Bowenian Family Systems Theory and Therapy

Jean Galica, M.A., LMFT

Theravive Counseling

Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist

Bowenian Family Systems Theory and Therapy

Introduction:  Murray Bowen was the developer of family systems theory. His family systems theory may be considered a main bridge from psychodynamically oriented views to systems perspectives. Bowen, who was an evolutionist, based his theory on the idea that people are the result of an evolutionary process, although all processes are common in nature.  Also central to Bowen’s theory is the concept of multigenerational transmission and each generation moves toward a lower level of differentiation. Thus, a downward spiral will continue from generation to generation until unresolved emotional attachments and cutoffs are dealt with successfully. Even though Bowen hypothesizes that each family’s emotional system is rooted in its own multigenerational history, therapy is aimed at change in individuals or couples who are capable of affecting other family members. Therapy, therefore, takes place from the inside out.

Self-differentiation starts with one individual and progresses into the transforming of relationships in the entire family system. Self-differentiation is very basic to the Bowenian theory. It is an individual’s ability to separate his/her intellectual and emotional functioning while maintaining autonomy from the emotional issues of others and is able to function on the basis of reasoned principles. The goal of therapy is self-differentiation which must be self-motivated and not initiated by a therapist according to Bowen.

Bowen saw the family as an emotional unit, a network of interlocking relationships which are best understood when analyzed from a multigenerational framework. Although his therapeutic techniques are more cognitive than affective, he postulated either concepts to identify the emotional processes taking place in a nuclear as well as an extended family.

Therapeutically, Bowenians work with marital couples in a calm and carefully detriangulated manner with the attempt to resolve fusion between the parents. The goals are to reduce anxiety and resolve symptoms and thereby maximize each person’s self-differentiation within the family system and from the family of origin.

Family Systems Theory:  Bowen moved from previous theories’ beliefs that problems in an individual were rooted in the person, but rather he emphasized the role of the family emotional system extending over several generations was the cause of the individual’s problems. He also believed that if a family presented a problem and a child was identified as the problem, the real problem was in the family emotional system (most likely the marital relationship). He felt family therapy was taking place regardless of how many individuals were present (very opposite from the view of Framo that all family members must be present). In some instances, the problem child may never be seen in therapy, only the parents. At other times, maybe only one individual within the family might be seen, the one who is the most mature and has the greatest potential and motivation for further self-differentiation. It is the domino effect; one’s self-differentiation will affect the next person and so on until there is a chain of self-differentiation happening among the family members.

Bowen felt multigenerational trends had a great impact on the family emotional system and family members do not function autonomously but rather are tied together in thinking, feeling, and behavior. Bowel believed his theory was more about life rather than families, as families are just one of many types of systems, and families are a result of an evolving process.

The Bowenian approach gives the therapist a method of organizing, categorizing events, helps predict future events, explains past events, gives an explanation about what causes or has caused events, and gives the potential for control of future events. This potential for controlling events is very basic to Bowenian family therapy.

Bowen’s Eight Concepts:  Six of his eight concepts identify emotional processes taking place in the nuclear and extended families. The other two concepts, emotional cutoff and societal regression, identify the emotional process across family generations. All of the concepts are interlocking in the sense that all must be comprehended to fully understand any one concept.

The underlying premise of all the concepts is chronic anxiety, which is an inevitable part of nature and life according to Bowen. Bowen’s definition of anxiety is “arousal of an organism when perceiving a real or imagined threat.” (Goldberg, Family Therapy, 1996, p 169).

Bowen believed anxiety stimulated a person’s emotional system leading to automatic and uncontrolled behavior. In families, anxiety is aroused by family struggles and pressures toward togetherness. Bowen believed the more togetherness there was with a decrease of autonomy, the more each individual is likely to experience chronic anxiety, which for Bowen represented the underlying basis for all symptoms. Bowen’s eight concepts are as follows (Goldberg, Family Therapy, 1996, p 169):

      • Differentiation of self
      • Triangles
      • Nuclear family emotional system
      • Family projection process
      • Emotional cutoff
      • Mutigenerational transmission process
      • Sibling position
      • Societal regression

Differentiation of self is the separation of one’s intellectual and emotional functioning process from others. It is demonstrated by the degree to which one has the ability to not have his/her behavior driven by feelings. The idea is not to be emotionally detached or to become overly objective with little or no feelings, but rather for the individual to strive for balance by achieving their self-definition but not at the expense of losing their ability for spontaneous emotional expression; hence, there is a need for a balance of feelings and cognition. Differentiation is a process or a direction in life, not a goal to be achieved.

