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Bowenian Family Therapy Theory

The theory covered in this paper is the Bowen Family Therapy theory. It is also sometimes referred to as natural systems theory (Gladding, 2015). It derives its name from Murray Bowen, an American psychiatrist and principal originator of the theory.

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Key Tenets of the Theory

The first tenet that sets the Bowen Family Therapy theory aside from the others is its emphasis on the natural factors shaping the functioning of individuals and families alike. Bowen’s first major assumption is that there are forces of nature that affect all living things, which then create complex systems based on these impacts – hence, the natural systems theory (Reiter, 2019). The second major premise of his theory is that the behavior of human beings is also a manifestation of the same natural forces (Reiter, 2019). Based on these assumptions, Bowen came to the conclusion that categorizing psychiatric symptoms as purely individual phenomena was erroneous and did not promote the correct understanding of the subject. As a result, the main focus of the natural systems theory is family as a unit – how it functions and affects individual symptoms (Reiter, 2019). In particular, Bowen pointed to the role of the family and the transgenerational transmission of behavioral patterns.

Anxiety is a key concept in the Bowen Family Therapy theory. According to it, all life in existence experiences chronic anxiety that is inseparable from the process of living (Gladding, 2015). As long as this anxiety remains low, it does not have a pronounced adverse effect, but when it rises, especially quickly and unexpectedly, it creates emotional shock waves that may have negative results. Consequently, managing chronic anxiety is crucial for promoting and maintaining healthy emotional processes.

Another essential component of Bowenian theory is the emotional system. One may loosely define the emotional system as an interrelated network of patterns that governs a given person’s behavior and “can be explained, and not merely described, with accuracy” (Reiter, 2019, p. 105). The notion of the emotional system allows a therapist adhering to the Bowen Family Therapy theory to identify and understand how people tray to project their different emotional systems on each other.

Addressing anxiety with the emphasis on emotional systems is governed by the eight operational concepts of Bowen’s theory. Differentiation of self is the degree to which a person is able to separate emotional functioning from the intellectual one. Family projection is the couple’s tendency to produce the offspring on the same level of differentiation. It is closely connected to the Bowen transmission process, which is the passing of coping strategies from one generation to another. The nuclear family emotional process refers to the forces that operate within the family in repeated patterns. Triangle is the basic organizational unit of an emotional relationship and refers to three people creating a distinct pattern of coping with anxiety. Cutoff refers to the people in emotional relationships, creating “unresolved distances” between each other (Reiter, 2019, p. 121). Sibling position is also a key concept in Bowen’s theory, as people may develop and replicate “personality characteristics based on their functional birth order in the family” (Gladding, 2015, p. 238). Finally, the theory also pays attention to societal regression, when the abundance of social forces countering regression leads to adverse outcomes.

Role of the Counselor

The counselor plays a crucial role in Bowen’s theory, but the ability to fulfill this role successfully depends on the degree of differentiation. In order to perform effectively, the counselor following the Bowen Family Therapy theory has to be differentiated from his or her family of origin (Gladding, 2015). A differentiated counselor will be aware of the patterns inherited by him or her through the Bowen’s transmission process or the impact left by the sibling position and will avoid projecting those on those counseled. This approach will promote objectivity and neutrality and ensure the counselor’s ability to fulfill his functions properly.

What Creates Behavior Change

In the Bowen Family Therapy theory, the change occurs through promoting differentiation. Counselor’s questions, conversations with each other, and observations of their respective families of origin provide people with better apprehension of the emotional functioning of the family as a unit. By doing so, the family members begin to “understand intergenerational patterns and gain insight into historical circumstances that have influenced the ways they presently interact” (Gladding, 2015, p. 243). This improved understanding of the forces shaping their emotional behavior should, in turn, promote differentiation in family members and also them to act rationally and avoid projecting the inherited patterns onto each other. Consequently, they will be able to interact as autonomous human beings operating on a cognitive level and consciously avoiding the harmful patterns of anxiety and blame distribution. To summarize, the improved understanding of intergenerational patterns and influences and the corresponding increase in autonomy among the family members are the factors responsible for behavior change in the Bowen Family Therapy theory.

