BOWEN FAMILY SYSTEMS THEORY
THEORISTS: MURRAY BOWEN, Philip Guerin, Betty Carter, Norman Paul, Monica McGoldrick, Michael Kerr, and Thomas Fogarty
Evolving from psychoanalytic principles, the main idea of Bowenian therapy is that the family is an emotional system that has evolved over generations. Individuality and togetherness are viewed as two counterbalancing life forces that drive human relationships. Functional and dysfunctional families fall along a continuum from emotional fusion to differentiation. Bowenian therapists maintain focus on strengths of the client, rather than pathology. The lower the level of differentiation the higher the chronic anxiety; the greater the differentiation the better the individual members and family can handle day-to-day stress.
- Reduce anxiety levels and increase differentiation
- Increase individual autonomy
- Address and repair conflictual family relationships
- Detriangulate family emotional triangles
- The ability to distinguish between one’s thoughts and feelings.
- A person’s ability to maintain a clear sense of self and identity.
- A person’s ability to engage in meaningful connection with others.
- The “self” that is more differentiated and able to function based upon personally defined set of values, beliefs, convictions and life principles.
- The “self” that is not differentiated and may be fused with another person. As a result, a person with a pseudo-self does not reason or think based upon his/her own internal values, but instead borrows the values of the person with whom he/she is fused and typically makes emotionally reactive choices.
- Lack of differentiation; too much togetherness.
- Chronic Anxiety
- A biological phenomenon that involves automatic physical and emotional reactions that are often automatic and not enacted through logical processes.
- Assessment tool utilized by Bowenian therapists to depict a visual description of the family history, dynamics, and functioning across generations (including repeated patterns of medical issues, mental illness, addiction, abuse, and relationships).
- “I” Position
- Making statements starting with “I” in order to express personal feelings and ideas and to avoid blaming others.
Bowens eight (8) interlocking theoretical concepts:
- Differentiation of Self
- The distinction between thoughts and feelings. Individuals within the family are pulled between two competing needs: to belong to the group and to be an individual separate from it. Ideally, the competing needs are in balance.
- Emotional Triangles
- In times of anxiety, a dyad brings in a third party in order to reduce anxiety; triangles are the smallest stable unit in a family. Although a triangle may reduce anxiety, it shifts the focus from the actual problem. NOTE: the third piece of the triangle can also be a non-living thing, such as substance abuse.
- Nuclear Family Emotional Process (Undifferentiated Ego Mass)
- Fusion or “stuck-togetherness” in the family. When the family has dysfunction and cannot solve a particular problem, it is passed from generation to generation. People tend to select marital partners who are at the same level of differentiation.
- Multigenerational Transmission Process
- Anxiety is transmitted through the generations.
- Emotional Cutoff
- Moving away emotionally or physically from the family of origin to avoid addressing family conflict. When individuals are undifferentiated, they tend to cut themselves off emotionally, or even geographically, from their families of origin. Although the separation may decrease anxiety, it does not resolve the fusion.
- Societal Regression
- Social influence on family functioning, such as poverty, culture, and ethnicity.
- Sibling Position
- Birth order influences behavior
- Family Projection Process
- Undifferentiated parents transmit their immaturity, or lack of differentiation, to their children through the family projection process.
ASSESSMENT AND TREATMENT
- Therapist assesses togetherness and individuality through:
- Family of origin
- Level of differentiation
- The basic form of assessment utilized by Bowenian therapists is the genogram (developed by Philip Guerin), a visual description of the family history, dynamics, and functioning across generations. Because the genogram can be a mechanism for the family to talk rationally about both historical facts and the feelings associated with them, it is simultaneously a diagnostic and a treatment tool. The neutrality of the genogram can also focus the family on the total picture rather than just the symptoms or presenting problem.
- Although the emphasis is on the extended family, the entire family does not have to be present in therapy.
STANCE OF THERAPIST
- Therapist attempts to elicit growth by helping to teach clients about family process and to “coach” them in their efforts to change.
- Therapist must be careful not to become triangulated.
- Therapist is a non-anxious presence; takes the “I” position; and remains calm and neutral.
- Therapist encourages discussion of facts rather than feelings, as each member works toward differentiation.
- Therapist works to decrease emotional reactivity and anxiety in session.
- Therapist may use him/herself as the third person in a triangle, frequently removing the child from the triangle in order to lower anxiety; but usually will avoid being triangulated him/herself.
- Therapist asks process questions to encourage clients to think about the processes within the family and about their own roles.
- According to Bowen, the therapist must have the same maturity level as clients in order to treat them effectively.
- Bowen prefered to not have children in the therapy room and instead would treat the parents.
- To decrease reactivity to one another, couples may be asked to respond directly and exclusively to the therapist in the session, rather than to one another.