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Bowen's Family Systems Therapy Model




Bowen's Family Systems Therapy Model

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Bowen's Family Systems Therapy Model

The Bowen family systems model proposes that families function as a system connected with emotions. In the family settings, each member has a defined role to play, and there are some rules and guidelines to abide by. In theory, roles and patterns grow within the emotional unit that impacts their behaviors, affecting other members. Thus, the theory suggests that behavioral patterns that arise from how the family emotional system functions can result in their dysfunction or balance of the unit or both (Yektatalab, Seddigh, & Sodani, 2017). According to Dr. Bowen's theory, families have different levels of interdependence in their ways of operations; even in separate family units, the theory posits that they will still be profoundly impacted by their actions and emotions from one's family system (Yektatalab, Seddigh, & Sodani, 2017). The level of influence experienced from one family member's action to the rest makes Bowen's theory stand out as one of the best ways to effect family counselling.

Leading Figures

In the 1950s, before Dr. Bowen developed his family systems theory, Sigmund and his associates in 1959 dominated the psychodynamic psychologies (Yektatalab, Seddigh, & Sodani, 2017). According to Yektatalab et al. (2017), other theories that psychodynamic psychologies based their work on were behaviorism centered by Skinners, the third-force by Carl Rogers, Victor Frankl and his associates, and Abraham Maslow.

The theoretical articles dominated human behavior models, psychiatry and psychology as they presumed the patient's primacy in understanding, treating and understanding psychological disorders and human behaviors. The environment was radical, that Murray Bowen found room to emerge and began a psychiatrist profession by controversially rejecting the treatment and dogma of theories where solutions focused on individual models solely. The pioneers began to emerge to improve Bowen's theory developed in this environment, such as Henry Dicks and James Framo, who came up with object relations, Don Jackson, Gregory Bateson, and John Weakland improved on family communications.

Development of the Bowen's Family systems Therapy Model

Dr. Bowen, a psychiatrist by profession, was born in 1913, and by the 1940s, he had begun to include other family members like the mother in the treatment of his schizophrenic patients. He set aside time for his psychoanalytic training in 1954 when he moved to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). The doctor began shifting his therapies from an individual to appreciation of a family as a dimensional system. He thus began to involve more family members in his psychotherapy and research at NIMH. 1959 was his peak when he relocated to Georgetown University and founded the Georgetown Family Center; he thus developed less severe emotional problems in this environment. Dr. Bowen developed more interest in detailed research on families across multiple generations. Instead of focusing on pathology theories, he saw the need for common patterns in all 'human emotional systems.' He unearthed that there was little schizophrenia in everyone, relying on his qualitative similarities from all family systems (Erdem & Erdem, 2018).

In 1966, Dr. Bowen published his developing ideas as the first orderly presentation. Surprisingly, at the same time, his family underwent an emotional crisis to which he successfully applied his newly established model to intervene. Bowen discouraged undertaking psychotherapy as an individual but rather as a family unit of origin. Over time, the theory has expanded significantly to include life circle stages focus by McGoldrick and Carter and integration of feminist lens by Carter and Bograd in 1988 (Erdem & Erdem, 2018).

Basic Assumptions and Key Philosophy

Dr. Bowen's theory of family systems model applied various assumptions and key philosophies to build up the model. One fundamental assumption of this theory is that human being is an evolution's product. Therefore, behaviors are regulated by similar natural processes regulating the behaviors of all other living things. The researcher spent years of his time coming up with this theory through developments and testing. He started by merging repetitive clinical observations with other studies like evolution, biology, clinician and natural sciences. Dr. Bowen was a teacher, researcher, writer, and scholar working tirelessly to develop a view depicting man as part of all life within a broader scope of human behavior science (Bridge, 2019).

Dr. Bowen's theory depicted a generational difference in families where families produce people whose behaviors and lives vary significantly in productivity and stability. With this factor, some family members with stable marriages and some with divorce cases, alcoholic people and others schizophrenic, and people of all socioeconomic scale classes. He, therefore, concluded that just as families transmit genes, so do they transmit behaviors that ascribe to it. Thus, the family was more significant than the sum of its parts (Erdem & Safi, 2018).

Dr. Bowen's theory of family systems was also reliant on the assumption that family systems were dictated by emotional systems drawing their shape from the long line of species contributing to human beings' evolution. Relationships in these families were thus interdependent, resulting in a system where one individual's action or behavior influences other family members (Erdem & Safi, 2018).



