Theory Synopsis

The Bowen Theory conceptualizes the human family as an “emotional unit” and the individual family members as a responsive and inseparable part of the unit, rather than acting autonomously from it. As such, it identifies the human family units as natural systems that are integrally part of all of biology. The theory postulates that the members of human families function in predictable ways that link each (physiologically, mentally, and behaviorally) to the functioning of the other, while all are responding to the natural laws which govern all forms of life.

Terms integral to understanding the theory:

  • Emotion: The reflexive movement of a system and its parts.
  • Anxiety: The system’s response to the amount (how much and/or how often) and the term (how long) of emotion.
  • Reactivity: The reflexive action or activity of the parts (or members) of a natural system to the variable amounts of anxiety within it.

The primary function of a natural system, being grounded in biology, is its continual dynamic striving toward or regaining equilibrium or balance.

From the early 1950’s until his death in 1990, Dr Murray Bowen studied the observable mechanisms by which families respond to the activity of its members and impacting events. He postulated that these responses are the reflexive movements of the family system as it attempts to achieve balance within the constantly changing dynamics of its interlocking natural systems.

The eight interactive concepts of the Bowen theory are:

  1. Triangles
  2. Nuclear (or Core) Family Emotional Process
  3. Family Projection Process
  4. Multigenerational Transmission Process
  5. Differentiation *
  6. Sibling Position
  7. Emotional Cutoff
  8. Emotional Process in Society

The concepts defined:

1. Triangles: One of the mechanisms (reflexive actions) a system utilizes to bind anxiety, in an attempt to restore or achieve equilibrium, is the involvement (triangling) of a third person (issue or focus) into a reactive dyad. The triangle, a three-person emotional configuration, is the basic building block of a stable emotional system and describes its dynamic movement toward gaining equilibrium. If equilibrium is not achieved or restored within the system by the initial attempt(s) to triangle, a subsequent person(s), issue(s), or focus(i) is(are) triangled in, thus forming a webbing of interlocking triangles.

2. Nuclear (or Core) Family Emotional Process: This concept describes the observable mechanisms and patterns of emotional functioning in a family, in a single generation, as it responds to the activity of its members and impacting events. These processes are the reflexive action or activity of the system to the varying amounts of anxiety and the systems attempt to achieve equilibrium or balance. These processes are: marital conflict, dysfunction of a spouse, and impairment of one or more children through the family projection process. Emotional distancing, not considered a distinct category because it is a feature of all relationships, is intertwined with all the patterns of emotional functioning in a nuclear family. The nuclear family emotional process (the observable mechanisms and patterns of emotional functioning) of the current generation typically is a replica of past generations and will be repeated in the generations to follow.

3. Family Projection Process: One of the processes of emotional functioning observed in the nuclear family, to varying degrees, is the Family Projection Process. As a result of this process, the basic level of differentiation, or the reactivity of the parents of the family unit, and their level of chronic anxiety is projected to one or more children who become(s) impaired to some degree and may then develop physical, emotional and social symptoms.

4. Multigenerational Transmission Process: This concept describes the transmission of the nuclear family emotional process through multiple generations. Individual differences in functioning (differentiation of self) and multigenerational trends in functioning, reflect an orderly and predictable relationship process that connect the functioning of family members across the generations. As basic levels of differentiation increase and decrease down through the generations, the reactivity of the individual and the family unit varies accordingly.

5. Differentiation: Differentiation of self describes two distinct and closely interrelated processes. The first process occurs within the individual and refers to the individual’s capacity to be aware of the difference between their intellectually determined functioning and their emotionally determined functioning. The second process describes the way the individual functions in relationship and his/her ability to maintain emotional autonomy in a relationship system. A gain in the differentiation of self within one’s family is brought about by increase of knowledge of one’s multigenerational family system as informed by the concepts of the theory. This increase in multigenerational knowledge assists person to form a base of understanding from which to make mindful choices to act thoughtfully (objectively), utilizing their intellectually determined functioning, or reactively (subjectively), utilizing their emotionally determined functioning, to the emotional forces in his day-to-day experience.

6. Sibling Position: Certain fixed personality and functional characteristics seem to be determined by the original family configuration in which a child grows up. Though not precise, there are predictable relationships between the sibling complex, personality development and level of functioning based in gender, birth-order and rank of importance in the family of origin. To the degree to which a sibling profile fits in a particular case, certain levels of differentiation and certain family projection processes may be indicated to exist.

7. Emotional Cutoff: While there are gradations of emotional cutoff, the degree of cutoff is equivalent to the degree of unresolved emotional attachment to one’s parents and thus, basic level of differentiation. This concept speaks of one of the ways an individual family member attempts to manage lower levels of differentiation by separating him/herself from the nuclear family through emotional isolation or physically distancing. The lower the level of differentiation within the nuclear family and the generations, the greater the degree of emotional cutoff.

8. Emotional Process in Society: This concept refers to larger emotional systems, such as ethnic, national and cultural groupings. These larger groupings are subject to the same laws governing all living systems. Therefore, like the family, these groups, when subjected to chronic and sustained anxiety, can choose not to employ intellectually determined principles for resolution of reactivity, and respond reflexively with emotionally determined mechanisms to allay system anxiety. Increased social anxiety and a resulting decrease in the functional level of the society can result in a gradual lowering of the functional level of it’s families. The increased emotional process in such groups influences the increase of emotional process in the family. The lower the level of differentiation within the family system, the more the family emotional process is influenced by societal emotional processes.