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Murray Bowen, M.D., was an American family therapist. Beginning in the 1950s, he developed a systems theory of the family and applied it in family therapy.

Bowen felt that problems within the family unit stem from a multigenerational transmission process whereby levels of differentiation among family members become progressively lower from one generation to the next. The goal of "Extended Family Systems Therapy" is to increase individual family members level of differentiation.

History[edit | edit source]

While at the Menninger Clinic in the late 1940s Bowen noted the intense emotional impact relatives, especially mothers, had on schizophrenic patients. Other researchers also observed this intense relationship and described it as 'symbiotic' and explained it using psychoanalytic theory, that is, on the basis of unconscious motivations and conflicts of the patient and mother. (Kerr 4, 5)

Beginning in 1954 Bowen worked at the National Institute of Mental Health. There he began research that hospitalized both schizophrenic patients and their families. Bowen and his research group observed "aspects of family interactions never previously defined." (Kerr 6) Two important observations were:

  • Adult schizophrenic patients and their mothers influenced each other much more than previously realized. They influenced each other so much it was difficult to think of them as two separate people.
  • This process was not exclusive to mothers but involved the whole family. "The emotional functioning was so interdependent that the family could be more accurately conceptualized as an [single] emotional unit." (Kerr 6, 7)

Theory[edit | edit source]

Bowen summarized his theory using eight interlocking concepts[1]

  • Differentiation of Self (the most important concept)
  • Nuclear Family Emotional System
  • Triangulation
  • Family Projection Process
  • Multigenerational Transmission Process
  • Emotional Cutoff
  • Sibling Position
  • Societal Emotional Process

Differentiation of Self[edit | edit source]

Differentiation of self refers to one's ability to separate one's own intellectual and emotional functioning from that of the family. Bowen spoke of people functioning on a single continuum or scale. Individuals with "low differentiation" are more likely to become fused with predominant family emotions. (A related concept is that of an undifferentiated ego mass, which is a term used to describe a family unit whose members possess low differentiation and therefore are emotionally fused.) Those with "low differentiation" depend on others approval and acceptance. They either conform themselves to others in order to please them, or they attempt to force others to conform to themselves. They are thus more vulnerable to stress and they struggle more to adjust to life changes. (534 Bowen 1974)

To have a well-differentiated "self" is an ideal that no one realizes perfectly. They recognize that they need others, but they depend less on other's acceptance and approval. They do not merely adopt the attitude of those around them but acquire their principles thoughtfully. These help them decide important family and social issues, and resist the feelings of the moment. Thus, despite conflict, criticism, and rejection they can stay calm and clear headed enough to distinguish thinking rooted in a careful assessment of the facts from thinking clouded by emotion. What they decide and say matches what they do. When they act in the best interests of the group, they choose thoughtfully, not because they are caving in to relationship pressures. Confident in their own thinking, they can either support another's view without becoming wishy-washy or reject another's view without becoming hostile. (161 Bowen 1966)

Triangulation[edit | edit source]

In Family Systems Theory, whenever two people have problems with each other, one or both will "triangle in" a third member. Bowen emphasized people respond to anxiety between each other by shifting the focus to a third person, triangulation. In a triangle, two are on the inside and one is on the outside. So, for example, a new mother may preoccupied herself with her new child rather than tell her husband about her frustration with him. The wife has in this case diminishes her anxiety by ignoring its source, the relationship between her and her husband; the husband is on the outside and the wife and child are on the inside.

Similarly, the husband might spend more time at work rather than attempt to discuss their marriage with his wife. He would thus be making work as the inside relationship excluding his wife.

In either example, though anxiety is reduced, neither husband or wife resolve the source of their anxiety.

Triangles usually have one side in conflict and two people in harmony. Someone always chafes in a triangle and pushes for change. When tension is moderate the positions in harmony are desirable. The two people in harmony are the inside positions of the triangle. The insiders bond when they prefer each other over the less desirable outsider. The insiders also actively exclude the outsider. Being excluded provokes intense feelings of rejection and the outsider works to get closer to one of them.

Like musical chairs, the positions are not fixed. If mild to moderate tension develops between the insiders, the most uncomfortable insider will move closer to the outsider. The remaining original insider then switches places with the outsider. The excluded insider becomes the new outsider and the original outsider is now an insider. Predictably, the new outsider will move to restore closeness with one of the current insiders.

At a high level of tension, the outside position becomes the most desirable. If the insiders conflict severely, one insider opts for the outside position by getting the current outsider to fight with the other insider. If the maneuvering insider succeeds, he gains the more comfortable position of watching the other two people fight. When the tension and conflict subside, the outsider will try to regain an inside position.

Emotional Cutoff[edit | edit source]

Emotional cutoff refers to the mechanisms people use to reduce anxiety from their unresolved emotional issues with parents, siblings, and other members from the family of origin. To avoid sensitive issues, they either move away from their families and rarely go home; or, if they remain in physical contact with their families, to avoid sensitive issues, they use silence or divert the conversation. Though cutoff may diminish their immediate anxiety, these unresolved problems contaminate other relationships, especially when those relationships are stressed.

The opposite of an emotional cut-off is an open relationship. It is a very effective way to reduce a family's over-all anxiety. Continued low anxiety permits motivated family members to begin the slow steps to better differentiation. Bowen wrote, "It might be difficult for such a family [that has severe cut-offs] to begin more emotional contact with the extended family, but any effort toward reducing the cut-off with the extended family will soften the intensity of the family problem, reduce the symptoms, and make any kind of therapy far more productive." (537, 538 Bowen 1974)

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

Kerr, Michael E.; Murray Bowen. Family Evaluation: An Approach Based on Bowen Theory, 4, 5, 6.

Gilbert, Roberta M. (1992). Extraordinary Relationships: A New Way of Thing About Human Interactions, Minneapolis, MN: Chronimed Publishing.

Bowen, Murray, (1974) Toward the Differentiation of Self in One's Family of Origin, as published in Family Therapy In Clinical Practice, Copyright © 1985, 1983, 1978 by Jason Aronson, Inc., 1986 Printing

Bowen, Murray, (1966) The Use of Family Theory in Clinical Practice, as published in Family Therapy In Clinical Practice, Copyright © 1985, 1983, 1978 by Jason Aronson, Inc., 1986 Printing

External links[edit | edit source]

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