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About Bowen Theory

"We begin by looking back"

Bowen family systems theory is a theory of human behavior that views the family as an emotional unit and uses systems thinking to describe the complex interactions in the unit. 

Murray Bowen and Andrea Schara, 1986

Bowen saw how the emotional systems which govern human relationships had evolved over millions of years.

He postulated that differentiation (level of emotional maturity) among family members produced variation, as individuals became more of less mature from one generation to the next. In cases where multi-generational transmission, differentiation among family members becomes progressively lower, this can also generate clinical symptoms.  

The goal of “Extended Family Systems Therapy” is to increase individual family members level of differentiation by the motivation of those who are capable of being in better emotional contact with those in the nuclear and extended family.


This effort  requires knowledge of the emotional system and how to manage and define self in relationships.  Emotional, biological and environmental influences are considered as the individual adapts within the family unit over the generations.

 Bowen's 8 Concepts

1. Levels of differentiation of self 


Families and social groups affect how people think, feel, and act, but individuals vary in their susceptibility to “group think”. Also, groups vary in the amount of pressure they exert for conformity. The less developed a person’s “self,” the more impact others have on his functioning and the more he tries to control the functioning of others. Bowen developed a scale to measure differentiation of self.

2. The nuclear family 

This concept describes 4 relationship patterns that manage anxiety, marital conflict, dysfunction in one spouse, impairment of one or more children, emotional distance) that govern where problems develop in a family. 

3. Family projection process 

This concept describes the way parents transmit their emotional problems to a child. Some parents have great trouble separating from the child. They imagine how the child is, rather than having a realistic appraisal of the child.  Relationship problems that most negatively affect a child’s life are a heightened need for attention and approval, difficulty dealing with expectations, the tendency to blame oneself or others, feeling responsible for other’s happiness, and acting impulsively to relieve the anxiety of the moment, rather than tolerating anxiety and acting thoughtfully.

4. Multigenerational transmission process 

This concept describes how small differences in the levels of differentiation between parents and their offspring lead over many generations to marked differences in differentiation among the members of a multigenerational family. The way people relate to one another creates differences, which are transmitted across generations. People are sensitive and react to the absence or presence of relationships, to information about this moment, the future and or the past, and this, along with our basic genetic inheritance, interacts to shape an individual’s “self.”

5. Sibling position 

Bowen theory incorporates psychologist Walter Toman’s work relating to sibling position. People who grow up in the same sibling position have important common characteristics. For example, oldest children tend to gravitate to leadership positions and youngest children often prefer to be followers, unless the parents disappointed them.  Toman’s research showed that spouses’ sibling positions when mismatched often affect the chance of divorcing.

6. Triangles


 A triangle is a three-person relationship system. It is considered the triangle as the “molecule” of larger emotional systems, as it is the smallest stable relationship system. A triangle can manage more tension than a 2-person relationship as tension shifts among the three. Triangles can exert social control by putting one on the outside or bring in an outsider when tension escalates between two. Increasing the number of triangles can also stabilize spreading tension. Marital therapy uses the triangle to provide a neutral third party capable of relating well to both sides of a conflict.

 7. Emotional cut off 


People sometimes manage their unresolved emotional issues with parents, siblings, and other family members by reducing or totally cutting off emotional contact with them. This resolves nothing and risks making new relationships too important.

8. Societal emotional process 


This concept describes how the emotional system governs behavior on a societal level, similar to that within a family, which promotes both progressive and regressive periods in a society. 

More on these concepts:

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