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

A high profile case example of symptoms of addiction – expanding the lens to the family system

Lily Mailler – 

The media had a field day when Harriet Wran, the youngest daughter of well-known Labor politician and ex NSW premier Neville Wran (deceased), was implicated last year in the murder of a man inside a Redfern housing commission flat.

In many of the newspaper articles I read it was clear that this young woman grew up in a family where her parents were having their fair share of challenges managing their marital relationship, as so many couples do.  The articles also described the parents as well meaning and loving who were making their best effort to manage a challenging situation, as Harriet’s behaviour became increasingly risky.

These parents were, according to the reports, seeking the best help they could get, for example it was mentioned that Harriet had attended a number of rehabilitation clinics but continued to relapse.

Although in a number of the media articles, an attempt was made to understand her behaviour in the context of a stressful family situation, the explanations soon turn into conjectures about who may be at fault. One of the articles read:

“Friends are asking how this child of privilege, daughter of a Labor icon, heiress to at least part of her father’s $40 million fortune, a girl who went to Sydney’s best private schools, holidayed at the best resorts and had access to Sydney’s most influential social networks, has fallen so far. Vastly different accounts have emerged this week of who to blame for the recurrent dysfunction inside the Wran household.”

The article goes on to speculate about the dysfunctional behaviour as a caused by the parents different parenting styles, or by Harriet herself who “was having an identity crisis living in the shadow of two larger than life characters” and had a long life search for “a commanding man who would take control of her”.

Dr Murray Bowen proposed that the family is an emotional unit that governs the individual’s behaviour and development, through the relational sensitivities we have to each other. He described these sensitivities as instinctual responses and saw them as part and parcel of our evolutionary history, not bad or good. He went on to propose that given the instinctual nature of these sensitivities they are automatic and often hard to see. Dr Bowen observed that when these relational sensitivities rise, the tension that results can get fixed in a vulnerable member of the family who may turn to alcohol and drugs to soothe themselves. When the vulnerable member of the family happens to be a child, Dr Bowen named this instinctual course of action the “Family Projection Process”.

As a Bowen systems theory thinker, I am left wondering about the relational sensitivities in this family and patterns of accommodation that resulted in this young woman becoming the symptomatic member. Some of the questions I find myself wondering about are:

How did the parents talk to each other about their different approaches to parenting?

What pressures/ tensions were around for the family and extended family around the time of Harriet’s conception and birth?

What hopes/expectations did the parents have for her? How did these play out in the relationship?

What sort of help did they get and what was useful and not useful?

Who else was around and aware of their struggles?

Who else was around and able to connect with Harriet and how?

What was the level of contact the parents had with their extended family?

How did they manage themselves in the face of their daughter’s rebelliousness?

What did their efforts to get her on the straight and narrow look like?

How did she respond to these efforts and how did they in turn respond to her?

How clear were they about what they would and would not be willing to do in the face of her challenging behaviour?

How did the school respond to her rebelliousness?

  • And more recently:

What was the ripple effect in the system of Neville Wran’s declining health and death in April 2014(4 months prior to Harriet’s arrest)?

Unfortunately the manner in which the media and institutions of society address issues of drug and alcohol reinforces the existing family projection process. An emphasis on the ‘problematic person’ makes it more difficult for the symptomatic individual to be seen in any other way than as ‘dysfunctional’ and ‘stray’. Speculations about who is at fault and who is to blame result in less ability to consider the family emotional field and the inadvertent ways in which all of us, within a family, affect each other.

Dr Murray Bowen addresses the above issue clearly in his descriptions of ‘societal regression’; he states:

“Society has followed the same course in dealing with people who seriously offend society, as anxious parents in dealing with the difficult teenage child. Like the parents, society (the people who make up society) has an over-all emotional involvement with impaired children which helps to create the orientation for later criminal behaviour. When the first antisocial act occurs, society follows the same feeling oriented ‘bandaid’ type interim action as parents who hope the problem will go away. The same posture continues through successive offenses, multiple arrests, trials, imprisonment, ‘rehabilitation programs’ that fail, etc” (Dr Murray Bowen FTCP Pp 444)

I am left wondering about the fate of this young woman as the forces in society play their part in intensifying an already emotionally charged situation. I am also mindful that the challenges of high profile families with serious symptoms bearers are patterns shared by all families in varying degrees. It is easy to focus on another family as if their problems are distant from our own but as Bowen observed:  the anxious focus on a child is a process that “exists at all gradations of intensity” and the “process is so universal it is present to some degree in all families.”  (Dr Murray Bowen FTCP Pp 379)

 ‘A high profile case example of symptoms of addiction – expanding the lens to the family system’ was written by FSI Trainer, Lily Mailler


1 Comment

  • Sue O'Harte
    on March 31, 2015

    Thank you Lily for your thoughts about the family projection process involving the Wran family. I appreciated your questions which invited a wider view of the symptom within the family system. The reactions of the media and commentators reinforce a simplistic cause and effect way of thinking which often offers little in the way of understanding, and can encourage a narrow interpretation of events. Thanks again Lily for your thoughts.
    Sue O’Harte

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