What Is Bowen Family Systems Theory?

By: Nadia Khan

Updated February 09, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Aaron Horn

The Bowen Family Systems Theory is a theory put forward by Dr. Murray Bowen in the late 1960s. Dr. Bowen's theory was based on the idea that human beings function as one emotional unit and it is easier to understand them and their problems when they are viewed within the context of their family ties and relationships.

Bowen was a medical doctor trained in traditional psychoanalytical approaches. He was an army physician with the United States during World War II and became interested in psychiatry after seeing the effect of the war and trauma on the soldiers.

Bowen’s theory is meant to be generalized to humanity and is not meant to focus on only those who have mental illnesses. It’s meant to look at big-picture patterns not only in the family but also in society and systems in general.

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While not all families are close, they are nonetheless dependent on each other to an extent. What happens to one person will have a positive or negative impact on the other members. Depending on what's happening at home, someone can go from feeling secure and happy to anxious and fearful.

For instance, a child might suddenly become depressed, quiet, or withdrawn because her parents are going through a divorce. Having a clear understanding of how a family operates emotionally and socially can help the therapist come up with an effective treatment program. Dr. Bowen also theorized that the dependence between family members makes it easier to treat or solve a problem when the individual's family is involved in the treatment process.

Bowen theorized that the functioning of every family member affected the medical, psychiatric, and social wellness of the others, and just because one member was showing signs of illness, that wasn’t necessarily the person that the treatment needed to be directed towards.

The foundation of Dr. Bowen's theory is formed with eight interlocking principles.

  1. Triangles: Relationships that exist between at least three people who have emotional connections. Once you have those three people, you have the foundation for the relationship between two of those individuals to affect the third. Tension from one triangle can also spread to other triangles. Patterns can also change within one triangle.
  2. Differentiation of self: Bowen’s concept of “differentiation of self” is based upon an individual’s ability to be able to think as an individual while still maintaining connections to others. Part of this also means balancing their need to be a separate self versus needing to be connected to others.
  3. Nuclear family emotional system: There are four basic relationship patterns where problems can develop in a family: martial conflict, dysfunction in one spouse, impairment of one or more children, and emotional distance.
  4. Family projection process: How dependent a child is raised to be on their family relationships. Too intense of a focus can cause developmental delays.
  5. Multigenerational transmission process: we are likely to create families with similar attachments to the ones that we were born into
  6. Emotional cut-off: To reduce tensions in the family be creating emotional distance. Bowen’s theory points out that this may allow an issue to go dormant, but it does not resolve the issue.
  7. Sibling position: The sibling position which we grew up in has an influence on important personality characteristics. (This may sound the most familiar: the oldest sibling is usually seen as the most responsible and mature with the youngest as the most irresponsible.)

Societal emotional process: Each concept also applies to nonfamily groups, such as work and social organization, and is meant to reflect how society operates on a behavioral level. In turn, societal expectations affect the family unit, whether that be with expectations for individuals of certain gender identity, sexual orientation, race, class, or creed. Coping mechanisms for dealing with such prejudice may be passed down a family

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Is The Bowen Family Systems Theory Useful For Therapy?

Since its inception Dr. Bowen's theory has been used extensively in a variety of family therapy techniques such as strategic family therapy, narrative family therapy, or functional family therapy. These different types of family therapy are used as an effective treatment option for many types of problems such as dealing with a death in the family, a mental illness, depression, addiction and substance abuse, or even relationship conflicts and issues.

Strategic family therapy is where a specific problem is addressed on a short time frame. Typically, a therapist will meet with the family to observe them and then the therapist will ask question to learn about what the problem is. While learning about the problem in more depth, the therapist will also observe the hierarchy of the family and how communication works within the family. After that, the therapist will help the family to set goals to work on the problem. The family is often given homework or tasks outside therapy to support the accomplishment of those goals. Strategic family therapy is sometimes used when a youth is involved with or at risk to become involved with substance abuse.

Narrative therapy focuses on the stories that we chose to tell about ourselves and our lives. It’s based upon the idea that reality is socially constructed and influenced by language. Therefore, having a narrative is how we understand reality as it exists around us. A narrative therapist helps people bring down the narratives they carry about themselves, their relationships, and their lives. They then help us develop a healthy story.

Functional family therapy is another short-term type of therapy that serves as either an intervention or prevention for youths who at risk for delinquent behavior. The therapist works with the family to see what part of the family relations might be leading to the youth’s behavior and then works to modify those behaviors, such as improving communication skills or parenting skills.  

Family therapy allows individuals to discuss their problems openly and helps establish a clear channel of communication between family members. Therapy also provides individuals with essential tools and skills they can use in the future when confronted with other conflicts.

It's important to note that, while family therapy can be used as part of a treatment program, it should not be used as a substitute for rehab or medication. If you're dealing with things like depression, bipolar disorder, or alcoholism etc., you need to contact a doctor and get help.

How Has Your Family Helped or Hurt You in Your Life? It's Time to Find Out.
An Online Counselor Can Help You With Family Issues.

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If you or your family are going through something and it is affecting your lives in a negative way, a conversation with a therapist might be a good idea. Make an appointment with your family doctor, a health professional or check out Better Help, where professional therapists are available at all times from anywhere in the world.

Family therapy can provide so many benefits, including teaching you how to communicate more effectively with your family, problem solve better, and create healthy boundaries. Your counselor will work with you to find the approach depending on what you would like to work on, but it might also help to know some of the research on online therapy. The New York Times included some of that research in an article they wrote about the growth of online therapy at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. It summed up that most common types of talk therapy are just as effective online as they are in person given that you’re not working with a very severe issue.

There are some other good reasons to consider online therapy. One of the most important aspects of therapy is finding someone you can connect with and trust. BetterHelp has smart matching and, if for whatever reason, you find that you would like to try a new counselor, that process is easy through BetterHelp. And while you might be put on a waiting list if you’re working with a traditional office, BetterHelp connects most people with a counselor within 24 hours.

If you’d like still some more information to consider, here are some recent reviews by BetterHelp users about working with their counselors.

“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 really value James and don’t know what I would have done without his help. Thank you, James!!” Read more on James Wilson.

“Molly helped me through one of the darkest times in my life. She really 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.” Read more on Molly Duncan.


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