Bowen family systems theory was developed by Murray Bowen, M.D. in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, when he was a psychiatrist at the Menninger Clinic, in Topeka Kansas. After his time at Menninger’s, he moved to the National Institute of Mental Health, to Georgetown University Medical Center and finally established the Georgetown Family Center in Washington, D.C. (The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family).
Bowen family systems theory is based on the assumptions that the human is a product of evolution and that human behavior is significantly regulated by the same natural processes that regulate the behavior of all other living things. Dr. Bowen spent his life developing and testing his theory. He began by combining repeated clinical observations with the study of biology, the study of evolution, and all the natural sciences. Murray Bowen was a scholar, researcher, clinician, teacher, and writer. He worked tirelessly toward developing a science of human behavior, one that viewed man as part of all life.
From his early observations and research with a wide variety of clinical problems in both inpatient and outpatient settings, Dr. Bowen radically departed from previous theories of human emotional functioning by conceptualizing the family as one emotional unit and the individual as part of that unit rather than as an autonomous psychological entity. Dr. Bowen did not ignore the psychology of the individual but placed the individual’s functioning in the broader context of the family. Bowen family systems theory focuses primarily on relationships and how they shape individual behavior and functioning in family, work and social systems.
According to Michael Kerr, Director Emeritus of the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family:
“Over the course of many generations, every family produces people whose lives differ greatly in stability and productivity. Every multigenerational family has high functioning people, assorted black sheep, people at all levels on the socioeconomic scale, people with stable marriages and people who divorce, schizophrenic and alcoholic people, people who make unusual contributions to society, people who commit serious crimes, and people who die young from a variety of causes. It is the nature of families, regardless of race or culture, to produce such variability.
Bowen family systems theory describes processes that create this range of functioning or adaptation in the members of a multigenerational family. Families tend to change gradually from one generation to the next. This is because people’s lives are enormously affected by the functioning of those in the generations preceding them. The generational transfer of information that so shapes people’s lives occurs on many interconnected levels; for example, genes, intrauterine environment, ways individuals react to and behave towards one another, and communication of attitudes, values, and beliefs. Families transmit their behaviors almost as predictably as they transmit their genes.
Families change gradually from one generation to the next, but as generations pass, the differences in family lines grow marked. The differences develop as follows. An individual’s overall life functioning is linked closely to his level of emotional maturity or differentiation. People select marriage partners who have the same level of emotional maturity. Emotional immaturity manifests in unrealistic needs and expectations. Competing needs and expectations among family members, compounded by life’s inevitable stresses, generate anxiety. Family systems operate such that anxiety gets pushed off onto and “absorbed” by certain parts of the system; for example, parents may act out the anxiety in marital conflict, one parent may absorb the anxiety and become vulnerable to emotional, physical or social dysfunction, or parents may focus their anxieties on their children. In child focus, once child often inherits more of the parents’ immaturities or weaknesses and another child can inherit more of their strengths. Since the children choose mates of like maturity, as the processes repeat through the generations, mature and stable functioning builds in some family lines and immature and unstable functioning builds in others.
Family process is governed by an emotional system shaped by the long line of species that led to the evolution of Homos sapiens. Human beings also have an intellectual system that makes possible some objectivity about emotional functioning. Feelings are the subjective experience of some aspects of emotional system functioning. The ability to distinguish thoughts and feelings, and to act on thinking when important to do so, correlates with an individual’s “level” of differentiation. Therapy is a process of increasing one’s differentiation or ability to balance automatic reactivity and subjectivity with a factual view of oneself and others.” (Michael Kerr, M.D., 1997)
The goal of Bowen therapy is to understand and apply Bowen theory principles and concepts in order to develop more effective options for decreasing chronic anxiety, increasing more effective self management skills in relationship to important others, and increasing flexibility and resiliency to meet life’s challenges.