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

Dr Murray Bowen’s Growing Up Years

Jenny Brown in conversation with Dan Papero reveal a fascinating historical context for the development of Bowen theory as well as the world of psychiatry and the family therapy field that emerged after World War 2.

This podcast explores the growing up years of Dr Murray Bowen and his family background. This is all presented from the perspective of Dan Papero PhD, MSW who worked alongside Dr Bowen for several years.

The Life and Times of Dr Murray Bowen

The Excluded Sister – feeling like an outsider in the family

3 sisters
The Three Sisters in the Blue Mountains NSW Australia

Shelley had never considered the idea that her ‘tight’ mother and sister’s relationship could provide her with some ‘growing up’ opportunities as she practiced tolerating being an outsider.

I was chatting to a friend (who I’ll call Shelley) about how my relationship with my sisters has grown to be such a positive resource for me. Shelley bemoaned her relationship with her only sister saying that she always felt pushed to the outside while her older sister and mother shared a cosy togetherness. She felt excluded as she observed her mother and sister sharing much of their life with each other. Shelley sensed that they often talked critically about her, judging her motives and discussing her foibles.

I asked her how she manages feeling like the outsider with her sister and mother. Shelley’s response was: “I’ve given up on ever having a decent relationship with either of them, especially my sister. She is just a drain on my life and I can’t be bothered to work on it being any different.”

Shelley described occasionally making an effort to get her mother to herself but always felt like she gets pushed to the background seeing her mother privileging time with her sister.

This kind of relationship triangle is not uncommon. Usually when there is tension with a sibling this can best be understood by looking at the different relationship each sibling has with each parent. The way the parent invests in, leans on or worries about each of their children (at any age) will shape the way their children experience each other. Shelley viewed her sister as arrogant and exclusive but this can be seen differently when understanding the way her mother drew strength from her relationship with her eldest through the growing up years. When Shelley’s parents divorced she recalled that her mum looked increasingly to her eldest daughter for company and support. As the younger daughter by a few years Shelley remembers always being treated as the baby who was monitored by both her mother and sister. In contrast, in her relationship with her Dad, she sensed that he found her easiest to spend time with and would often spoil her.

As we chatted I shared some of my own sensitivities to being left out of some of my family relationships. These could typically be a sister gathering where I felt that I couldn’t get a word in; or hearing two members of my family discuss important things that I had not previously heard about. I have learned that being on the outside of a close twosome provides me with some excellent practice in regulating my emotions – toning down any negative reactions to those I feel excluded by. It’s been useful to practice being more comfortable as an outsider. As one who felt most secure when my mother leant on me, I have worked at not always be ‘needing to be needed’. I have consciously cultivated appreciating when others align to support each other with myself on the periphery. I’ve worked at stopping trying to get attention or to have more air time in these ‘outsider’ situations. I’ve learned to affirm the closeness of the other two people. This has enabled me to tone down my anxiety-driven competition to get the relationship inclusion that steadied me. What’s been fascinating in these changes is watching how the ‘tightness’ between others starts to appear less intense or offensive. As such, the sense of exclusion declines over time.

Shelley was surprised to hear of these experiences. She had never considered the idea that her mother and sister’s relationship could provide her with some ‘growing up’ opportunities as she practiced tolerating being an outsider. Considering the benefit of their relationship for her family’s coping with its many life challenges also provided a novel perspective. Shelley could be less critical of her sister as she saw how much the ‘mother – daughter’ closeness had helped her mother to keep up her life functioning at the difficult times. Rather than try to get some insider time with her Mum she wondered about conveying to her mother and sister how she admired the way they help each other out. She laughed at the prospect of such a radical reversal.

I don’t know if Shelley will begin to think differently about her sister through the lens of the triangle – that includes her and her Mum. It’s never easy to make such adjustments to our relationship sensitivities. Distancing and blaming usually feels like an easier path. I think it’s helpful to consider how we all need to be able to function well as outsiders in many parts of life. There will always be twosomes and groups that pull together as ways of managing life in families, workplaces, community groups and churches. We won’t always be in the cosy inside group and that is a good thing – with many advantages. When we are struggling with feelings of exclusion it’s useful to ponder how we are most likely a part of a relationship triangle and any reactions such as distancing or competitive manoeuvrers will contribute to the intensity of the triangle.

Questions for Reflection

  • Are there times I feel particularly stressed when feeling excluded? In which relationships does this usually occur?
  • Can I see a triangle at work in these situations – where two people have steadied each other by being aligned in contrast to a third?
  • In which situations am I on the inside of a triangle? When am I on the inside?
  • What patterns do I notice when I feel like an outsider? Can I see ways to halt those patterns of distance, criticism, competiveness, pursuing another for attention?
  • What are the opportunities to practice being able to maturely manage in the outside position?

