C. Margaret Hall

Chapter 9




The Bowen family theory abstracts principles of emotional behavior from many kinds of observations of families and society.  This process distills and condenses a multitude of unique and specific manifestations of human interaction into a series of more generally applicable core ideas or concepts.  The Bowen theory is based on the assumption that there are some natural laws and some degree of order in the universe.  Predictions related to these laws are thought to be possible when some qualities of the interrelatedness of emotional phenomena are defined.  Any single concept merely suggests the substantive consequences of limited aspects of human behavior.  Only by viewing human beings from the perspective of an entire emotional system or from the point of view of the whole network of dependencies can predictions about behavior be made.


The initial conceptualization and subsequent synthesis of concepts of the Bowen theory have been evolving for twenty-five years.  During this time, there has been a long and continuing phase of inductive inquiry into the nature of patterns of emotional behavior and dependency.  The theory emerged through the formulation and reformulation of hypotheses to correspond with the range of facts observed and recorded.


Unlike many scientific theories or theoretical propositions, the Bowen theory does not offer a causative explanation of emotional interdependencies within families and other social groups.  Although prediction is an element of the Bowen theory, the postulation of a simple, dualistic cause-effect relationship between sequentially related phenomena is contrary to the Bowen systems thinking.  Bowen describes and defines the complex patterns of interrelatedness in emotional systems for predictive purposes.  No answer to the philosophical question of why phenomena are related is attempted with these goals of inquiry and investigation.


The relative accuracy of a fairly wide range of predictions of behavior at different levels of probability indicates the versatility of the Bowen theorys applications and implications.  Hypotheses generated by the Bowen theory can be verified by checking the accuracy of the predictions made.  Research applications may be operationalized in experimental settings, in clinical practice, or in ones own family.  In clinical practice and in ones own family, changes can be observed more clearly over extended periods of time.  When emotional relationships are examined in detail by systematic longitudinal research methods, the Bowen theorys capacity to predict behavior may be verified more rigorously.


The continual formulation and reformulation of hypotheses about emotional behavior in families has disciplined the researchers ability to make objective observations.  Common denominators in the behavior patterns of many families are combined to form the basis of the conceptualization and theoretical refinement of family systems principles and propositions.


Although the Bowen concepts contain many meaning elements that have already been explored and defined by family researchers, it is the particular "mix" and interrelatedness of Bowens concepts that make his theory unique.  Rather than emphasize the intrapsychic  processes of individual family members in isolation from each other, the Bowen theory highlights the many nuances of the emotional dependencies in a family and the degree of responsiveness and reactiveness family members have toward each other.  Such a frame of reference is unconventional, and it serves to identify the specific interdependencies that are most critical in creating "problems" and "patients" in a family.  The new definition of family problems necessitates a series of innovative research strategies and clinical goals.


The Bowen Theory as a Scientific Theory


Although the Bowen theory claims to be scientific, it departs from the traditions of science in critical ways.  The Bowen systems perspective is simultaneously compatible with science and distinctively different from conventional scientific theory.


The development of science has led to an increased consideration of apparently trivial and curious aspects of human interaction as clues and indicators of some of the most basic principles of behavior.  In addition to being an achievement of the human mind, science provides a means of testing theories.


Although both science and philosophy aim to understand the world, the approaches of the two disciplines are in many way diametrically opposed to each other.  Whereas science begins with a detailed examination of particulars and moves to more general ideas, philosophy begins with the general and tries to explain the particular.  Science is a logical thought system, which may be perceived as a broadly based "pyramid resting on a multitude of observed facts.


The validity and reliability of science depends on its component concepts.  The concepts are more fundamental than the theories that are stated in terms of concepts.  Concepts, rather than theories, influence the questions asked by researchers and the answers found. Concepts represent the nature of the universe selectively and do not reflect the totality of minute details.  A concept is an approximation of reality, even in cases where definitions appear precise.  Each concept of the Bowen theory is subject to these kinds of limitations.


Another property of a concept is that is has a power of growth beyond the original observations or experiments that suggested it.  More than twenty years have been needed for the present stage of development of such family systems concepts as differentiations of self, although the rudimentary ideas of the latter had been crudely formulated previously.  Articulation of a precise conceptual refinement of differentiation of self will take many more years, as will the substantiation or refutation of its usefulness for understanding the many complexities of family behavior.


A theory is a statement of relations between concepts.  A theory is more likely to be disproved that proved, as it is not logically possible to test the whole range of experiments or possibilities that a theory could cover.  Also, as experiments cannot be replicated exactly, it cannot be maintained that identical experiments give identical results.


In spite of such limitations, a theory can make certain kinds of predictions.  Predictions, at different levels of probability, can indicate what will occur under specific conditions.  These conditions either may be artificially produced in a laboratory or they may exist in natural environments.  If the predicted events are not observed, the theory may eventually be disproved and consequently abandoned or altered.  If predictions are fulfilled in repeated instances over a varied range of phenomena, the theory is accepted and ultimately becomes a "law.  The law of gravity is an example of this kind of scientific development (Thomson 1961). 


