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Bowen’s Family Systems Theory

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This adaptation of systems theory was coined by Dr. Murray Bowen and is referred to as Bowen’s Family Systems Theory. According to Murdock (2013), this particular adaptation of systems theory is considered one of the most reputable and well constructed compared to that of its counterparts. The author states that family systems theories can be utilized with individuals as well as with specific relationships within the family unit, however the majority of therapy is done with individual clients utilizing the context of the family unit. According to Murdock (2013), it is the family system therapist’s belief that the client can best be understood through the context of his entire family unit in that the therapist will examine the relationships within the family system. It is the family systems therapist’s belief that there is somewhat of a cyclical dominoes effect in family systems that are referred to as circular causality.

This term refers to the notion that influences on one subdivision of the family unit will inevitably influence other parts (Murdock, 2013). Although the entire family context is realized in the therapy room, the family member that is presenting the most challenges to the family system is labeled as the identified patient. Because of the notion that influences on one member of the family will inevitably have an effect on the rest of the family, it is not the comportment of the presenting challenge or issue that is analyzed; it is the process or the function of how things happen in the system that the individual is implored to address. According to Murdock (2013), “systems can be open or closed” (p. 409). An open system refers to the ease of fluidity in the relationships within the family system.

A closed system refers to the lack of fluidity in the relationships within the family system, which usually is exhibited by rigidity, and lack of assimilation within the ever-changing environment. According to the author, family systems theorists put emphasis on the concept of homeostasis within the family system. Family System’s theorists believe that families typically resist change and depend on the maintenance of sameness and familiarity within the family unit. It is believed that treatment must fully encompass the family as a whole because individual change will not last in a family due to the need to maintain homeostasis (Murdock, 2013).

Bowen’s Family Systems Theory Main Concepts
According to Murdock (2013), Bowen is commonly known for furthering the practice of systems theory by introducing two new schools of practice. First, he introduced the concept of family group therapy in that he began to experiment with hospitalizing the entire family unit who had an identified patient with schizophrenia. Second, he used himself as the client in his family unit and analyzed his system in order to exhibit his experience and his level of differentiation from his family of origin through his own theoretical lens. According to Murdock (2013), the main goal of BFST is to increase differentiation of self from the family origin. According to the author, differentiation of self is a process of balancing “togetherness and separateness” (Murdock, 2013, p. 442), over the lifespan. Each member in a family unit exhibits an individual level of differentiation. According to the author, it should be understood that differentiation is measured on a spectrum beginning with very low differentiation of self to very high differentiation of self.

Bowen’s family systems theorists believes that, in relationships, individuals should share a similar level of differentiation to each other and this is believed to be the case across generations which is referred to as the multigenerational transmission process (Murdock, 2013). According to Murdock, chronic Anxiety is conceptualized as dysfunction in Bowen’s Family Systems Theory and is defined as an individual’s response to perceived threats. According to Murdock (2013), an individual with a high level of differentiation will be likely to have a secure sense of self and an average level of chronic anxiety. K. Guerin and P.J. Guerin claimed that, an individual with a strong sense of self is “clear about where they end and where the others begin.

They are able to distinguish thought from feeling, and their behavior is guided by their own principles and cognitions rather than emotional factors (as cited in Murdock, 2013, p. 442). An individual who is highly differentiated is emotionally autonomous and is able to engage in a healthy, intimate relationship while preserving the secure sense of self. Alternatively, a person who is exhibiting signs such as reactivity, rigidity and responses based on emotion rather than cognition, are thought to be low on the spectrum of differentiation and are likely to endure acute anxiety (Murdock, 2013, p. 443). According to Murdock (2013), when an individuals emotions and thoughts are enmeshed and this lack of differentiation causes mal adaptive behaviors, the individual is considered to have a fused sense of self. A fused individual can also be identified as a low-differentiated individual. According to Murdock (2013), Bowen believes that sibling position and birth order within a family system’s present and past three generations is imperative to analyze in order to recognize patterns of differentiation and fusion within a family’s system.