The opposite of differentiation is fusion. A person who is fused within the family system is unable to differentiate their thoughts and their feelings and they are unable to differentiate themselves from others. When an individual has difficulty differentiating themselves from others they fuse very easily with whatever emotions are sweeping through the family and the more highly they are fused the more difficult it is for them to operate from reasoned principles. There are different degrees of differentiation and fusion and no person is 100% differentiated, nor 100% fused. Bowen’s theory also states that a person marries a person of the same level of differentiation. The poorer differentiated the two spouses are the more they become fused and the functioning of this new nuclear family will be dysfunctional in proportion to their fusion. Bowen insisted that maturity and self-differentiation demand that an individual become free of unresolved emotional attachments to his/her family of origin. A person’s differentiation reflects the individual’s level of emotional independence from the family as well as other individuals outside the family.

Ideally, the individuals are inner-directed, establish their own goals, and they assume responsibility for their own lives. These people tend to relate well to others out of their strength versus a need. Such individuals can be characterized by rationality, objectivity, and they are their own person. They separate their thinking from their feelings and they are able to remain independent, but not out of contact, with their nuclear and extended family.

A triangle is the basic building block in the family’s emotional system according to Bowen. Under stress, a dyadic emotional system in a family will recruit a third person into the system to lessen the intensity and anxiety and to gain stability and, thus, a triangle is formed. Usually the triangle will dilute the anxiety as the triangle is more stable and flexible than the dyad and the triangle has a higher tolerance for dealing with stress. When the stress is dissipated, the third person in the triangle is able to exit and again become a loner and the original dyad becomes a peaceful twosome. However, sometimes the anxiety only increases with the new triangle, and thus another person is brought into the system until there are a number of people involved and there are several triangles existing simultaneously. This is known as interlocking triangles. Usually this creates even more stress and a further heightening of the problem. Triangulation does not necessarily reduce anxiety/tension.

The higher the degree of family fusion, the more intense will be the triangulating efforts and it is usually the least differentiated person in the family who is drawn into the triangle to reduce the tension/anxiety. Families seek to create triangles not only to reduce anxiety but also to help maintain a level of closeness and distance between family members in hopes of creating an atmosphere of freedom from anxiety.

According to Bowen, the triangulation has at least four possible outcomes which are as follows: (1) A stable dyad can become destabilized by a third person (an example would be the birth of a child bringing conflict to a marriage); (2) a stable dyad can also be destabilized by the removal of the third person (an example would be a child leaving home and no longer available for triangulation); (3) an unstable dyad being stabilized by the addition of a third person (an example would be a conflictual marriage becoming more harmonious after the birth of a child; and (4) an unstable dyad being stabilized by the removal of a third person (an example would be conflict is reduced by the removal of a third person who takes sides).

The poorer the differentiation of the family members, the probability of triangulation within a family is heightened; conversely, a family who relies on triangulation to solve problems in essence helps maintain the poor differentiation of the family members.

Bowen felt it was not necessarily wrong, but not preferred, for the therapist to triangulate if he/she could remain equally involved in both spouses and in no way take sides with either one. Even though they may enter the triangle, they must remain neutral. In this way, the spouses hopefully will learn to view themselves as differentiated selves as well as marriage partners. Bowen also felt that the better the therapist was differentiated from his/her family of origin, the better they would be able to help a couple and successfully triangulate with them if need be and remain neutral. If a therapist cannot remain absolutely neutral, they should never triangulate with the couple and remain detached from the emotional climate. The person of the therapist is the primary therapeutic tool.

In the nuclear family emotional system, Bowen contends that people marry individuals with the same level of differentiation as their own. The greater the family’s fusion, the greater the likelihood that anxiety will be present within the family and the family will seek resolution through fighting, distancing, etc. A family living with a high level of chronic anxiety will find these mechanisms at work almost constantly.

