Bowenian family therapy

Family Therapy is an approach to counselling which looks at the problem a client is having as a symptom of dysfunction in the entire family. Family therapy believes that an individual is best understood within the context of his/her family relationships. It does not assign blame on either the individual or the family but attempts to change the faulty pattern in which the family members have been interacting.

Family counsellors look at the entire family as a system. A system is one in which the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Family therapy says that a family is a living system and change in one member causes changes in all the other parts of the family system. Family therapy has many different approaches and Bowenian Family Therapy is one of the most popular.

Bowen Family Systems Therapy was proposed by Murray Bowen, a psychiatrist working at the Menninger Clinic in the last 1940s. The basic tenet of this theory is that all human relationships are driven by two counterbalancing forces, individuality and togetherness, i.e, our contrasting needs for companionship and independence. These opposing forces often lead us through patterns of closeness and distancing from the people in our lives. The degree of success with which we reconcile these two forces depends on the ‘differentiation of self’. Bowen explains differentiation of self as ‘the capacity to think and reflect and not be reactive to internal or external emotional pressures.’

Bowen’s theory focuses on helping the clients get insight about their problems than on taking action to solve these problems in contrast to other family theories. Bowen stresses that our family of origin (the family we were born to) has a big influence on our ability to differentiate. Through his work with schizophrenics, Bowen discovered that there is a sensitive emotional bond between mother and child which causes them to react emotionally to one another. This bond or tie often influences the entire family. Such families hold on so strongly to all their members that many of them do not get any personal freedom. This reactiveness also led to a repetitive pattern of cycles of closeness and distance dependent on the shifts in emotional tension between the mother and child.

Bowen introduced eight interlocking concepts to explain family development and functioning, each of which is described below.

1.       Differentiation of Self-The first concept is Differentiation of Self, or the ability to separate feelings and thoughts. Undifferentiated people cannot separate feelings and thoughts and often have difficulty separating their own from other’s feelings. They look to their family to define how they think about issues, feel about people, and interpret their experiences. Differentiation is the process of freeing yourself from your family’s emotional processes to define yourself. This means being able to have different opinions and values than your family members, but being able to stay emotionally connected to them, being able to calmly reflect on a conflicted interaction afterward, realizing your own role in it, and then choosing a different response for the future. For example, Swapna might repeatedly fight with her mother, Kanchana, saying her mother is too critical of her while Kanchana says her daughter is too touchy. Swapna gets upset and the cycle repeats. She has not achieved differentiation.

2.       Triangles- Two people in a relationship might vacillate between closeness and distance. When distressed or feeling intense emotions, they will seek a third person to triangulate or ease the tension between them. For example:  Shilpa and Arun are a married couple who are constantly fighting. Arun calls his mother or best friend to talk about the fight. His mother might either help them reduce their anxiety and take action, or calm their strong emotions and reflect, or sometimes make the conflict permanent by becoming the third wheel in their relationship. People who are more undifferentiated are likely to triangulate others and be triangulated.

3.       The Nuclear Family Emotional Processes-These are the emotional patterns in a family that continue over the generations. In families, the parent can pass on an emotional view of the world (the emotional process), which is taught in each generation, from parent to child. Reactions to this process can range from open conflict, to physical or emotional problems in one family member, to reactive distancing. Problems with family members may include things like substance abuse, irresponsibility, depression etc. For example: Shridhar’s parents see their environment as hostile and always trying to make them suffer and Shridhar looks at the world the same way.

4.       The Family Projection Process-This is an extension of The Nuclear Family Emotional Process in many ways. The family member who “has” the “problem” is triangulated and serves to stabilize an unstable relationship between two people in the family. For example:  Bharath rejects his mother’s pessimistic views and finds that his mother and sister have become closer, as they agree that he is immature and irresponsible. The more they share this view with him, the more it makes him feel excluded and shapes how he sees himself. He may act in accord with this view and behave more and more irresponsibly. He may reject it, constantly trying to “prove” himself to be mature and responsible, but failing to gain his family’s approval because they do not attribute his successes to his own abilities.

The family member who serves as the “screen”(which is Bharath in this example) upon which the family “projects” this story will have great trouble differentiating. It will be hard for Bharath or his sister to hold their own opinions and values, maintain their emotional strength, and make their own choices freely despite the family’s view of them.

5.       The Multigenerational Transmission Process-This process entails the way family emotional processes are transferred and maintained over the generations. This captures how the whole family joins in The Family Projection Process, for example, by reinforcing the beliefs of the family. As the family continues this pattern over generations, they also refer back to previous generations Ex:”He’s just like his Uncle Bhushan – he was always irresponsible too.”

6.       Sibling Position-Bowen stressed sibling order, believing that each child had a place in the family hierarchy, and thus was more or less likely to fit some projections. The oldest sibling was more likely to be seen as overly responsible and mature and trying to dominate the younger sibling, and the youngest as overly irresponsible and immature or more open to experiences as he/she has had to find a place for himself/herself in the family after they were born.

7.       Emotional Cutoff-This refers to an extreme response to The Family Projection Process. This entails a complete or almost-complete separation from the family. The person will have little, if any, contact, and may look and feel completely independent from the family. However, people who cut off their family are more likely to repeat the emotional and behavioral patterns they were taught. In some cases, they have the same values and coping patterns in their adult family that they were taught in their childhood family without realizing it. They do not have another internal model for how families live, and so it is very hard to “do something different.” In other cases, they consciously attempt to be very different as parents and partners; however, they fail to realize the adaptive, healthy characteristics of their family and role models, as well as the compensatory roles played in a complex family. Because of this, Bowen believed that people tend to seek out partners who are at about the same level of differentiation. Ex: Ramya says ‘I am so glad I moved to the US and stopped keeping in touch with my parents. Now, they can never make me unhappy again’. Ramya  is cut off from her family emotionally and physically but not differentiated.

8.       Societal Emotional Processes-These processes are social expectations about racial and class groups, the behaviors for each gender, the nature of sexual orientation… and their effect on the family. Families that deal with prejudice, discrimination, and persecution must pass on to their children the ways they learned to survive these factors. The coping practices of the parents and extended family may lead to more or less adaptive emotional health for the family and its members.

Bowen believed that optimal family development occurs when family members are differentiated, feel little anxiety regarding the family, and maintain a rewarding and healthy emotional contact with each other.

If what you have read about Bowenian Family Therapy interests you and you would like to know more, we can help you. At TalkItOver, we also provide family counselling using different family therapy approaches including Bowenian Therapy. If you feel that this is the approach that will benefit you and your family, you can contact us at TalkItOver.

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About Sarayu Chandrashekar

Sarayu Chandrashekar is a qualified Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT). She has an M.S in Marriage and Family Therapy from Purdue University, USA, an M.S in Psychological Counselling from Montfort College, and a B.A in Psychology from Christ University, Bangalore. She has worked in a de-addiction centre and a family therapy clinic in the US as well as with the Association for the Mentally Challenged, Bangalore in the past. She has also completed a research study for her MFT degree on Indian couples living in the US and their marital satisfaction. She has nearly 1000 hours of counselling experience. She incorporates a combination of systemic family therapies and cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) in her work. She has a passion for couple and family therapy and group work.