Science is invaluable in two principal ways.  First, science makes it possible to be forewarned or certain events, enabling the avoidance of more serious and threatening consequences.  Second, possession of scientific knowledge about the universe relieves us of a world of fears, rages, and other unpleasant dissipations of energy.  However, human relations are not yet generally accepted as proper subjects for serious scientific study (Lundberg 1947).  It has taken many centuries for people to begin to apply the scientific systems thinking of astronomy to human phenomena.  The Bowen theory is an attempt to make such connections and applications.  Through applications of the Bowen systems theory, people may be forewarned and protected from crises in relationship systems and from the more impairing day-to-day patterns of interaction.


The confirmation of a theoretical proposition of hypothesis is a complex and tedious enterprise.  Since the process of proof is so long and life is so short, research efforts must be devoted to hypotheses that are strategic.  It may be easier to test systems of propositions, such as the Bowen family theory, rather than single propositions (Zetterberg, 1965).


To test the potential or capacity of a scientific theory, a researcher must evaluate whether the theory provides the most concise summary of actual or anticipated research findings.  A theory may also be used to coordinate research, so that many separate findings can be consolidated.  To be able to use theory and method accurately is to have become a self-conscious thinker who is aware of the assumptions and implications of many kinds of behavior (Mills 1959).  The family systems theory evolved from Bowens attempts to synthesize the evidence of emotional systems.  The control of future research efforts on emotional systems can be enhanced by continuing this process of crystallization (Zetterburg, 1965).


Delineation of Problems


Only when the interrelationship and interdependency of Bowens eight working concepts are understood, can the systematic nature of a family and its problems be described accurately.  Knowledge of the interlocking nature of these concepts and factual manifestations of the concepts

interdependency generally demands a reidentification of a "presented family problem in system terms.  A systems delineation of a family problem tends to nullify prior definitions made in intraphysic or other conventional terms.  For example, a problem previously thought to be caused by an individual family members temperament might be reconceptualized as a product of the network of emotional relationships and interdependencies in the entire family.


The Bowen family theory focuses primarily on the quality of emotional relationships and processes in a family. The intensity or rigidity of a family emotional system is viewed as being more problematic for all family members than are particular personality traits of an individual family member.  From a systems perspective, behavior symptoms are generally conceptualized as over reactive responses to other family members or to shifts in the patterns of interdependency in a family.  For example, symptoms of individual or relationship dysfunctions may follow the death of  a significant family member or may appear as a consequence of cut-offs in meaningful contact between emotionally significant family members.


The description of a family problem as an integral part of an emotional system leads to a reevaluation of what may have been previously defined as "causes or "effects by diagnostic procedures.


A conceptualization of families as emotional systems necessitates using a multigenerational model for describing significance of conditions or events immediately prior to an immediately following an observed irregularity or problem in a family is generally overstated by arbitrarily labeling these conditions or events as causes and effects.  A central purpose of systems thinking is to delineate a much longer and more comprehensive sequence of events or series of chain reactions that come into play in a consistent manner before and throughout the course of development of a family problem.  The process of describing or delineating a family problem in systems terms questions the perceptions of the problem of all family members.


Viewing behavior symptoms as products of a family system is an initial stage in being able to predict interaction in these relationships.  Systems thinking necessarily includes conscious attempts to avoid evaluating or diagnosing a family, as these processes tend to perpetuate the symptomatic relationships that already exist in a family.  Any identification of members as "patients reinforces impairing patterns of behavior in a family and endorses the false assumptions and distorted perceptions of those who are most involved in "the problem.


Conceptualization of Problems


Although families are not clinically diagnosed in system thinking, essential distinguishing characteristics and patterns of behavior are recorded as accurately as possible.  Effective working hypotheses in a clinical setting include the immediate goal of alleviation of symptoms, as well as the long-term goal of differentiation of self.  To formulate specific hypotheses and clinical applications of the Bowen theory, all eight basic concepts must be utilized.  An overemphasis on a single concept or an omission of a concept distorts the data collected and introduces a bias to subsequent predictions of behavior.


When details of extended family characteristics are viewed in relation to a given nuclear family, the nuclear family can be described much more objectively and accurately.  An examination of any one part of a family in isolation from the broader relationship system distorts observation of the viable emotional network.  For example, family projection in a nuclear unit can be described more accurately when the projection is viewed in relation to the patterns of the multigenerational transmission of which it is a part.  Another example that illustrates the necessity of conceptualizing emotional processes in the context of the entire relationship system is the degree of association between differentiation of self and sibling position.  Differentiation can be described more accurately if a person is viewed as operating from a specific sibling position that also accounts for the sibling positions of the parents and grandparents of that person.


