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Family Systems Theory

A psychiatrist and theorician, Murray Bowen, MD dedicated his life to the “human cause” and produced a remarkable new theory of human behavior called Family Systems Theory, or Bowen Theory.

This theory has the potential to replace most of Freudian theory and to radically change treatment approaches, not only in psychiatry, but in all of medicine. Potential applications of Family Systems Theory extend beyond the human family to nonfamily groups, including large organizations and society as a whole.

Influenced by his wartime experience as a general medical officer in the Army from 1941 – 1945, Dr. Bowen decided to specialize in psychiatry and began his formal training in 1946 at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas. After training, he remained there on staff until 1954. While a resident physician at Menninger, Bowen realized that Freudian theory, the predominant theory in psychiatry at that time, was based on human subjectivity – what patients said and what their analysts interpreted it to mean. Bowen came to believe that, despite the complexities and vagaries of human existence, the study of the human behavior could be more objective. From 1954 to 1959, he conducted research on families with a schizophrenic member at the National Institute of Mental Health in Rockville, Maryland. He continued family research and taught at the Georgetown University School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry in Washington, D.C., from 1959 until his death in October of 1990. Dr. Bowen was Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Director of the Georgetown University Family Center.

During his 40 year career, Dr. Bowen developed a new theory as well as a new method of psychotherapy based on his theory. Both the theory and the therapy are a radical departure from conventional practice.

The fundamental premise of Bowen theory that differentiates it from traditional psychotherapeutic theory is this: the family is an emotional unit and any change in the emotional functioning of one member of the family/emotional unit is predictably and automatically compensated for by changes in the emotional functioning of other members of that family/emotional unit. For Bowen the family, not the individual as was previously thought by traditional psychology, was the basic unit of emotional functioning. (Please note that the word “emotion” in the term “emotional unit” is synonymous with instinct, not feeling.)

This principle has two important implications:

The emotional functioning of every family member plays a part in the occurrence of medical, psychiatric or social illness in one family member and Treatment need not be directed at the symptomatic person.

Not having to direct treatment at the symptomatic person brought a new flexibility to difficult clinical situations – for example, ones where the symptomatic person either refused therapy or went to therapy only under pressure from the family. Consequently, if one member of a family can change his/her emotional functioning, provided he/she is present and accounted for within the family, the whole family will improve its functioning in response to that one person’s ability to change. This should help the reader to understand that “family therapy” does not necessarily mean counseling sessions with the whole family present. Rather, “family therapy’ is counseling based on a way of thinking that conceptualizes a reciprocity in functioning between family members. Therefore, family therapy is most often a relationship between a family therapist and one member of a family who wants to change his/her level of functioning in the family.

On this foundation Bowen developed eight principles that illustrated his theory: 1) the differentiation of self, 2) the triangle, 3) the nuclear family emotional process, 4) the family projection process, 5) the multigenerational transmission process, 6) sibling position, 7)the emotional cutoff and 8) emotional processes in society.

Because traditional theoretical language did not adequately describe these observations, Bowen drew family diagrams. These diagrams or “family trees” proved to be invaluable because they 1) helped keep the players straight, 2) charted important family facts, 3)provided a clear gestalt of complex family patterns 4) assisted the therapist and client in hypothesizing about how a clinical problem was connected to the family context and how the problem and the context both evolved over time, and 5) facilitated systems thinking for therapist and patient alike. The practice of drawing family diagrams was developed into a uniform therapeutic tool by Monica McGoldrick in her landmark publication Genograms in Family Assessment. Subsequently, the genogram has become a symbol of family systems theory.

The Georgetown University Family Center and many other similar centers around the country are actively pursuing the teaching and application of Bowen Theory.