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