For more information about relationship triangles read – ‘Growing Yourself Up” pages 44-46. And 144-5

Bowen writes FTCP p 478 & 480

‘A two person system is unstable in that it forms itself into a three person system or triangle under stress.’

‘When there is finally one who can control his/her emotional responsiveness and not take sides with either of the two, and stay constantly in contact with the other two, the emotional intensity within the twosome will decrease and both will move to a higher level of differentiation [maturity].’


‘The Excluded Sister – feeling like an outsider in the family’Jenny Brown


Interventions and Confrontations

testimageInterventions and Confrontations – Are they the most helpful ways to respond to severe problems in a person we care for?

Because I view a person’s symptoms as part of their system of relationships I now focus on expressing my own position in the relationship rather than focus on the problems in the other.

Last week a relative called me to talk through their ideas for an “intervention”. They wanted to challenge a friend to admit to their symptoms and agree to get some professional help. I appreciated the deep care behind this request. I heard about how a long term friend had been exhibiting increasingly severe symptoms that were threatening many aspects of their wellbeing. I was happy to be a sounding board for my relative and to share some of my principles for communicating such important concerns to someone we care about. The term ‘intervention’ usually refers to the effort to gather a group of people together and confront a person about their need for help. It is often used in the case of serious drug and alcohol dependence. Web sites on how to do interventions describe the context:

People with serious addictive behaviours are often in denial that they have a problem. When heart to heart talks and other attempts to help prove ineffective, you can join forces with friends, families and a professional interventionist to confront the person with the truth and a detailed plan of action.

Many years ago I was a participant in such a strategy and experienced a long term fall out in the relationship as the years progressed. In more recent years I have come to a different view of such strategies. Because I view a person’s symptoms as part of their system of relationships I now focus on expressing my own position in the relationship rather than focus on the problems in the other. Here are the key principles – some of which I shared with my relative:

  • The goal is to express to the other that they are important in my life as opposed to challenging how they are living their life.
  • Rather than confront the other with the problems in their life – which evokes intense defensiveness – I want to express my wish to have them as part of my life well into the future.
  • In conveying my care for having them as a living and important part of my life I will share some of the observations I have had that have triggered my concern..
  • I use the language of “I” rather than “You” in describing what I have observed and what fears for their wellbeing have been activated.
  • I describe the effects on me and our relationship and how this is different to the strong loving bond I am committed to as we continue as part of each other’s lives. This is different to describing my view of the effects on their life – positioning self as the expert overseer of another’s life can be heard as patronising and drive a wedge into the relationship.
  • I aim to talk one on one with the person rather than pull a group together to confront them. A group confrontation easily leaves a person feeling ganged up on.
  • I commit to ongoing contact with the person to show that my care for them is more than words. I don’t expect that just a conversation will change anything. I am committed to addressing my part in any unhelpful aspects of the relationship pattern over the long haul. This means I will not resort to distancing.
  • I will be truthful and not accommodating but my effort at honesty will be from my perspective and principles rather than a dogmatic declaration that I am an expert about the other. My effort towards speaking honestly will be grounded in real examples not in my subjective judgements and opinion.
  • I will watch my tendencies to be an expert about others rather than staying mindful of my own immaturities. I will stay clear of treating another person as a ‘diagnosis’ but rather will view them as a fellow human being who can be an important resource in my life.
  • If I were to focus on just a diagnosis in another it is all too easy to hand them over to an expert program as a way of reducing my own sense of distress- and my responsibility to work on myself in relationship with the other.

I appreciate that it isn’t easy to know how to address serious concerns about another’s life course or symptoms. Are there exceptions? I certainly conveyed to my relative that they know their relationship with their friend and will find their own way to deal with it best. Every situation is different and there may be occasions when a more direct intervention is the most caring thing another can do. At certain times it may be most loving to call in an emergency assessment service. Even in such cases I would aim to be transparent about my willingness to do this if I ever thought that my loved one’s safety or those of another were under threat.

My view is that a group or individual confrontation of another is almost never constructive. It sets up a one- up/one- down relationship where the person feeling challenged is evoked into high reactivity rather than being able to listen. They hear judgement rather than heart-felt concern. They can be fixed into the postion of a ‘patient’ in their relationship system. My system’s lens reminds me that people get into vulnerable symptomatic places in life via their position in their relationship/family systems. This means that if I change how I relate in that system I can contribute to a less regressive and anxious field for the most vulnerable person.


Bowen on confrontation in a family system:


‘As an oldest son and physician I had long been the wise expert preaching to the unenlightened, even when it was done in the guise of expressing an opinion or giving advice….During my psychoanalysis there was enough emotional pressure to engage my parents[others] in an angry confrontation…At the time I considered these confrontations to be emotional emancipation. There may have been some short term gain…but the long term result was an intensification of previous patterns.”

