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

Definitions from Bowen Theory


Differentiation of Self:  

“The ability to be in emotional contact with others yet still autonomous in one’s own emotional functioning is the essence of the concept of differentiation.” (Kerr & Bowen. 1988)

“Differentiation is a product of a way of thinking that translates into a way of being….Such changes are reflected in the ability to be in emotional contact with a difficult, emotionally charged problem and not feel compelled to preach about what others “should” do, not rush in to “fix” the problem and not pretend to be detached by emotionally insulating oneself.” (Kerr & Bowen 1988)


“Fusion or lack of differentiation is where individual choices are set aside in service of achieving harmony in the system” (Brown, 1999)

Fusion is where “people form intense relationships with others and their actions depend largely on the condition of the relationships at any given time…Decisions depend on what others think and whether the decision will disturb the fusion of the existing relationships.” (Papero, 2000)

Emotional Cut-off:

“The concept of emotional cut-off refers to the phenomenon of emotional distancing, whether the cut-off takes the form of internal mechanisms or physical distancing.”(Titelman. 1987)

“The emotional cut-off is a natural process. On a simple level people speak of the need for personal space…as a means of “explaining” their avoidance of others. Distance seems to be the safety valve of the emotional system. Yet at the same time distance leaves people primed for closeness….The more an individual employs cut-off to manage attachment to parents and the original family, the greater his or her vulnerability to intense emotional processes in current relationships.” (Papero.1990)

The Emotional System:

(As distinct from the feeling and intellectual systems; Common to all life forms; an automatic process)
“The existence of a family emotional field is the product of an emotionally driven relationship process that is present in all families….This emotional process results in people’s occupying different functioning positions in a family.” (Kerr & Bowen 1988)

Unresolved Emotional Attachment

Everyone has some degree of unresolved attachment to his or her original family, but well-differentiated people have much more resolution than less differentiated people. An unresolved attachment can take many forms. For example, (1) a person feels more like a child when he is home and looks to his parents to make decisions for him that he can make for himself, or (2) a person feels guilty when he is in more contact with his parents and that he must solve their conflicts or distresses, or (3) a person feels enraged that his parents do not seem to understand or approve of him. An unresolved attachment relates to the immaturity of both the parents and the adult child, but people typically blame themselves or others for the problems. (Kerr, 2003) 

Individuality and Togetherness:

“The emotional system operates as if it is governed by the interplay of two counterbalancing “life forces”…defined as individuality and togetherness.” (Kerr & Bowen 1988)

“When it is possible to observe the details of family interactions without being seduced into an undue focus on certain details, then it can be seen that what family members think, feel say and do reflects an emotional process that pertains to the family as a whole. This emotional process is assumed to be regulated by the interplay of a force that inclines people to follow their own directives, to be independent (individuality), and a force that inclines them to respond to directives from others, to be connected (togetherness). (Kerr & Bowen 1988)

Systems Anxiety:

“When aroused, the emotional system of the anxious individual tends to override the cognitive system and behaviour becomes increasingly automatic……..As the tension or anxiety mounts, the manifestations of togetherness and loss of individuality increase.” (Papero 1990) 

Nuclear Family Emotional System:

A: Couple Conflict; B: Illness in a spouse: C: Projection of problem onto 1 or more children.

“The degree to which the undifferentiation of a nuclear family system is absorbed in one relationship or in the poor functioning of one person is the degree to which other relationships and other people are protected from dysfunction.” (Kerr & Bowen 1988)

Family Projection Process:

“The degree of a child’s relationship dependence is a product of the particular balance of forces that promote and undermine emotional separation of the child from the family……When a parent and a child function in ways that undermine separation, the anxiety and undifferentiation of the parental generation are transmitted to the next generation.” (Kerr & Bowen, 1988)

“An intense child focus, which can be positive or negative, presents significant developmental challenges to the young person as they come to function in reaction to others. This leaves them with little emotional breathing space to grow in thinking, feeling and acting for themselves.” Brown 2008

Multigenerational Transmission Process:

The multigenerational transmission process not only programs the levels of “self” people develop, but it also programs how people interact with others. Both types of programming affect the selection of a spouse. For example, if a family programs someone to attach intensely to others and to function in a helpless and indecisive way, he will likely select a mate who not only attaches to him with equal intensity, but one who directs others and make decisions for them. (Kerr, 2003)

“Over the generations, the invested children of each generation marry partners and operate with greater emotional intensity than did their parents. Their siblings create families with emotional levels that are similar or less intense than those of the original family. From this perspective in any family there are lines moving through time towards greater and lesser levels of differentiation.” (Papero, 1990)

Sibling Positions:

Based on Walter Toman’s sibling position profiles (1961)
Toman’s “basic thesis is that important personality characteristics fit with the sibling position in which a person grew up……The degree to which a personality profile fits with normal provides a way to understand the level of differentiation and the direction of the projection process from one generation to generation.” (Bowen 1978)

Defining a Self:

A person ….can, through a gradual process of learning that is converted into action, become more of a self in his/her family and other relationship systems. This process of change has been called “defining a self” because visible action is taken to which others respond. A change in basic level can be achieved while in relationship to emotionally significant others, but not when others are avoided or when one’s actions disrupt a relationship.” (Kerr & Bowen 1988)

“If a therapist reacts to a family’s anxiety by telling people what to do, the resources of the family will quickly become submerged. If a therapist does not react, but just helps a family define the nature of the problem with which it is confronted (especially the relationship process that create and reinforce it), the resources of the family will resurface”(Kerr & Bowen, 1988: ).


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