What Is Bowen Theory, And How Can It Help Families Through Challenges?

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated October 17, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

When families experience conflict, a therapist may apply the Bowen Family Systems Theory to inform family therapy techniques and support families through challenging situations. While some family conflict can be resolved without outside help, in many cases, family therapy can help families improve communication and move forward from conflict. 

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What Is The Bowen Family Systems Theory?

The Bowen Family Systems Theory (or Bowen Theory) was developed by Dr. Murray Bowen, an army physician trained in traditional psychoanalytic approaches. He began his work on family systems theory in 1954 when he joined the National Institute of Mental Health. His theory is popular today and is implemented by the Bowen Center and families all around the world.

One of the main premises behind the Bowen Theory is that human beings and families function as one emotional unit or system.

For this reason, it may be easier to understand individual family members when they are viewed within the context of their family ties and human relationships, often referred to as the family unit.

The Bowen Family Systems Theory posits that understanding one’s family story can help to understand their psyche, their human relationship systems, and how they operate within other aspects of their life as well as their physical and emotional nature and processes. While not all families are close, families are typically impacted by one another to some extent. What happens to one individual in the family may have a positive or negative impact on other family members, including influencing their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. 

Dr. Bowen believed that the functioning of family systems affected the medical, psychiatric, and social wellness of all individuals. As a result, Bowen theorized that if one individual in the family is experiencing mental health challenges, that individual may not be the person that treatment needs to be directed toward, for Bowen it is important to know the whole family’s story. Family relationships often mean that multiple family members, such as a sibling or parent, may also be impacted.

For instance, a child might suddenly become sad, quiet, or withdrawn because her parents are going through a divorce. Other marital problems can also impact children. Having a clear understanding of how family systems operate emotionally and socially can help the therapist come up with an effective treatment program using family systems theory.

Although the Bowen Family System Theory may inform care for families of individuals experiencing mental health struggles, the theory is thought to apply to all individuals; it is not meant to focus on those who have mental illnesses specifically. Instead, the Bowen Theory is meant to look at big-picture patterns not only in family systems but also within society and help with decision making and improving a person’s functioning in the world.

Eight Concepts Of Bowen Theory

The foundation of the Bowen Theory is formed from eight interlocking concepts that can explain human behavior within family systems.

  1. Triangles: Triangle relationships—relationships between three individuals—are considered the smallest unit of stable relationships. Triangle relationships may be more stable than two-person relationships, or dyads, because they may tolerate higher levels of tension because each person takes a bit of the load. Triangle relationships may demonstrate certain patterns that yield insight into broader family dynamics. For instance, in a triangle relationship, one individual may frequently be the outsider, while the other two individuals may gravitate toward one another. Depending on the levels of tension within the triangle, the outsider position may change or become more desirable. These shifting relational dynamics can influence the emotional well-being of the individuals in the triangle.

  2. Differentiation Of Self: Bowen’s concept of differentiation of self posits that each individual has their own unique level of self-differentiation, or individual identity, which develops as a result of childhood experiences. Those with a highly developed sense of self may make decisions more confidently and demonstrate more emotional maturity, while those with a poorly differentiated self may be more susceptible to the opinions or criticism of others. Individuals with a poorly developed sense of self may be more likely to experience mental health challenges based on their individual circumstances.

  3. Nuclear Family Emotional Process: Bowen theorized that four basic relationship patterns influence family tension levels: marital conflict, dysfunction in one spouse, impairment of one or more children, and emotional distance. 

  4. Family Projection Process: Parents who project their difficult feelings onto their child may increase their child’s vulnerability to experiencing these feelings themselves. For example, many parents hope their children will avoid their negative relationship habits, but some focus so highly on preventing these problems in their children that they may inadvertently cause these behaviors to develop, which could be tracked back several generations.

  5. Multigenerational Transmission Process: This aspect of the Bowen Theory posits that individuals are most likely to choose a spouse with a similar level of self-differentiation. Over time, this tendency may cause significant differences in relational stability, health, and success between families impacting multiple generations. 

  6. Emotional Cutoff: A family member experiencing family conflict may be more likely to force emotional distance, or a firm emotional cutoff, rather than attempt to resolve the underlying issues. This practice may cause instability and vulnerability within other relationships. 