Family Therapy in Clinical practice P 484


‘In those families in which both parents could eventually tone down the sickness theme and relate to the ‘patient’ on a reality level, the ‘patient’ changed. After one family had emerged from their unreality, the ‘patient’ said, “As long as they called me sick and treated me sick, I somehow had to act sick. When they stopped treating me sick, I had a choice of acting sick or acting well.”’

P 86

‘Interventions and Confrontations’ – Jenny Brown



Relationships – A Laboratory for Growing Up

laboratoryAt this busy conference time, I thought my most useful reflections could be ones I’ve repeatedly needed reminding of. A focus on other’s maturity gaps is a diversion from addressing my own. Watching how I manage myself in all my relationships provides the very best lab for seeing, understanding and attending to my own maturity gaps.

‘Grow up!’ How many times have you heard this, said it or thought it in times of frustration? Maybe it was said to you, or a brother or sister, by your parents. Perhaps you’ve said it in a moment of annoyance to one of your kids. Have you thought of your colleagues at work or of your spouse? It may be that one of your siblings still struggles with the same growing-up problems as an adult that they had as teenagers; or you could be frustrated by your adult children’s reluctance to fly the nest.


We’re often prone to thinking that if only that other person could grow up a bit we’d be able to get on with being our own mature selves. While many of us get caught up in finding fault in others when things seem to go off course, there are some who are always finding fault in themselves: ‘I’m the problem in this family’; ‘They wouldn’t be so upset if I was a better daughter/parent/spouse.’ Whether it’s judging another or harshly judging ourselves, this pathway doesn’t bring lasting growth in us. So what’s going to remove these barriers to personal growth? What is the road to adult maturity?


A key to adult maturity is to see beyond ourselves to the relationship connections we’re part of.  To see our maturity gaps we learn to see that we’re all part of a system of relationships that deeply influences each person’s capacity for emotional resilience. Given that our original family has such a profound sway on the development of our maturity, it follows that going back to these formative relationships is the best laboratory in which to make positive changes. Genuine maturity for life starts with learning to observe ourselves in our relationships, and appreciating that problems are not just in the individual but also in the interconnections — the relationship systems — with others. Each stage of life and its relationships provide rich opportunities to facilitate awareness of our part in patterns that either enhance of stifle growth in maturity. – From leaving home, to marriage, parenting, mid-life challenges, establishing careers, adjusting to aging.


It’s an interesting and rewarding experience to learn to see how to shift our less mature responses in relationships.  Learning to recognise when we detour to third parties, or become overly helpful or controlling, or we hand over our responsibilities to others, or we depend too much on relationship approval, or we’re too quick to distance when tension arises. Recognising such patterns enables us to make new choices that enable us to bring our best to our relationships.


The project of growing ourselves, our task of seeking to understand how we may be contributing to our own dissatisfactions in our interactions, is all about personal responsibility in our relationships and not about self-promotion. It’s a project that can gradually transform even the most challenging of our relationships as our awareness of the effect we have on others, and the way we react to them increases. Growing maturity, based on seeing the patterns of relationship we’re part of, promotes more honesty, humility and improved health for us and for those we care about.

‘Relationships – A Laboratory for Growing Up’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



Are you a leader or follower as a parent or a dog owner?

Are you a leader or a follower with your dog?    


Are you a leader or a follower with your children?

yelling parent

I think there are some parallel principles to being a pack leader with a pet dog to being a parent leader with children. While clearly dogs and children have different needs and developmental trajectories both need good leadership for them to thrive. I think the current child focused trend has produced a lot of parents who are followers, not leaders. They parent in reaction to their child’s emotional state as distinct from parenting from managing their own emotional state and from clear leadership principles. Its not easy to reverse this trend when it is mirrored in schools and health professionals offices.

I respect the central ethos of the training principles of Dog Whisperer, Caesar Milan. Watching his television series illustrates clearly that the most important work in assisting a problem dog is for the owners to address their anxious way of relating to their dog. The work of change comes from the owner not by focussing on changing the dog. The following 10 questions from Caesar Milan are a checklist to ascertain if you are your dog’s pack leader. this gave me the idea to write some parallel questions for parents and their children. See what you think of such parallels?

You know you are a follower in your pack if you can answer yes to any of these questions: You know you are a follower  with your children if you can answer yes to any of these questions:
1.       Does your dog wake you up?

If your dog wakes you up, it means he doesn’t respect you. In order to correct this behaviour, you will need to change your dog’s habits to let him know that you are the one who will wake him up. So if your pup tries to wake you up, simply ignore him. And then when he finally exhibits the desired behaviour, reward him for following your lead.

1.       Do you wake up according to the demands of your child?

If your children expect you to rise and schedule your night waking and early morning according to their requests it indicates they have not learned to respect your schedule. Even if you need to check briefly on them when they call on you at night, you can demonstrate that it is not yet your time to be out of bed. When they show respect for this schedule you can demonstrate your appreciation for this.

