What's Family Therapy?

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated July 12, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Bowen family therapy, or Bowen family systems theory, was developed by US psychiatrist Dr. Murray Bowen. It is a type of structural family therapy used by marriage and family therapists that focuses on the complex relationships and dynamics within family systems. The theory suggests that individuals may be best understood as part of a family unit rather than a separate, isolated entity. In addition, it suggests that when an individual is experiencing a challenge, whether a personal issue or one related to the family, the family's involvement in the solution may benefit the client and yield a more favorable result. Learning more about this type of family therapy may help you make an informed decision on the family therapy techniques and modality for you or your family.

Navigating Family Dynamics Can Be Complicated

Key Principles

Eight interlocking principles form the foundation of Dr. Bowen's theory on family systems, including Triangles, Differentiation of Self, Nuclear Family Emotional System, Family Projection Process, Multigenerational Transmission Process, Emotional Cutoff, Sibling Position, and Societal Emotional Process.

Triangles are considered a minor stable emotional system within a family and are a relationship in which three people are involved. In this system, the tension shifts around, and impacts, all three individuals. When the tension in the group becomes too high, it may start to affect "interlocking" triangles and, in this way, distributes the tension to others. This process may provide stability at the moment but does not necessarily solve the root cause of the problem. Clinical problems can stem from triangles; for example, pushing one person out may act as a catalyst for mental health concerns or stress. 

Differentiation Of Self

This concept centers on the idea that families can affect how individuals think, feel, and act; the level to which an individual depends upon others to find meaning and approval in their lives may depend on how developed the person's "self" is. For example, people with a poorly differentiated self may go out of their way to please others to gain acceptance, regardless of their feelings or beliefs. Developing a stronger sense of self through therapy may be able to help family members thrive regardless of how other family members behave.

Nuclear Family Emotional System

This concept involves four relationship patterns, which can cause problems within a family unit. These patterns are:

  • Problems in a marriage
  • Problems with a spouse
  • Emotionally distant behavior
  • Impairment of a child or children
Family Projection Process

This principle examines how parents transmit emotional problems, anxiety, and concerns they feel to their children, and how this may affect their emotional and physical development. For instance, a child may inherit a need for attention through their relationship with their parents. Mental health professionals can help provide parents with education and resources to address specific issues that may be transmitted from parent to child.

Multigenerational Transmission Process

This principle looks at how differences and patterns in families (in parents and their children) can be found to repeat over numerous generations, and how minor differences in differentiation between parents and children in one generation may lead, over additional generations, to more pronounced differences in differentiation among an extended family.

Emotional Cutoff

This principle refers to how individuals may cut ties with family and friends to manage unresolved emotional issues. Cutting ties may be done physically by never being around each other, or emotionally by refusing to converse. Instead of resolving conflicts with a loved one, some people may avoid the situation completely.

Sibling Position

The sibling position concept involves how a sibling's position in the family, whether oldest, middle, or youngest, can impact development and behavior. For example, it suggests that individuals in one sibling position, such as the oldest children, may experience a unique dynamic with parents or families compared to other siblings. 

Societal Emotional Process

This principle examines how emotions impact broader social behavior and can contribute to progressive and regressive societal periods. This concept draws connections between family emotional functioning and societal emotional functioning.

What Is Bowen Therapy Used For?

The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) facilitates researching and developing family therapy techniques to treat a broad spectrum of issues. The association recommends Bowen family therapy as a resource for mental health providers and their clients. This is the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy’s mission statement: 

“Recognizing that relationships are fundamental to the health and well-being of individuals, couples, families, and communities, AAMFT exists to advance the profession and the practice of marriage and family therapy.” \Bowen Family Therapy is an approach to therapy that is used by family therapists, marriage counselors, social workers, and other types of mental health providers. A trained social worker and family therapist can help resolve specific issues that are impacting your family using the principles of Bowen family therapy. Family therapy is not one-size-fits-all and how many sessions it takes to solve problems may depend on the willingness of the family members to participate. 

During Bowen family therapy sessions, the therapist will help family members understand how their family dynamic impacts mental health and behavior. The therapist will recommend strategies to prevent and resolve conflicts. People may reach out for professional family psychotherapy to help their loved ones overcome substance abuse, treat mental illness, or get through a divorce. The Cleveland Clinic recommends family therapy as a resource for adjusting to big changes in life such as divorce, moving, aging, or the death of a family member. 

Bowen family therapy may resolve problems within a family, or help individuals within the family unit understand each other better. It can also be used for individuals who want to explore how their family dynamics have affected their lives. In some cases, Bowen family systems therapy can be utilized as a preventative step to address and resolve a conflict before it happens. The focus of Bowen Family Therapy goes beyond just finding short term relief from familial problems through conflict resolution and addresses the core thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors that are negatively impacting the family unit.

A family therapist can also work with the family to understand and deal with behavioral concerns and various other challenges, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, substance use, depression, and marital problems. You do not have to be experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition or family conflict to benefit from family therapy; systemic family therapy can help you gain personal insight into how your family dynamic impacts how you see yourself and function in the world.

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources.

Navigating Family Dynamics Can Be Complicated

Counseling Options

If you are experiencing behaviors, symptoms, or relational concerns negatively affecting you or your broader family dynamic, family therapy counseling online may benefit you. There are many methods of seeking therapy. Some individuals may find it beneficial to discuss family concerns, or the impact of family dynamics, in the same setting where those dynamics play out. For example, at-home therapy online may benefit some individuals. With online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp, you can speak with a therapist from your home or wherever you have an internet connection.

Research has demonstrated the effectiveness of family counseling services and the overall benefits of family counseling delivered online. For instance, one study explored the efficacy of using telehealth for family therapy. Its meta-analyses found that telehealth and face-to-face therapy delivered equivalent outcomes for child behavioral problems and parental depression. When signing up for telehealth treatment, you can choose between phone, video, and live chat sessions with your licensed therapist, making it a flexible treatment option. 


Family dynamics can be challenging and may affect an individual in unique ways. Learning more about Bowen family systems theory could be valuable in understanding its key concepts, beginning with the eight fundamental principles detailed above. If you want to explore therapy for family concerns, consider reaching out to a counselor for further insight and support.

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