The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

Bowen Family Systems Theory

Authored by Jim Smith, M. S., Executive Director of the Western Pennsylvania Family Center in Pittsburgh, PA  

Dr. Murray Bowen (b. 1913 – d. 1990) was a psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.  He was one of the pioneers of family systems theory.

A Search for Scientific Understanding

Early in his career as a psychoanalyst, Bowen sought to understand human behavior and functioning in a way that would be more scientific and objective than the prevailing views of his time.  He thought that the basic principles governing the behavior of other life forms must also govern human functioning.

As such, Bowen family systems theory (or Bowen theory) views human beings as part of the natural world of living organisms. And though Bowen worked professionally in the field of psychiatry, he wanted his theory to help understand human behavior in all areas of life.  He developed his theory of human functioning from years of clinical work with individuals and families, as well as from research, in which he tested and refined his ideas about how symptoms are related to the functioning of the larger family field.

Bowen’s Early Research

In the mid-1950s, Bowen began to hypothesize that the functioning of schizophrenic patients was related to the interactions of the other members of their families.  So he pursued this hypothesis in a research project funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in which he hospitalized small numbers of schizophrenics along with their immediate family members. This allowed him to move from a conceptualization of schizophrenia as an individual problem (i.e. having its roots in one person) to seeing schizophrenia as something to do with the mother-child relationship and then to concluding that schizophrenia was related  to the functioning of the whole family unit. Without blaming the family for the schizophrenia, he began to articulate a theory that described how the social existence of human beings, in family groups, affects the functioning of each individual member across the spectrum of healthy and symptomatic behavior.

Developing a Systems Perspective

In Bowen’s time, human functioning was seen primarily in terms of the individual’s behavior and psychology.  Bowen, however, recognized that human family groups have evolved over millennia and that the human individual is primarily a social creature.  As such, he believed individual behavior could be better understood in terms of the group—that is, arising from the dynamics of the larger family emotional and relationships systems.

Bowen’s theory appears to be consistent with modern scientific thinking about life.  For example, when we consider ecosystems, we understand that one organism can only be understood in terms of its relationship to other organisms in that system.   We also understand molecular activity, chemical processes, and the motion of planets in this interdependent, interactive way.  Yet a similarly systemic view of human functioning has been remarkably hard to achieve.

The Individual in the System

Bowen theory starts with the premise that the family context must be the basic unit of study for understanding human beings.  After years of observing family interactions, Bowen became aware that individual behavior often seemed determined less by individual choice and more by the individual’s relationship context, by the shifting flow of anxiety and emotionality between and among family members.  He thought that each family member actually derives his or her identity largely from involvement within the family relationship system.

Based on these observations, Bowen concluded that the ability to change individual behavior first required gaining awareness of how the individual’s choices are affected by current and historical family behavior.  In this view, “family” would include the immediate people with whom the individual lives, the extended family of relatives and friends, including prior generations, as well as the community at large.  In short, we come to know ourselves by knowing our families.

Key Ideas from Bowen Theory

  1. Human functioning is governed by principles common to all life forms.
  2. Human life is guided primarily by emotional, instinctive forces that can be regulated to some extent by an individual’s ability to think. Human emotional forces and behavior are influenced by the interplay among instinctual, biological, genetic, psychological, and sociological factors.
  3. The family is a single emotional unit made up of interlocking relationships existing over many generations.
  4. An individual’s behavior across the life span is best understood as being closely related to the functioning of her or his family of origin.
  5. When the individual is seen in her/his family context, we can move beyond simplistic cause-and-effect thinking to a more comprehensive understanding of the multiple factors that interact across time to produce problems or symptoms.
  6. People are able to modify their automatic, emotional responses by studying patterns of automatic behavior in themselves and their family of origin, and developing greater objectivity in their appraisal of situations and their felt responses.

 

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