2.       Do you reward your dog at the wrong time?

Don’t pet your dog when she does something wrong. This affectionate act — or reward — nurtures the very behaviour that you don’t want and will only convey that it’s okay for your dog to act that way. Instead, learn how to master affection.

      2. Do you give your child rewarding attention at the wrong time?

Focussing sustained attention on your child when they have not behaved appropriately is nurturing their irresponsible behaviour. They will become accustomed to your engagement when they are misbehaving rather than being given time to reflect on their poor choices or naughtiness.

       3. Do you feed your dog before you feed yourself?

A dog mom makes her babies wait to eat. So it should be no different with you as a Pack Leader. Instinctually, dogs know that the Pack Leaders eat first. So feed yourself before you feed your pup to show that you’re the leader.

     3. Do you allow your children to help themselves to a family dinner (pizza, desserts, treats) before you have commenced eating or given permission?

A parent is in control of serving food. Hence it provides an excellent opportunity to demonstrate order and leadership.

    4. Does your dog enter or exit rooms ahead of you?

Just like with food, dogs instinctually know that the Pack Leader is in control and should be the one to lead. Dogs don’t walk ahead of their Pack Leader, so you will need to change your role if you’re the one following your dog around the house.

    4. Do your children rush ahead of you when visiting others? Do they rush into lifts and buses without waiting for others to exit? Do they rush to play without helping you unload the shopping?

Being clear about expecting your children to wait, help, and not rush to their play is a clear way of holding leadership in an everyday activity. “I expect you to help me unload the car before starting anything else.” Or “Hold on now, I am not going to tolerate you rushing in before others have left the bus.”

    5. Does your dog jump on you?

Jumping is a dominance behaviour. Enough said. So when your dog jumps on you, he’s asserting his dominance over you. But you can’t just jump on your dog, so you need to let your dog know that his jumping isn’t okay and learn how to manage jumping issues.

    5. Does your child push into your physical space? Shoving or pulling or poking you?

By stepping back and creating your space boundaries, you are demonstrating helpful leadership. By not giving any attention or responses when being prodded and pushed you make clear that this is not an acceptable way to get something from another.

    6. Are you your dog’s source of excitement?

Without rules, boundaries, and limitations, you make yourself out to be a playmate instead of a leader. Remember, your dog needs to follow a Pack Leader to feel secure and to be balanced. Strive to be your dog’s source of calmness and direction by creating your dog’s calm, submissive state.

    6. Have you oriented much of your life towards providing play, activity and entertainment for your child? Do you demonstrate through providing constant novelty activity that it is your job to keep them entertained? Are you always too busy and stressed? Or do you set aside other life responsibilities to attend to your child’s activities.

Remember your child needs you to provide opportunity for them to practice slowing down, Periods of quiet, calm, alone time. This starts with a parent who practices this in their own life on a daily basis.


    7. Does your dog have the run of the house?

She is on your bed, on the sofa, in the kitchen, in the bathroom, and going berserk at the front door if anyone dares to ring the bell. You need to set boundaries for your pack, so she knows what is and isn’t allowed. Follow these tips for building boundaries with your dog. Claim your space; teach your dog to wait; correct at the right time.

    7. Do your children have the run of your house? Do they come into your bedroom without knocking? Do they come into your bed when they choose?

Do they leave their stuff anywhere?

Think about how you can be in charge of when your children enter your space and how they take up the household space. Parents who have no boundaries when a child is anxious contribute to a child becoming increasingly anxious and unable to self-regulate.

You have the capacity to say “I will tell you when it’s OK to have special story and play time in our bed.” Or “I will not be serving dinner until that mess has been put back where it belongs.”

    8. Does your dog turn a deaf ear to your commands?

If you haven’t trained your dog in basic obedience, you are losing pack leadership points. Work on teaching your dog these five essential commands to establish yourself as Pack Leader and curb behaviour issues; Sit, come, down, stay, leave it.

    8. Does your child ignore your requests?

Improving your leadership in all the above areas makes it much less likely that a child will ignore you. If you just try to get a child to do what you want without working on broad leadership behaviour it is likely to become a  futile power struggle.

An instruction that depends on the child’s co-operation is less effective when re-building your leadership than a request where you can control the consequences. E.g. – when you serve food, go out, provide a lift, take them to a favourite place, pay for something.

    9. Do you yell at your dog?

Yelling is actually the best way of making sure your dog 1) never listens to you, and 2) develops fear and anxiety because of your unbalanced energy. So instead of yelling at your dog — which gets you nowhere, fast — try being calm and assertive.

    9. Do you yell at your children?

Highly reactive parents equates to highly reactive children.

Yelling is actually the best way of making sure your child 1) never listens to you, and 2) develops fear and anxiety because of your unbalanced energy. So instead of yelling at your child — which gets you nowhere, fast — try being calm and assertive.

And when a child is demonstrating their own calm self-management come alongside them and calmly show an interest in what they are doing.