  7. Sibling Position: Bowen borrowed the concept of sibling position from the psychologist Walter Toman. When incorporated into the Bowen Theory, the sibling position dynamic suggests that our birth order may influence some important personality characteristics. These characteristics may then influence future relationship stability if children become spouses or parents.

  8. Societal Emotional Process: Each concept in the Bowen Theory can also be applied to nonfamily groups, such as work and social organizations. This theory is meant to reflect how society operates on a behavioral level. In turn, societal expectations can affect the family unit. 

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How Is The Bowen Theory Used In Therapy?

Bowenian Family Therapy, or Bowen Family Systems Therapy, is a type of therapy that is designed to decrease tension and anxiety in families by addressing individual needs within the context of a family setting. Since its inception, the Bowen Theory has been used extensively in a variety of family therapy techniques, such as strategic family therapy, narrative family therapy, and functional family therapy. These different types of family therapy may be effective treatment options for many types of family challenges, such as a death in the family and various mental illnesses, including depression, addiction, substance use, interpersonal conflicts, and more.

Strategic Family Therapy

In strategic family therapy, a specific family problem may be addressed in a relatively short time frame. Typically, a therapist meets with the family to discuss the presenting problem. During this discussion, the therapist may observe the hierarchy of the family and how families communicate with one another. The dynamics between parent and child, as well as other family members, can offer insight into the family unit as a whole. After establishing the family dynamics, the therapist typically aims to help the family establish goals to resolve their problem. The family may be given homework or tasks outside therapy to support the accomplishment of those goals. Strategic family systems therapy is sometimes used when a youth is involved with substance use.

Narrative Therapy

Narrative therapy is a therapeutic technique that tends to focus on the stories we tell about ourselves and our lives. It may focus on one family’s story or how that family’s story fits into the greater context of the world. It’s based on the idea that reality is socially constructed and influenced by language. Therefore, our life narrative can influence how we understand reality. A narrative therapist aims to help people reframe the narratives they carry about themselves, their relationships, and their lives and rewrite a more positive story.

Functional Family Systems Therapy

Functional family systems therapy is another type of short-term therapy designed to serve as either an intervention or prevention method for youths at risk for delinquent behavior. In this therapeutic modality, the therapist may work with the family to determine how the family system may be influencing a young person’s behavior. After identifying problematic family behaviors, the therapist may then help the family work to modify those behaviors by providing them with tools to improve their communication or parenting skills.

Family therapy may be an important component of a treatment plan, but it should not be used as a substitute for rehabilitation or medication for severe mental health challenges. If you're living with depression, bipolar disorder, alcoholism, or other serious mental health struggles, you may benefit from additional interventions.

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Benefits Of Online Family Therapy

If your family is experiencing difficulty with your relationships, online therapy may be an convenient and supportive option to help you navigate conflict, improve communication, and understand the perspectives of others. A literature review of 20 studies confirms that online family therapy is just as effective as in-person therapy at improving the relationships and mental health of families, parents, and children. 

Online family therapy may be more convenient for families than in-person options because it can be obtained from home and after hours, if necessary. The larger a family is, the more challenging it may be to coordinate travel and schedules so everyone can attend a therapy appointment, which may lead to unrealistic expectations in terms of success. However, with online therapy, appointments can be scheduled for any time when all family will be at home. Additionally, online therapy has the benefit of allowing your family to meet with multiple licensed professionals, if desired, to find the therapist who best suits the entirety of your family. Since each of your family may have different perspectives and desires for the purpose of therapy, finding a therapist who makes each family member feel understood may make therapy more impactful.

Counselor Reviews

Many BetterHelp users match with an online therapist to discuss family challenges. Here are some recent reviews by BetterHelp users working with family therapists.

“James is a wonderful active listener. His real-world, down-to-Earth approach helped me with some very difficult family issues and relationship issues. I value James and don’t know what I would have done without his help. Thank you, James!”

“Molly helped me through one of the darkest times in my life. She understands family dynamics and can tell how I'm feeling before I even know myself. I can't recommend her enough; I never knew I would be able to form such a strong bond with someone over the phone. She is a very kind, empathetic person. I am very grateful to have had the privilege to work with her.”

Takeaway

The Bowen Family Systems Theory can help inform the therapeutic treatment approach for families, regardless of what they are facing. If you or your family are experiencing unresolved conflict, communication difficulties, or mental health concerns, online family therapy may be a supportive way to overcome challenges and improve your family functioning. To get connected with an online family therapist, join BetterHelp today.

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