The global network of the constantly shifting patterns of emotional forces is ultimately the "problem in any family.  To adequately conceptualize this diffuse and defocused problem area, objective observations of many complex and diverse dimensions of a family system must be made.  Only after this kind of data has been collected can effective choices of specific research, action strategies, and operational directives be made.


Strategies and Operational Directives


Productive strategies and operational directives for changing an individual position in a family can only be formulated in relation to a consistent and integrated theory.  If plans to change one's posture and actions in a family are to surpass a superficial level of assembled techniques, they must be based on interlocking and interrelated concepts.


Some of the difficulties involved in creating an effective plan for changing one's level of participation in a family are precipitated by the side effects and shock wave phenomena that follow unexpected moves or shifts in a family relationship system.  The loss of a significant person in a family, such as the death of a mother of young children, would have a strong impact on a family emotional system that shock wave symptoms following the death may be apparent for a considerable period of time.  The variety of side effects in this period of adjustment could impede attempts to observe the usual patterns of behavior in the family or one's plans to change position in the family.


In assessing the potential effectiveness of any single strategy or operational directive, there is a temptation to oversimplify an extremely complex process by implying that certain actions precipitate certain consequences.  Although family members may react to one person's changes in a fairly predictable emotional way, the particular kinds of emotional responses selected are not as predictable.  A detailed examination of intergenerational processes and past behavior patterns may indicate an expected range of possible responses.  The Bowen family theory focuses more on general emotional processes than on the particular content or specific modes of manifestation of these processes.  A family's initial emotional reaction to a member who attempts functional change can vary greatly in form.


Effective strategies and operational directives should optimally be based on as detailed a knowledge of a family's history as possible.  For example, empirical evidence of the degree and extent of family projection in several generations may provide a basis for predicting sibling behavior in present generations.  The processes that contribute toward a family's adjustment to a death, rather than the fact of the death itself, may indicate the intensity of anxiety in a family.  Consideration of these nuances increases the overall predictive capacity of the Bowen theory and makes the specification of strategies and operational directives more effective.


The most productive blueprints for action in a family are created by the person who will put the plans into action.  Plans generally reflect their author's level of theoretical awareness and capacity to deal responsibly with the "fallout," or consequences of changed actions in a family. Acting without sufficient theoretical awareness and putting another person's plan into action can easily boomerang.  Thus, irresponsibility can be defined as acting without being aware of or knowing how to handle the consequences of one's actions.  An effective plan of action must have a solid theoretical base.


Predictability and Pre-predictability


It appears that the emotional systems influences in human behavior have a higher level of predictability than do other aspects of behavior.  This predictability, which is more than an abstract theoretical possibility, is integrally related to the characteristic reactivity and responsiveness of emotional systems themselves.  The behavior predicted by emotional systems conceptualizations focuses on what behavior can be rather than on what behavior ought to be.


Pre-predictability describes a phase of exploratory research, which includes compiling sufficient facts of family interaction to make tentative predictions possible.  In the pre-predictability phase, a series of objective observations is made, and consistencies are delineated from the data.  Ideally, detailed information on emotional processes in all parts of a family system over long periods of time should be gathered.  There can be no effective "instant" predictions from a narrow base of facts.  Only a full spectrum of nuances can begin to describe the more significant characteristics of family emotional processes.  The accuracy of later predictions is contingent upon the effectiveness of these pre-predictive phases of research.


Pre-predictive investigation into the nature of emotional processes in families is distinct from the "diagnostic thinking" typical of the medical model.  In contrast to the relatively static and "fixing" components of diagnostic procedures, a pre-predictive phase of study is essentially open-ended and creative, as it is exploratory and unconfined by an immediate goal of categorization or diagnosis.


Predictions from applications of the Bowen theory can be formulated only at certain levels of probability, with outcomes described in terms of general emotional processes rather than specific manifestations.  Whereas the onset of a child's dysfunction may be highly predictable within a given period, the specific type of dysfunction or symptom manifestation will not be as predictable.  From a detailed history of dysfunction of the child and other family members, a series of alternative dysfunctions in terms of their relative probability and predictability, can be suggested.


Results and Findings


Results and findings from the development and application of the Bowen theory have been accumulating for more than twenty-five years.  Some of the preliminary correlations of emotional phenomena have become increasingly predictable in this time, specificity being possible when sufficient details about past and present family circumstances are known.


Clinical or personal applications of the Bowen theory must account for the kinds of changes manifested and the period of time during which applications of the theory were made.  The following questions should be raised:  To what extent is change solid and relatively permanent or merely a shift in symptoms?  To what extent do behavioral changes indicate differentiation of self?  What behavior is predictable in a particular period of change after applying the Bowen theory?  How can a researcher document change objectively and accurately?  How can change in self by distinguished from adaptiveness to others?  Although a successful course of therapy cannot be simplistically summarized as an increase in solid self and a decrease in pseudo-self, some degree of inverse correlation between these two parts of self-results from increased differentiation.