    10 .Does your dog pull you on the walk?

This is the ultimate sign that you have yet to master pack leadership. On top of that, if you don’t walk your dog daily, it’s hard to establish your leadership. That’s why mastering the walk is essential to every Pack Leader.

10. Does your child dictate what you do on an outing?

Rather than every outing being focussed on the child’s interests include something you need to do before going to their preferred activity. They can benefit from developing capacity for delayed gratification and respecting your priorities.

Remember, when it comes to pack leadership, you are the one in charge. By setting boundaries now, you and your dog will be in great shape towards building your relationship and strengthening your bond for years to come. Remember, when it comes to parent leadership, you are the one in charge. You are not becoming a follower of your child’s moods and wants. By setting boundaries now, you and your children will be in great shape towards building your relationship and strengthening your bond for years to come.

count your “yes” answers.Here is Ceasar Milan’s checklist scoring:

0 yes…………………………………… You are the Pack Leader / or parent leader (it may well be a mythical being who can completely answer yes to every question all the time)

1 – 10 yes…………………. You are not the Pack Leader / parent leader YET.

Change does not happen overnight but in small steps of self-management. The effort is on changing self for the benefit of the dog and the child. I know I have often failed to be a calm assertive leader as a parent and dog owner. Rather than beat myself up I can get back on track with my own leadership project.

*10 signs that you are not yet a pack leader –

‘Are you a leader or follower as a parent or a dog owner?’ – Jenny Brown


When caring for others can be self-serving

helpingIt’s humbling to see how easily I can fall back into this ‘over helping’ pattern given I’ve been working to improve my awareness of this over so many years. The work of maturing is indeed a slow process. In my own family my insecurities within could be alleviated when another was courting my advice and support. 

I’m aware that I need to monitor myself when it comes to responding to those in need. Recently I observed myself, during my small group church gathering, being over involved in the meeting – saying too much, filling in the silent moments, anticipating others needs and indirectly speaking for them. I tend to do this unconsciously, when I’m a bit tense or feeling over responsible for others.  As I reflected on what was behind this lapse I realised that 2 of the people in my group had been opening up to me about some challenging personal issues they were confronting. Rather than just stand side by side with them I fell into a position I had in my family of origin of feeling overly responsible for how their needs were being considered in the context of the community gathering. Emotionally (not intellectually) I perceived that they needed me to make sure that the group process was protective for them in their vulnerability.  Neither of them had asked me to do this and the effect of my over responsibility was to impinge on the work of the group facilitator – my husband.  My reactive efforts crowd out others space to contribute to relationships. These days I usually manage to stay aware of the importance of NOT allowing anxious sensitivities to other’s distress move me into taking on responsibility for what is not mine.  I have seen the evidence many times that when I listen and am present with people but allow them to work their way through their own life challenges, people do better and our relationship does better.

It’s humbling to see how easily I can fall back into this pattern given I’ve been working to improve my awareness of this over so many years. The work of maturing is indeed a slow process. In my own family my insecurities within could be alleviated when another was courting my advice and support.  My mother became a confidant to me in my teenage years and I tend to attract people wanting to confide in me and express their problems. You can see how well primed I was to go into the helping professions. I have come to see that any help giving that is used to steady one’s self is ultimately not genuine service to others. Just as any person seeking others to align with their complaints or overly bond with them through a helping process is likely to be reducing their own life responsibility. Both sides of the over helping and over venting are co-creators of a self- steadying pattern rather than a growth promoting relationship.

I’m often asked to give talks to church groups about ways to care for others constructively. In a faith community, with an imperative to love and serve others, this is a central issue. It’s such an interesting topic to tease out – What is genuine service to others and not a helping process that impinges on mature relating in community? The following is a list of questions I’ve developed to assist people to grapple with the different sides of this dilemma:

Questions to reflect on whether anxious relational sensitivities have gotten mixed up with caring for one another:

  • How thoughtful versus impulsive have I been in responding to the other?
  • Am I overly comfortable with people in need? Do I feel an impulse to rescue or fix?
  • How much is my response to the other based on my imagining what they need versus making the effort to draw alongside and hear what they think about their situation?
  • How much do I unknowingly bolster myself from the validation that comes from providing help to others? (Was this something that I experienced in my family of origin or early church community of similar non family group?)
  • Is the energy going into caring for certain people leaving any important relationships neglected? g. Family members. Not just neglecting being in good connection with family members but remaining responsible in family duties.
  • Is my effort to help another bringing benefit to them or is it resulting in increased helplessness and dependence? Are they responding by needing more and more time and attention?

And on the other side of the over helping pattern:

  • Is the way I expect others to care for me preventing me from maturing and being more responsible?
  • Do I talk more about the issues in my own life than showing interest in what’s happening in other’s lives?
  • When I’m struggling, am I prone to talk to others before thinking (and praying) things through for myself?
  • How uncomfortable am I with someone in need? Do I tend to avoid or distance?

