A Brief History of Bowen Theory

In the early days of family systems development, most psychiatrists utilized Freudian psychoanalytic theory in treatment, and the Family was not involved other than to provide information. Only the “designated Patient” was seen by the Physician. The idea of seeing family members also was such a radical departure from common practice that it was initially an “underground” movement. In the mid 1950’s several psychiatrists working independently started treating families with an emotionally disturbed member; thus the beginning of what came to be known as the Family Movement. This began to gain acceptance in the ‘60’s. 

In 1954, Dr. Murray Bowen embarked on a research project on Schizophrenia with the National Institute of Mental Health. He devised the research in such a manner that he began studying the mother-child relationship. He soon learned that the process involved not only the mother and child, but the entire family. While studying families who lived on the research unit, he also studied families with less debilitating problems, many of which were ordinary issues common among “normal” families. What he observed occurring in the families who had a schizophrenic member in an intense degree he also observed occurring to some degree in all families. As his work progressed, he was able to identify patterns of behavior in relationships which were so consistent that they were predictable. Dr. Bowen was discovering the science of Human Behavior which was to result in his Theory of Family Systems. Thus he began to think in a new way about emotional illness.

Bowen Theory Family Diagram