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