By nature and nurture I have a high sensitivity to other’s pain and distress. I deeply care that struggling people should not be left to walk alone in their suffering. At the same time I know how easily anxieties can be caught up in the helping relationship. ‘Over helping’ and ‘over venting’ may temporarily make people feel important or valued but in the longer term can leave people burnt out and confused. In quite subtle ways what we think is in service of others can unknowingly be in service of ourselves. This is an area I continue to prayerfully and consciously work on in my relationships.

Reflect on the various postures towards helping that are shaped uniquely for yourself and each member of your family:

What was my position in my family in terms of helping?

Was I ‘over helped’ at time?

Was I valued as a helper?

Did I distance from any problems between other family members?

Was I encouraged to focus on self (my needs or achievements) at the expense of making space for others?

* Foot note – I think the issue of human selfishness/narcissism (in varying degrees) is universal. Hence even very good acts of care are often caught up in self- interest. Alongside this is the anxiety in family relationship systems that shape people differently in terms of their postures and sensitivities towards others.

Bowen quotes (from Family Therapy in Clinical Practice):

It is factual that dysfunctioning and over functioning exist together. P 155

It’s possible for the [person] to attain even more emotional equilibrium through the … helplessness of the [other]. The one down of the [other] permits her to function securely in the over adequate position. P 63

Basic relationship patterns developed for adapting to the parental family in childhood are used in all other relationships throughout life. P 462

I realized the degree to which I had been… instructing others and even functioning for them, while I had been irresponsible in failing to do other things that came within my own area. P498

‘When caring for others can be self-serving’ – Jenny Brown

Working on a Marriage not an Event

145276763151268Towards the end of last year I celebrated my 35th wedding anniversary and was able to mark it with a weekend getaway with my husband. It was a delightful, romantic respite from the end of year pressures. I was prompted to reflect on events that mark important relationship milestones or transitions. We can invest a lot in the experience of the event itself and loose the meaning of what the event is marking.

I recall a comment made about an upcoming wedding in my broader family – the soon to be groom wisely stated that for him this is all about a marriage and not all about a wedding. The wedding as an event and can be injected with disproportionate amounts of expectation for perfection that can leave a couple and family completely exhausted and somewhat flat afterwards- along with the depletion of their bank accounts (or parents bank accounts). In contrast to a focus on the event – a marriage is about a promise and a long haul commitment. It is not just about 2 individuals fuelling romantic expectations and creating a series of such experiences. It is about a transition of generational family relationships that restructures the broader family system. A marriage marks the beginning of another generational level.

For my anniversary break away I was certainly up for relishing the event. More than this however, my focus was on recognising the priority I place on my marriage and the mutual ongoing commitment that is involved through the many phases of life. The time away did boost emotions of joyful affection but more importantly it was an opportunity to reflect on the principles behind our original commitment and the lessons learned along the way.

There are many predictable deterrents to prioritising and working out a commitment promise. Marriage certainly exposes one’s selfishness. It also exposes ways of avoiding feelings of anxious emotions. Let me describe the typical ways avoidance of emotional discomfort plays out in marriages:

Rather than tolerate the discomfort of expressing differences of opinion in an open respectful way it is often just easier to avoid and distance into other activities; or ‘band aid’  anxiety through one way conflict. When emotions get stirred because of the inevitable absence of affirmation and attention from the other it is easy to impatiently pursue the other to steady ourselves rather than work on being less dependent on the other for self-esteem. If our spouse doesn’t respond as we’d like to our pursuits we easily become critical of them rather than clarifying what is going on for ourselves. Predictably this leads to complaining to third parties about our spouse being inattentive or unreasonable. Our anxieties lower as soon as we hear a third party support our point of view (Triangles).It is also common for one spouse to allow the other to solve their problems for them. Both the problem solving ‘expert’ and the one who gives way to the other’s ‘expertness’, have lowered tension through this adjustment.

And then come children!  It is predicable that a couple (to varying degrees) will substitute their effort to know each other with the detour of focussing on their children. Children need our attention but they can too easily provide a sneaky justification for neglecting the adult partnership. If there are not children, the detour of work, hobbies and pets can fill the breach.  Rather than work on being open about one’s challenges, hopes and dreams with the other it is just more comfortable to talk about the child’s latest milestone or perceived vulnerability. Commonly, a husband senses that his wife is less anxious for his attention when children come. As she is steadied and strengthened by caring for a dependent child she looks less to her husband when she’s unsettled. The husband is typically relieved that his wife is less critically attuned to whether he is measuring up and willingly participates in the distance that fosters more ‘mother to child’ focus. He may have opinions about child rearing or fostering their connection but avoid expressing them for fear of his wife’s critical response. The mother characteristically calls on her husband to help when parenting is overwhelming but as soon as he starts doing things differently with the child she is critical of him and is glad for him to resume his distance. The husband may just passively go along with his wife’s focus on the children to keep harmony or he may be passively critical and parent in a polarised manner. These anxious sensitivities and patterns to manage them in our marriages happen outside a couple’s awareness. (the opposite gender patterns may sometimes be present)

