Bowenian Family Therapy
THINKING ABOUT THIS APPROACH
Murray Bowen’s approach can be thought of as a first-generation approach. At its core, it is a classical psychodynamic approach that has been updated and informed by systems theory. To develop the early theories of family therapy, theorists frequently simply modified older theories to fit their newly developed systems paradigm. These modifications changed their unit of analysis from the individual to the family. Kerr and Bowen (1988) summarize this by asserting,“Family systems theory radically departed from previous theories of human emotion functioning by virtue of its conceptualization of the family as an emotional unit” (p. viii). Bowen’s theory was a grand theory that sought to describe the interrelationship of biological, psychological, and sociological levels of understanding.
Bowen’s theory not only has been important to the development of the field, but it serves as a primary theoretical orientation for many therapists. It also has had significant influence on the theories of therapists who have developed an integrative approach (Miller,Anderson, & Keala, 2004).
Bowen started his theoretical journey at the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas, in 1946, but as his interest shifted from psychoanalysis to more systemic theoretical approaches, he left in 1954 to become a researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health.There Bowen’s ability to observe whole families on the research ward pushed his theoretical understanding of families past a Freudian perspective (Kerr & Bowen, 1988). In 1959, Bowen moved to Georgetown University’s Department of Psychiatry, where he taught and further refined his theory until his death in 1990.
Bowen’s theoretical approach to family therapy is in the style of a grand theorist seeking to develop a theory that explains all social phenomena.As Friedman (1991) points out,“Bowen theory is really not about family per se, but about life” (p. 134). Bowen’s work can be understood as an attempt to explain natural evolutionary emotional process.That is,it seeks to establish a model of how animals in general and specifically the human animal adapt to their environments.As Friedman goes on to declare,
it is thus not really possible to comprehend the thrust of the Bowen approach without considering the nature of our entire species and its relationship to all existing life,and indeed to all previous life (and other natural systems) on this planet, if not throughout the cosmos. (p. 135)
This is in stark contrast to other more recent theories that seek to focus only on therapeutic change and offer no explanation of the human condition. Thus, Bowen’s theory has greater appeal to theorists who have an intellectual attraction to understanding rather than to being facilitators of symptom reduction.
The focus of Bowen’s work is developing an intergenerational model of psychopathology based on the notion of a universal continuum rather than discrete categories (Friedman,1991). Thus the occurrence of mental illness is the result of the degree one possesses certain universal traits, not an anomaly of genetic makeup. For example, this position postulates that schizophrenic processes exist in all of us in varying degrees.People who develop schizophrenia simply express a greater degree of the universal schizophrenic trait. Unlike some of his early contemporaries, Bowen was willing to view psychopathology as occurring in both adults and children as well as in relationships between people.Regardless of the apparent locus of the difficulty,the same universal multigenerational transmission forces create the symptoms. Unlike later models of family therapy,the goal of this approach is not symptom reduction. Rather, a Bowenian-trained therapist is interested in improving the intergenerational transmission process.Thus,the focus within this approach is consistent whether the therapist is working with an individual, a couple, or...