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Bowen Theory & Concepts

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Dr. Bowen believed that human behavior is linked to biological functioning; therefore, he diligently studied the biological sciences to find application to what he was learning as he developed the theory. His root goal was to identify the facts about emotional functioning, and he consistently sought to bring knowledge from other fields to contribute to his theory.

Six years after his research began, Dr. Bowen published the first of eight concepts of family systems theory. Throughout his professional life he always encouraged comments and critiques in seeking the basic facts to substantiate or modify the theory. Today the theory is utilized through its application to the individual, the family and  to any and all social systems.

There are two main variables in the Bowen Theory:
1) Degree of anxiety.
2) Degree of integration of self.

According to Bowen, all organisms are reasonably adaptable to acute anxiety. When anxiety is chronic, the organism develops tension, either within the organism or in the relationship system. The tension produced by enduring anxiety precipitates symptoms, dysfunction or sickness. The symptoms are manifested by physical illness, by emotional dysfunction, social illness characterized by impulsiveness, withdrawal or social misbehavior in a spouse; or by emotional or behavioral dysfunction in a child.

This is a succinct outline of the eight concepts of family systems theory as developed by Murray Bowen, M.D., now referred to as Bowen theory.


This concept is the cornerstone in the theory. It defines people according to the degree of “fusion” between the emotional and intellectual functioning of the individual. This is a relative term, though Bowen established a theoretical scale of 0-100 in order to reflect on differences in individuals. Those people who are at the lowest end of the scale (less differentiated) are so fused in their emotional and intellectual functioning that their lives are dominated and controlled by the automatic emotional system. These are the people who are less flexible, less adaptable, and more emotionally dependent on those about them. At the high end of the scale are those people who are better differentiated. They are clear on what is intellectual functioning and what is emotional functioning. These are the people who maintain autonomy in times of stress, are more flexible, more adaptable and more independent of emotionality about them. They cope more successfully with life stresses, and life courses more orderly, more successfully and are freer of human problems.  Another important part of the differentiation of self has to do with levels of “solid-self” and “pseudo-self.” The solid-self is based on clearly defined beliefs, opinions, convictions, and life principles. These are developed by the self over time and are based on intellectual reasoning. When making choices the solid-self accepts responsibility for the choices he makes. The pseudo-self is based on emotional pressures and changes with emotional pressures. The pseudo-self is composed of a group of principles, beliefs, philosophies, and knowledge, often acquired as group pressure dictates. Therefore, these principles and beliefs are often inconsistent and random. The individual is never aware of the inconsistencies. Thus, the persons can pretend to be in harmony with many and varied groups. An example of the pseudo-self is a marriage where spouses become a “we-ness." They seek togetherness. Generally, the spouses fuse into each other. One will gain self while the other loses self. When the relationship becomes fixed with one partner gaining self and the other losing self in a rigid manner, dysfunction results. They tend to be vulnerable to minor stresses with prolonged recoveries. These are the people who inherit a high number of human problems.


This is the basic building block of an emotional system. It is the smallest stable relationship system. A two person system is stable in times of calmness or low anxiety. However, when tension increases between two persons, one party will automatically involve a third person. How does the triangle relationship system work? When anxiety is low, there will be a comfortable twosome and an outsider. The comfortable twosome work to maintain togetherness so that one of the twosome will not seek togetherness elsewhere. The outsider seeks to establish togetherness with one of the twosome. Moderate tension is typically felt by one of the twosome while the other party is unaware of the tension. The uncomfortable one seeks togetherness with another, thus moving the system to a new equilibrium. In times of anxiety the most comfortable position in the triangle is the outside. However, when the outside person refuses to be involved, then one of the twosome will reach outside the triangle and involve a fourth person. This frees the original outsider for involvement later. The universal example of the triangle is the Primary Triangle, consisting of Mother, Father and Child. Everyone has this. Often, this triangle operates with one parent (commonly the Mother) and the child functioning as insiders, and the Father is the outsider. But, as in all triangles, the dynamics shift at times.

When families become distinctly disturbed and the relationships do not stabilize, outside agencies are often triangled into the conflicts. For example, mental health professionals often become involved at this point. On occasion, several agencies become involved. There are times when the stress in the family them becomes stress among the agencies and the family anxiety is decreased.


