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

Reacting to Reactions

It’s easier to polarise than walk the slow bumpy path towards peace.

Blog post by Jenny Brown.

“I have realised that I am just reacting to her reactions.”


This comment came from a husband who is learning to observe himself in his chronically conflictual marriage. He was beginning to see that this reacting back and forth was the stuff of endless unresolvable arguments.

I was struck with the similarity to the circular process in chronic social conflicts. I am fascinated by the parallels between reactive emotional process in families and in larger social systems, from workplaces to religious or political groups and nations. I’m troubled to hear on the news, week by week, of examples of tribal and national groups ‘reacting to reactions’ with an imminent sense of self perpetuation. The more strongly one group attacks the other inevitably the other responds with an increase in counter reaction.

As I write this it is the day following Remembrance Day; a pause in the calendar to reflect on the cycle of wars since World War 1. We honour courageous loss of life and sacrifices made but struggle to get objective about the lessons of history. It is distressing to grapple with that sense of unresolvable futility. A futility that is common to most large scale conflicts fuelled by a sense of rightness against an enemy that threatens the very stuff of one’s tribal identity.

Recently on a compelling current affairs interview I listened to Professor Daniel Bar-Tal (Tel-Aviv University and guest fellow at ANU) speak about what goes into a process of resolving intractable conflict. The interview is introduced with this summary:

“In societies that have lived with conflict for decades, the collective mind becomes like a closed parachute. It forgets how to open and alternative ways of living become difficult to imagine, and peace almost impossible to negotiate.”


He spoke about how the rally to conflict happens so much faster than any movement towards peace. I reflected on how this is also true in many conflictual family relationships. In social conflicts groups mobilize for war around existential issues of protecting collective interests and identity. Professor Bar-Tel reflected on the ease of how people were mobilized to march joyfully to the trenches in World War 1. In family conflicts people fight to hold their ground as if their identity hinges on this. Hence, as researcher John Gottman notes, the large percentage of marital arguments have lost logical connection to any disagreement and become unresolvable.

In chronic generational conflicts, such as Israel and Palestine, Bar-Tel commented on how conflict becomes the norm. People are more at home with outbreaks of fighting than they are with notions of peace. In fact any shift from opposing the “enemy” is experienced as undermining the cause. In this emotional system peace makers are accused of being traitors.

There are many similarities to Bowen’s observations of family and societal process. In a recent viewing of a Bowen teaching tape, I heard him discuss his observation that, as a group opposes another around a social or moral issue, it is certain that this will be met with a stronger counter response from the opposite side. The act of attacking the other contributes to a stronger counter attack. Reactions to reactions escalate with ever increasing fervour.

Professor Bar-Tal described the path to peace as a long non- linear process. Just like in troubled relationships, he said there are steps forward and steps backwards as old familiar conflictual patterns are easily reactivated. His examples included the slow bumpy path to peace in Northern Ireland and South Africa. He observes that this path requires some individuals to part from the goal of conflict and move towards some realistic compromise, which will always be a painful process. It is a long term project and requires tolerating the discomfort of adaptation and change—something the human predictably resists.  Peace that is realistic (as opposed to an idealistic peace narrative), according to Professor Bar-Tel, requires a change in narrative where the rival is more humanised. Those who mobilize for peace will inevitably be labelled traitors; in the same way that those who step out of futile reactivity in their family’s will experience a strong change back response from others (whose equilibrium has been disrupted).

Daniel Bar-Tel said that when peace is negotiated a third party nearly always plays a role and that the process usually begins with a courageous minority within the society that is open and determined. Can you hear the similarities with Bowen family systems observations about the impact of a neutral third party who can be in contact with both sides without taking sides? It also reminds me of Bowen’s definition of “the differentiating one” in the family (society) who:

  • Possesses the courage to define self
  • Is invested in the welfare of the family  (other group) at least as much as in his/her own welfare
  • Is neither angry nor dogmatic
  • Directs energy to changing self rather than telling others what they should do


One Bowen scholar from Canada, Ronald Richardson writes in his book: Polarization and the Healthier Church:

 “In polarization… people begin to regard those who do not think like they do as the enemy. As the intensity of feelings increases, they seek to defeat and even humiliate or destroy one another. Respect for others is lost. The ethic of love gives way to the ethic of hate.”


The effects of “other focussed” reactions are vastly different to principle driven positions. Whether it is in a marriage or world diplomacy, surely the picture can be different when one party restrains the instinct to increase accusations and begins to define who they are, what they stand for and what this means they will and won’t get caught up in. Perhaps this effort to express principles instead of emotional reaction is a key apart to a slow, bumpy journey towards mature peace.

Book: Intractable Conflicts Socio-Psychological Foundations and Dynamics
Author Daniel Bar-Tal, Cambridge University Press, Sep 2013.


  • Vinity Gill
    on November 14, 2014

    “Differentiation of self” at a perphial level would look like being selfish and cut out for few. As I am learning to understand it at an emotional level I sometimes get the strenght to look at myself when I am in a conflictual situation with my husband. I see how quick I can lose the perspective of objectivity and my reaction that is not at an emotional level but it goes deeper to almost like instinctual level. I am like a primate trying to protect my boundaries by anger, and behaviour that can be disruptive. If I could make an active effort to see my part in this conflictual situation and have the courage to define what I am ready and not ready to do and face the push back for defining myself. I could then start by being at a level that requires an emotional understanding of “differentiation of self”.
    For now this is my active effort:- rather than using the term “I don’t know”, I will now work toawrds ” This is what I think/believe/ready to do or not do”.

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