Bowen Family Systems Theory

Bowen Family Systems…

Murray Bowen, M.D., based his theory of the human family on biology and evolutionary theory.  Trained as a psychiatrist in the Freudian psychoanalytic tradition, Bowen came to believe that too many of Freud’s theoretical ideas were subjective. Bowen was motivated by the belief that the study of human behavior could become an accepted science, akin to the hard sciences, such as biology.1

Bowen developed a model of the human family as a natural system.  As a system, the family functions together as a whole and not merely as an amalgamation of isolated parts.  For example, changes in one part of the family, such as a birth, death or marriage, automatically produce changes in other parts.

When one or more individual family members emerge to become more “objective” about the system, psychological symptoms can improve.  Bowen’s eight interlocking concepts, the tools to observe self to make changes, are:  differentiation of self (core concept), triangles, nuclear family emotional process, family projection process, multigenerational transmission process, sibling position, emotional cutoff and emotional process in society (see Appendix).2

The family is conceptualized as a fixed emotional unit to which each person is “functionally” attached. The term “emotional” does not refer to feelings only, however; it is also all the biological and physiological processes associated with that emotion.

He writes,

It [emotional functioning] includes the force that biology defines as instinct, reproduction, autonomic nervous system, subjective emotional and feeling states, and the forces that govern relationship systems.  In broad terms, the emotional system governs  the `dance of life’ in all living things.3   

The emotional system is primarily responsible for pushing humans together into groups, what Bowen refers to as “togetherness force.”4  When a family member  aligns into a more neutral position within the family, other members often react by pushing the person back into the original position.  According to Nichols and Schwartz, “The rejection, which is triggered by the threat to the relationship balance, is designed to restore the balance.”5

People vary according to the level at which emotional forces govern behavior.  Factors explaining this variation include the parents’ level of differentiation, the anxiety level in the family unit, and the degree of positive emotional contact that the parents have with their parents.6  Generally there will be only slight variations in the level of differentiation of each family member.

The push toward togetherness is counterbalanced by the opposing movement  toward separateness or independence, and the thinking part of the brain is thought to guide it.  According to Papero, this part “refers to the capacity of the organism to observe itself and its environment, to reflect upon or think about its observations, and to influence its response on the basis of such reflection.”7  Therapy is used to help the thinking system develop and improve the capacity to consciously direct one’s life.8

Differentiation (or individuation), then, refers to the degree to which a person’s intellectual system has developed.  Put differently, it is the degree to which one’s behavior is not determined by the emotional system.  An intrapsychic marker is the capacity to distinguish between thoughts and feelings.  The person who has a coherent set of beliefs and principles to direct behavior is less likely to relinquish autonomy or to react emotionally during times of heightened anxiety.  Given enough pressure, however, anybody will be unable to have mental activity guide  behavior.9

A central technique used in Bowen’s approach is to work to develop one-to-one relationships with members of the family, particular the extended family.10  Because family relationships are so intense, influential and consistent, no other relationship network provides comparable opportunities to observe self.  Further, changes in self will automatically prompt changes to the family system, which in turn will further change self.  These changes are thought to automatically move one to higher levels of differentiation.

De-triangling from various relationships will open up the system by forcing each member to adjust their formerly fixed position.  Factual information should also be gathered about the family from as far back as possible. Blame is discouraged.  An objective understanding of the various processes of emotional reactivity in the system is favored instead.  The idea is to understand the “larger forces” of the family culture and how members of one’s nuclear family fit into it.  For instance, developing an independent relationship with a parent’s uncle will alter the perception of the parent.  This perceptual shift, which would produce changes in feeling, diffuse to the extended family some of the pent-up energy in the nuclear family.


Below are descriptions of the eight interlinking concepts of Bowen’s theory transcribed from “The Bowen Family Theory and Its Uses,” by Margret C. Hall.

