The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

Pinned Down In a One Up Position: The Nature of Reciprocity

Authored by Peg Donley, L.S.C.S.W.

Murray Bowen often used the expression, “Pinned down in a one up position” to describe the nature of relationship reciprocity.  The phrase is consistent with a central idea in Bowen theory, mainly that individuals within a system are mutually influencing the functioning of others in subtle, yet powerful ways. This process is based on the sensitivity inherent in social relationships and the way interdependency takes shape between individuals within a group.

Reciprocity in relationships is an example of a universal process that operates in human and non-human relationships.  It is a fundamental aspect of systems thinking and an important component of understanding the processes that operate in family relationships.  In marriages, for example, the reciprocity between spouses can lead to a brief and temporary shift in one’s functioning all the way to more chronic and fixed impairments in one individual.  How this process takes shape in a marriage, and the degree to which it becomes chronic and fixed, is influenced by a number of variables including differentiation of self, chronic anxiety, and multi-generational transmission process.

Understanding how reciprocity operates in marriages is an important component of clinical work with couples.  Under-functioning/over-functioning reciprocity (or, over-responsible/under-responsible reciprocity) is a common presenting problem that can appear with the symptoms residing one spouse, leaving the other spouse symptom free.  Bowen’s phrase, “pinned down in a one up position,” speaks to how the individual in the “one-up” position is as caught in the process as is the individual in the “one-down” position – with each influencing the other.  Over time, the functioning in one spouse can become so regressed that it appears unrelated to the “helping focus” of the other.  The process is a product of the intense inter-dependency in the marriage and often operates outside of an individual’s awareness.  How a clinician thinks about the presenting problem will inevitably direct the clinical process and potential outcome.  Bowen theory offers a way of thinking about symptom development in marital relationships that is uniquely different from other theoretical perspectives.

Peg Donley, LSCSW

Prairie Village, KS

Therapist and Co-director of an educational and clinical training program for area therapists in the ongoing study of Bowen family systems theory and therapy

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