Results for Self


One of the most important objectives in any attempt to apply the Bowen theory to one's own family is to predict the spectrum of changes that might follow.  One of the necessary conditions of real change in self is a modification of the quality of interaction between self and other family members.  One cannot grow or change in a vacuum.  Differentiation is accompanied by an increased awareness of solid self, without an increase in rigidity.  A more differentiated person will not be inflexible in relation to others, except when firm "I" position stands are needed to preserve self.  One consequence of differentiation is an increase in one's flexibility toward others.  A no-self takes rigid and incompatible stands with others, with minimal or no awareness of self.


The person who attempts to differentiate self tends to become the most focal point in the emotional system network. Instead of being a peripheral or cut-off member of one's family, a differentiating person communicates more frequently with a greater number of other family members, who generally begin to communicate more frequently with each other in return. In some respects, this reciprocity reflects emotional rebound or reaction to the contacts initiated in changing one's position in the family.  If the newly established lines of communication were mapped on a sociogram, the person trying to differentiate self would appear as a "star," with more lines of contact being traced through, to, and from this person than for other family members.


Although an increase in one's level of functioning is not necessarily correlated with an increase in differentiation of self, increased differentiation is accompanied by improved functioning.  The most noticeable characteristic of improved functioning is that a person tends to act from the basis of directed thought rather than automatic, emotionally reactive, and responsive ways.


Functional changes cannot be thought of as dramatic shifts in the level of differentiation.  Although one may appear to have made tremendous changes in self-awareness and functioning, only slight changes in one's level of differentiation are possible, even over considerable periods of time.  Human limitations make sizable leaps in differentiation impossible.  As a result, it is exceedingly difficult to become much more or much less differentiated in a lifetime.  Increased differentiation is hard to lose in that one cannot easily slip back to prior levels of differentiation unless a situation is extremely stressful and persistently so.  Another result of a successful application of the Bowen theory to self and to one's own family is that differentiation is difficult to reverse owing to the intrinsic tension that exists between the two major emotional forces of togetherness and differentiation.


Clinical Results


In some respects, clinical results are more difficult to document and evaluate than are the more personal results of applying the Bowen theory to one's own family.  In cases where contact with a family in a clinical setting is lost or where attendance at clinical sessions is sporadic, evidence and results of the application of the Bowen theory may be obscured.  In spite of these inadequacies, some generalizations about the overall results of applying this theory to a spectrum of different kinds of clinical cases for a period of more than twenty years can be suggested.



Changes during a successful course of therapy based on the Bowen theory can be summarized as a relatively predictable sequence of specific emotional events.  A phase of effective symptom relief in a family is followed by observable changes in the levels of functioning of significant members in the family.  If these changes in levels of functioning and emotional contact with other family members are maintained in face of the others’ reactivity, some of the changes made become differentiation of self.  If other family members eventually change their functioning positions through contact with the person who already made differentiating moves, the functioning level of the entire family gradually improves and a new level of differentiation of self for the entire family eventually follows.


In a successful course of therapy, this sequence of events occurs over an extended period of time.  These changes are accompanied by a gradual opening of the family emotional system.  A family with an open emotional system is characterized by meaningful communication between all family members, few or no isolated parts of the family, flexibility in relationships in the family, and few or no symptoms of emotional intensity throughout the family.  The improved functioning of family members is accompanied by a reduction in the number and types of dysfunction in a family.


Some predictable characteristics of long-term changes in a successful course of therapy include short-term “seesaw” effects of functional changes in a family, which are precipitated by the intensity of the emotional dependency between family members.  Two spouses are generally not able to differentiate self effectively at the same time.  A typical pattern of changes is that as one spouse improves functioning, the other spouse becomes more adaptive or even dysfunctional.  As one spouse strives toward differentiation, the other tends to make reactive moves toward togetherness, responding emotionally and negatively to the others’ efforts to differentiate.  If the differentiating spouse is able to maintain the position of improved functioning while simultaneously staying in emotional contact with the togetherness spouse, the latter is eventually able to improve functioning and may surpass the differentiating spouses’ functioning level.  The process of changing one’s level of functioning, and of ultimately changing one’s level of differentiation, is arduous and time-consuming.


A family that has better differentiated members has increased resilience in times of stress owing to the flexibility of its relationship system.  A fairly well differentiated family is able to deal with the depth of a significant member of recognizing feelings of loss and adapting to the loss in a fairly short period of time.  A change in the effectiveness of a family’s ability to recuperate after a crisis is one indicator of a reduction in the emotional reactiveness and responsiveness of the family emotional system.  As a result, there are fewer repetitions of pre-established behavior patterns in the family, especially from a multigenerational perspective.


