Overview Of Bowen Theory

The theory is made up of eight interlocking concepts that were developed by Murray Bowen, MD over the span of four decades studying and researching the family system. These concepts were developed based on the core assumption that an individual's behavior is driven and guided by forces that are a part of nature. The belief is that humans are a product of an evolutionary process and that an individual's behavior is very much influenced by the same natural forces that regulate the behavior of all living organisms. The theory focuses not on the intrapsychic processes that may be occurring within a person but rather on the strong emotional forces that are occurring between people.

The assumption is that these forces emanate and are driven by the emotional system and the emotional system is a product of an evolutionary process. The theory further contends that it is these strong emotional forces that exist between people that affect most human activity and is the principle driving force that influences the functioning of a person as well as the existing relationship systems in which that person is involved. Knowledge of how emotional systems operate, particularly in one's own family, offers a unique opportunity for a person to develop a better sense of self and well‑being.

Bowen's Eight Interlocking Concepts

Differentiation of Self
This concept refers to a person's ability to adhere to an established belief system that is governed by thoughtful decisions and careful assessment of the existing facts without becoming overly influenced by existing emotionality. The well differentiated person recognizes his realistic dependence on others but is able to stay calm in the face of conflict, criticism, and rejection. Differentiation can range from very low, where decisions are based on the emotionality and the strong need for togetherness, to very high where decisions are influenced by thoughtfulness and principled beliefs that recognizes the importance of both individuality and togetherness.

Triangles are formed due to the inherent instability of the two-person dyad and as a way to absorb anxiety that may exist within that dyad. The inclusion of a third person or object can stabilize the dyad making the triangle the most stable unit within a relationship system. Although stable, triangles can prevent existing problems from being resolved.

Nuclear Family Emotional System
This concept refers to how the family or relationship system will manifest relationship patterns after prolonged periods of excessive stress. The four basic relationship patterns are: marital conflict, dysfunction in one spouse, impairment of one or more children, and emotional distance. These relationship patterns are indicative of the existing imbalance in the individuality and togetherness forces.

Family Projection Process
The family projection process describes the primary way parents transmit their emotional problems to a child. Due do the level of dependency that a child has on the parental system; the child is prone to inherit relationship sensitivities that the parental or family system may be experiencing. The process usually entails the parent(s) projecting their anxiety on to the child out of fear that something is wrong with the child; the parent in turn interprets the child's behavior as confirming the fear; as a result the parent(s) treat the child as if something is really wrong and the child responds accordingly.

Multigenerational Transmission Process
This refers to how the level of differentiation is transmitted from one generation to the next. Individuals usually select mates with the same level of differentiation. As a result, the off spring is influenced by this relationship system. The transmission occurs on several interconnected levels ranging from the conscious teaching and learning of information to the automatic and unconscious programming of emotional reactions and behaviors.

Emotional Cutoff
The concept refers to when people cutoff or reduce their contact with parents, siblings, and other family members as a result of unresolved emotional issues and anxiety.

Sibling Position
Bowen theory incorporates the research of psychologist Walter Toman as a foundation for its concept of sibling position. Although there are mitigating circumstances, the basic idea is that people who grow up in the same sibling position predictably have important common characteristics. For example, oldest children tend to gravitate toward leadership positions and youngest siblings often prefer to be followers. This is not to say that youngest siblings do not enjoy leadership positions but it is likely that how they assume leadership will differ from how the oldest siblings may assume a leadership position.

Societal Emotional Process
This concept of societal emotional process describes how the emotional system governs behavior on a societal level promoting both progressive and regressive periods. Symptoms of societal regression include such trends as a growth of crime and violence, an increasing divorce rate, a more litigious attitude, polarization between racial groups, less principled decision‑making by leaders, and a focus on rights over responsibilities.

The above concepts have not been described and/or defined in detail. For a more in-depth understanding and comprehension of the interlocking concepts of Bowen Theory, it is encouraged that the following references be consulted.

Bowen, M. (1978). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice. Lanham, Maryland: Jason Aronson, Inc..

Kerr, M. & Bowen, M. (1988). Family Evaluation. New York, New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Kerr, M. (2020). Bowen Family Secrets. New York, New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Kerr, M. (2019). One Family's Story: A Primer on Bowen Theory. Washington, DC: The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family

Gilbert, R. (2004). The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory. Lake Frederick, Virginia: Leading Systems Press.

Noone, R. & Papero, D. (2015). The Family Emotional System: An Integrative Concept for Theory, Science, and Practice. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books.