for emotionally reactive patterns. The coach helps the client to identify gaps in knowledge, as highlighted by the genogram and hypothetical questions are used to explore what process is likely to ensue if the client is to get to know each family member better. When an understanding of the systems way of dealing with anxiety about relationship attachments is achieved they are encouraged to plan brief steps of contacting family members and subsequently observing and listening to them in a research minded way.

This information is brought back to therapy/coaching and further hypotheses are developed about the role the person plays in the system, what a less reactive role would look like and what might be the reactions of others to any changes they may make. The individual focuses their thought and effort on changing the way they relate in their family, not on trying to change others. There is rarely a termination of the work but rather a spacing of appointments to longer intervals and an encouragement to return at any time to continue the work of differentiating which is framed as a lifelong effort. The coaching effort aims to assist the client to work at being able to maintain their objective thinking, whilst in the midst of a tumultuous emotional family situation, yet still being able to stay in contact with family members.

Distinguishing Family of Origin Coaching from Traditional Individual Psychotherapy

The key distinction between family systems coaching and individual therapy that has evolved from psychoanalysis is that the focus for change is in the natural system of the client’s own family, as opposed to the in-session therapeutic relationship. Rather than the therapist seeking to facilitate a corrective relationship within the transference of the therapist client system, the therapist encourages the client to take action in their family system. Reflections are not on the individual’s intra-psychic processes but on their own family’s intergenerational patterns of relationships.

Similar to traditional individual approaches, family systems coaching emphasises the importance of the therapist managing their counter-transference. This is achieved by resisting the invitation to take sides (called ‘triangling’) and thereby staying out of the patterns of the client’s system. Betty Carter and Monica McGoldrick, who have applied Bowen’s approach to a feminist and multicultural framework, remember Bowen saying that 50% of the therapist’s energy is directed into the work itself and 50% is directed into staying out of the client’s family process. (p. 283, McGoldrick and Carter, 2001) A good deal of work on the self of the therapist is required  to stay engaged with a client without getting drawn into alliances, over responsibility, or withdrawing. Hence when a therapist can work on managing their anxiety when in contact with members of their family of origin, it is viewed as a constructive way of learning how to resist client’s invitations to loan support to their reactions to others. The premise is that “working toward becoming a more responsible and differentiated individual in one’s own family provides an avenue for lessening tendencies to become over involved with one’s clinical families, and it helps the family therapist avoid emotional “burnout”, a common occupational hazard for psychotherapists.” (p. 3-4, Titelman, 1987)

Researching, observing, planning and thinking are given priority over insight, emotional expression, support and interpretation in Bowen’s Family of Origin approach. Questions are focused on observable patterns of reacting by asking “What happened? Who was involved? How did each person respond?”; rather than on the particulars of a dispute, how one feels or what their interpretations are. The family systems therapist emphasises each person’s participation in the system, not what motivates individual behaviour. Instead of asking the individual to give direct expression of affect to the therapist, they are asked to reflect on what their feelings tell them about the relationship patterns in which they are involved.

Read the full article here.

Going Home Again: A family of origin approach to individual therapy

The paper was originally published in Psychotherapy in Australia Vol.14 No.1 pp. 12-18. 2008

For opportunities to explore this approach further (not just for clinicians) see the FSI conference offerings this June

The FSI – 2016 Conference – The Multi-generational Family

The FSI – Systems in Ministry Symposium and Your Family of Origin

 

‘How our family of origin affects us AND how we affect each family member’ – Jenny Brown