New Developments and Applications of Bowen Theory

from 1990-Present

Five important developments in Bowen theory and its applications have occurred since Dr. Bowen died in October 1990

  • Chronic anxiety is one of the two central variables in Bowen theory. Recent decades of stress research now prove the mind-body connection. What transpires in human interactions can regulate the activity of our cells (chronic inflammation). Chronic inflammation is now recognized as a key component in a wide range of disease processes, resulting in a wide range of physical and mental problems. Bowen theory can guide the research on the interplay between social context (i.e., the family) and the functioning of the individual. Bowen theory posits that symptom-promoting chronic anxiety within an individual can be a manifestation of chronic anxiety playing out in the family system and other systems that affect the family.
  • Differentiation of self is the second central variable in Bowen theory. There is currently more knowledge about the process of differentiation of self from a large and slowly growing network of clinicians and non-clinicians applying Bowen theory to their personal and professional lives. Bowen theory posits that emotional objectivity is possible by letting go of “cause-and-effect thinking” and utilizing systems thinking about human emotional functioning and behavior. Systems thinking is the “lens” that has rendered increased emotional objectivity attainable. By letting go of cause-and-effect thinking, the precise patterns of family interactions become visible. A science of human behavior based on observable facts of human emotional functioning is now within reach. The neutrality of systems thinking allows a new way of thinking and an associated new way of acting that is differentiation of self.
  • The concept of societal emotional process was added to Bowen theory in 1976. Just as a family can recognize that it is in a chronic anxiety-driven regression, Bowen saw compelling evidence for regression at the societal level. Bowen speculated that the anxiety triggering societal regression was related to three factors; (1) overpopulation, (2) climate change and depletion of natural resources, and (3) a growing sense of nowhere to run, nowhere to hide from the events that are unfolding. Enlightened and effective leadership (more differentiated leadership) on the individual, family and societal level can enhance the coordination and cooperation needed to address the serious threats to our survival as a species.
  • The work of evolutionary biologists (E.O. Wilson, describes the “selfish” vs “altruistic” dichotomy. Dr. Kerr connect evolutionary biology’s idea with Bowen theory’s conceptualization of the counterbalancing life forces of “individuality“ and “togetherness”. Bowen theory added the concept of “variation” in levels of emotional functioning; a scale of differentiation of self. People fall on the less or more differentiated end of the continuum (scale) of functioning. People on the more differentiated end of the continuum can manage with enhanced productivity, cohesiveness, and cooperation. People on the less differentiated end of the continuum mange less adaptively, less flexibly with heightened vulnerability to conflict, polarization, distance, and escalations of symptom-generating chronic anxiety. The differentiation of self process increases the ability for people to manage more effectively the conflicting vectors of individuality and togetherness.
  • Kerr’s introduction of the unidisease concept – the idea that a wide range of diseases have a number of physiological processes in common. Bowen theory currently describes the common denominators in family systems that lead to physical, psychological, and social dysfunctions emerging. Dr. Kerr emphasizes the importance and the potential usefulness of family therapy in the treatment of many symptoms. He posits that changes in a family relationship system over time can better explain the clinical courser of a chronic illness than the diagnosis itself. The unidiease concept could change the current culture of medicine by promoting a solid rationale for intervening at a psychological level that could then encourage patients and their families to accept a family systems approach more readily to all medical symptoms.
Important “non-developments” in Bowen theory today
  • Applying systems thinking to human emotional functioning and behavior has not penetrated the public consciousness.
  • Cause-and-effect (individual thinking) remains dominant today.
  • In the 1960s, support for the development of family research and therapy (biopsychosocial model) evaporated with the meteoric rise of the biological paradigm in psychiatry with the use of psychotropic medications.
  • Societal emotional process in an anxiety-driven emotional regression began to surface during the 1960s and has accelerated since.
  • Explanations for these troubled times rarely include emotional process.
  • Leaders at all levels of society (individual, family, and society) continue to abandon principle and focus on the feelings of the moment and thinking is becoming more and more embedded in cause-and-effect.
  • Despite systems thinking beginning to surface more and more in the sciences, the observational blindness of human beings blocks a broader perspective on what is unfolding in the social or relationship context.

When Bowen theory finally enters the public consciousness – it could be a century from now or it could be less- and human beings come to understand and truly accept how little emotional autonomy we have, both in in mind and body, it will have a constructive impact on human interactions. I believe this because of my observations of slightly increasing one’s basic level of differentiation at a personal level. The objectivity and neutrality that flow from applying systems thinking to human behavior facilitates people living more in harmony with one another and with the natural world.” (Kerr, 2019 pg. 353-354)