The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

Why Make the Study of Bowen Theory a Life-long Learning Project?

Authored by Leslie Ann Fox, M. A.

Bowen theory is different from traditional theories of human behavior, and the practice that emerges from understanding and using the concepts in your personal and professional life are sometimes counter-intuitive. Michael Kerr, MD makes the important point in his most recent book, Bowen Theory’s Secrets, Revealing the Hidden Life of Families, that Bowen theory is descriptive, not prescriptive. The theory describes what people actually do, not what they should do. According to Kerr, “The theory is an attempt to move toward a science of human behavior, a theory based on verifiable functional facts about human behavior that can make predictions” (Page 166).

Bowen theory does not lead a therapist/consultant and the client into a medical model of treatment or advice. Those using Bowen theory as their underlying theoretical framework learn to think alongside their clients by listening and asking questions that lead the conversations not to cause and effect thinking, but rather to systems thinking. Using systems thinking results in a broader perspective of one’s family and relationship challenges. Therapists/consultants using Bowen theory rarely tell a client what to do about specific issues; instead their questions point the client in a direction to explore, or suggest the reframing of a situation in a broader perspective, that of the larger system.

The value for both client and therapist is that the individual is allowed to become more responsible for self rather than becoming dependent on a relationship with a therapist/consultant. The therapist/consultant is not a “fixer”, and does not communicate to clients a need for someone else “to do” something to them, or for them. This frees the therapist/consultant to study and learn alongside the client. Each client’s story becomes a research project, or a “scientific inquiry”, as Kerr prefers to speak of it, as defined by the biologist, George C. Williams.  Kerr states, “Williams defines scientific inquiry as any combination of theoretical thinking, empiricism, and intuition that suits the investigator”. (Page 177 and 178) Thus, each client is a case study, challenging both the client and the therapist/consultant to explore new facts that they observe about human behavior.

Another part of the value for Bowen practitioners is the emphasis on the importance of studying their own families and continuously working on becoming a more responsible self in their family systems. Bowen training programs include the requirement that the practitioner trainee do their own family of origin work, the same kind of effort they will be helping clients learn to do. Learning Bowen theory is experiential; using the theory is not a technique, but rather a way of thinking and living one’s life that leads practitioners to develop principles for relating to clients and others that fosters one’s own personal growth, affecting all of the practitioner’s systems.

For practitioners to use Bowen theory as their foundational framework they must be using systems thinking to regulate themselves in the relationship with the client, so as not to get fused into the emotional system of the client. Unlike psychoanalysis, the use of transference is not the goal of a Bowen therapist/consultant. A Bowen practitioner expects the client to work out problems in their family, not with the therapist acting as a surrogate. This was heretical thinking in the 1950’s and 60’s when Bowen first espoused this approach to using the theory as a basis for doing therapy, and it is still not mainstream thinking or practice. Staying emotionally neutral and outside of the emotional system in the presence of an anxious client is a challenge for practitioners.  It is hard to do with clients, just like it is in your own family. This is one reason that all Bowen trained therapists have family coaching from a trained Bowen therapist.

What does the process for learning Bowen theory look like? First understand your own family system—gather and reflect on functional facts in your family’s history, reflect on and explore how you evolved and what part you now play in the family emotional system. Consider what patterns of functioning you took from your family of origin into your adult systems. This work may lead to changes in how you view the emotional process in your family of origin and in your current nuclear family. Such information allows you to decide whether or not to work more intentionally on growing more self in your family systems. Your own understanding of and experience in using Bowen theory for self can then be helpful to your clients. Challenging isn’t it?

Learning Bowen theory is the most important life-long learning project I have tackled. I did not know it at first, but I signed on for life when I embarked on the study of Bowen theory. In the beginning I found it hard to consistently think systems, as it does not come naturally. Our society’s culture is individually focused and not inclined to consider context or the fundamental interdependence of humans when it comes to the behavior of our family, friends and colleagues. However, I found it harder to stop trying to think systems after I had made the effort for a while, and had some success with it personally and then professionally. Thirty years into this extraordinary adventure in learning, I can say I am still learning (sometimes relearning) and getting new insights. It is the best thing I ever did for myself, my family and my work and friendship systems. The theory was Bowen’s gift to the world, and I am grateful for having encountered it.

Leslie Fox

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1 Comment on "Why Make the Study of Bowen Theory a Life-long Learning Project?"

  • Katie Sanders says

    Thanks so much for the very cogent explanation of Bowen theory. It was concise and clear. Maybe life will be more that way if it is applied! Thanks.

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