BOWEN THEORYThe eight concepts presented here are now available in printed form. One Family’s Story: A Primer on Bowen Theory is available in single copies and at a discount for bulk purchases.
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. It is the nature of a family that its members are intensely connected emotionally. Often people feel distant or disconnected from their families, but this is more feeling than fact. Family members so profoundly affect each other's thoughts, feelings, and actions that it often seems as if people are living under the same "emotional skin." People solicit each other's attention, approval, and support and react to each other's needs, expectations, and distress. The connectedness and reactivity make the functioning of family members interdependent. A change in one person's functioning is predictably followed by reciprocal changes in the functioning of others. Families differ somewhat in the degree of interdependence, but it is always present to some degree.
The emotional interdependence presumably evolved to promote the cohesiveness and cooperation families require to protect, shelter, and feed their members. Heightened tension, however, can intensify these processes that promote unity and teamwork, and this can lead to problems. When family members get anxious, the anxiety can escalate by spreading infectiously among them. As anxiety goes up, the emotional connectedness of family members becomes more stressful than comforting. Eventually, one or more members feel overwhelmed, isolated, or out of control.
These are the people who accommodate the most to reduce tension in others. It is a reciprocal interaction. For example, a person takes too much responsibility for the distress of others in relationship to their unrealistic expectations of him. The one accommodating the most literally "absorbs" anxiety and thus is the family member most vulnerable to problems such as depression, alcoholism, affairs, or physical illness.
Dr. Murray Bowen, a psychiatrist, originated this theory and its eight interlocking concepts. He formulated the theory by using systems thinking to integrate knowledge of the human species as a product of evolution and knowledge from family research. A core assumption is that an emotional system that evolved over several billion years governs human relationship systems. People have a "thinking brain," language, a complex psychology and culture, but people still do all the ordinary things other forms of life do. The emotional system affects most human activity and is the principal driving force in the development of clinical problems. Knowledge of how the emotional system operates in one's family, work, and social systems reveals new and more effective options for solving problems in each of these areas.
Triangles三角关系A triangle is a three-person relationship system. It is considered the building block or "molecule" of larger emotional systems because a triangle is the smallest stable relationship system. A two-person system is unstable because it tolerates little tension before involving a third person. A triangle can contain much more tension without involving another person because the tension can shift around three relationships. If the tension is too high for one triangle to contain, it spreads to a series of "interlocking" triangles.
Spreading the tension can stabilize a system, but nothing gets resolved. People's actions in a triangle reflect their efforts to ensure their emotional attachments to important others, their reactions to too much intensity in the attachments, and their taking sides in the conflicts of others.
Paradoxically, a triangle is more stable than a dyad, but a triangle creates an "odd man out," which is a very difficult position for individuals to tolerate. Anxiety generated by anticipating or being the odd one out is a potent force in triangles. The patterns in a triangle change with increasing tension. In calm periods, two people are comfortably close "insiders" and the third person is an uncomfortable "outsider." The insiders actively exclude the outsider and the outsider works to get closer to one of them.
Someone is always uncomfortable in a triangle and pushing for change. The insiders solidify their bond by choosing each other in preference to the less desirable outsider. Someone choosing another person over oneself arouses particularly intense feelings of rejection. If mild to moderate tension develops between the insiders, the most uncomfortable one will move closer to the outsider. One of the original insiders now becomes the new outsider and the original outsider is now an insider. The new outsider will make predictable moves to restore closeness with one of the insiders.
At moderate levels of tension, triangles usually have one side in conflict and two sides in harmony. The conflict is not inherent in the relationship in which it exists but reflects the overall functioning of the triangle. At a high level of tension, the outside position becomes the most desirable. If severe conflict erupts between the insiders, one insider opts for the outside position by getting the current outsider fighting with the other insider. If the maneuvering insider is successful, he gains the more comfortable position of watching the other two people fight. When the tension and conflict subside, the outsider will try to regain an inside position.
Triangles contribute significantly to the development of clinical problems. Getting pushed from an inside to an outside position can trigger a depression or perhaps even a physical illness. Two parents intensely focusing on what is wrong with a child can trigger serious rebellion in the child.
Example:Michael and Martha were extremely happy during the first two years of their marriage. Michael liked making major decisions and Martha felt comforted by Michael's "strength." After some difficulty getting pregnant, Martha conceived during the third year of the marriage, but it was a difficult pregnancy. She was quite nauseous during the first trimester and developed blood pressure and weight gain problems as the pregnancy progressed. She talked frequently to Michael of her insecurities about being a mother. Michael was patient and reassuring, but also began to feel critical of Martha for being "childlike."
[Analysis: The pregnancy places more pressure on Martha and on the marital relationship. Michael is outwardly supportive of Martha but is reactive to hearing about her anxieties. He views her as having a problem.]
A female infant was born after a long labor. They named her Amy. Martha was exhausted and not ready to leave the hospital when her doctor discharged her. Over the next few months, she felt increasingly overwhelmed and extremely anxious about the well-being of the young baby. She looked to Michael for support, but he was getting home from the office later and Martha felt that he was critical of her problems coping and that he dismissed her worries about the child. There was much less time together for just Michael and Martha and, when there was time, Michael ruminated about work problems. Martha became increasingly preoccupied with making sure her growing child did not develop the insecurities she had. She tried to do this by being as attentive as she could to Amy and consistently reinforcing her accomplishments. It was easier for Martha to focus on Amy than it was for her to talk to Michael. She reacted intensely to his real and imagined criticisms of her. Michael and Martha spent more and more of their time together discussing Amy rather than talking about their marriage.
[Analysis: Martha is the most uncomfortable with the increased tension in the marriage. The growing emotional distance in the marriage is balanced by Martha getting overly involved with Amy and Michael getting overly involved with his work. Michael is in the outside position in the parental triangle and Martha and Amy are in the inside positions.]
As Amy grew, she made increasing demands on her mother's time. Martha felt she could not give Amy enough time, that Amy would never be satisfied. Michael agreed with Martha that Amy was too selfish and resented Amy's temper tantrums when she did not get her way. However, if Michael got too critical of Amy, Martha would defend Amy, telling Michael he was exaggerating. Yet, whenever tensions developed between Martha and Amy, Martha would press Michael to spend more time with Amy to reassure her that she was loved. He gave into Martha's pleas, but inwardly felt that they were following a policy of appeasement that was making Amy more demanding. Michael felt that if Martha had his maturity, Amy would be less of a problem, but, despite this attitude, Michael usually followed Martha's lead in relationship to Amy.