Based in part on Nichols and Schwartz book on Family Therapy Introduction The pioneers of family therapy recognized that current social and cultural forces shape our values about ourselves and our families, our thoughts about what is "normal" and "healthy," and our expectations about how the world works. However, Bowen was the first to realize that the history of our family creates a template which shapes the values, thoughts, and experiences of each generation, as well as how that generation passes down these things to the next generation. Bowen was a medical doctor and the oldest child in a large cohesive family from Tennessee. He studied schizophrenia, thinking the cause for it began in mother-child symbiosis, which created an anxious and unhealthy attachment.

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The idea is not to be emotionally detached or to become overly objective with little or no feelings, but rather for the individual to strive for balance by achieving their self-definition but not at the expense of losing their ability for spontaneous emotional expression; hence, there is a need for a balance of feelings and cognition.

Differentiation is a process or a direction in life, not a goal to be achieved. The opposite of differentiation is fusion. A person who is fused within the family system is unable to differentiate their thoughts and their feelings and they are unable to differentiate themselves from others.

When an individual has difficulty differentiating themselves from others they fuse very easily with whatever emotions are sweeping through the family and the more highly they are fused the more difficult it is for them to operate from reasoned principles. The poorer differentiated the two spouses are the more they become fused and the functioning of this new nuclear family will be dysfunctional in proportion to their fusion.

Ideally, the individuals are inner-directed, establish their own goals, and they assume responsibility for their own lives.

These people tend to relate well to others out of their strength versus a need. Such individuals can be characterized by rationality, objectivity, and they are their own person. They separate their thinking from their feelings and they are able to remain independent, but not out of contact, with their nuclear and extended family.

Under stress, a dyadic emotional system in a family will recruit a third person into the system to lessen the intensity and anxiety and to gain stability and, thus, a triangle is formed.

Usually the triangle will dilute the anxiety as the triangle is more stable and flexible than the dyad and the triangle has a higher tolerance for dealing with stress. When the stress is dissipated, the third person in the triangle is able to exit and again become a loner and the original dyad becomes a peaceful twosome. However, sometimes the anxiety only increases with the new triangle, and thus another person is brought into the system until there are a number of people involved and there are several triangles existing simultaneously.

This is known as interlocking triangles. Usually this creates even more stress and a further heightening of the problem. Families seek to create triangles not only to reduce anxiety but also to help maintain a level of closeness and distance between family members in hopes of creating an atmosphere of freedom from anxiety.

According to Bowen, the triangulation has at least four possible outcomes which are as follows: 1 A stable dyad can become destabilized by a third person an example would be the birth of a child bringing conflict to a marriage ; 2 a stable dyad can also be destabilized by the removal of the third person an example would be a child leaving home and no longer available for triangulation ; 3 an unstable dyad being stabilized by the addition of a third person an example would be a conflictual marriage becoming more harmonious after the birth of a child; and 4 an unstable dyad being stabilized by the removal of a third person an example would be conflict is reduced by the removal of a third person who takes sides.

The poorer the differentiation of the family members, the probability of triangulation within a family is heightened; conversely, a family who relies on triangulation to solve problems in essence helps maintain the poor differentiation of the family members. Even though they may enter the triangle, they must remain neutral. In this way, the spouses hopefully will learn to view themselves as differentiated selves as well as marriage partners.

If a therapist cannot remain absolutely neutral, they should never triangulate with the couple and remain detached from the emotional climate. The person of the therapist is the primary therapeutic tool. In the nuclear family emotional system, Bowen contends that people marry individuals with the same level of differentiation as their own. A family living with a high level of chronic anxiety will find these mechanisms at work almost constantly. Bowen suggests three patterns that are likely to occur or can occur within a family when the anxiety reaches a sufficient level.

Not all patterns will necessarily be experienced, but any one of them is capable of occurring. Physical or emotional dysfunction can become chronic within a spouse if the anxiety generated by the family members is absorbed disproportionately by the spouse experiencing the dysfunction. Unresolved marital conflict is likened to a roller coaster of cycles of extreme closeness and emotional distance. The anxiety is then being absorbed by both spouses.

Bowenians believe individuals tend to repeat in their marital choices and other significant relationships the style of relating learned in their families of origin, and to pass along similar patterns to their children. Only then can differentiation proceed and the individuals involved become less overreactive to the emotional forces sweeping through the family. Emotional fusion between spouses produces anxiety which will result in marital conflict and tension. The intensity of the family projection process is related to the following two factors: 1 The degree of undifferentiation and immaturity of the parents and 2 the level of stress and anxiety that the family experiences.

Emotional cutoff refers to the way people handle their attachments to their parents or their family of origin at the point of separation. The child may attempt to isolate themselves from the family of origin, take flight from the family when they leave home, and may attempt to do this by geographic relocation, through psychological barriers, such as not talking with the family, or by believing they are free of family ties when in reality all they have done is broken contact.

Cutting oneself off emotionally from their family of origin often represents an effort by which to deal with unresolved fusion with one of both parents. The individual is usually also denying its importance in their life. Multigenerational transmission process occurs over several generations.