In addition to overall improvements in a family’s capability for dealing with crises after a successful course of therapy, individual family members are able to deal more responsibility with their own reactions and also with the fallout resulting from their changed actions in the family.  This increased responsibility for self is evident in all kinds of behavior:  the expression of emotion, feelings, thoughts, and actions.  Increased responsibility for self also involves a reduction in “over responsibility” for others.

A successful course of therapy is characterized by reports of what a person does in the family, with a less anxious focus on the original “problem” or relationship concerns.  Decreasing dependency on the therapist generates an increased focus on self.  Self is considered an active participant in extended families of origin and mutigenerational transmission processes as well as a member of a nuclear family.  A major concern is how to build person-to-person relationships with members of one’s family of origin.


A decrease in the therapist-s specific coaching is accompanied by an increase in the client-s initiative to work toward personal goals.  Personal goals are formulated more clearly, and the capacity to sustain efforts to accomplish moves toward these goals is increasingly evident.  There will be increased awareness of “action-level” behavior, and less expenditure of effort and energy on unproductive behavior, such as lengthy discussions about action or debate and argument.


A successful theory outcome is also reflected in the client-s reduced tendency to project undifferentiation to others, especially to children and elderly family members.  Levity and humor is an essential part of relationships with others, and personal strengths and limitations are perceived more objectively.  One may also be able to act more freely in relation to family members’pre-established expectations for sibling position behavior.


A more profound knowledge of self and an increased capacity to function as a self are predictable consequences deriving from an adequate working knowledge or a particular family emotional system.  Someone who has been successfully coached in the Bowen theory is aware of the predictability of triangles in a family and is able to plan effective detriangling moves, including productive multigenerational detriangling.


The Bowen family theory frequently has a high rate of attrition.  Discontinuity in session tends to be the result of a client-s unwillingness to undertake challenging and difficult projects, such as differentiation of self, and the strength of family members’ feelings invested in maintaining the status quo of the emotional system.  Where strong motivation and sustained efforts to differentiate self exist, motivation and effort sometimes appear self-generating and self-perpetuating.  Although successful moves to differentiate self usually include specific plans, persistent attempts to act for self appear particularly important for increasing effectiveness in differentiating self.


Application of the Bowen Theory as Theory

Throughout the inductive development of the Bowen theory, applications of the concepts have produced increasingly accurate and predictable results.  In clinical settings, the more closely this theory is applied, the more predictable the outcome of clinical intervention appears to be.  Applications can be made with the same degree of predictability for a wide variety of families.


One of the predictable results of applying the Bowen theory is the resistance or thrust for togetherness that the individual differentiating self meets from other family members.  This negative reactivity of closely related others can manifest itself as conflict with the individual differentiating self.  The emotional resistance generally follows a fairly predictable pattern.  Initially, the opposing response carries the action message that the person changing self should return to the original functioning position.  If the differentiating individual refuses to change back to the former operating level, other family members tend to form alliances and threaten joint courses of action that will be taken in the event that this person continues to refuse to return to the former functioning level.   If the one who modifies self maintains the changed position and keeps in meaningful emotional contact with other family members, those others eventually are compelled to change their own positions owing to the intensity of their dependency on the person differentiating self.  As a result, the level of functioning or differentiation of self of the entire family can gradually be raised.


Throughout these prolonged emotional exchanges, other family members increase their respect for the person who changed position in the group and maintained this change in spite of opposition.  In families where a spouse or parent of the person changing self exerted considerable pressure on that person to change back to the original functioning level, the spouse or parent is frequently greatly relieved if the pressures are withstood.  The resistance expressed earlier so forcefully begins to show a marked decline, frequently disappearing in times of calm or in periods of extreme anxiety.


Attempts to differentiate self may also result in capitulation to the family togetherness.  If the differentiating individuals complies with others’ demands and wishes and conforms to their expectations, repeating previously established patterns of behavior in the process, any change in functioning is quickly neutralized.  As this person’s functioning is restored to its original level, the level of differentiation of the entire family remains unchanged.


Application of the Bowen theory heightens awareness among family members of a thrust and propensity to change self.  Human beings appear to have a kind of inner life force that pulls them toward greater differentiation, even during and after differentiating efforts have been met by negative reactivity.  Waves or phases of togetherness and differentiation derives may alternate with each other, balancing or stabilizing in a position of tension in relation to each other.


Plans for action can be based on principles that prevent a useless expenditure of energy.  The Bowen theory assists in promoting an economy of human effort.  The theory is a practical aid to predicting consequences of actions before one acts.  When sufficient details of emotional processes in families are known, more specific predictions of outcomes can be made and more energy can be preserved.


Although economy of effort is invaluable in applying this theory to one’s own family, the dividends of economy are most evident in clinical settings.  When therapeutic strategies have a solid theoretical bade, the therapist is more effective with each family coached and is therefore able to work with a large number of families because the energy expended per family is minimized.  A therapist’s ultimate effectiveness depends on theoretical awareness and functioning position in the therapist’s family of origin.  Sound clinical results follow effective applications of the Bowen theory to the therapist’s own family.