Additionally, the author states that Bowen believes that triangulation is, “the basic unit of human interaction” ((Murdock, 2013, p. 444). By its theoretical definition, triangular relationships occur between three individuals within a family system whereas two of the individuals are the in-group and the third is the out-group. According to Murdock (2013), triangulation occurs when anxiety levels increase between the three individuals and one of the individuals in the in-group fuses with the member in the out-group. Usually, the individuals in triangulation are comfortable in their state of homeostasis no matter how dysfunctional it is and this is due their lack of differentiation from the family of origin. Undoubtedly, this resistance and lack of momentum to change renders a challenge for individuals to work towards differentiation and de-triangulation.

According to the author, individuals utilize a defense mechanism in order to protect themselves and this is called emotional cutoff. This mechanism can be utilized unconsciously in a low-differentiated individual and can be utilized consciously in a differentiated individual. Emotional cutoff refers to a person’s tendency to distance themselves from presenting challenges within familial relationships. Finally, according to the author, there are four targeted pattern areas of challenges within relationships; the patterns that a family systems theorist scans for are relational challenges within the couple’s dyad, relational challenges within the parental dyad, relational challenges in a child due to triangulation and relational challenges due to emotional proximity. Therapeutic Tasks and Goals in Bowen’s Family Systems Theory

As mentioned previously, the main goals in Bowen’s Family Systems Theory are encompassing the concept of differentiation of self from the individual’s family of origin. In addition, it is the therapist’s goal to coach individuals through detriangulation and reduction of anxiety. According to Murdock (2013), the role of therapy is to support the individual in relieving their anxiety level. In doing so, this will increase differentiation leading to a more functional relationship pattern. Additionally, there are formal and informal assessments involved in the process of achieving therapeutic goals. Formal assessments include the use of a genogram; a genogram is the primary formal assessment modality and can be compared to what looks like a family tree and exemplifies symbolic representations of the relationships and their pathologies over three generations (Murdock, 2013, pg. 447). An example of informal assessments includes questioning; questioning is utilized in order to determine where the conflicts in the relationships preside.

According to Murdock, techniques are far and few between in this theoretical orientation of family systems. However, some techniques utilized in Bowen’s Family Systems Theory include the use of insight, homework, process questioning and utilizing the I-position. Homework is given to the individual by the therapist and usually requires the individual to be a better observer of their family of origin and rearrange their emotional reactions. Due to the primary focus of identifying challenges presented by the family of origin and the ultimate desire of working towards betterment within the family system, this form of therapy is applied to the individuals over a long duration of time. Finally, I-position statements are directive statements made by one individual to another that are not offensive or defensive (Murdock, 2013, p. 450).

Therapeutic Implications in Bowen’s Family Systems Theory According to Murdock (2013), family systems therapists believe that it is the client in therapy that dictates differentiation from their family of origin and therefore the therapist simply supports under the pretenses of coaching the client through this process. Ultimately, during treatment with an individual, a goal for the therapist is to remain detriangled from the individuals in the family unit and therefore must address facts versus feelings, “and practice a calm tone” (Murdock 2013, p 448). If a therapist becomes triangled within the family system, the therapist must find a way to free him or herself.

Due to the dynamic of family systems therapy, the therapeutic alliance must be maintained through strict boundaries; a client’s attempts to elicit direct guidance from the therapist, such as emotional support and approval, will be redirected by the therapist (Murdock, 2013, p. 448). This particular theoretical adaptation would serve the majority of the population beneficially, however unless the family systems therapist is striving towards cultural competence, this theory could be offensive if cultural awareness is not shown towards non-Caucasian, non-euro-centric family constructions. This theory must be modified and accommodated depending on the cultural and sexual orientation of the participating individuals.


Murdock, N. (2013). Family Systems Theory. In Theories of Counseling and Psychotherapy (Third ed., pp. 406-459). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.

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