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Chapter 13. Bowen Family Systems Therapy. Bowen Family Therapy. A relatively recent approach to counseling. Grew out of the need and necessity to help families adjust and readjust to life after the upheaval and unsettling events of WWII.

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Chapter 13

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Chapter 13

Chapter 13

Bowen Family Systems Therapy

Bowen family therapy

Bowen Family Therapy

  • A relatively recent approach to counseling.

  • Grew out of the need and necessity to help families adjust and readjust to life after the upheaval and unsettling events of WWII.

  • Considered very radical at the time because most models dealt with how an entire family operates.

Murray bowen

Murray Bowen

  • A psychiatrist who became interested in working families while employed at the Menninger Clinic.

  • As early as 1951, he began to require that mothers of disturbed children live in the same hospital setting as their offspring.

  • He recognized that the characteristics exhibited by a schizophrenic family were similar to symptoms in many dysfunctional families.

  • Viewed the family as a “natural system” that could only be fully understood “in terms of the fluid but predictable processes between members” (Wylie, 1991).

View of human nature personality

View of Human Nature/Personality

  • Individuals are likely to repeat behaviors handed down through generations unless examined and rectified.

  • A key element is that there is a “chronic anxiety in all of life that comes with the territory of living” (Friedman, 1991).

  • If anxiety remains low, few problems exist for people or for families.

Eight basic concepts bowen 1978 kerr 1981

Eight Basic Concepts(Bowen, 1978; Kerr, 1981)

  • Eight concepts to address chronic anxiety:

    • Differentiation

    • Emotional System

    • Multigenerational Transmission Process

    • Nuclear Family Emotional System

    • Family Projection Process

    • Triangles

    • Sibling Position

    • Societal Regression



The ability of persons to distinguish themselves from their family of origin on an emotional and intellectual level.

Factors that affect differentiation

Factors That Affect Differentiation

  • Emotional Reactivity

  • Emotional Cutoff

  • Fusion with Others

  • The ability to take an “I-position”

Multigenerational process

Multigenerational Process

Passing on coping strategies and patterns of coping with stress from one generation to the next.

Nuclear family emotional system

Nuclear Family Emotional System

Evolves in marriage when people tend to select partners at their own level of differentiation.



  • Can occur between people or between people and things.

  • The basic building block of any emotional system.

  • The smallest stable relationship system.

  • The original triangle is between a child and parents.

  • Some are healthy – others are not.

Sibling position

Sibling Position

People can develop fixed personality characteristics based on their functional birth order in the family.

Societal regression

Societal Regression

If a society is under too much stress (e.g., population growth, economic decline), society as a whole will regress due to the toxic forces countering the tendency to achieve differentiation.

Manifestations of anxiety

Manifestations of Anxiety

  • Marital conflict

  • Physical or emotional illness in one spouse.

  • Projection of the problem to the children.

  • A combination of the previous three.

Roles of the counselor

Roles of the Counselor

  • Differentiation of the counselor is crucial.

  • Must maintain a calm presence.

  • Objectivity and neutrality are essential.

  • Should not encourage people to wallow in emotionalism and confusion, but teach them to transcend it by setting examples as reasonable, neutral, self-controlled adults.



  • Focuses on promotion of differentiation.

  • Separate feelings from intellect and in the process detriangulate.

  • Understand intergenerational patterns.

  • Clear up fusion and unconscious relationship patterns.

  • Greater self-differentiation patterns among family members.

Process and techniques

Process and Techniques

  • The chief focus where change is emphasized is the individual or couple … the family is usually not seen.

  • Individuals are targeted for treatment even though emphasis in this approach is systemic.

  • The approach is not technique-oriented.

  • Therapy is process-oriented with techniques when needed.

  • Homework assignments are given.

Common techniques

Common Techniques

  • Genograms – a visual representation of a person’s family tree depicted in geometric figures, lines, and words.

  • Going Home Again – the therapist asks the client or family members to return home to better get to know their family of origin.

  • Detriangulation – “the process of being in contact and emotionally separate” (Kerr, 1988).

  • Person-to-Person Relationships – two family members “relate personally to each other about each other” (Piercy & Sprenkle, 1986).

Common techniques1

Common Techniques

  • Differentiation of Self – “the degree to which a person is able to distinguish between the subjective feeling process and the more objective intellectual process” (Gibson & Donigian, 1993).

  • Asking Questions – learn to understand the reactions of family disturbances and major events/crises on those in the family.

Multicultural and gender sensitive issues

Multicultural and Gender-Sensitive Issues

  • Flexible applications, but limited applicability to different cultures.

  • Genograms can be multicultural in nature.

  • Somewhat controversial in regard to gender-specific issues.

Strengths and contributions

Strengths and Contributions

  • Calls attention to family history…can notice and deal with past patterns and behaviors.

  • Well-established and heuristically appealing approach.

  • Bowen’s theory and therapy are extensive, complex, and intertwined.

  • Bowen was insightful and detailed in suggesting the course of working with families.

  • Systemic in nature, controlled in focus and cognitive in practice.

Limitations and criticisms

Limitations and Criticisms

  • Criticized for its failure to support the intergenerational hypothesis.

  • Encourages some to examine their history rather than deal immediately with present circumstances.

  • The theory underlying the approach is its own paradigm. Thus, research is a challenging task.

  • Bowen’s writings are criticized for their complex and convoluted nature.

The case of linda bowen family systems therapy

The Case of Linda: Bowen Family Systems Therapy

  • How would you conceptualize this case using Bowen family systems therapy?

  • What would be your treatment plan for this client using a Bowenian approach?

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