The Bowen Family Systems Theory | Best Review for Counselors

Bowen Family Systems

Today we want to think a little bit about Bowen Family Systems, and we’re going to be talking about family therapy.

Murray Bowen was a psychiatrist and a professor at Georgetown University from the mid- to late-1800’s. And he was a pioneer in family psychiatry. Among his theories he developed in this Bowen Family Systems, when he talked about the family being an integrated unit both emotionally and intellectually and integrating on several different levels.

Some of this most important characteristics from this family theory include ideas such as triangles. Under this idea, he said that in most relationships you’ll have two people coming together in a relationship, perhaps a mother and a father. If there is conflict or stress between the mother and father in that relationship, they will move incorporate a third member to deal with the stress.

So to give you a couple of examples, you might have a situation where a mother and father are experiencing stress in their relationship, the mother may move to the newborn baby, and that will form a new relationship that is stress free, so the mother will pour all of her attention and time into the child while ignoring the father, the source of the stress or the tension. And a new unit is formed. Now there is a triangle there because the mother and the father and the child are all there together, but the mother moves towards the less stressful situation with the child and away from the conflict and stress of the relationship with the father.

Likewise, it’s not always a person involved in these triangles, sometimes it’s an entity. So you might have the same situation of a mother and father in conflict, and in this case the husband will gravitate towards work, and he will stay at work, and the work will become the third side of this triangle, because he finds work enjoyable, less stressful, whereas his relationship with his wife is full of conflict and stress and so he will move closer to work while staying away from home to avoid that stress. Often we’ll find these triangles are moving fluidly as new dimensions of relationships open up and that which was close turns into conflict and stress and in that case they may turn back to the one that was originally pushed to the outside for help, so if the relationship with the child becomes difficult, the mother may turn to the father and try to bring him in to help deal with that stressful situation.

So you have these ideas of fluid triangles, that when there’s conflict and stress in a family between two they will always incorporate either a third person or entity to avoid the stressful situation and find comfort in something that is easier.

Another important concept in his system of family psychiatry and trying to bring harmony to families is this idea of differentiation of self. And this was actually the aim and the goal of all of his work was to try to get people to be more independent in their thoughts and in there emotion. If there was very little differentiation between members of a family and the way they thought and felt, there was a great deal of uniformity, he felt that was not healthy. They were basically working to please one another and to maintain the same thoughts and the same emotions at all times and at all costs. And he wanted to move people towards having a healthy sense of self, thinking their own thoughts, feeling their own emotions, and realize that this was not the ultimate goal in complete differentiation of self, so that there would be no relationship in the family, but that there would be a healthy form of differentiation of self so that I would be my own person, I wouldn’t worry so much about what other people thought and then I could move towards other family members in a normal, healthy relationship instead of a dependent one in which I was constantly concerned about what others thought about me and what I thought about them and pushing for this uniformity and conformity of thought and emotion.

And then finally when this was not going well, the differentiation of self, another concept he incorporated was emotional cutoff. And in this case what you would have is a situation where someone was uncomfortable, was not able to differentiate themselves, have their own thoughts, their own emotions, they entered a very stressful phase in the relationship, and what they do then to deal with it is not deal with it. They cut off their emotions, they stop talking about it, they divert conversations away from that which is uncomfortable. They never bring it up and deal with it. It gets buried and pushed aside. Everyone knows it’s there but no one wants to deal with it. And he hoped that by working with families that as they could increase this then this would diminish and could be worked on and sometimes he used these triangles, move towards a family member perhaps that has a stronger differentiation of self that’s easier to deal with, and then the two of you can then turn and help deal with this instead of just cutting off your emotions and refusing to deal with it, you can then go to the family and begin to talk in a healthy, rational way about the problems and find resolution to them.

As I said he was a pioneer in many ways in this field, and had very good insights, among these being triangles, differentiation of self, and emotional cutoff.


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Last updated: 05/03/2018


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