Bowen suggests three patterns that are likely to occur or can occur within a family when the anxiety reaches a sufficient level. Not all patterns will necessarily be experienced, but any one of them is capable of occurring. They are as follows: (1) Physical/emotional dysfunction in a spouse; (2) overt, chronic, unresolved marital conflict; and/or (3) psychological impairment in a child.

Physical or emotional dysfunction can become chronic within a spouse if the anxiety generated by the family members is absorbed disproportionately by the spouse experiencing the dysfunction. Unresolved marital conflict is likened to a roller coaster of cycles of extreme closeness and emotional distance. The anxiety is then being absorbed by both spouses. An impaired child becomes the focal point of the family’s problems and other unresolved issues take a back seat. As a result, the family’s anxiety is being absorbed by the child’s impairment.

Dysfunction in one spouse may take the form of overadequate-underadequate reciprocity in the marital relationship in which one partner takes on most, if not all, of the family’s responsibilities while the other partner is rather irresponsible or takes on very little responsibility for the family and thus the two partners become fused together in what has been termed “pseudo-selves.” When the weight of the burden becomes too heavy for the spouse taking on all the responsibilities of the family for the sake of family harmony, the individual becomes very vulnerable to physical and/or emotional dysfunction.

One of the principles in Goldberg’s book, Family Therapy, page 176 sums up this section succinctly.

  “The nuclear family emotional system is a multigenerational

concept. Bowenians believe individuals tend to repeat in their marital

choices and other significant relationships the style of relating learned

in their families of origin, and to pass along similar patterns to their

children. To Bowen, the only effective way to resolve current family

problems is to change the individual’s interactions with the families of

origin. Only then can differentiation proceed and the individuals

involved become less overreactive to the emotional forces sweeping

through the family.”

One of the differences, though, with Bowenian therapy versus that of Framo, is that Bowen encourages people to go back to the family of origin not necessarily to settle accounts but to establish a relationship; whereas, Framo wants the entire family of origin to come and meet together to “settle the accounts.”

It is through the family projection process that parents transmit their lack of differentiation to their children. Emotional fusion between spouses produces anxiety which will result in marital conflict and tension. The intensity of the family projection process is related to the following two factors: (1) The degree of undifferentiation and immaturity of the parents and (2) the level of stress and anxiety that the family experiences.

Emotional cutoff refers to the way people handle their attachments to their parents or their family of origin at the point of separation. The child may attempt to isolate themselves from the family of origin, take flight from the family when they leave home, and may attempt to do this by geographic relocation, through psychological barriers, such as not talking with the family, or by believing they are free of family ties when in reality all they have done is broken contact. Cutting oneself off emotionally from their family of origin often represents an effort by which to deal with unresolved fusion with one of both parents. The individual is usually also denying its importance in their life.

Multigenerational transmission process occurs over several generations. Poorly differentiated people marry similarly differentiated people and thus this emotional dysfunction and fusion is passed down through the generations. However, it is important to note that the level of differentiation transmitted across generations is not constant, but rather each generation moves toward a lower level of differentiation which will only increase emotional fusion with each subsequent generation. The only way to stop this downward spiral is for unresolved emotional attachments and cutoffs to be successfully dealt with.

Sibling position in the nuclear family affects a child’s personality characteristics. It should be noted that functional position takes precedence over chronological position as a functional position shapes future expectations and behavior. Toman (1976) offered ten basic personality sibling profiles (such as older brother, younger sister, middle child, only child, twin, etc.) and suggested that the more closely a marriage duplicates one’s sibling place in the childhood, the better will be the likelihood of success. Thus, a firstborn does well to marry a second born, the youngest child an older child, etc. He also maintained that the chances for a successful marriage are greatly enhanced if an individual grew up with siblings of the opposite sex versus same-sex siblings only.

Societal regression depicts Bowen’s thinking on society’s emotional functioning. Under conditions of societal chronic anxiety, such as population growth, there is an increased togetherness and less differentiation or the achievement of individuation. Bowen felt that society had been digressing for several decades and in order for society to make better rational decisions rather than short-term solutions, he called for better differentiation of intellect and emotion in society.

