The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

Highlights from The 53rd Symposium on Family Theory and Family Psychotherapy

Authored by Kelly Mathews-Pluta, M.S.W., and Robert Noone, PhD.

The 53rd Symposium on Family Theory and Family Psychotherapy offered by the Bowen Center for the Study of Family in Washington, DC was held November 4th and 5th, 2016. This Annual Symposium brings together the liveliest minds in the Bowen network to present, question, and discuss the latest research and ideas about Bowen theory. As always, the Symposium also features a Distinguished Guest Lecturer from another discipline whose research is relevant to Bowen theory. Bowen theory is not a fixed body of knowledge, but changes in response to new facts about human emotional functioning from many disciplines. Kelly Matthews-Pluta and Robert Noone of the CFC faculty attended this year’s symposium and briefly share highlights of the presentations.

In his two presentations Dr. Jan Sapp presented a broad overview of the development of evolutionary theory. He described how the omission of microbial evolution, which represented the first two-thirds of evolution’s 4.5 billion years, overlooked important developments. He discussed how recent knowledge developing in the sciences requires a new integration of evolutionary theory. The former ‘one genome, one organism’ view no longer holds up in the face of the discoveries of lateral gene transfer and symbioses among other factors contributing to the evolution of life. Dr. Sapp also discussed how sociopolitical views influence our views of biology and vice versa.

Dan Papero, PhD, M.S.S.W. gave an insightful view on the family response to challenge.  When a stressor occurs can the family focus (or be assisted in focusing) on the process of decision making needed or do they focus on fixing the symptom(s).  If a family can actively engage, rather than avoid, their adaptation to the challenge tends to be smoother.

Margaret Donley, M.S.W. returned to parental pair bonds, this time with a focus on divorce.  While the research points out the most important relationship in the primate world occurs between mother and infant, it does not negate the importance of the pair bond between female and male mates in humans and a few other non-human primates.  In fact, that ever important pair, plus the infant (primary triangle), is critical when thinking about divorce:  “Kids live in the immaturity of the pair bond, whether married or divorced”.

Victoria Harrison, M.A., L.M.F.T. discussed the study of emotional systems in the natural world and the family.  The counterbalances of togetherness and individuality function for survival and reproduction in the shorter term, and give rise to new adaptations in the course of evolution.  “Differentiation of self evolves for the human as an additional resource for adaptation”.

Eileen Gottlieb, Med, L.M.F.T. looked at the life course of nodal events over a 2 generation period.  Using the “…facts of functioning, triangles, and multigenerational patterns, one begins…” to observe the complicated process that occurs in families in times of major change.  Being able to avoid the preoccupation with “why” and observe the process allows the families strengths to flourish.

Mignonette Keller, PhD., laid out a description of influences on the human disease process.  How does a systems perspective assist in observing disease, namely Alzheimer’s?  Looking at “…chronic stress, chronic anxiety, high levels of emotional cutoff and fixed overfunctioning/underfunctioning positions” through the lens of family systems allows one to more deeply understand the disease process within a multigenerational family.

Joan Jurkowski, M.S., L.C.P.C., similarly unfolded the disease process and its interplay with emotional systems.  Looking at the cancer progression in a public figure, she walked through the historical events and the disease parallels.  Level of differentiation of self and the giving up of self can be powerful components of the “variation in how breast cancer affects an individual”.

Robert Noone, PhD., discussed the family and the intellectual system.  “The family and the development of the brain have been inextricably woven together over the course of hominid evolution and can be seen as underlying the reciprocal influence between family functioning and brain development”.  Additionally, the differentiation of self can be observed on two levels: the differentiation of self within the family unit and within the intellectual system of the person.

Christopher East, PsyD., explored the concept of intuition and Bowen Theory.  Intuition research, in this case, specifically social learning and quick decision making, has expanded over the past 10 years.  “…research into the neural functioning of intuition has [lead] to further consensus around the dual-process theory of cognition”.  There seems to be much more than just fight or flight occurring in the amygdala.

Walter H. Smith, Jr., PhD., highlighted the concept that a theory’s importance can “…advance solutions [of] vexing human problems and improve human functioning”.  In a detailed description of the child welfare system, with its long history of child focus, a strong case was made for introducing family systems theory to families with a history of violence to help them work toward taking responsibility for child safety.

Barbara Laymon, M.P.H., M.S., L.G.P.C., detailed the multigenerational forces of human use of natural resources.  Over many decades “A societal regression process created Flint’s inability to manage its drinking water supply”.  Cause and effect thinking and chronic anxiety created a perfect storm of unintended consequences.  This paper provided an interesting way of using “…population health data to describe societal emotional process”.

Anne McKnight, EdD., L.C.S.W., L.I.C.S.W., reviewed Bowen theory’s concept of societal emotional process which describes some of the processes operating at the societal level which occur in the family. These include projection onto vulnerable populations, triangles, and reactive decision making. As her title suggests, Dr. McKnight raised questions about whether Bowen’s view that we have been in a prolonged period of societal regression is accurate. She presented conflicting evidence. Dr. McKnight principally raised the issue of the importance of critically assessing societal emotional process and the need to develop more accurate markers of regression or progression at the societal level.

Randall T. Frost, M. Div., delved into the concept that people who marry have the same basic level of differentiation.  How well, or not, one resolves emotional attachment with parents (primary triangle) ”… influences the course of a life”.  The level of differentiation reached when one leaves home greatly influences the choice of one’s mate.  Also discussed was the shift in functioning that can take place in a couple over the course of the marriage.

The Bowen Center offers complete DVD sets and audio MP3 of past annual symposia for sale online.



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