Aug 28, 2020
category: Education

Bowen’s Theory

Using the information, obtained from reading Bowen’s family theory, one can claim that this theory analyzes a human behavior in a family. The theory of Murray Bowen is based on eight connected concepts. Each concept has its own peculiarities, and it describes the human’s behavior in its own way. However, but all eight concepts are indispensable for creating a full picture of a family relationship and its possible issues.

Psychiatrist Murray Bowen views family as an emotional unit and describes the complex interactions within this unit. He ensures that all members of a family connect with each other emotionally (Kerr, 2000). This type of connection affects each member of a family, especially their feelings, thoughts, and even behavior. The emotional connection between all family members makes them interdependent. Hence, the changes in one member’s behavior predictably follow the changes in others.

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When a family has troubles, the tension between all members arises. The high tension is contagious and it spreads infectiously among them. When anxiety arises, eventually one member of a family unit accommodates stress in others. He or she usually feels overwhelmed, out of control, and even isolated (Kerr, 1981). The more anger one person absorbs, the less there is for others to absorb. Moreover, this situation gives rise to an unusual behavior within a family. A person becomes most vulnerable to depression, affairs, illness, or alcoholism.

Bowen believes that all family problems have their roots in the level of anxiety in a family (Hall, 1979). In Kristen’s family, the situation seemed calm during the first years of her marriage. Sophie became the person with “symptoms” as the less differentiated member of the family. Thus, Sophie is the person with the least ability to resist the oppression of others. She absorbs the anxiety and worries of the entire family.

According to Bowen’s theory, families experience two kinds of problems – ‘vertical problems’ usually pass down from parent to child (Papero, 1990). Kristen and her mother Juana experience this kind of problem. Kristen has had a rather cold relationship with her mother and father. Thus, she does not know how to behave with her children, so she passes down her problems to her children. The other type of problem, according to Bowen, is ‘horizontal problems’ (Papero, 1990). Environmental stressors usually cause such problems, which may result in chronic illness of some members of the family. The worst situation for the family is when vertical and horizontal problems happen simultaneously.

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Intergenerational Patterns of Behavior

In the general concept of generational transmitting process, Bowen describes how even small differences in the differentiation between children and their parents can lead to noticeable differences in the differentiation among members of multigenerational family over generations. In Bowen’s construct, he says that “intergenerational projection” occurs in all families but in different degrees (Kerr, 1988). The intergenerational influences usually determine which child of a family becomes the focus of an anxiety and define a stage of life when it can happen. The impact of crisis also has influence on the vulnerability of certain children.

Bowen explains intergenerational patterns of behavior in the part that he calls “Family Projection Process”. There, he describes how children can develop their symptoms when they are influenced by the anxiety of previous generations (Kerr, 1988). Usually, the most vulnerable to developing symptoms of separation is the child with the weakest emotional separation. Bowen explains it as occurring when a child responds anxiously to the tension in the family and in parents’ relationship, which often is mistaken for a problem in a child (Sagar, 1997). The child becomes more impaired and more demanded. In Kristen’s family, the vivid example of such a behavior is Sophie, who has gone out of control, and nobody knows how to control her behavior. It distracts her parents from other problems, and the tension between Kristen and her mother may be relieved for some time.

Another example of behavior presented in the example is sibling position. Sophie feels ignored and not understood in her family. While Kristen shows her love to Tanya and Brittany, the children of her husband Tony, Sophie, whose behavior reminds her of her ex-husband and Ronnie, feels unnoticed. Such a behavior of Kristen is explained by her unpleasant experience with the previous husband. Kristen herself also has some issues with her mother. She did not become close with her mother Juana, as Juana was not with her mother. This is what Bowen calls Multi-generational Transmission Progress. He describes that patterns and roles pass down from generation to generation, from a parent to a child (Kerr, 2000). The impact on every child is different, depending on the degree of ‘triangling’ the child has with his parents. Thus, other factors that influence differentiation processes are the quality of multigenerational contacts, sibling position, and degree of isolation between family members.

The Presence of Triangles

As explained earlier, Bowen sees family as a small relationship unit, while he shows triangle as a brick for building family. Therefore, triangles are considered the smallest stable relationship units. ‘Triangling’ is the foundation of Bowen’s theory. Triangles occur to relieve the anxiety between two people by involving the third person. This person can either take sides or be detour for the anger (Kerr, 2000).

It is difficult to identify triangles in calm conditions, as they mostly shows up in stress. Triangles also demonstrate Bowen’s theory of differentiation. More to say, Bowen does not suggest that the process of ‘triangling’ within the family or community is something dysfunctional. His concept gives a useful notion about forming a triangle and shows that the tension, which appears in a family, can be acted elsewhere. However, ‘triangling’ becomes problematic when the involved third person distracts other two from resolving burning issues (Hall, 1979). Moreover, triangles can repeat through generations. Even when one member of an existing triangle dies, the other takes his role. Triangles exist In Kristen’s family as well. The first and the most vivid example of a triangle is Kristen, her mother Juana, and Sophie. Kristen is not close to her mother, and they yell and fight all the time. Ronnie becomes a ‘rescuer’ in this situation. When both mother and daughter cannot build a relationship between each other, a daughter with her deviant behavior becomes their common problem. If at least one member of a triangle stays calm with the other two, the system automatically calms down.