Family Systems Therapy: Bowen’s system of family therapy occurs in stages. The first stage is for the therapist to assess the family’s past and present emotional system through evaluation interviews and measurement techniques before even intervening therapeutically.

The initial evaluation interview begins with the very first telephone contact from the patient to the therapist. The therapist is warned not to over-respond during the first phone call and must guard against continuously becoming overly involved in the family’s emotional system. Although the therapist must remain somewhat emotionally detached, the therapist must convince the family that he/she cares about them and that he/she will remain interested in them. The therapist must remain objective.

Any combination of family members is acceptable for the evaluation interviews, which may go on for a few sessions. The evaluation interviews begin with a history of the presenting problem focused especially on the symptoms and their impact on the symptomatic person or relationship. The therapist is interested in each person’s perception of the problem. One of the major techniques employed here by the therapist is questioning which helps the therapist remain in touch with the patient’s problems. The therapist attempts to find out such things as what sustains the problem for which they are seeking relief, why are they coming now for help, what each person hopes to get, to assess patterns of emotional functioning as well as the intensity of the emotional process in the family of the patient.

Bowenians are particularly interested in the historical patterns of the family’s emotional functioning, the anxiety level experienced by the family at different stages of its life, and the amount of stress experienced in the past compared to the present. Also of real importance and interest to the Bowenian therapist is whether one spouse’s functioning has improved significantly while the other one’s has decreased significantly over the course of their relationship.

The final part of the evaluation interview attempts to comprehend the nuclear family in context to the extended family systems, both maternally and paternally. They are also especially interested in multigenerational patterns of fusion and the degree of emotional cutoff of either or both of the spouses since each nuclear family embodies the emotional processes and patterns of the preceding generations.

One of the ways in which Bowen devised graphically to display and to further explore the multigenerational patterns was by using a genogram which displayed a minimum of at least three previous generations. The genogram pictorially displays each partner’s family background. This is usually worked out during one of the earlier sessions and can continue to have changes throughout the therapeutic process. It examines the emotional processes in their intergenerational context.

The genogram has a set of commonly used symbols and can portray such information as who the members of the family are and their names, birth and death dates, sibling position, marital status, marriages, divorces, live-in patterns, ethnicity, major family events, religious affiliations, medical data, occupations, geographic locations, socioeconomic status, education, and relationships such as fusion. The genogram is also capable of suggesting emotional patterns for each partner’s family of origin. For most individuals, this is the first time they have ever thought of or been faced with intergenerational family relationship patterns.

Two basic goals which govern Bowenian therapy, regardless of the nature of the clinical problem, are (1) the reduction of anxiety and relief from symptoms and (2) an increase in each member’s level of differentiation. However, over-reactive emotional interactions with the extended family must be first changed before an experience of greater self-differentiation can be realized in the nuclear family members. Bowen saw the going home as not a matter of confrontation, the settling of old scores, or even the reconciliation of long-standing differences, but rather he saw the need for reestablishing contact with the extended family of origin as a critical step in reducing anxiety due to emotional cutoff in the client and detriangulating from members of the family of origin and thereby allowing the possibility for greater self-differentiation to transpire.

        Family therapy sessions that are directed according to Bowen will be far more cognitive and controlled than emotional. Each partner talks to the therapist versus speaking directly to each other. Confrontation is avoided. Each partner’s thinking is externalized in the presence of each other by talking to the therapist. Interpretations are avoided and questioning must remain calm. Partners are not allowed to blame each other or to ignore their differences, but rather each partner is encouraged to focus on the part they play in the relationship problems.

While the suggestion has been made all along and very strongly that a family emotional system has its roots in the multigenerational history, therapy does proceed via change in the individuals/couples who can in turn affect other family members. Differentiation starts as a personal process and progresses into the transformation of relationships in the entire family system. The presence of a therapist as an observer can be stabilizing to the relationship, but differentiation from the family of origin is crucial if there is to be continued differentiation.


Becvar, Dorothy Stoh, Becvar, Raphael J.  (1996). Family Therapy, a Systemic Integration (3rd edition).

Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Goldberg, Herbert, Goldberg, Irene. (1996). Family Therapy, an Overview (4th edition). Pacific Grove:

Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.





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