“Humanity is decidedly a territorial species. Since the control of limited resources has been a matter of life and death through the millennia of evolutionary time, territorial aggression is widespread and reaction to it often murderous.” (E. O. Wilson 1998, 171)

“The human is a narcissistic creature who lives in the present and is more interested in his own square inch of real estate, and more devoted to fighting for his rights, than in the multigenerational meaning of life itself. Murray Bowen (Kerr and Bowen, 1988, 385)”

Material needs are limited, and, according to Paul Ehrlich, “there is little indication that, beyond a certain point, consuming more and more produces more satisfaction (Human Natures. 2000, 288).” Yet for some, the pursuit of material wealth appears to be almost unlimited, as does the use of aggression in that pursuit. What accounts for this mystery of human behavior? Knowledge of the emotional system may offer more clues than knowledge of economics.

From the perspective of the emotional system, territorial behavior is understood in terms of the two key variables: level of anxiety and level of differentiation. This discussion will explore, first, the relation between territory and anxiety; second, human territorial behavior on a societal level; and third, the relation between territory and differentiation of self.

Territory and anxiety

The potential for territorial concerns to generate anxiety becomes clear when one considers the importance of these concerns. The stakes are high, “a matter of life and death” as Wilson notes. Survival has depended on human labor, ingenuity, reciprocity and cooperation in the work of claiming, developing, occupying, and defending territory.
Along with knowledge and skills for surviving in the environment, humans have developed a sensitivity to anything that threatens security and a powerful set of defenses against those threats.

For humans, territory includes property and possessions which are valued not only for meeting material needs, but also for the symbolic and emotional meanings they hold. Emotional attachment to home and homeland runs deep. Identity and sense of security are rooted significantly in geography, the place where one was born, where one’s ancestors and family labored to build a way of life, and in the particular riches and beauties of this place. Property and possessions represent in part, one’s inheritance from the past, one’s personal accomplishments, and the legacy one will leave to the next generation.

Property and possessions figure importantly in one’s standing in the community. The display value of assets often exceeds the consumption value. The frequently observed association between wealth and power refers to the fact that material resources exert control over lives and relationships. Wealth translates into social status, and social status translates into access to opportunities for education, career, and marriage.

Sensitive to social status, individuals monitor their position continuously and automatically, comparing self with others. (Papero 1996) Deprivation, as sociologists have taught, is a relative thing. Sydney Reed writes, “Studies have determined that it is not absolute income that is important, but income relative to others in one’s community.” (“Social Responsibility: A Foundation for Public Health.” In Family Systems, Vol. 5, No. 1, 1999, 62) One may be relatively well off objectively but feel deprived subjectively.

Increased anxiety is expected when disparity and inequity within a society are widening. Many writers are describing a polarity between concentrated wealth and concentrated poverty in American society currently. Angela Glover Blackwell, Stewart Kwok, and Manuel Pastor (2002) define concentrated poverty as the complex disadvantage that develops through racial segregation and isolation of the poor. In addition to the long-recognized problems of higher crime rates, unemployment, low wages, deteriorated housing, and inadequate schools in the inner cities, these authors note that segregation and isolation limit the social networks that provide access to opportunity. As those who are able to succeed, move away, poor neighborhoods lose the class diversity, role models, and leadership that provides stability as well as connections to employment and other resources.

Concentrated wealth also creates an isolating effect as described by Conniff:

“Whether they want it or not, the dynamic of being rich inevitably sets people apart. It isolates them from the general population, the first step in an evolutionary process, and it inexorably causes them to become different. (2002, 24)”

The “privilege” of wealth holds costs in terms of energy devoted to maintenance and management of assets, concern about protection and security, focus on maintaining social status, dependence on an expensive lifestyle, and fear of losing it. Maya Angelou writes:

“Money and power can liberate only if they are used to do so. They can imprison and inhibit more finally than barred windows and iron chains. (1993, 66)”

Psychiatrist Peter Whybrow suggests that affluence itself is a growing source of anxiety in America. He calls this “a manic society,” caught in a frenetic chase to fulfill a craving for material things.

“The mix of technology, affluence, and competitive social challenge that we have created for ourselves is radically different from the natural world in which our species rose to dominance some two hundred thousand years ago. That radical difference in social habitat has fostered a craving and an acquisitive behavior in America that are now testing the limits of our ancestral biology-in mind and in body-and eroding the foundations of our community. In short, in our compulsive drive for more, we are making ourselves sick. (2005, 2)”

Territory and society

“All of the people who were, or who are, members of families replicate the same emotional patterns in society. Family and societal emotional forces function in reciprocal equilibrium to each other, each influencing the other and being influenced by the other. “(Bowen 1978, 438)

Dr. Bowen spent two decades collecting data on societal functioning before reaching a clear conceptualization of the parallels between emotional forces in the family and those in society. Natural systems thinking is epitomized in his understanding of the root causes of societal anxiety. Stating that “man is a territorial animal who reacts to being ‘hemmed in’ with the same basic patterns as lower forms of life,” Bowen identified four territory-related pressures that drive anxiety: population explosion, the disappearance of new habitable land, depletion of raw materials, and growing awareness of the limitations of earth’s capacity to support human life.