Personal Findings


One of the most significant personal findings for an individual differentiating self is that each move toward differentiation is accompanied by increased responsibility for self at all levels of behavior.  By persistently focusing on one’s own beliefs, thoughts, and actions, one becomes more responsible for one’s emotions and decisions, allowing others to become more responsible.  Any slight increase in differentiation is accompanied by increased responsibility for self.  Increased responsibility generally implies decreased over responsibility for others, which is viewed as a form of irresponsibility.


Changes in differentiating self will be more solid if one makes frequent multigenerational contacts, such as multigenerational triangling and multigenerational detriangling.  The quality of differentiating efforts is usually improved to the extent that one is able to make effective intergenerational contacts.  An action program of this kind can include genealogical research, which is another way to put oneself in meaningful contact with family members in previous generations.  Genealogical information about deceased family members can be beneficially disseminated to living relatives.  Triangles in the global family system are activated through these kinds of communications and opportunities to detriangle self from the family are facilitated.


One’s capacity to build personal relationships in social settings appears to depend on one’s capacity to build personal relationships within one’s family.  The reciprocal influences of these two capacities can be illustrated only after sustained efforts have been made to build person-to-person relationships in all parts of a family.  A person-to-person relationship consists of a series of intimate communications about self-made in a one-to-one situation.  Such a personal relationship contrasts with depersonalized exchanges, where communications are more anxious and more removed from self.  Distancing of this kind frequently results in a third person being pulled into the emotional field of the twosome.  The prolonged intimacy of a person-to-person relationship is not possible for an undifferentiated person.  Where intimacy and meaningful personal exchanges exist in a person’s family relationships, that same individual will function more effectively in all kinds of social settings.


Another finding related to application of the Bowen theory to one’s own family is that a termination of a relationship with a deceased family member can be achieved most effectively through direct participation in that family.  The occurrence of a death in one’s family provides special opportunities for differentiation of self, both in relation to the person who died and to those who were emotionally close to the deceased family member.  Talking about deceased family members with living relatives, visiting gravesites, or tracing ancestors through genealogical research all contribute toward resolving one’s emotional attachments to dead family members and to those who were close to the deceased relatives.


Finally, when one is able to effectively bridge a cut-off, this contributes toward changing one’s position in the family.  Bridging a cut-off can be a means to change the quality of relationships in the entire system.  Beneficial outcomes are particularly marked where cut-offs between branches of the same family have persisted through several generations.  In some respects, the phenomena of cut-offs and death are similar.  Death can be viewed as the ultimate cut-off, and any efforts to discover facts about deceased relatives are an effective way to bridge the cut-offs associated with death.



Research Findings


Research findings from application of the Bowen theory to a large number of families indicate that symptomatic behavior is generally preceded by an emotional cut-off in the system and that the degree or extent of dysfunction tends to be positively correlated with the intensity of the cut-off.  The degree of intensity of a cut-off can be gauged by indicators such as duration, frequency in prior generations, or precipitating factors.  The timing of the onset of symptomatic behavior can frequently be traced to periods in which a family experiences sufficient anxiety to produce or intensify cut-offs in the emotional system.


Open family systems have freer patterns of communication and more opportunities for individuals to be selves without the impingement of others’ negative responses than closed family systems.  Closed family systems manifest a quality of explosiveness resulting from the rigid reactivity of these systems.  There is also a distinctive uniformity or similarity of characteristics among members of a closed family system.  Research findings indicate that there are more symptoms in closed family systems that in open family systems and that the individual who is able to make successful differentiating moves in a closed system may eventually ease some of the tightness of that network.  The probability of reactive behavior is greater in a closed system than in an open system, and it is more difficult to counteract the strong togetherness forces of a closed system than those of an open system.


The most important nodal event in a family is usually a death.  In some instances, the occurrence of a death is not as critical as a family’s capacity to compensate for the loss precipitated by a death.  An unresolved death can generate multiple cut-offs in a family.  Shock waves following a death can perpetuate cut-offs or create an emotionally stressful and unstable period of adjustment, when many behavior symptoms will surface.


Relation to Evolution and Science

The degree of predictability of results and findings related to applications of the Bowen theory suggests some linkages with evolution and science.  Common denominators in experiences and trends may constitute a beginning foundation for systematic knowledge.


The Bowen theory conceptualizes primitive characteristics of human behavior B that is, those activities closely related to the behavior of other animals. Bowen suggests that primitive interaction can be observed most clearly and most representatively within the context of family emotional systems.