Key Concepts

Differentiation of self

Bowen's family systems therapy model introduced concepts that interlock explain family functioning and development. The first concept is the differentiation of self. The concept argues that differentiated people can separate thoughts from feelings and thus fathom theirs from their fellows'. These people coil back to their family to understand their thinking on issues, deduce their experiences and feelings about others. The process determines how a child can free themselves from their families' emotional processes and defining their own such as developing their feelings and opinions or understanding their role in any interaction while maintaining their family emotional connections (Bridge, 2019).


Bowen included triangles in his theory to provide a vital role in the success of the model. Two people might fight or disagree over issues; a third person will be needed to either detour for the anxiety or provide support. This approach, therefore, forms a basic stable relationship unit (Bridge, 2019).

Family emotional system

            The emotional performance of a single generational family is significantly impacted by 'undifferentiation.' He further posits that failure to have effective fusion leads to triangling, problems could arise such as illness in a spouse, couple conflict and projection to children (Bridge, 2019).


Multi-generational transmission process

            Dr. Bowne believed that just as genes are transmitted from one generation to another, so do roles, themes, and patterns are projected from parents to children. However, the influence will be different from one child to another depending on their degree of triangling they possess with their parent (Bridge, 2019).


Structural family therapy

Family systems therapy forms a basis for numerous therapies conducted on families through its techniques implied by Dr. Bowen. The general categories implied are structural, strategic and integrational family therapy (Healy & Allen, 2019). Salvador Munich developed structural family therapy draws its application from therapy sessions. During such sessions, the therapist is keen on family behaviors, relationships, and patterns as they get displayed to assess the family's structure.  Role-playing and subsystems exhibited in the family help determine solutions for the family.

Strategic family therapy

            According to Healy & Allen (2019), Cloe, Milton and Jay Haley developed this technique to examine families’ functions and processes like problem-solving or communications by assessing family behaviors outside therapy sessions. Techniques such as redefining or reframing a problem to create the desired change. Therapists of this method assume a change can happen without intensively analyzing the source of this problem.         

Intergenerational family therapy

          This technique recognizes the generational effect on individual and family behaviors. Identifying such inherited traits as anxiety management can enable people to see how their struggles are rooted in their family line. Bowen developed this method to accept family challenges and normalize them without accusatory statements (Healy & Allen, 2019).

Similarities and Differences between Family Therapy and Gestalt Family Therapy

            Both Family therapy by Dr. Bowen and the Gestalt psychotherapy practices support the belief in families and the greater good of families' intentions. Secondly, both concepts believe that it is vital to place importance on contact and interaction. Thirdly both therapists believed that having a personal awareness is a cornerstone component to change. And lastly, they both believed that responsibilities lie within every family member to change and value meeting. Despite the many similarities, there are critical differences between the two concepts. The first difference is that therapeutic relations are only a tool to advance the therapy. At the same time, in Bowen's theory, the task is with the whole family regardless of the number of members present in the room. Bowen shifts focus from therapeutic rooms to real-life events rather than sessions in therapy rooms to solve challenges (Erdem & Safi, 2018).


In solving family problems through therapy sessions, Dr. Bowen's theory of family systems stands out as one of the best. The approach relies on the family's relationship where family members develop emotional connections that are heritable, such as anxiety management. Another thing to note down is the concept of the theory is the differentiation of self where one can stay connected to their family emotionally while exhibiting separation of feelings from thought.




Yektatalab, S., Seddigh, F., & Sodani, M. (2017). Efficacy of Bowen theory on marital conflict in the family nursing practice: A randomized controlled trial. Issues in mental health nursing38(3), 253-260.

Erdem, G., & Safi, O. A. (2018). The cultural lens approach to Bowen family systems theory: Contributions of family change theory. Journal of Family Theory & Review10(2), 469-483.

Healy, R. W., & Allen, L. R. (2019). Bowen family systems therapy with transgender minors: A case study. Clinical Social Work Journal, 1-10.

Bridge, E. N. (2019). Review of a case study in light of Bowen theory: Differentiation of self. Yaşam Becerileri Psikoloji Dergisi3(5), 65-72.

Erdem, G., & Safi, O. A. (2018). The cultural lens approach to Bowen family systems theory: Contributions of family change theory. Journal of Family Theory & Review10(2), 469-483.

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