Bowen family systems therapy
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BOWEN FAMILY SYSTEMS THERAPY. SANDRA MALOUGH CYNTHIA LOPEZ. LEADING THERAPIST. Murray Bowen Oldest of 5 children Medical doctor Hospitalized entire families with schizophrenic member 1975 founded the Georgetown Family Center. Overview.

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  • Murray Bowen

    • Oldest of 5 children

    • Medical doctor

    • Hospitalized entire families with schizophrenic member

    • 1975 founded the Georgetown Family Center

Overview l.jpg

  • Family = an emotional unit (network of interlocking relationships)

    • Etiology of an individual’s dysfunction

    • Families are tied in thinking, feeling, and behavior

  • Trying to take the intuitiveness out of therapy by having an objective theory

  • Multigenerational trends

  • 8 key concepts

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8 Key Concepts cont.

  • Differentiation of self

    • Occurs when an individual is able to distinguish between intellectual processes and the feeling process he or she is experiencing

    • Greater fusion between individuals, poorer functioning

      • Can’t differentiate b/w thoughts and feelings

      • Have trouble differentiating themselves from others

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Differentiation of self cont.

  • Undifferentiated family ego mass

    • “a conglomerate emotional oneness”

      • In other words, an emotionally “stuck together” family

      • Can be so intense family members know each others feelings, thoughts, dreams, and fantasies.

    • Originally characterized in psychoanalytic terms

      • Later referred to as fusion-differentiation

      • Amount of fusion-differentiation changes

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Differentiation of self scale

  • Fusion

  • Lowest levels

    • Emotionally fused to the family

    • Feelings dominate

  • Differentiation of self

  • Highest levels

    • Separate thinking from feelings

    • Over 60 is a small % of society

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8 Key Concepts

  • Triangles

    • Smallest stable relationship system

    • A major influence on the activity of a triangle is anxiety

      • More anxiety = more distance, or closeness

      • Less anxiety = comfortable back and forth discussion of feelings

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8 Key Concepts cont.

  • Nuclear family emotional system

  • Lack of differentiation > emotional cutoff > fusion in marriage

  • Unstable fusion in marriage tends to produce

    • Dysfunction in a spouse

    • Marital conflict

    • Projection to one or more children

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8 Key Concepts cont.

  • Family projection process

    • Parents transmit their lack of differentiation to their children

    • Intensity of this process is related to:

      • Degree of immaturity/undifferentiation of parents

      • Level of stress/anxiety the family experiences

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8 Key Concepts cont.

  • Multigenerational transmission process

    • Transmission of anxiety from generation to generation

    • Patterns, themes and roles are passed through generations

    • Less anxiety focused on children = more likely they’ll grow up w/ greater differentiation

    • Child most involved in family’s fusion has lower differentiation

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8 Key Concepts cont.

  • Emotional cutoff

    • A way to manage intense fusion & anxiety

    • Distance ourselves physically and emotionally

    • Escape

    • Greater fusion = greater cutoff

    • The pattern remains unchanged

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8 Key Concepts cont.

  • Sibling position

    • Provides info. about roles people take in relationships

    • People in same sibling positions tend to share characteristics

    • Sibling roles are complementary

    • Reflected in later relationships

    • Influences triangulation with siblings & parents

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8 Key Concepts cont.

  • Societal emotional process

    • How families deal with social expectations of things like gender, race, class, sexism, etc.

    • Coping strategies are passed through generations

    • Those with higher differentiation deal better

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  • Do not act as problem solver

  • Coach clients to understand process & structure

  • Encourage expanding familial ties

  • Asks questions

  • Neutral parts of triangles

    • Best if therapist observes from partially outside the family

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  • Decrease anxiety, increase self-focus

  • De-triangulation

  • Balance fusion and differentiation

  • Understanding, not action

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  • Assessment

    • Genograms

  • Process questions

  • Relationship experiments

  • De-triangulation

  • Coaching

  • Taking “I-positions”

  • Displacement stories

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  • Nichols, N. P., & Schartz, R. C. (2008). Bowen family systems therapy. In Family therapy: Concepts and methods (8th ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

  • Bowenian family therapy. (2008) Based in part on Nichols, N. P., & Schartz, R. C. Family therapy: Concepts and methods. Boston: Allyn and Bacon. Retrieved from

  • Bowen Center for the Study of the Family. (2009). Bowen family therapy. Retrieved from

  • Brown, J. (1999). Bowen family systems theory and practice: Illustration and critique [Electronic version]. Journal of Family Therapy, 20, 94-103.4

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  • Read each scenario and form an analysis using the 8 key concepts

    Taken from