Each concept of the Bowen theory can be applied to social groups and society, as well as to the emotional processes of evolution.  No change is a quantum leap in a single generation.  Change is considered a product of emotional processes that extend through several generations.  Change and interaction are conceptualized as triangular and emotional projection is viewed as an effective by impairing means of precipitating change in different generations.  The basic "units’ of interaction in these long-term emotional processes are multigenerational families.  Throughout evolution, the increasing differentiation of emotional systems suggest that there has been progress and development.  However, the process of differentiation is not automatic, and predisposing factors, such as levels of anxiety and particular nodal events, are necessary before it can occur.


Much of the predictability of the Bowen theory rests on the premise that evolutionary processes can be conceptualized as a products of the balance maintained between the two opposing forces of differentiation, or individuation, and togetherness, or fusion.  Although the Bowen theory emphasizes the importance of differentiating decisions and actions, differentiation is only one of two major life forces in evolution.  Togetherness is an equally strong and sometimes stronger force than differentiation.  Togetherness binds and bonds individuals in a tightly knit interdependency.  As some of the implications of these two concepts remain unclear, more precise research results and findings are before Bowen’s key ideas can be related more directly to the existing knowledge of evolution and science.


Problems of Ethics

Ethics are a concern in all kinds of research with human subjects.  Family life epitomizes a basic human right to many, and sacred values to others.  Some attention to the problems of ethics in family research must be given by those working in this field.


Although the specific problems of ethics and family research do not fall into neat, airtight compartments, the complex interplay and interrelatedness of ethics and family research is not considered here.  Rather, for discussion purposes, an artificial and somewhat arbitrary distinction is made between ethics and family research.


Definition of Problems

The many diverse problem areas in ethics and family research include the following:


1.   The apparent comparatively unquestioning and inflexible allegiance of narrowly trained family researchers to scientific methodology and hypotheses makes them ideologically and operationally insensitive to the intimate personal concerns of subjects and their families.  When this professional and interpersonal rigidity occurs, research methods and findings generally result in an imbalance in the risk-benefit principle for the families involved in the research.  In this kind of enterprise, high personal risk are accompanied by abnormally low individual and family benefits.


2.   An "overprotection” of rights of subjects easily leads to a sacrifice of the personal and professional integrity of the researcher.  Narrow and restrictive limits on research strategies owing to the rules and regulations of the legal system dilute the significance of subsequent research hypotheses and findings.


3.   The use of data by third parties, such as funding agencies or government groups, is frequently contrary to the interests of both subjects and researchers.  This problem raises the issue of control of research findings and the extent to which the consent of a researcher or a subject may modify a given situation.


4.   Many difficulties are involved in reaching a workable consensus on appropriate ethics to observe in family research and in formulating effective guidelines to regulate interaction between researchers, subjects, and third-party groups representing broader interests in society.  Ethical problems are particularly salient in family research, as our society views family interaction as intensely private and personal.  Family freedom and intimacy are considered intimately related to the democratic principles of our political and social organization.  Ethics in family research is consequently a widely shared and deeply emotional concern that precipitates biased input from many different groups in the private and public sectors of society.




In addition to guidelines for professional self-regulation, it seems appropriate to also incorporate the views of other specialists and lay persons in any formulation of ethical policies.  Where in-group policing is necessary, blacklisting or professional sanctions may be used to strengthen procedural aspects involved in the application of regulations.  On a broader societal basis, existing government agencies and officials may legislate and implement protection procedures or create an independent watchdog agency to take over this task (Szasz 1963).


Such regulation might consider the following points:


1.   The voluntariness of the participation of both researcher and subject could be protected through such means as


a.            Informed consent, including some descriptive detail about the general direction and goals of research.  Such a description should optimally specify major concerns rather than discuss particular hypotheses.

b.            Communication about the possible effects of participation in the research project, such as certain consequences for family relationships.

c.            Restriction or prohibition of involuntary participation in research projects, perhaps with a stipulation that only adult subjects should participate.

d.            Explicit terms for the withdrawal of a subject from participation in a research project and the implementation of formal and informal grievance procedures for both subjects and researchers.


5.   Ethical problems in family research could be prevented by improving the quality of research training.  Such professional education could include specialized degree programs and on-the-project training.  Education in ethical concerns should optimally be furthered through increasing opportunities to pool experiences during the course of research.


6.   Personal data collected in the course of research could be protected by counteracting procedures that overly objectify family information.  The overall goal of maintaining respect for individual subjects and their families, together with the immediate objective of making direct observations, could include


a.   Means to preserve the confidentially and privacy of subjects, such as maintaining the anonymity of data and findings or purposely not recording names and other "essential” classifying data during the course of research.  These moves preserve confidentiality and private and at the same time keep the researcher out of possible legal binds.

b.            Formulation of specific measures to control access to and use of data for non-research purposes.  Trust is an essential ingredient of an effective research-subject-citizen system of relationships, and the protection of personal data is necessary for establishing confidence in research procedures.


