Bowen Family Systems Theory

Bowen Family Systems Theory stipulates that families in the present can be understood in the context of what it had been in the past (Kerr, 1981). The family’s pattern of behaviour, beliefs, values, and emotional reactions can be observed through the generations and passed on to further generations. The family emotional system consists of two counterbalancing forces, individuality and togetherness. Individuality refers to the individual and one’s ability to function autonomously, while togetherness refers to emotional closeness and agreement. A disturbance in the balance of this system influences the emergence of clinical symptoms (Kerr, 1981). Families with a strong togetherness force are referred to as fused. The functioning in these families is strongly determined by people’s need for each other and individuality is sacrificed to preserve harmony. People who are less fused have the capacity to be themselves and maintain comfortable emotional connections (Kerr, 1981).

Differentiation is one of the most important concepts to consider in understanding one’s vulnerability to dysfunction and their ability to recover. Differentiation refers to the way people manage the individuality/togetherness mix (Kerr, 1981). People with a high level of differentiation have a more optimal mix, are less prone to intense relationships, and are more adaptive to stress. A differentiated person is able to distinguish between thoughts and feelings and be rational in stressful situations (Bowen, 1994).

People’s reaction to the disturbance in the relationship balance is a generator of anxiety. Anxiety feeds on anxiety in a vicious cycle (Kerr, 1981). The system reacts to a disturbance in equilibrium by activating mechanisms to bind anxiety in order to preserve the system.

Anxiety is a response of an organism to a real or imagined threat (Comella, Bader, Bell, Wiseman, & Sagar, 1996). Acute anxiety is time-limited to a real threat, while chronic anxiety is an imagined threat of what might be. It is long lasting and persistent. The more fused a system is, the more people rely on others for strength and a sense of well-being. According to Kerr and Bowen (1988) people with lower differentiation are more reactive to anxiety and if one can maintain comfortable contact with others in an emotional system, they are more likely to adapt to the anxiety. There are four mechanisms to bind anxiety: emotional distance, emotional conflict, a compromised spouse, and over involvement with children (Kerr, 1981). The way people function in relation to each other and the mechanisms they use to deal with their anxiety determines where the anxiety rests or surfaces (Kerr, 1981).

There are eight concepts to Bowen Systems Theory, differentiation of self, triangles, which refer to a three person emotional configuration as the basic building block of communication. Triangles are thought to be the smallest stable relationship system. A two person relationship can be stable as long as it is calm, however, when anxiety increases, a third person is drawn in to dissipate the anxiety. The nuclear family emotional process refers to how the family system operates to handle stress and anxiety (Thompson, Rudolph, & Henderson, 2004). The family projection process refers to how parents project anxiety onto their children. The multigenerational transmission process refers to how the family projects anxiety from one generation to another, sibling position draws attention to important personality characteristics that fit with the position the person grew up in (Bowen, 1994). Emotional cut off involves one generation cutting off contact with previous generations in order to avoid relationship problems, and societal regression, which is based on the notion that societal problems are similar to emotional problems in the family (Bowen, 1994).

By focusing on defining a self, while giving up some togetherness and maintaining emotional contact, one’s functioning would become less dependent on support and acceptance from others (Kerr, & Bowen, 1988). Differentiation is a product of a way of thinking that translates into a way of being. In order to increase one’s level of differentiation, Bowen Systems Theory recommends learning the characteristics of the family systems, making postulations about one’s role in the system, and learning to observe patterns of one’s own emotional reactions in the system (Bowen, 1994). In order to do this, one must be in regular contact with their family, make visits, bridge emotional cut-off, work on person to person relationships with parents, develop ways to modify emotional reactions, and build an I-position (Bowen, 1994). Defining a self involves increasing one’s ability to think, perceive, speak and act from a fact-based rather than a feeling-based assessment.


Bowen, M. (1994). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice. Jason Aronson, Northvale, NJ.

Comella, P.A., Bader, J., Ball, J.S., Wiseman, K.K., & Sagar, R.R. (1996). The Emotional Side of Organizations: Applications of Bowen Theory. Georgetown Family Center, Wash, DC.

Kerr, M.E., & Bowen, M. (1988). Family Evaluation. W.W. Norton & Company, NY.

Kerr, M. (1981). Cancer and the family emotional system. In Goldberg, J. (Ed.). Psychotherapeutic Treatment of Cancer Patients (pp. 273-315). New York: The Free Press.