The concept describes the patterns of the family’s emotional functioning in a single generation. There are certain patterns between father, mother, and children which are reproduced from past generations. Predictions about the future can be made by reconstructing the past and observing the current generation. People pick spouses of approximately the same differentiation level. Most spouses have the most open relationship during their courtship days. At the time a firm commitment is made, the fusion process (loss of individuality) begins. The lower the differentiation the more intense the

emotional fusion. Thus one spouse becomes the primary decision maker; the other takes the adaptive role. If both are dominant, conflict results. If both try for the adaptive role, decision paralysis occurs. The imbalance in the fusion (togetherness) and differentiation (individuality) in the relationship leads to anxiety in the marriage. Bowen described four mechanism used by couple to deal with this tension:

A) Emotional distance – This is the most common and universal mechanism used to deal with anxiety. It is present to some degree in all marriages and to a major degree in many marriages.

B) Marital Conflict – This occurs when neither spouse will give into the other or when neither is capable of the adaptive role. Those marriages are the most intense and each spouse invests much emotional energy in the other. This energy is either thought or action. The relationship cycles through periods of intense closeness, then conflict, then emotional distance. This cycle repeats over and over. Conflictual marriages are in themselves not harmful to children. The intense emotional fusion is kept between the spouses. When the projective process is also present, it is the projection which is harmful to the children, for example, a couple arguing about one or more of the children.

C) Dysfunction in One Spouse – This is the result of fusion being absorbed by a spouse who is in the adaptive position. One spouse over-functions and dominates the marriage. The other spouse under functions and is dependent on the other. Dysfunction may be in the form of physical illness, emotional problems, or social problems. The over functioning individual generally accepts the role without complaint. The process of over functioning/under functioning is very difficult to reverse. Generally problems of this type do not affect the children except that the children inherit the life pattern of caretaking.

D) Child Focus (Family Projection Process - This concept is discussed as a separate concept because of its importance in the total theory.)


This describes the concept in which parents project on to one or more children the fusion of the parents. The process operates within the triangle of mother-father-child as one of the mechanisms of avoiding the tension in the marriage. Additionally, it may evolve around the mother, who is the primary caretaker of the infant in our society. The result of the process is the impairment of the child. This process is so universal that it exists in all mother-father-child triangles to some degree. It exists in all varying degrees of intensity from minimal to severe.


This concept was added to the theory in 1975. It deals with the emotional process between the generations. It describes the way that people deal with the unresolved emotional attachments to their parents. All people have some unresolved attachments to their parents. However, the lower the level of differentiation, the more intense the attachment. There are various mechanisms individuals use to cutoff with parents. Typical cutoff methods are:


a) Physical distance – moves to another part of the country; make only duty visits to parents.
b) Remain in the same geographic area but be uninvolved in the lives of their parents.
c) Remain in the home of the parents.

Today a common version of the emotional cutoff is the “generation gap.”


This concept describes the course of the family projective process through multiple generations and is inevitable though variable. In the nuclear family, one child is more involved in the projection process than others. Thus he comes out with a lower level of differentiation than others. Others are involved minimally with the emotional process of the parents. They emerge at a higher level of differentiation. In the multigenerational transmission process there are individuals who emerge at a higher level, the same level, or a lower level of differentiation as the parents. Thus, descendants evolve with lower and lower levels of differentiation and eventually dysfunctioning occurs. Likewise, there some descendants evolve at a higher level of functioning. Thus, a balance in the system.


This concept in the Bowen Theory is an adaptation of Walter Toman’s work on the personality profiles of each sibling position. The degree to which the sibling profile fits the “normal” provides a way of understanding the level of differentiation and the projective process from generation to generation. It also suggests a means of understanding how a particular child is chosen to be involved in the family projective process. As an example, when an oldest turns out to be more like a youngest child, indications are that this is the child who was most triangled by the parents. Knowing the profile provides insight for understanding the mix in marriages, i.e., an oldest married to an oldest often produces “seniority” conflicts in the marriage.


This is the last and most recent concept in Bowen theory, although it captured his attention early on. During the 1960’s there was growing evidence that the emotional problems in society were similar to those in the family. The actual observations made centered on problems with delinquent teenage youngsters and what happened when the youngsters became the responsibility of the society.The concept conveys the thinking that a family subjected to chronic, sustained anxiety begins to lose contact with intellectually determined principles and resort to more and more emotionally determined decisions to allay the anxiety of the moment. The end product of the process is symptom development and eventually regression to a lower level of functioning. To apply this to a society, he postulated that the same process noted in families is evolving in the population which is in a period of increasing chronic anxiety. Thus, society responds to this with emotionally determined decisions to allay the anxiety of the moment and over time results in symptoms of dysfunction. The efforts to relieve the symptoms result in more emotional “band aid” type legislation which increases the problems, and that the cycle keeps repeating itself just as the family goes through similar cycles and comes to the state called “emotional illness.”Dr. Bowen considered the chronic anxiety as a product of the population explosion, decreasing supplies of food and raw materials necessary to maintain man’s way of life on earth, and the pollution of the environment which is slowly threatening man’s existence.

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