The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

Learning Bowen Theory

Authored by Stephanie Ferrera, M. S. W.

My first acquaintance with the thinking of Murray Bowen was through reading “On the Differentiation of Self,” the paper in which Dr. Bowen presents his theory and describes how it guided his effort toward differentiation of self in his own family.  In my first couple of readings, I understood little of the theory or what Dr. Bowen was doing on those visits home, but I heard him clearly on the results.  His family became calmer and more flexible.  Personal communication opened up.  Seriousness gave way to humor.  Of the lasting benefits, he wrote:

“In the almost three-year interim since the family experience, the family has been on the best overall level of adaptation in many years.”  (1978, 516)

I wanted to learn Bowen’s magic and do the same in my family.  There had been a level of tension growing up.  I had wanted to get away from that when I married, but somehow it had carried over into the nuclear family of my marriage and children.  Though I had majored in psychology in college, and was finishing a Master’s degree in social work, my study of human behavior had not translated effectively into my own life.  Before I knew much about Bowen theory, I knew intuitively from my first introduction that it held a level of knowledge of families that would be different from anything I had learned before.

Michael Kerr first met Dr. Bowen in the Georgetown University Medical School, where Bowen was teaching and Kerr was a resident in training. In his initial encounters with Dr. Bowen, Kerr was struck with how the ideas made sense. For many who discover this theory, the first thing that captures interest is how well the theory describes one’s own family experience.  How could Bowen know that much about my family when he has never met them?

After my initial discovery of Bowen’s work, I enrolled in the program that he had founded at the Georgetown University Family Center, expecting that I could learn what Bowen knew in a year or two and begin to make changes in my family.  In reading “On the Differentiation of Self,” I had focused on his achievement and failed to pay attention to his detailed account of the twelve years of trial and error, and years of trial and partial success, that paved the way to his ultimate success.  In the Georgetown program, I soon realized that learning the theory is far more than an intellectual exercise or a set of techniques.  The learning process is slow and must be so for many reasons.  First, this way of thinking is radically different from individual-focused thinking in that it encompasses a broad, contextual perspective.  Second, we live most of the time in a world of cause-and-effect thinking, and the shift to more complex systems thinking comes gradually with occasional glimmers. Finally, because the learning is experiential as well as intellectual.  Every detail of the theory must be taken home, observed, and experienced within one’s own family and one’s self before it can be known to be accurate and become part of one’s awareness and functioning.

Study of one’s multigenerational family is essential to the learning of this theory.  At Georgetown, my excellent coach, Kathleen Kerr, often prompted me to “get up and out,” to broaden my lens on the family by making contact with extended family.  My concept of family had been shaped in my nuclear family of origin.  Parents and siblings in one household, we were like an emotional island.  Extended family members were somewhere out there in space, not on my radar screen.  I was entirely focused on the immediate and often urgent matters in the inner family circle.  Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins had been positive but distant figures in my life due to both geographic and emotional factors.  Visits to mother’s family required a trip to New York, a prized but rare event. Visits on father’s side were on holidays or special occasions.  I did not develop personal relationships with these likeable people, but I borrowed my parents’ views of them.  The way my father, or more often my mother, referred to different family members conveyed the varying levels of regard they had for them.  There were those who could do no wrong, and those what could do little right.  Who was I to question such things?

With theory as a guide, I made contact in an intentional way with letters and visits. People I had known as “relatives” became real human beings, generous in their hospitality and open to sharing family stories.  Unlike many people who set out to bridge cutoffs, I encountered few obstacles other than my own internal resistance to making the effort.  I had a good many significant visits with cousins, aunts, and uncles and heard their memories and perspectives.  As knowledge of the family expanded, so did my family diagram as I added people I had not known existed.  I learned about the migrations and moves that my ancestors had made in search of resources.  The lens of theory revealed the varying positions of individuals within the context of their lives.  With more facts, the relationship patterns were there to be observed. The varying ways in which each person adapted was fascinating to contemplate.  The experience was as Bowen describes it:

More knowledge of one’s distant families of origin can help one become aware that there are no angels or devils in a family; they were human beings, each with his own strengths and weaknesses, each reacting predictably to the emotional issue of the moment, and each doing the best he could with his life course.  (1978, 491)

A personal advantage that comes with this learning is the shift toward systems thinking and neutrality.  Words that Michael Kerr put at the end of his chapter on multigenerational transmission process riveted my attention:

People can develop more emotional neutrality by studying their own and other people’s multigenerational families to a degree sufficient to convince themselves that human beings have limited emotional autonomy.  If human beings are linked together emotionally across the generations by a process that is fueled by automatic reactions and reinforced by subjectivity, who does one blame? (1988, 255)

The thought that people have limited emotional autonomy and do the best they can with their lives ran counter to an attitude I had carried most of my life.  As I began to see the judgmental side of myself, the quickness to blame and locate a problem in another person, or sometimes in myself, I also saw how limiting and inaccurate that way of thinking is.  With greater objectivity and a relatively neutral frame of mind, I slowly gained personal freedom and flexibility.

An example of increased flexibility is practicing what I call “the stop and think rule.”  As I observe my own reactivity, in those moments of feeling threatened or impinged upon in an interaction, I remind myself that this is not a good moment to make a decision or take an action.  The first order of business is to restore a modicum of objectivity by looking at facts and considering whether there is a real problem.  It may take hours or days to get back to a balanced perspective.  Only then am I ready to decide whether to respond and how to do so.  A thoughtful response rather than an automatic reaction sets a calmer emotional climate, which in turn improves the chances for resolving the problem.  It also saves one from making mistakes that damage relationships.

Taking it to the next level

An important further step in building knowledge of emotional systems was to get “up and out” into the world of science.  I was intrigued with Dr. Bowen’s references to biology and evolution.  I began by trying to read Edward O. Wilson’s “Sociobiology,” a daunting book that opened a world of language and knowledge completely new to me.  As I pursued the literature, it became a revelation of useful information on human behavior and its biological roots.  The vast science on the behavior and social systems of other species is there to be explored.  The broad view of the human as part of all life and a product of evolution is so fundamental to Bowen theory that one cannot begin to understand the theory without it.

Murray Bowen’s elegant theory poses a challenge to those who would discover its secrets.  What this venture requires is stated forthrightly by Michael Kerr:

“Making Bowen theory one’s own requires shifting completely from individually-based, cause-and-effect thinking to systems thinking and shifting from focusing mostly on human uniqueness to understanding human beings in the context of nearly four billion years of evolution.  Such challenges generate a mental tension that makes it attractive for students to attempt to fit Bowen theory into their existing mind-set rather than challenge that mind-set.  …We are all fairly addicted emotionally to the correctness of our own thinking, but it is amazing to realize that it is possible to decouple emotion from thinking when we recognize that there is a radically different way to look at something.”  (Kerr 2019, xxv)

Bowen, Murray.  1978.  Family Therapy in Clinical Practice. New York:  Jason Aronson

Kerr, Michael E. and Murray Bowen. 1988.  Family Evaluation. New York:  W. W. Norton

Kerr, Michael E.  2019.  Bowen Theory’s Secrets.  New York:  W. W. Norton



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9 Comments on "Learning Bowen Theory"

  • Cecilia Guzman says

    Once Again Stephanie, you have written a wonderful article on the complexities encountered when trying to apply Bowen theory to ones’ own life and family. And you also elegantly explain the benefits of doing such difficult long-term work. Thank you for your thinking and efforts!

    Cecilia Guzman

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