Poorly differentiated people marry similarly differentiated people and thus this emotional dysfunction and fusion is passed down through the generations. However, it is important to note that the level of differentiation transmitted across generations is not constant, but rather each generation moves toward a lower level of differentiation which will only increase emotional fusion with each subsequent generation. The only way to stop this downward spiral is for unresolved emotional attachments and cutoffs to be successfully dealt with.

It should be noted that functional position takes precedence over chronological position as a functional position shapes future expectations and behavior.

Toman offered ten basic personality sibling profiles such as older brother, younger sister, middle child, only child, twin, etc. Thus, a firstborn does well to marry a second born, the youngest child an older child, etc. He also maintained that the chances for a successful marriage are greatly enhanced if an individual grew up with siblings of the opposite sex versus same-sex siblings only.

Under conditions of societal chronic anxiety, such as population growth, there is an increased togetherness and less differentiation or the achievement of individuation. Bowen felt that society had been digressing for several decades and in order for society to make better rational decisions rather than short-term solutions, he called for better differentiation of intellect and emotion in society.

The initial evaluation interview begins with the very first telephone contact from the patient to the therapist. The therapist must remain objective. Any combination of family members is acceptable for the evaluation interviews, which may go on for a few sessions. The evaluation interviews begin with a history of the presenting problem focused especially on the symptoms and their impact on the symptomatic person or relationship. The therapist attempts to find out such things as what sustains the problem for which they are seeking relief, why are they coming now for help, what each person hopes to get, to assess patterns of emotional functioning as well as the intensity of the emotional process in the family of the patient.

The final part of the evaluation interview attempts to comprehend the nuclear family in context to the extended family systems, both maternally and paternally. They are also especially interested in multigenerational patterns of fusion and the degree of emotional cutoff of either or both of the spouses since each nuclear family embodies the emotional processes and patterns of the preceding generations.

One of the ways in which Bowen devised graphically to display and to further explore the multigenerational patterns was by using a genogram which displayed a minimum of at least three previous generations. This is usually worked out during one of the earlier sessions and can continue to have changes throughout the therapeutic process. It examines the emotional processes in their intergenerational context. The genogram has a set of commonly used symbols and can portray such information as who the members of the family are and their names, birth and death dates, sibling position, marital status, marriages, divorces, live-in patterns, ethnicity, major family events, religious affiliations, medical data, occupations, geographic locations, socioeconomic status, education, and relationships such as fusion.

For most individuals, this is the first time they have ever thought of or been faced with intergenerational family relationship patterns. However, over-reactive emotional interactions with the extended family must be first changed before an experience of greater self-differentiation can be realized in the nuclear family members. Bowen saw the going home as not a matter of confrontation, the settling of old scores, or even the reconciliation of long-standing differences, but rather he saw the need for reestablishing contact with the extended family of origin as a critical step in reducing anxiety due to emotional cutoff in the client and detriangulating from members of the family of origin and thereby allowing the possibility for greater self-differentiation to transpire.

Family therapy sessions that are directed according to Bowen will be far more cognitive and controlled than emotional. Each partner talks to the therapist versus speaking directly to each other. Confrontation is avoided. Interpretations are avoided and questioning must remain calm. Partners are not allowed to blame each other or to ignore their differences, but rather each partner is encouraged to focus on the part they play in the relationship problems.

Differentiation starts as a personal process and progresses into the transformation of relationships in the entire family system. The presence of a therapist as an observer can be stabilizing to the relationship, but differentiation from the family of origin is crucial if there is to be continued differentiation. Family Therapy, a Systemic Integration 3rd edition. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Goldberg, Herbert, Goldberg, Irene. Family Therapy, an Overview 4th edition.


Bowenian Family Therapy

Mastering Competencies in Family Therapy: A Practical Approach to Theory and Clinical Case Documentation As a counselor educator, I have found, "Mastering Competencies in Family Therapy," an essential tool that helps students, not only to understand the various family therapy approaches, but also to apply the approaches to to specific family situations. The book is especially helpful for pre-practicum and practicum preparations. Murray Bowen Dr Murray Bowen, a psychiatrist, developed the family systems theory starting in the mid s. After completing his medical training, and serving in the army, he worked at the National Institute of Mental Health NIMH where he conducted research with families of diagnosed schizophrenic patients. Later he moved to Georgetown University where he taught until his death in


Bowenian Family Systems Theory and Therapy

The idea is not to be emotionally detached or to become overly objective with little or no feelings, but rather for the individual to strive for balance by achieving their self-definition but not at the expense of losing their ability for spontaneous emotional expression; hence, there is a need for a balance of feelings and cognition. Differentiation is a process or a direction in life, not a goal to be achieved. The opposite of differentiation is fusion. A person who is fused within the family system is unable to differentiate their thoughts and their feelings and they are unable to differentiate themselves from others.


Bowenian family therapy



A Guide to Bowen Family Systems Therapy


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