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Techniques Used in the Theory

Bowen’s theory employs a variety of techniques to identify and address family concerns and issues. The first of those is the genogram – a visual representation of a given person’s family tree that covers emotional relationships as well as kinship bonds. While genograms are by no means exclusive to Bowen’s theory, they are particularly useful in searching for intergenerational patterns, which are essential for this approach (Gladding, 2015). Consequently, genograms are indispensable in the assessment phase.

Another tool used in Bowen’s theory is called “going home again.” In this intervention, the counselor instructs the clients to return to their respective families of origin to learn more about them (Gladding, 2015). This tool serves to promote the differentiation of self in the clients by making them the external observers rather than the consumers and unconscious replicators of the familial behavior patterns.

One more tool employed by the counselors adhering to Bowenian theory is detriangulation. It relates directly to the concept of emotional triangles outlined above. When facing an increased level of chronic anxiety, emotional triangles may create destructive patterns when two persons project this anxiety on the third one, thus creating a scapegoat. Detriangulation helps people to remain close yet emotionally separate, avoiding projecting their feelings onto another (Gladding, 2015). Additionally, it allows people to avoid becoming scapegoats or targets for another’s anxiety.

Finally, counseling rooted in Bowen’s theory also uses person-to-person relationships. This tool requires two persons to converse with each other about each other, avoiding impersonal subjects or talking about other people, which may promote triangling (Gladding, 2015). This approach is useful for promoting autonomy while not sacrificing intimacy in the relationship.

Written Conceptualization, Part II

Assessment Phase

When employing Bowenian theory to family counseling, the primary goal of the assessment is identifying the intergenerational patterns that shape the family members’ individual behaviors. The counselor has to establish which patterns they use to defuse anxiety and how these patterns are shaped by each person’s family of origin (Gatfield. 2017). As mentioned above, the genogram is indispensable for this purpose, as it provides an easily operable visualization of relationships across several generations. In this particular case, it is necessary to pay close attention to the original triangles – that is, the relationships between the parents and the child for both Jack and Diane. Apart from that, it is vital to keep an eye out for other triangles, particularly those that span over more than two generations and involve two members projecting their anxiety on the third one. It is also essential to identify sibling positions and corresponding roles for both spouses in their families of origin. Finally, the genogram should reveal intergenerational patterns that contributed to the development of the situation.

Presenting Family Concern

The central family concern, as interpreted by both Jack and Diane, is the loss of respect in their relationship on Diane’s part brought by Jack’s consistent betrayals of her trust. Jack lied to Diane to cover the fact that he lost his job in the past, secretly depleted one of the family’s bank accounts, which he later refilled, and failed on his promises to quit the use of marijuana more than once. Jack generally admits his fault in losing Diane’s trust and respect and proclaims his life to his wife and his willingness to do anything to save the family. At the same time, he refuses to recognize some of Diane’s concerns, such as substance use, as an issue. Diane, on the other hand, states that she loves her husband deeply bit doubts he could earn her respect or trust again.

Family’s Stated Goals

Jack’s stated goal is to win his wife’s trust and respect back so that he could save the marriage and the family. Diane’s stated goal is handling the breakup and potential divorce in a manner that will not be harmful to the couple’s five children.

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Goal for Counseling

The goal for counseling, in this case, is increasing the couple’s differentiation level, thus allowing them to communicate based on a rational evaluation of their situation rather than automatic emotional reactions.

Conceptualization of the Case

Jack and Diane’s case is a literal example of marital conflict. It corresponds perfectly to the definition, which is “a process of interaction in which one or both couples feel discomfort about some aspects of their relationship” (Yektatalab, Seddigh Oskouee, & Sodani, 2016). Bowenian theory seeks to resolve marital conflicts by identifying the disruptive patterns of anxiety distribution.

It is apparent that Jack’s and Diane’s relationship reveals two distinct intergenerational patterns. First of all, there is a persistent pattern of spouse conflict on the maternal side that replicates the regular fighting between Diane’s parents. Jack’s 80-hour workweek, which makes him similar to Diane’s absentee father, likely facilitates Diane’s propensity for conflict with Jack. Secondly, there is a repeated pattern of substance use on the paternal side, with Jack’s parents, Jack himself, and now some of the couple’s children engaging in it.

