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

Heroes and Villains, in the family, in politics and life: An example of getting objective about past Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

By Jenny Brown

In his family systems theory Dr Murray Bowen talks about the goal of getting more neutral or objective about the people we consult to and their families. This goal also applies to members of a clinician’s/person’s own family.  What does this actually entail? And what is it that makes it so difficult? Seeing others more objectively as opposed to  the lens of emotional subjectivity is at the basis of natural systems thinking, where individuals are not blamed or glorified but rather are seen as part of a big picture of instinctive reactions and counter-reactions that shape so much of how people think and behave.

I’m aware that most in Australia are pretty much over talking about our recent election; but I can’t stop being intrigued as I reflect on the strength of the demonising of candidates that seemed to dominate public and social discourse.  I was at a casual election night gathering with friends and could hear this tone of strong negatively in much conversation.  Kevin Rudd, our on again- off again defeated prime minister seemed to particularly cop the villainising statements such as “I can’t stand him!”  In other settings the vitriol was equally strong towards Rudd’s opponent and now Prime Minister Tony Abbot. Why so strong and personal I wondered?  I reflected on the ways that I also got caught on this negative bandwagon about our politicians. How much is this is driven by the degree of anxiety in our society as a whole and the way this is reflected in our media? This trend was noted on a recent ABC media watch program with journalist Paul Barry saying that “The political debate has become far too personal and unnecessarily vicious.”

In my own efforts to see the big picture of my family I have seen how I had put some family members on a pedestal and downgraded my view of others.  Both of these positions are emotionally exaggerated with the heroism impossible for anyone to live up to and the problem people not given any room in relationships to contribute positively.  In my family and in my clinical work I have come to see that getting objective requires removing positive or negative labels and filling in more of the details of each person’s relationships and life circumstances.  This helps me to see each individual as a human being (as opposed to a “goody or baddy”) who are powerfully shaped by their relationship context and situation, just as their reactions contribute to the way those around them relate.

So how does this work with our politicians. Let me take the example of Kevin Rudd.  Firstly I look at his bigger picture relationship context.  Like myself, and many Anglo/Irish Australians he has some convicts in the earlier generations of his family.  The facts of peoples work through the generations suggest a strong theme of struggling to make ends meet financially; with hard working farmers on his father’s side and labourers in the sugar farms and bankrupt hoteliers on his mother’s side.  In Kevin Rudd’s family of origin his father Albert was said to be more of a follower in his active duty in World War 11 and not a strong scholar.  He operated a dairy farm but died in an accident when Kevin was 11 years of age.  An apparent family picture of strong, adaptive women could be seen in the example of Kevin’s mother Margaret, who retrained as a nurse in order to keep the family together and no longer beholden to charity form others.  This is an interesting pattern in light of Kevin Rudd’s choice of his wife Therese Rein who has become one of Australia’s most successful self-made business women.  Kevin’s sibling position as youngest of 4 (with an older brother, sister and brother) and his history of childhood illness (rhematic fever age 5-7, heart condition as a teen) has likely primed him to be very special and protected in his mother’s world.  This would probably have intensified following the tragic death of his father. Youngest siblings are more likely to expect others to dote on them and accommodate to them. If a youngest is also elevated to fill a breach in a parent’s life following the loss of a spouse this can contribute to an interesting mix of leadership, specialness and entitlement.  Other interesting facts of Kevin’s Rudd’s family context are that he was separated from his family following his father’s death and sent to a Brisbane, Catholic boarding school by means of a charitable donation. This was apparently an unhappy time for him but when his mother got on her feet financially she brought him back to country Queensland where he attended the local high school. He excelled academically becoming Dux of the school and gained awards for public speaking.  I would hypothesise that this contributed to him securing himself through sensing his mother’s (and others) pride and his posturing to replicate such admiration from others and much less tolerance for people who disapproved of him.  When Kevin Rudd came to power in overly positive heroic circumstances in 2007, one imagines that he was able to bring his best in such adoring circumstances but would be much more vulnerable and reactive in the face of exclusion and criticism.

Of course all of this is just hypothesising but the process of seeing an individual in a broader intergenerational relationship context assists to view him as multifaceted with both strengths and vulnerabilities.  When I add thinking about the impossibly challenging circumstances of political leadership when under intense scrutiny from within and outside of party ranks, I am increasingly able to be more neutral towards those who represent us in leadership. The same process could helpfully be applied to our new Prime Minister Tony Abbot and others in the public leadership sphere.

Back to my original question: What does getting more objectively or neutrality entail? And what value does this effort add? I think that the bigger picture view of the network of relationships that shape each individual is helpful in lowering my own tendency to be judgemental and reactive to others…both in my personal and public spheres.  This is well expressed in Dr Murray Bowen’s own words that:

“Gaining more knowledge of one’s (or another’s) distant families of origin can help one become aware that there are no angels and devils in a family: they were human beings, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, each reacting predictably to the emotional issue of the moment, and each doing the best they could with their own life course.”

Bowen M., 1978, Family Therapy in Clinical practice, p 492.

Kevin Rudd’s biographical data from:

And see the October edition of Good Health Magazine.

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