I think that every marriage partnership, and marriages with children, goes through varying degrees of at least a few of these patterns. It has certainly been the case in my own marriage and mostly I was oblivious to it. One such time was when my children left home in their 20s. It took me by surprise to watch how I became increasingly irritable with my husband. This revealed to me how much I had been stabilized by the presence of my children and their activities. It also challenged me to see where I had been neglecting to foster genuine connection with my husband. The past years have required renewed effort to know and be known to my husband in a deeper way. To address my part in immature management of discomfort.  My original promise over 30 years ago underscores this imperative.

I often hear, in my clinical practice, a spouse declare that they have no motivation left to prioritise their partner. The years have allowed for so much distance and detouring that they find it hard to feel affection and positive regard for the other. I endeavour to assist them to see how they have co-created this void and to envisage the possibility of playing a part in cultivating a fond acceptance of each other that enables them to grow old together. For myself, at the times I have struggled for motivation to be kind and in real contact with my husband, I recall the grace I have received in my life. Grace reminds me that love is a commitment. It is not based on another measuring up. This commitment was marked at a joyous event 35 years ago but it is not dependent on a series of happy events. It is sustained by an effort towards humility, confronting selfishness, immaturity and learning to stay truly connected in the face of tensions rather than take the easier detours that are on offer.

* The patterns described are observable in all long term committed relationship to varying degrees.

Questions for Reflection:

  • How much do I look to my spouse/important others to bolster my happiness? Is the state of my relationship measured by good times or an inner commitment to the good of each other?
  • How do I mark an anniversary? Is my focus on creating an experience or on affirming the achievement of sticking at promises made?
  • Which patterns have I been part of that contribute to distance and detours in my marriage? =

A focus on getting needs met through the other? Distancing (physically and/or emotionally) when feeling insecure? Snippy conflict, which is emotional venting rather than working through things? Detouring my discontents to third parties? Becoming the expert on how the other should manage life or allowing the other to do this for me? Subtly allowing children to be the main topic of conversations? Allowing the experience of parenting a dependent child to be a substitute for staying open with my spouse? Staying silent to avoid the discomfort of the other’s criticism?

Relevant quotes from Bowen theory

These quotes referring to patterns in marriage are from Dr M Kerr’s book: Family Evaluation 1988.

It is predicable that [anxious immaturity] will be bound in one or more of three patterns of emotional functioning: conflict between the mates, disproportionate adaptation by one mate to preserve harmony, or focus of parental anxiety on a child. P225

People are willing to be “individuals” only to the extent that the relationship system approves and permits it. Giving up some togetherness (fusion) does not mean giving up emotional closeness. It means that one’s functioning becomes less dependent on the support and acceptance of others. P 107

People select mates who are at the same level of differentiation of self. Each person has the same amount of need for emotional reinforcement from the relationship…..Both have the same amount of emotional separation (differentiation) from their respective families of origin, an amount that parallels the amount of emotional separation (differentiation) that exists in the marital relationship. P171

People are keenly responsive (not necessarily conscious) or sensitive to one another’s emotional states and make automatic adjustments in response to the information received….The emergence of a symptom in the other can, in turn, reduce the anxiety of the first person as he/she begins to minister to the now symptomatic one. This alleviation of anxiety in the first person can also have a calming effect on the symptomatic one; it is easier to be symptomatic [needy] than it is to tolerate one’s internal reactions to another’s distress. P 129

People do not have trouble getting on because of issues (such as children, money, sex)…These issues tend to bring out the emotional immaturity of people and it is that immaturity, not the issues, that creates the conflict. P 188

‘Working on a marriage not an event’ – Jenny Brown

Saying Goodbyes

the fsi

I am also clear that my children are not a possession and are not in this world to meet my needs. This helps me to make room for feelings of sadness at the moment of goodbye but not to allow such feelings to dominate.

What a special time I’ve just enjoyed with my daughter and family who live across the other side of the world. It is a torrid 24 hours of travel to reach her but worth all of the jetlag and side effects to have that personal face to face time. My priority was to be part of her regular routine and to get to know her life in a more tangible way. Nothing can substitute for face to face time! That daily sharing of life for even a short time enables me to move past feeling like a visitor in her life to reinforcing the settled platform of our lifelong connection. Cooking, shopping, attending the ordinary family member events, domestic duties and time out for the simple treats of a café outing. My position in this relationship needs to adapt to the changing phases of the life cycle but the loving bond of family continues to undergird the changes of circumstances.