Jack displays a low differentiation level: even though he acknowledges some of his failures, his emotional attachment to substance use overcomes the intellectual ability to perceive it as part of the problem. Bowenian theory classifies this state as fusion, where a person is dominated by the automatic emotional system rather than rational decision-making (Gladding, 2015). In Jack’s case, fusion prevents him from actually committing to his declared objective of fixing his marriage.

Finally, there appears to be a triangle between Diane, her mother, and Jack. Mother’s upbringing taught Diane that controlling the family’s finances is the only way to ensure stability. However, it is Jack is one to manage the finances in his marriage with Diane. Consequently, the triangle works in a dysfunctional way, as Diane and her mother project their anxiety on Jack, further exacerbating the situation.

Behavior Change

Promoting behavior change requires increasing Jack’s degree of differentiation and correcting the dysfunctional emotional triangle between Diane’s mother, Diane, and Jack. In order to achieve this goal, both spouses have to obtain a more acute understanding of how their emotional systems function. Both partners have to develop a healthy emotional detachment from their families of origin, which continue affecting them adversely.

Jack should be encouraged to look at his family of origin as an outside observer rather than an insider. The primary goal is for him to separate his emotional attachment to his parents and the family’s friendly and supportive atmosphere from the practice of the substance use adopted in said family. Helping the Jack to formulate his motivation in intellectual terms will demonstrate the contradiction between his declared rational goal of saving the marriage and family and his automatic emotional reactions that prevent him from acknowledging Diane’s concerns. It will create the potential for differentiation and corresponding behavior changes.

Diane should be encouraged to compare her marriage to that of her parents, including the spouse roles and relationship patterns. In particular, she should be helped to assess whether her emotional system automatically links the husband working long workweeks to marital conflict due to the example of her father. Additionally, she should inquire whether the source of her negative attitude is merely Jack’s betrayals or her desire for greater control over the family’s finances inherited from her mother. A better understanding of these aspects of her relationship will help Diane to perceive the situation more objectively instead of following the automatic emotional responses heavily influenced by her family of origin.

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The main techniques for this intervention will be composing a genogram, going home again, person-to-person relationship, detriangulation, and questions. Involving the spouses in composing the genogram will make them more aware of the intergenerational patterns in their relationship (Gladding, 2015). The couple’s weekly dinners with Jack’s family of origin provide a natural opportunity for Jack to assess it as an outside observer so that he could differentiate more clearly (Gladding, 2015). Person-to-person relationship will require Jack and Diane to converse with each other and about each other with the exclusion of all else. This approach should promote individuation and autonomy (Gladding, 2015). The exclusion of other subjects will also help detriangulation in the case of the dysfunctional triangle involving Diane’s mother (Gladding, 2015). Finally, the guiding questions in the course of counseling will be the primary tool for instigating change.

Empirical Evidence

There is sufficient empirical evidence for using the Bowen Family Therapy theory as the basis for counseling in a case like that. Gladding (2015) points out that the family improves its functioning “when spouses become more cognitively based” (p. 243). In particular, Gatfield (2017) demonstrates how the thoughtful construction of genograms can reduce chronic anxiety in a relationship. Apart from that, Yektatalab, Seddigh Oskouee, and Sodani’s (2016) study of 42 couples highlight the efficacy of Bowen theory therapy in dealing with marital conflict.


  1. Gatfield, E. (2017). Augmenting Bowen family of origin work: Using the genogram and therapeutic art-based activity. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 38, 272–282.
  2. Gladding, S. T. (2015). Family therapy: History, theory, and practice. Boston: Pearson.
  3. Reiter, M. D. (2019). Systems theories for psychotherapists: From theory to practice. New York: Routledge.
  4. Yektalad, S., Seddigh Oskouee, F., & Sodani, M. (2016). Efficacy of Bowen theory on marital conflict in the family nursing practice: A randomized controlled trial. Issues in mental health Nursing, 38(3), 253-260.

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