The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

The “Techniques” of Bowen Theory and Therapy

Authored by Sydney K. Reed, M.S.W.

Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines technique as “the method or details of procedure essential to the expertness of execution in any art, science.”  At CFC’s last Clinical Application of Bowen Family Theory and Therapy conference a participant, after seeing the video presentation of a Kerr/Bowen interview talking about differentiation of self, asked if there were techniques we could provide to learn how to do this.  I replied that without an understanding of theory, techniques would be useless and might fail. I think clinical applications of Bowen theory could be seen as techniques, the method essential to expertness in the execution of Bowen theory.

I’ve been thinking more about the question of how to learn Bowen theory and be able to use it in treatment settings.  Probably the first efforts would be understanding systems thinking.  Recognizing that the family or group is an emotional unit.  Individual functioning can only be understood by seeing the reciprocal influencing of the members of a family or work group.  To see the roots of this foundational concept you can read about Bowen’s research at NIMH* and see how watching the functioning of hospitalized families with a schizophrenic member revealed the reciprocal process.  Assuming this mutual influencing in a family or group one can begin to see the ways this happens.  One can see that the common mechanisms for managing anxiety, conflict, distance, over/under functioning, or triangles, are present in most anxious situations.

Observing one’s functioning and the functioning of one’s family in the face of anxiety is a good place to start.  Self-observation is needed.  Admittedly, it’s hard to be objective about oneself.   Maybe observing these patterns in clinical families might be easier—noting if you are able to keep thinking of the couple or family or work system as an emotional unit, each influenced by and influencing others’ behavior.  That means you can’t take sides…that means seeing how the system operates, even if everyone in the system isn’t present.

Taking a family history and compiling a family diagram that records the important events in the life of the family is essential.  With dates and locations of deaths, births, serious illnesses, divorces, education and occupational achievement one can begin to see the patterns of the emotional process that operates in the family.  The clients also begin to see the connections of the reactions of individuals to life events and how that impacts the entire family. A good history enables one to get beyond blame and appreciate the efforts that the family members are making to survive the anxiety of the moment.  This “honest” history of facts about the functioning of family members gives therapists and clients a more objective view of what is happening in the family.

Observing self and one’s own family, and one’s clinical individuals or families, is a technique that will teach one a tremendous amount about emotional process.  Recording the facts in a family diagram helps clarify the process.  These are essentially “clinical applications of the theory” and a good way to begin learning the therapy part of Bowen Family Systems Theory and Therapy.


*Bowen, Murray, edited by John Butler, The Origins of Family Psychotherapy: The NIMH Family Study Project. Jason Aronson: Lanham, MD, 2013.

Bowen, Murray, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice. Jason Aronson: Lanham, MD, 1985, 1983, 1978.

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