Coming to grips with Bowen Family Systems Theory in a collaborative learning environment.

Working on lifting out of fusion in a friendship – Is this contrary to loving my neighbour? Plus reflections on applying Bowen theory within a Christian faith.

Guest presenter from FSI Certificate program Nicola Fortescue- introduced by Jenny Brown.

A recent presentation as part of our certificate program explored the dynamics of a friendship in a community/church congregation context.  The presentation described the personal challenge of dealing with a relationship where, after pulling back to be less involved, the presenter experienced increased efforts from the other to be drawn in to her life activities. In applying Bowen’s concept of differentiation of self and fusion the presenter described the timeline and facts of the friendship (person B) and explored her part in the reciprocal patterns. She described her efforts to define herself to the other and to establish some self defined boundaries to prevent an experience of suffocation and resultant symptoms in the relationship. I thought the presentation gave a very interesting example of how Bowen theory invites one to make a research project out of life – including a variety of relationships and including a deep effort to think through the application of one’s own values and beliefs.
Here are some excerpts from this very interesting presentation:
“At the beginning of the friendship with “B” I was new to the community without other established friends. Hence togetherness forces were at work. I was very uncomfortable being an individual who did not have any friends to ease my unease.—Over 12 months later I did not need the initiative of the other to calm my discomfort. Hence the dynamics of the relationship were changing and a pursuer distancing pattern was emerging.”
“My normal practise in the past was to always include anyone who would like to be included – for fear of hurting another’s feelings, nor being ‘unchristian’.
 I thought I could reconsider my position. I was not responsible for each person’s feelings nor did I feel I had to say yes to every request directed towards me.”
The description included the triangles that emerged from both sides as anxiety increased.  The pursuing friend B increasingly included the children in requests to be together.  The Presenter involved another friend C in discussing the situation. ( A particular situation where friend B was wanting to be included in a planned event of Presenter and friend C). She reflected on her tension between living her Christian values and not accommodating to every request for inclusion from the other.
“I felt very conflicted – as a Christian I am committed to loving and desiring the best for others…. Part of me wanted to invite her to come to alleviate my feelings of conflict. In asking another what they thought I was firing up the triangle (& knew I was doing it) but also thought it wasn’t really my decision to make alone – I knew I was drawing closer with the other friend  C and keeping B on the outer.”
“In defining what I would and wouldn’t be available for with friend B, I wondered if this was a small opportunity to differentiate from togetherness forces- Although thinking it through now I probably wouldn’t use the term ‘differentiate’ as I was still comfortably positioned in each of the other triangles which were present.  I did see I made a tiny step to overcome the inability of acting as an individual.”
This very thoughtful presentation was an example of how Bowen theory could be used as a lens for navigating complex relationship dynamics, including those that extend outside of the family.  It illustrated how natural system’s thinking focuses mostly on one’s own part in the back and forth of relating and reactivity.  The presenter added some additional thoughts on the tension she is thinking through to separate principle driven care for another from anxiety driven connection.
 Many people, who have a strong ethical or faith position around self sacrifice and loving others, often ask the question: “Is differentiating a self contrary to this value (or indeed this imperative?)”  I think it is a question without a simple answer. I have reflected that I can accommodate to others either as a selfish act of reducing my own discomfort or give way to others as a thoughtful decision to honour and respect them.
The following are some of the presenter’s thoughts on this dilemma:
I am a Christian choosing to live a life consistent with the teaching of the Scriptures. I am always considering Bowen Family Systems Theory through this lens… does it fit? Are the two congruous? I am still wrestling with this in regards to this particular issue –
 The teaching to
· “love your neighbour as yourself” with a very broad definition of neighbour… i.e. all humanity. Matthew 22:39, Luke 10:33
 I am asking myself the question… Is it loving to define a boundary around oneself in this way?
·  “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” Ephesians 4:32
I am asking …does kind and compassionate mean giving in to the togetherness forces at play in a situation like this? Giving into togetherness forces is not a principled act so I really need to decide what I believe is right here. Is it kind and compassionate to include others at every available opportunity?
·   Yet – Jesus himself had exclusive friendships (e.g. the disciples) and times when he and his friends withdrew to be away from the crowds.
 He was continually hounded by people who were attracted to him and desired that he would fulfil their wishes (particularly in regard to physical healings). Jesus operated within his own parameters. Luke 9:18, Mark 3:7, Mark 5:37 Jesus did not let others define who he was or how he should act… there are examples where people wanted to make him their human King – that was not his intention,John 6:15, The teacher’s didn’t want him to heal on the Sabbath – Yet Jesus did what he thought was right, Matthew 12:10.
·  Another principle the Bible teaches is to put off falsehood and speak truthfully Ephesians 4:25.
At times this teaching could conflict if hurting someone’s feelings is considered unloving. I was asked would it be intrusive if B came along uninvited… the answer was really yes!
The FSI Certificate program participants come from a diverse range of belief systems yet each was able to think about and give examples of grappling with such value tensions in their own lives.  A helpful question in each dilemma is: “Is my action for fusion or for differentiation? Is it mature connection,( that asks a great deal of me in terms of emotion regulation and thinking); or is it immature connection that follows instinct?” The final reflections went back to the presenter’s family of origin:
“I have a very strong radar which picks up a perception of attempts of others to manipulate me. *I am hypothesising this would be connected to chronic anxiety from my childhood. I experienced my mother as manipulating events to make it appear like she was working for my good. I do not believe she did this consciously nor maliciously but was driven by her own insecurities. It helped her feel better. I can see it can come naturally to me as well.” (*an example of chronic anxiety – perceiving/imagining threat in relationship)
Each certificate participant presents annually an application of Bowen theory from their work, family or community relationships and have the privilege of listening to others presentations and using discussion to better understand Bowen theory.  Other recent presentations have explored research observations of 3 generations of marriage in one’s family and looking at triangles in a clinical case and the pull to triangle from the clinician.
See this link for more information about the FSI 3 year flexible Certificates program, for those who want to take their learning and application of Bowen family systems theory deeper:  long distance/online option starting this August.
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