3.   Protection of the personal concerns of subjects beyond the duration of a particular research project.  This extension of protection may neutralize hazardous and unintended consequences of the research process and could partly be accomplished by


a.            Control of strategies used to collect initial data through the encouragement of procedures in the least violation of informal norms that conventionally regulate the dissemination of personal information.  This control of strategies at best culminates in "preventive” methods of research.

b.            Responsible follow-up procedures by family researchers in projects where the identify of subjects had been recorded.  Later contact might be made to report some of the research findings.  Such an exchange would provide an opportunity for both researcher and subject to deal with any unexpected fallout from the earlier research process.


Implications of the Bowen Theory


Principles of the Bowen theory can be applied to many kinds of social groups, identifying micro-sociological and macro-sociological implications at both theoretical and empirical levels.  From a pragmatic standpoint, the Bowen theory can be used to conceptualize some of the contemporary behavioral and social crises.


Bowen hypothesizes that people tend to replicate patterns of family behavior in diverse social settings.  Another postulation is that family and social systems function interdependently; each network of emotional forces influences the other.  Both societal and environmental crises can be described from Bowen’s emotional systems perspective (Bowen 1973).  In these respects, the Bowen family theory has implications for social concerns beyond narrow family boundaries and for different social science disciplines.


Societal Problems

There appear to be few areas in which societal behavioral patterns are qualitatively different from family behavior patterns.  Hypothetically, it is as possible to estimate societal levels of functioning as it is to estimate differentiation in families.  A well-differentiated person can live an orderly life alone or in the midst of social interaction, such as densely population conditions or a large bureaucracy.  A less differentiated person cannot be productive alone, and the powerful togetherness forces draw this person into the discomfort of fusion with others.  The impingement of one self on another follows, and the relationship system attempts to deal with the tensions of excess togetherness. 


As society develops more urban centers, physical proximity may precipitate alienation and estrangement.  The increased density also appears to predispose people to participate in many group activities, with the hope of overcoming this social distance and anxiety.  Whereas in the past people used physical separation to relieve tension, effective distance from others is too difficult to accomplish in the present circumstances of a growing population.  The population explosion, with its components of togetherness and fusion, is perhaps the base of many current anxieties, and may play a more significant role in human problems than is generally recognized.  A point can be reached where the balance of nature is sufficiently disturbed that human life may become extinct.  Fear of extinction adds further anxiety to spiraling tension in society.


The disappearance of frontiers and the accompanying sense of the decreasing size of the earth generate anxiety in society.  Reactions to feeling trapped on earth are similar to feeling trapped in other situations.  One such example is marriage, where spouses may describe themselves as trapped or caught.  Similar anxiety produced be over closeness appears to exist in other social groups, although these cases may not be as easy to identify.


Mobility is one way to deal with population density.  In contemporary society, families are frequently required to move as part of work or careers. Also, there has been an increase in the number of occupations that require individuals to travel most of the time.  The constant flow of population exchanges "ventilates” some of the overlooked of societal anxiety.


Projection processes are as prevalent in society as a whole as they are families.  Institutionalize "mental patients” are one of the largest groups to become an object of projection.  In the course of this projection, society gains functioning strength from its benevolent posture toward "mental patients.”


Other objects of projection processes in society are minority groups.  The necessary conditions for such projections are sufficient anxiety and emotionally dependant human beings.  The projections have operated for so long that they are extremely difficult to reverse or to change in any way.  If a projection is modified successfully, the excess emotional investment is transferred to another minority group.  Just as the least functional child in a family becomes more emotionally and physically impaired as the focus of the family’s attention and concern, the least functional segment of society becomes more impaired by the measures that are supposed to help it.


Human and Environmental Crises

The Bowen theory is an application of systems thinking to the human universe.  There has been much resistance toward this application, as it is difficult for people to question their own behavior and responsibility.  When systems thinking is applied to human relationships and emotional functioning, it encourages change in one’s functioning, even though any change may at the same time be resisted.


Environmental problems can be viewed as a functional part of other social problems rather than as separate from them.  This systems approach suggests that environmental problems have been created by human beings themselves.  People have allowed these problems to threaten their very existence.


Constructive solutions to environmental problems must be derived from a holistic viewpoint.  At present, society’s usual approach to environmental problems is a disjointed series of partial measures applied to narrowly defined problems.  These measures are similar to an anxious family’s attempts to relieve present symptoms.  When corrective efforts are directed solely toward the symptoms of problems, they complicate and fixate the original problems.  Giving attention only to symptoms in the environment aggravates the original problems.



Policies to bring about a rise in the societal level of differentiation of self are difficult to design or implement.  If the most influential or powerful segment of society B sometimes political leaders B improves differentiation, this change could gradually raise the general functioning level of society.


The powerful togetherness forces in contemporary society oppose all efforts to differentiate self.  However, the improved differentiation or self of a leader in society has a beneficial effect on others.  A key person in society can generally modify others’ functioning in society, just as a key person in a family influences behavior in the entire emotional network.



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