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Evaluation of Murray Bowen’s Family System Theory

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Family
Wordcount: 2198 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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This paper examines Murray Bowen’s Family system theory and other lead figures in the field. 

This paper also explores Bowen’s clinical approaches.

The Bowen family systems theory is a concept of human behavior that views the family as an emotional entity and uses systems thinking to describe the intricate interactions in the unit. It is in the familial environment that its members be powerfully connected on an emotional level.  Bowen was known as the pioneer of family therapy when he was a psychiatrist at Menninger Clinic in the 1940’s. He placed his emphases on the conundrum of Schizophrenia.  Bowen describes the relationship between patients and their mother in the late 1940’s at the Menninger Clinic. There, he began to including mothers in the examination and treatment of schizophrenic patients. But in1954 Bowen began to shift from an individual focus to the appreciation of the multi-faceted dimensions of the family system. In addition, during his thirty-one years at Georgetown, Bowen was effective in implementing and developing a comprehensive therapy of the family and inspired an entire generation. In 1973 Bowen engaged 2 prominent students, Philp Guerin and Thomas Foraged; they three formed the Center for Family Learning in New Rochelle, New York. Two other leading figures in the field are Betty A. Carter, known as the Bowenian feminist, and Monica Mc Goldbrick. These two are best known for discussions of the family life cycle (Carter, Mc Goldrick 2005). The therapists argue that ignoring gender inequalities help continue the forces that keep women and men trapped in inflexible roles. They describe that women live in a constricting social condition where men profit from women. These men may not feel powerful with their wives and/or mothers. But these same men take for granted social advantages that make it easier for men to get ahead in the world. In addition to the previously mentioned text, Mc Goldbrick called attention to ethnic difference among families. Her book Ethnicity and Family Therapy (Mc Goldbrick, Pearce, & Giordano 1982) is regarded as a major advance in the evolving awareness with regard to this type of family therapy. In 1959 Bowen established the Georgetown Family Centre at Georgetown University where he was director until his death. Bowen recognized early in his approach to this type of theory that people are products of their context. According to Bowen human relationships are driven by two polarizing forces: individuality and togetherness.  We need conman ship that family is with you whenever you go, and unresolved emotionality to parents is the main problem. Another prominent member in the field is Michael Kerr, the current director of training at Georgetown Family Center and co-author with Bowen.

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Bowen Theoretical Formulations:  Bowen is viewed as a pioneer that interjected a pragmatic approach to family therapy and was more concerned with technique as opposed to theory and more committed to system theory as a set of interventions. The writer discusses how we have less autonomy in our emotional lives than we would like to think; we are more reactive to one another than we recognize. Bowen’s theory examines and describes the family as a multigenerational network of relationships that shape the interplay of individuality and togetherness. By means of an interlocking concept, Bowen discusses five basic concepts: (1) Differentiation of Self where a person can balance thinking and feeling but the underrated person is either submissive or defiant, (2)  Emotional Triangle – Involving a third party to deal with problem, (3) Family projection – Heightened need for attention and approval, (4) Multigenerational Transmission –how families operate over the years in interconnected pattern, (5) Sibling Position – People in the same position might be different based on the level of differentiation (Bowen, 1966).  Differentiation of self is the capacity to reason and reflect and to not respond automatically to emotional pressures (Kerr & Bowen, 1985). It is flexible and acts wisely in the face of anxiety. The writer points out that undifferentiated people are more easily reactive. An example of this is sometime evident in my own family; during an emotional crisis some members of my family are more reactive and are unable to act wisely, undifferentiated. Another writer  Jenny Brown (1999) , describes that the primary emphasis in Bowenian  theory is to reduce chronic  anxiety by) 1  facilitating  awareness of how the emotional system functions and, 2) increasing  level of  differentiation where the focus  is on making change for self rather than on trying to change others.                                                                                      Normal Family Development:  Bowen’s description of the normal family function and optimal development is best viewed when family members are differentiated, anxiety is low, and partners are in good emotional rapport with one another in the unit. Bowen’s theory clarifies the family life cycle as most people leaving home, with a transformation in the relationship between the parents recognizing the maturity of their offspring from adolescence to adult.   Two other writers, Nichols and Schwartz (Nichols and Schwartz, 2007) assert that Bowen’s therapy describes that all families lie along continuum and while one may try to classify families as falling into distinct groups there really are no type of families, and most families of one type could easily morph into a different family type.                                                                                     Development of Behavior Disorder: Bowen pointed out that the most susceptible individual, in terms of isolation and lack of differentiation, will observe the anxiety in its system and symptoms and this may trigger the development of a behavioral disorder. Bowen also describes the problems that results from emotional fusion of the family. The family member with the least symptom differentiated is likely to become fused with another family member. The highly differentiated family member has the ability to separate one’s own thoughts and feelings from the family at large or an anxious situation. Another point made is the family may be faced with two kind of behavioral disorders that may develop: (1) vertical problems that can be passed down from parent to child/generational and (2) the horizontal problem caused by environmental stressors or points of change in the development of the clan. An example of the vertical problem can be seen in my family my sister in law. I get the distinct impression that her anxieties and depression has been passed on to her daughter. It also appears that the mother is unwilling to resolve the issues in that relationship. Mother does not recognize that with this being passed from mother to granddaughter with the generational aspect of this concept being realized. The eighth and last concept Bowen addresses is that of the Societal Emotional Process. One aspect of this concept can be demonstrated as when a family moves to a different neighborhood how they must raise their children according to that environment.                             Case Study:  In The role of family therapist the model/concept that I would apply to the Wyrick family would be that of my mother Wanda and her daughter where the mother is suffering from anxieties and the 41 years old daughter has had some developmental and behavioral setbacks within the family. As mentioned above, the problem they have embroiled in is that of a state of vertical disorder with the family relationship being toxic.                                                                                                                 Goal Therapy:  Bowen believed that the goal of therapy is not to change people.  Bowen asserts the goal is not to solve family problems but help them learn to solve their own situations. Bowen points out that using a therapist is part of a healthy triangle where the therapist teaches couples to manager their own anxieties in healthy ways.                                                                                                                 Condition of Behavior Change: According to Bowen the atmosphere session is designed to minimize emotionality. Therapists ask questions to foster self-reflection and then direct those questions to each member one at a time to encourage family dialogues which have a tendency to get over heated.  Other keys to proper application of the condition of behavior change for therapists is to recognize that it is super important to stay detangled, avoid taking sides, and to prod each spouse to accept more accountability for making things healthier.                                                                                                                              Assessment and Therapeutic Technique: The Bowen approach discusses the major techniques of the theory which include genograms, process questions, relationship experiments, detangling, coaching, “I- positions” and displacement stories. Bowen therapists assert that understanding how the family system operates is more than merely developing a technique geared to the family structure. Bowen speaks of technique with disdain and he was concerned to see therapists relying on prescribed interventions. Bowen therapy assessment is more critical than most. He argues that assessment begins with the family history, its problems, and a relationship check – even unto the expanded extended family. This may be rigorous and time consuming

