Murray Bowen, 1913 – 1990, was a psychiatrist who researched human behaviour in relationships and developed a theory about the common patterns found in all emotional systems and how these patterns are transmitted across generations.
Bowen observed that as individuals react to tension in relationships, predictable patterns of behaviour developed as a way of adapting and managing the dilemma. Rather than becoming overwhelmed by the emotional reactivity and defaulting to patterns that may be unhelpful or undermine our own or someone else’s functioning in the relationship, it is a challenge in all relationships to learn how to hold onto our thinking selves while at the same time remaining connected to significant others.
“[With triangles] I finally knew one way through the impenetrable thicket which is the family emotional system.”
– Murray Bowen
Bowen family systems theory was developed by psychiatrist and researcher Dr Murray Bowen (1913–90). It is a theory backed up by a growing body of empirical research. In recent years Bowen’s concept of ‘differentiation of self’ — which describes differing levels of maturity in relationships — has been shown by researchers to be related to important areas of well-being, including marital satisfaction, and the capacity to handle stress, make decisions and manage social anxiety.
Bowen was a US army physician during World War II who became interested in psychiatry after seeing the varying effects of trauma on soldiers. Bowen’s theory is invaluable for helping us to understand the variations in how different people manage similarly stressful circumstances. He originally trained in Freud’s psychoanalysis but departed from this theory as he observed that human difficulties went beyond unresolved issues in the individual’s psyche and were, rather, embedded in each person’s family system — the focus of this book on relationship systems. In researching whole families at the US National Institute of Mental Health in the late 1950s, Bowen noticed patterns of managing anxiety in families that were similar to the instinctive ways other species dealt with threats in (or to) their herds and packs. Bowen saw our personal and relationship problems as coming from exaggerated responses to sensing a threat to family harmony and that of other groups. For example, the reaction to a family disagreement can be such an inflated pull for unity that there’s no tolerance for differences of opinion. Or an upset in a child is responded to with such an intense effort to protect the child that he or she consequently has no room to develop their own capacity to soothe themself.
Bowen’s concept of ‘differentiation of self’ forms the basis of a systems understanding of maturity. The concept of differentiation can be confusing but, put simply, it refers to the ability to think as an individual while staying meaningfully connected to others. It describes the varying capacity each person has to balance their emotions and their intellect, and to balance their need to be attached with their need to be a separate self. Bowen proposed that the best way to grow a more solid self was in the relationships that make up our original families; running away from difficult family members would only add to the challenges in managing relationship upsets.
Bowen is unusual in the field of psychiatry in that he described himself as needing to address the same self-management issues as those his patients were learning to deal with. He didn’t think that any human was close to being completely differentiated, and is reported by close colleagues to have said that only on his very best days might he appear to be in the upper to moderate range of emotional maturity.
Bowen’s theory doesn’t focus on mental illness but on the challenges of being human in the relationships which affect us all. It’s not an easy theory to grasp, as it focuses on the big-picture patterns of a system rather than the narrower view of what causes difficulties for one individual. These ideas invite us to see the world through the lens of each family member rather than just from our own subjective experience; they don’t allow room for simply seeing victims and villains in our relationship networks. Seeing the system takes people beyond blame to seeing the relationship forces that set people on their different paths. This way of seeing our life challenges avoids fault-finding and provides a unique path to maturing throughout our adult lives.
For a clear description of Bowen’s eight concepts click here to read through the concepts with an accompanying case study with “One Family’s Story” by Michael Kerr MD.
2. Differentiation of Self
3. Nuclear Family Emotional System
4. Family Projection Process
5. Multigenerational Transmission Process
6. Emotional Cutoff
7. Sibling Position
8. Societal Emotional Process