Bowen Family Systems

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Bowen Family System Theory


In doing my studies on family/systemic counselling, I found Bowen’s theory intriguing. In my work and everyday life, I witness triangulation on a daily basis, from my own experience, without the awareness from this module, I was often entwined in triangulation. As a trainee therapist I decided to write my paper on Bowenian Therapy in order to gain a better understanding and develop my awareness.

Murray Bowen, M.D. (31 January 1913 - 9 October 1990) was an American psychiatrist and a professor in Psychiatry at the Georgetown University. Bowen was among the pioneers of family therapy and founders of systemic therapy.

“The family systems theory is a theory introduced by Dr. Murray Bowen that suggests that individuals cannot be understood in isolation from one another, but rather as a part of their family, as the family is an emotional unit. Families are systems of interconnected and interdependent individuals, none of whom can be understood in isolation from the system” ( 18/11/2010)

Bowen’s interest in family began as he was practicing as a psychiatrist in the 1940s. He focused on schizophrenic patient’s emotional relationships with their mothers. Others have called it a symbiosis relationship, but for him it was only an exaggerated natural process of emotional relationship. In 1954 he started to hospitalize the entire family of the sick (schizophrenic) person. He found out that the entire family suffered with the sick person emotionally. He also studied the relationship between mother-child symbioses. This involved a certain repetitive pattern, where he observed alternating patterns of closeness and distance. They portrayed sensitive emotional tensions caused by separation anxiety and incorporation anxiety. In 1959 he started working with families with less severe problems. Surprisingly these families displayed the same problems as the disturbed families. He concluded that there is no discontinuity between the normal and disturbed families but vary along a continuum line of emotional fusion to differentiation. Bowen was one of the first to realize that the history of our family creates a template which shapes the values, thoughts, and experiences of each generation, as well as how that generation passes down these things to the next generation. Bowen's theory focuses on the balance of two forces - togetherness and - individuality. Too much togetherness can prevent individuality, or developing one's own sense of self whereas too much individuality results in a distant and estranged family.

The theory looks at the family as a system and describes the complex interactions that exist in any one unit. The way members of a family are connected and the way they react to one another makes the functioning of family members interdependent. According to the theory, mental illness happens as a result of emotional fusion. This can happen when there is an increase in the level of emotions and anxiety in the family.

Bowen introduced eight interlocking concepts to explain family development and functioning. Below I will provide an overview of each concept.

Differentiation of Self

The first concept is Differentiation of Self, or the ability to separate feelings and thoughts. Undifferentiated people can not separate feelings and thoughts; They have difficulty thinking logically because when asked to think they are flooded with feelings, so this makes It difficult for them to base their responses on their own logical thinking. They also have difficulty differentiating between their feelings and the feelings of others. They look to their family to define how they think about issues, feel about people, and interpret their experiences.Differentiation is the process of freeing yourself from your family's processes to define yourself so you can have different opinions and values than your family members, but are still capable of staying emotionally...
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