Bowen Theory: History and Concepts


History of the development of Bowen theory and some of its key concepts.

  • Bowen family systems theory was developed by psychiatrist Murray Bowen in the late 1940’s and early 1950s. It was first published in 1966.
  • It is based on research Bowen conducted at the Menninger Clinic, the National Institute of Mental Health, the Georgetown University Medical Center, and the Georgetown University Family Center in Washington, D.C. Subsequent to his death in 1990, the faulty of the Center changed its name to the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family.
  • Bowen’s family research project at the NIMH was able to have whole families living on the research ward for extended periods. With this unique opportunity, Bowen and his staff conducted extensive observational research on family interactions.
  • Perhaps most importantly, Bowen recognized that cause and effect thinking is inadequate for studying complex living systems like families. Natural systems thinking is essential for adequately describing relationship interactions.
  • Bowen theory is based on the assumptions that the human is a product of evolution and human behavior is significantly regulated by the same natural processes that govern all living things.
  • The theory radically departs all from previous theories of human behavior by conceptualizing the family as an emotional unit. Individuals are more strongly regulated by the unit than being autonomous psychological entities.
  • Bowen theory explains why every human family in every human culture produces members whose lives differ greatly in stability and productivity.
  • It is easily observed that every multigenerational family, when viewed over a number of generations, has high functioning people, assorted black sheep, people at all levels of the socioeconomic scale, people with stable marriages, people who divorce, schizophrenic and alcoholic members, people who make unusual contributions to society, ones who commit serious crimes, and people who die young from a variety of causes. It is the nature of families, regardless of race, culture, or socioeconomic status, to produce such variability. Bowen theory offers a credible explanation of how this happens.
  • People’s lives, like it or not, are enormously affected by those in the generations that precede them. The generational transmission of information that so shapes people’s lives—for better and for worse—occurs on many interconnected levels; for example, genes, intrauterine environment, ways individuals react to and behave with one another, and the communication (through actions more than verbiage) of attitudes, values, and beliefs. Families to one degree or another transfer their behaviors almost as predictably as they transmit their genes.
  • Perhaps the most useful concept in Bowen theory is that an individual’s overall life functioning reflects his/her level of emotional maturity or what Bowen theory terms level of differentiation.
  • People gravitate to marriage partners who match their level of emotional maturity or differentiation, often a bitter pill for people to swallow. Emotional immaturity manifests, in among other things, unrealistic needs for behaviors and responses from others, and unrealistic expectations of oneself and others.
  • Competing needs and expectations—compounded by life’s inevitable stresses—generate chronic anxiety. Family systems operate such that anxiety gets pushed off onto and “absorbed” in different parts of the family system. For example, parents may act out the anxiety in marital conflict. Another pattern is for one parent to be disproportionately adaptive thereby unwittingly rendering the adapting parent vulnerable to mental, physical, or social dysfunction. The vulnerability is usually powered by feelings of isolation or and inadequate control of one’s own functioning.
  • Parents may unwittingly focus their anxieties and weaknesses on one or more of their children. This contributes to some variation in the maturity developed in the siblings. Another way to express it is that one child, the most anxiously focused on offspring, tends to inherit parental weaknesses and a less anxiously focused on child tends to inherit more parental strengths.
  • Since the grownup children predictably choose mates at their level of maturity, the more mature siblings tend to have more mature offspring than their less mature siblings. This concept explains the variations in maturity levels in every multigenerational family
  • Family process is anchored in an emotional system that has been shaped by a long line of species that led to the evolution of Homo sapiens. Human beings also have evolved an intellectual system that has the potential to gain emotional objectivity about human interactions. An evolved feeling system links the emotional and intellectual systems and provides a subjective awareness of emotional system reactivity. Sometimes feeling reactions driven by intense emotional reactions flood the intellectual system, thus dictating behavior. Ideally, the intellectually and feeling systems function as a working team, both providing information that guides behavior. An individual’s ability to distinguish between thoughts and feelings, when that is important to do, correlates with a person’s degree of differentiation.
  • Family psychotherapy is a process of increasing one’s differentiation or ability to balance automatic reactivity and associated subjectivity with a more factual view of oneself and others.
  • A family psychotherapist guided by Bowen theory tries to help family members understand and apply Bowen theory principles and concepts to develop more effective options for decreasing chronic anxiety in oneself and, consequently, others.
  • Murray Bowen observed that in a team of horses, one horse takes the first step and the others follow. Ideally, it does not have to be the same horse every time.
  • Bowen theory is ridiculously simple if people can compare their preexisting assumptions that have dictated their interactions with others with a different way of thinking. It does not happen overnight, but it’s doable.
  • Mental health professionals from all over the world have trained at the Bowen Center, and many of them have established similar Centers across the United States other countries. The centers conduct training programs, do family research, sponsor conferences, and publish books and papers to inform interested people about new developments in theory and therapy.