Genograms:  In Bowen’s description of genograms he illustrates a diagram showing family member and their relationship to one another. The diagram showed family demographics to include ages, dates of marriage, family composition, deaths, major transition points along the family timeline, geographic location, and more. In short genograms tell the historical topography of the family. 

Evaluating Therapy Theory & Result:  In evaluating Bowen’s theory, I find that what makes it useful is that it explains the emotional pushes and pulls that control how we relate to other people.  Bowenian theory defines how to lessen emotionalism and move more near to self-control by cultivating relationships in the family and learning to listen without taking thing personally or being untruthful to ones’ own conviction. Family researchers have tested the empirical validity of evaluating therapy theory & result the proposition. Bowenian theory addresses anxieties as the foundational reason for why people are dependent or avoidant or become emotional. This is reminiscent of the Freudian conflict theory which explains that all symptoms are the result of conflict regarding sexuality and aggression.

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The Bowen Theory seems to hinge upon the balance of two forces; togetherness and Individuality. The theory explains how too much togetherness creates fusion and prevents individuality or development of one’s own self. Too much individuality results in a distant and strangled family. Bowen introduced the three-generational hypothesis of schizophrenia. This demonstrates how interlocking triangles connect one generation to the next much like thread interwoven in a family tapestry. Bowen made a pivotal point in discouraging therapists from trying to fix the family relationship. Bowenian therapists rarely provide advice. He asserts the goal isn’t to solve the problem within the family but to help them learn to see their own character in the family system as it operates.


  • Kerr, M. E. 2000. One family’s story: A primer on bowen theory. The Bowen Center for the Study of the              Family. http://www.thebowencenter.org.
  • McGoldrick, M., Giordano, J., & Garcia-Preto, N. (2005). Ethnicity and family therapy. New York: Guilford Press.
  • Brown J.  1999. Bowen family systems theory and practice: Illustration and critique.  Journal title: Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy Issue number 2.  Vol.20 http://www.thefsi.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Bowen-Family-Systems-Theory-and-Practice_Illustration-and-Critique.pdf
  • Nichols, M., Schwartz, R. (2007). The essentials of family therapy. Boston: Pearson/Allyn & Bacon.
  • McGoldrick, M., Carter, E., & Garcia-Preto, N. (2014). The expanded family life cycle. Harlow: Pearson.
  • Carter, B. A.  Expanded family life cycle: The individual, family, and social perspectives. Allyn & Bacon Classics. 3rd Edition, Family Institute of Westchester.
  • McGoldrick, Monica 2005. The multicultural family institute. Highland Park, New Jersey. Pearson. Out of print.


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