Like animals under crowded conditions, humans test the limits of their space, becoming more restless and mobile, and finally coming to live in “piles” of high density,“the large urban centers where the individual may become more alienated from his fellow man than before (Bowen 1978, 440).” Technology has made life more comfortable and has expanded opportunities for travel and communication. With these benefits comes anxious awareness of the Earth’s limitations. Looking at patterns of behavior in society, Bowen saw evidence of regression: more intense togetherness resulting in the discomforts of fusion, more reactive short-term problem solving and less long-term principle-based planning, more focus on rights and less on responsibility.

In the years since Bowen addressed the question of man’s disharmony with nature, the human species has continued, for the most part, on an anxiety-driven course. Clearly, humans remain subject to the age-old population-control mechanisms–poverty, disease, and war–while also beginning to realize that human life is impacting the home planet in destructive ways. Andrew Kimbrell summarizes the global picture:

“Recently, the public has been jolted by the revelation of a whole new genre of global environmental threats to the biosphere itself, almost unthinkable perils to life on earth–ozone depletion, global warming, species extinction, acid rain, desertification, and deforestation. And even as the world produces more food and wealth, hunger and poverty increase at an astounding rate. Now close to a billion people are starving every day with many more living in poverty. “ (2001, 42)

As the age of information brings people face-to-face with these realities, one of the emotional reactions has been to create new ways of distancing. A percentage of people live in what Kimbrell calls the “techno-cocoon,” surrounded by and absorbed in technologies that create the ultimate in psychic distancing.

“Techno-cocooning leads to huge segments of the population becoming “autistic” to the natural world. Non-human creation goes almost completely unnoticed. …Our circumscription by technology has also made us “autistic” to one another, markedly eroding our social lives in recent years.” (2001,44)

Territory and differentiation

As life’s territorial requirements are fertile ground for anxiety and emotional reactivity, so also are they fertile ground for differentiation of self.

Life’s first territorial lessons are learned in the family as children experience owning, using, and caring for belongings, develop the trading and sharing skills needed for life, and learn to set and respect boundaries. The learning takes place in an emotional climate of more or less chronic anxiety, and more or less focus on material things. Real or perceived threats to resources are expected to trigger anxiety which easily translates into relationship tension. How the family manages this anxiety is a key influence on the perspective that children develop in relation to territory.

An Irish proverb says: Wealth is family; family is wealth. At its best, the family is capable of creating a flexible and open emotional climate and quality of relationships marked by trust and cooperation. To the extent that this is achieved, the family provides a kind of “social capital.” The security of its members rests more in the strength and cohesiveness of relationships than in material assets. In a climate of reciprocal generosity, people become more creative in using and sharing resources. In biblical terms, it is the loaves-and-fishes phenomenon.

Differentiation of self is a lifelong process of movement toward increasing knowledge and ability to think on a complex level, toward a definition of personal values and principles, and toward responsible action. As defined by Bowen, differentiation requires balancing the force for togetherness with the force for individuality, balancing the emotional system with the intellectual system, and balancing self-interest with social responsibility. Michael Kerr has spoken of the responsible balance as “being for self without being selfish, being for others without being selfless.”

On a continuum, territorial behavior ranges from anxiety-driven and automatic to more thoughtful and principle-based. Observation of one’s own anxiety and thoughtful reflection provide the counterbalance to emotional reactivity. Questions for reflection include: what is “enough?” how much material wealth is sufficient for security for self and family? how much life energy am I willing to devote to focus on wealth? and for what purposes? how much life energy goes into comparing self with others?

An interesting example of one individual defining a position on territory and resources in terms of her values and goals is Virginia Woolf. To pursue intellectual freedom, poetry, and the writer’s vocation, she made a modest claim for five hundred pounds a year, and privacy: “a room of one’s own.” The concept of “room of one’s own” resonates with the concept of differentiation of self. Differentiation requires room to think, and perhaps to write, so that one can develop as a self-defined individual in a world where it is easy to be defined by others. Material things are essential, and yet material things can become significant obstacles.

Beyond the effort to be more clearly defined and responsible in one’s personal and family life is the opportunity to do the same on a societal level. As a worker, a consumer, and a citizen, one participates in the institutions that make up the social and economic world. One can examine the policies and practices of these institutions to determine whether or not they are consistent with the principles one holds. Differentiation of self is fulfilled when one carefully develops positions on issues and expresses these positions in words and personal conduct. In this way, any person so inclined can contribute to a more equitable territorial world.

Writing in 1973, Dr. Bowen saw differentiation of self on a societal level as a difficult process but essential for solving the environmental problem:

“If society functioned on a higher level, we would have a higher percentage of people-oriented to responsibility for self and others, and for the environment, and a lower percentage focused on rights and force and on legal mechanisms to guarantee rights. A more differentiated society could take the present environmental problem and find better solutions than will be possible in our present less differentiated state.” (1978, 449)


Angelou, Maya. 1993. Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now. New York: Random House
Bowen, Murray. 1978. Family Therapy in Clinical Practice. New York: Jason Aronson
Conniff, Richard. 2002. A Natural History of the Rich: A Field Guide. New York: W. W Norton
Ehrlich, Paul. 2000. Human Natures. New York: Penguin Putnam
Kerr, Michael and Murray Bowen. 1988. Family Evaluation. New York: W. W. Norton
Kimbrell, Andrew. 2001. “Confronting Evil.” Tikuun. 16:6:11, 42-45
Reed, Sydney. 1999. “Social Responsibility: A Foundation for Public Health.” Family Systems,
Whybrow, Peter C. 2005. American Mania. New York: W. W. Norton
Wilson, Edward O. 1998. Consilience. New York: Alfred Knopf