The next triangle is Kristen, her oldest son Ronnie, and her mother Juana. Kristen considers her marriage with Tony a happy one. However, her mother Juana brings some tension to their relationship. She shows more favoritism to one child and brings tension to the family. Kristen is uncomfortable with the tension in her marriage because she loves her husband Tony and does not want to lose him. The more Juana gets involved with Ronnie, the more tension appears in the family. Ronnie has the outside position of this triangle, when Kristen and Juana are in the inside of this triangle.

Then the tension builds between Tony and Juana. Tony is not happy about the situation occurring in his family. The conflictual side of the triangle starts shifting from between Kristen and Juana, to Tony and Juana. If the conflict becomes too tense, Juana would take sides with Kristen, and the whole conflict would shift into her marriage with Tony. Hence, Juana would get the most comfortable outside position.

Consequently, triangles are the smallest units of relationship. When the relationship between two people becomes unstable because of some reasons (rising of an anxiety or tension), they seek for a third person to triangulate. Triangles do not show something dysfunctional, when they appear in healthy relationship.

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Families and other communities or social groups affect how people behave, think, and act. The difference is in differentiation of self. This is the first concept among others in Bowen’s theory.

The person with less developed and poorly differentiated of ‘self’ depends on the acceptance of the others so heavily that they adjust what they think and how they behave to please the others. Among people with poorly differentiated ‘self’, it is possible to highlight ‘bullies’ and ‘chameleons’. They are similar in their behavior but still, they have some peculiarities. Bullies depend on approval of others, but bullies want others to agree with them rather than agreeing with others. The example of a bully behavior is Kristen’s mother Juana. She likes the oldest son more than other children and wants others to agree with her. At the same time, chameleons tend to agree with others. There are also people who are in the middle of these two absolutes (Hall, 1979).

It is not possible to define who is well differentiated from Kristen’s family because all of them react to a conflict situation with anxiety, and they are not able to make decisions without emotions. However, the people with a well-differentiated ‘self’ realize their realistic dependence on others. Moreover, they are able to make their own decisions, and they are usually ruled not by emotions.

Differentiation is process of freeing oneself from family. This does not mean escaping from the family geographically or emotionally. It means being able to have different values and point of views than other family members but remaining emotionally connected to them. Well-differentiated people are able to react calmly at teasing situations and reflect calmly on a conflicted interaction.

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The Constructs of Cutoff and Fusion

Another way of differentiation is emotional cutoffs. The general concept of emotional cutoff describes people who want to manage their unresolved emotional problem with other family members by reducing emotional contact with them. These emotional cutoffs can be divided into internal (avoiding communication with a person, still living with), and geographical (physical separation) (Kerr, 2000). For example, a person rarely comes home or stays in contact with a family but avoids emotional issues. It can reduce tension in the family, and the situation may look better on the surface, but the actual problem remains unresolved.

Less differentiated people experience emotional cutoffs more often than well-differentiated ones do. Thus, in Kristen’s family, Sophie feels that her parents do not understand her and do not approve of her behavior. That is why she avoids spending time with her family. The time she spends with her family often turns into hysterics and shouting. Thus, the parents and other members of the family feel exhausted after having some issues with Sophie. It makes her behavior even worse than before.

Emotional cutoffs can pass through generations. The vivid example of this is Kristen and Juana. The problem is, that the more powerful the cutoff with the past is, the more likely that the problem will occur in the person’s own marriage and family or in the relationship with his or her children. Consequently, cutoff is ineffective way to manage the tension within a family.

Treatment Plan

Kristen’s family experiences some issues, but there are some actions in Bowen’s therapy that would help the family mend their problems. The first step is lowering the level of anxiety in the family. In this way, all members (Juana, Kristen, Tony, Ronnie, Sophie, and girls) will act calmly. For the adult couple (Tony and Kristen), according to Bowen’s theory, it would be recommended to increase differentiation. In this way, they will manage their own anxiety and will be more effective in their parenthood. They will fortify the family and provide a healthy emotional wellbeing. The next thing to suggest is that the family should use a therapist as a part of a ‘healthy triangle’. The therapist can teach the couple to manage their emotions. In addition, the family should improve their relationship with family members who have problems. For example, to change the actions of Sophie, who is ignored because of her behavior, it is important to encourage her to stay with her family. Additionally, it is necessary to develop a personal relationship with every member of the family. It will help to make a stronger relationship in the family. It is also important to evaluate progress of the family, monitoring the happiness and overall health of the family, and control its differential process to prepare the family to future changes.


Consequently, Bowen says that well-differentiated people are less likely to conflict with others; they estimate the situation and rarely use emotions. Triangles occur in every relationship. However, when the anger arises, tension ascends in the triangle. Bowen in his theory defines all possible issues and cure for them. His eight concepts are important to know and use in practice.

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