Differentiation of Self.  Strength of an individual’s emotional system to have a separate self.  When a self is less differentiated, behavior is largely emotionally responsive or reactive and shows little or no indication of being thought-directed.  When a self is more differentiated, behavior is goal-directed, with clear awareness of distinctions between thought and feeling activities.  Differentiation is associated with achievement areas including social, academic, work, and physical health.

Triangles.  Following the tradition of Georg Simmel’s “triadic” conceptualization of human behavior (Wolff 1950), and extending some of Theodore Caplow’s findings (1968), Bowen defined the smallest relationship unit in a family as a triangle, or three-person system.  A triangle is a relatively stable group with shifting emotional forces. The most uncomfortable participant in a dyad, or two-person system, predictably draws a third person into the twosome when sufficient stress occurs in that two-person relationship.

Nuclear Family Emotional System.  The inner core of a family, the two-generation group of parents and children is the most intense emotionally interdependent part of a family. This degree of intensity exists in any nuclear family in any society.  One family system has several nuclear families in its broader network.  In nuclear systems where there is no clear differentiation of self between spouses, surplus anxiety must be absorbed.  Mechanisms of adaption that resolve these tensions include marital conflict, dysfunction of a spouse, affairs, and projection to one or more of the children. The surplus anxiety and mechanisms of adaption are characteristic of all families in all societies.  Many families use all three mechanisms to deal with an overload of tension.

Family Projection Process.  The undifferentiation of fusion of parents can be projected to the most dependent child in a family.  In some families there may be a projection to a dependent older person in the family.  This projection generally has less impairing consequences than projection to a child, as the latter’s ability to function may gradually be affected.  A family projection can be considered a scapegoating process in which one person is singled out as a family “problem.”  In reality, the problem is not localized in that person as much as in the entire relationship system of the family, especially key members such as the parents.

Multigenerational Transmission Process.  Repeated projection processes through several generations in a family create an extended powerful emotional force, which eventually raises or lowers levels of differentiation in members of succeeding generations.  Genealogical data and observations of families over several generations provide evidence of a variety of repeated patterns of dependent behavior.

Sibling Position.  Walter Toman (1972) generalized profiles of expected behavior from observations of different sibling positions. The probability of this typical sibling behavior occurring appears to depend largely on the level of anxiety in the family.  Bowen emphasizes that sibling position behavior can also be greatly influenced by family projection.

Emotional Cut-OffEmotional divorces or estrangements in families reflect a high level of intensity.  Emotional cut-offs also precipitate increased anxiety in surrounding relationships.  Symptomatic behavior is most prevalent in families where there are many emotional cut-offs.  Parents who have eliminated cut-offs with their parents are less likely to experience cut-offs with their children.  Although much effort and courage is needed to contact a person who has been cut off in a family, self can be strengthened by reestablishing such relationships.   

Emotional Process in Society.  Emotional process in society represents a combination of the forces of togetherness (fusion) and individuation (differentiation). Any society manifests emotional process as a combination of these two forces.  The level of anxiety in society influences how the emotional process is expressed.  Emotional process in society has an impact on each family.  The pervasiveness of particular patterns of family dependency also intensify or deintensify the general level of emotional process in society.  Emotional process in society may be progressively adaptive or regressively maladaptive within the context of evolutionary change.


1. Papero, D. V. 1990. Bowen Family Systems Theory. Boston: Allyn and Bacon. D., pp. V-VIII.

2. Hall, M. C. 1981. The Bowen Family Theory and Its Uses.  New York: Jason Aronson. pp. 17-18.

3. Papero., p. 380.

4. According to Margret Hall, Bowen once used the term “undifferentiated ego mass” in place of “nuclear family.” p. 71.

5. Nichols, M. P. and Schwartz, R. C. 1991. Family Therapy:  Concepts and Methods. Boston: Allyn & Bacon. p. 397.

6. Nichols, M. p. 372.

7. Papero, D., p. 101.

8. Ibid., p. 47-48.

9. Ibid., p. 48.

10. Nichols, M. p. 381-84.

 By Bradley Sears