The theory is based on observations of how the family operates as a system over many generations in the natural world. The two most primary forces which each person must contend with are the force to be an individual, and the force to go along with others and be a part of the social group. The balance of these two forces in any individual differs over a life time.
The concept of differentiation implies the maturity in humans has a correlation with a biological process in cells. There is greater differentiation as a cell matures. The act of differentiation implies that one is moving in a direction to be a more autonomous self while still being a part of the social group.
Bowen developed a scale of emotional maturity so that we might clarify the variables and the process that lead to emotional maturity and its opposite emotional regression. The scale was designed as a map reflecting conditions. This scale was not designed as a diagnostic tool but that does not keep people from thinking it is a tool.
If it's a tool it simply takes us beyond diagnostic labeling and beyond categories like normal, or diseased or even pathology. The scale enables us to see the process of functioning. It shows us that one's functioning in a group is influenced to greater or lesser degrees by the anxiety we absorb and the level of maturity in the surrounding social group. Our functioning is more fluid than standard diagnosis leads us to believe.
This scale also highlights the interplay of two important variables, feeling and thinking. Yes, people at the lower end of the scale have more anxiety and less interpersonal skills to deal with the anxiety and therefore relay more on anxiety binders like drugs or anger to manage self.
Primarily the scale notes that those who are motivated can always make an effort to become a more mature self. Secondly, by noting the two sides of autonomy, the ability to be more for self and the ability to be for others, it highlights the way emotional fusion is handled in relationships.
When people are more feeling focused they may let go of principles and try to stabilize his or her life by agreeing or becoming more like others. This mechanism, fusion, does not usually lead to the development of a more mature self but could buy one a bit of time to think about what is it that I believe or stand for.
If one can use thinking to understand the meaning and consequences of their feeling system they are in the middle of the scale. If one can reliably use thinking to mange automatic emotional reactivity their life course will run smoother. If one is caught reacting to others and over relies on feeling to figure out how to be more comfortable, they will eventually arrive at the lower end of the scale.
At the lower end of the scale it is extremely difficult to where one person begins and ends in relationship to others. Using the understanding of how one person fuses or blends in with another is a construct that for the first time clarifies how one person becomes and or is influenced emotionally to be a part of another person. It can be as simple as finishing a loved one's sentence or as cruel as force feeding or beating people because of how you feel. The confusion is between who one is and who another is. A funny movie that demonstrates fusion is a Woody Allen's 1983 Zelig movie.
The concept of fusion allows us to see how important it is to have knowledge of one's feelings and thinking. If one is not sure of self then the boundary between people can easily blur and will plays out in vast confusion in the important relationships. To move towards the upper part of the scale one has to know what it is I stand for and what it is I will do and further they have to be able to handle well their disagreements with others.
Some level of differentiation exits in all of us: the saint, the sinner and the schizophrenic. Differentiation is a "genetic like emotional and cognitive potential" that responds to changing conditions. It is the building ground for the emergence of the growing self. The goal is that a mature adult become a more separate self while being in good contact with important people in the family system.
The basic self is developed before the child leaves home. The central skill is the capacity to separate a functional self in important relationships. When this is done dependency and vulnerability to stress is reduced. The basic self has principles to use when life is hard and therefore can cope during adverse conditions. A more mature person is more flexible and resilient. These people have been able to integrate feelings, even difficult ones, with their thinking system and are therefore less reactive and more knowledgeable about their emotional vulnerabilities.
Even children develop beliefs about what is important and how to respond to demands from others. Feelings are emotionally rooted in our more primitive guidance system. They are subject to conscious awareness and therefore can help us to make quick decisions and express our capacity for feelings like love, joy and sadness.
There is no agreement as to the origin of moods or feeling states but most psychotherapy is directed to understanding this process. Some children have the capacity to watch moods and to self regulate, while others do not. Feelings and or moods often seem to have a life of their own. It is easy to see how some individuals continue to feel overwhelmed by feelings about their circumstances.
Thinking enables people to get a better handle on the influence of these states. However if thinking and feeling are not well integrated thinking can become a tool for obsessive feelings. This ability to understand both feelings and thinking is enhanced by neutrality. Emotional neutrality or the ability to accept what is, makes it possible for us to be aware without distortions.
It is the growth in the ability to manage one's own internal world and accurately read the external world that enables one to adjust to changes in important relationships.
If one is well integrate then one can have more open relationships with others. There is less fear generated in listening and talking to important others.
The basic self is counterbalanced by the more socially aware or functional part of self. Dr. Bowen use to refer to the "pseudo self". This is the part of self that is sensitive to needing love and approval, and the part that will push for giving in to others when the pressure from others to change goes up. The part of self that is people pleasing automatically responds to signals from important people. The more feeling oriented one is the more easily influenced by relationships and the need for love and approval. These people often adapt too much to demands and lose life energy.
Adapting to changing signals in the relationship field is automatic and may cause little trouble for most people. However when stress occurs it may be difficult for people to step out of familiar patterns and to think more for self.
The way that the relationship system is wired enables people to give and take emotional energy from one another. The lending and borrowing of one's self, can easily lead to un-differentiation or fusion.
Relationship patterns in the past generations can give one a sense of how much lending and borrowing of self has gone on.
There are many methods available enabling one to regulate the use of emotional energy in the moment. Differentiation always leads one back to the management of self in important relationships. This is how one builds an emotional backbone for becoming a more autonomous and joyful self.
0 to 25- People in this range of intense fusion live with the greatest amount of life problems. They are vulnerable to symptoms. This vulnerability can be a function of genes plus emotional process. Major symptoms occur and people are dominated by fear reactions. Individuality is sacrificed so that the symptomatic one can easily adapt to or rebel from the larger system. There is no energy for life goals as people are focused on obtaining comfort or getting away from others. Even negative relationships can provide familiar patterns representing a distorted form of love.
The loss of a separate self in relationships to others (fusion) is an automatic multi-generational process. Many people in this range bear symptoms, which seem to enable others in the family unit to be freer of anxiety. A few in the family are freer as the anxiety is bound up in one or two people. This shifting of anxiety within a social system is a natural process. Some in the family are freer of anxiety while others automatically absorb the anxiety or negative focus.
25 to 50- People in this range people are still guided more by what feels right and are very sensitive to disharmony. Their lives can be more functional except in times of stress. In the upper segment there is an awareness of principles and that feelings and moods should not dictate a life course. However it is a struggle to stay on course when important others are mad or upset. More energy goes into relationships than into self-directed goals. These people can be "Peak Performers" if the relationship system is in agreement with the goals.
50 to 60- in this range people still have a challenge to say what they think and feel to important others but they are often willing to try. These people can adjust to changes in relationships without threatening others. In addition they can derive satisfaction from both goals and relationships with others. These people know the importance of having open relationships with both the nuclear and extended families. They are more neutral about others and about their own thinking feeling processes. The relaxed and open stance to others enables them to become more "Peak Performers" despite being different from the norm in the important relationship system.
60 to 100- people in this range can be defined as the most mature and autonomous whose families are also mature. Here we can leave room for future evolution and the lives of Saints and Prophets. Please let your imagination fill in the blanks.