After a teary farewell I took the opportunity to catch up with 2 friends before undertaking the long flight back to Australia. My friend asked me at lunch how I manage living so far away from family. She said to me that it must be very hard to deal with the distance in our relationship. I responded saying that while it has its challenges I never dwell on the loss of geographic closeness to my daughter. This is a definite choice for me grounded in some important perspectives. I’m mindful that my own mother never lived to see her children married and the arrival of grandchildren. With that reality as a back drop I couldn’t think of grumbling about the distance in my relationship with any of my children. I am grateful to be alive to enjoy seeing her and her family’s life unfold. I think of many people who are bearing the much greater weight of strained relationships with adult children or not having the opportunity for children and grandchildren.  I am also clear that my children are not a possession and are not in this world to meet my needs. This helps me to make room for feelings of sadness at the moment of goodbye but not to allow such feelings to dominate. Indeed as I write this blog I feel the small tugs of emotion that this much anticipated reconnect has come to an end. This is however tempered with a deep gratitude for such a blessed time and an appreciation of the joy of returning home, reunions with loved ones and resuming my own meaningful routines.

When we begin to draw life meaning and steadiness from any relationship it can move into what Bowen described as fusion. The other person loses their separateness from us and becomes merged into our own functioning. Each of us brings varying degrees of propensity to relationship fusion from our intergenerational families. It’s easy to use a relationship to provide us with a sense of being needed or to reduce a sense of inadequacy or futility. This rarely happens consciously but it can slowly develop in the presence of life’s anxieties and is reinforced as other people reciprocate in the fusion pattern. For some, who carry dissolution with their family relationships, it’s likely that they will over invest in substitute relationships. When there is cut off from important family members it may be that intense new relationships are not too far away.

From my faith position I find it useful to view the tendency to relationship over-investment as a kind of heart idolatry- where the other person is elevated to a position of exaggerated importance. Canadian Bowen theory scholar and Presbyterian minister Randal Frost described this in a presentation on ‘faith and functioning’ where the tendency to anxiously invest in others (or in work, education, causes, and substances) can parallel a lack of effort towards God:

 “…people who come to know and trust God no longer have the same need to secure themselves by means of over-investing in others.”

“..modification of the idolatrous component of an intense emotional attachment (to people or things) should gradually enhance the possibility of defining a self to the other.” Frost R 1998, paper presented at WPFC

As I reflect with warmth and gratitude on my recent time with my daughter I remind myself that my relationships are a gift not an entitlement. Even with the challenges of distance they are to be appreciated and worked on – but not elevated to a place where they are necessary for my sense of purpose or happiness. In my everyday growing up efforts I endeavour to keep relationships in their appropriate place. To feel the emotions of reunions and separations but not to let such feelings elevate the person to an unrealistic importance. To love them, appreciate and enjoy them but not draw on my interactions with them to prop up my wellbeing.

Questions for reflection

  • Which relationships risk becoming overly important to me?
  • What are the ways I look to a relationship to provide a sense of wellbeing?
  • How do I manage separations from important other’s?
  • If the emotions of loss and grief are excessive when separating from another, how might this indicate fusion (or elevating a person to a place of heart idolatry)? How can I slowly begin reducing this intensity?
  • What is the place of feelings in separating from important others? What is the place of principle and perspective when dealing with geographic distance from family?
  • Have I reflected on how it is that programs that encourage a relationship with a ‘higher power’ assist many people to reduce their investment in addictive behaviours? (12 steps in AA)

Relevant quotes from Bowen theory (this summary is taken from Family Therapy in Clinical Practice- showing what high, moderate and lower levels of fusion look like. p 366- 370.)

High Fusion People

  • Live in a feeling dominated world.
  • So much energy goes into seeking love and approval and keeping the relationship in some kind of harmony, there is little energy for life-directed goals.
  • When approval is not forthcoming energy is directed into withdrawing or fighting their relationship system
  • When failing to achieve closeness, they may go to withdrawal and depression, or to pursuit of closeness in another relationship.

Moderate Fusion People

  • Are more able to distinguish between feelings and facts especially when tension isn’t high.
  • Their feelings still tend to tell the intellectual system what to do
  • Their well-being can be dependent on other’s approval. Criticism can be crushing.
  • Are sensitised to reading the moods, expressions and postures of the other.

Low Fusion People (high differentiation/maturity)

  • When relationship tension is high, the person’s intellect can hold its own without being dominated by the emotional system. (emotions are both feelings and physiological reactivity)
  • They have employed logical reasoning to develop principles and convictions that they use to over-rule the emotional system in situations of anxiety and panic.
  • Are less relationship directed. While aware of relationships and connected to important others their life courses are not directed by what others think and how they react.

A caveat from Bowen

“A common mistake is to equate the better differentiated person with a ‘rugged individualist.’ I consider rugged individualism to be the exaggerated pretend posture of a person struggling against emotional fusion. The differentiated person is always aware of others and the relationship system around him/her.” P 370

‘Saying Goodbyes’Jenny Brown