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Bowen's Family Systems; A Primer on Family Counseling

Updated on November 7, 2013

Key Terms

To begin talking of the Bowenian model of couples and family therapy it will be helpful to define some terms;

Differentiation- The process by which we become autonomous and learn to act wisely in the face of anxiety.

Multigenerational Transmission- The transmission of anxiety from one generation to the next.

Emotional Cutoff- A means of managing anxiety between generations by disconnecting entirely from one’s family of origin.

Emotional Triangles- A group of three people in which each twosome’s interaction is tied to the behavior of the third. The interactions are habitual and the third person is used as a means of lessening anxiety between the other two.

Fusion- An excess of emotional reactivity or emotional dependence between two or more people.

Family of Origin- Nuclear family into which an individual is born and subsequently raised.

Reaction Formation (Freudian)- Defense mechanism in which undesirable or unacceptable emotions are controlled through the exaggeration of the opposing tendency.

Process Questions- Begins the introspective process of asking how others upset an individual and how that individual contributes to their own problems.

Triangulation

Problems with families usually arise from poor differentiation from one's family of origin that result in unhealthy triangulations. When one relationship within a family is defined by an uncomfortable level of anxiety, often a third party in the home becomes the go-between, the commiserater, and/or the confidante of one or both parties. This triangulation of the third party family member relieves some of the present anxiety, but prevents the healthy remediation of the relationship and further places undue anxiety upon this person who is all too often a child.

Below are some examples of triangulation;

A Dashed line represent a distant relationship.

A triple line indicates an unhealthy enmeshed relationship.

A Zig-Zag represents a contentious/hostile relationship.

A solid line represents a healthy relationship between to appropriately autonomous individuals.





An Example

This image doesn't use the classical notations, but gives a good example of a typical riangulation that leads to family unrest.

Multigenerational Transmission

When children are fused to their parents they tend to adopt their anxieties and general temperament. They also receive the message that they are not competent to make their own decisions or have their own emotions. This poor differentiation leads to a continuation of the anxious need to fuse. It this desire to fuse it not satisfied by one's spouse then an over-enmeshment will often be sought out with the son or daughter, thus continuing the cycle.

When children have parents that are fused together they may interpret this as they themselves not be sufficiently loveable. The parents’ disconnection from their child sends the message that (s)he is not important thus engendering low self-esteem. This poor differentiation and reaction formation leads to anxiety concerning intimacy and an propensity to seek out a relationship defined by fusion in order to satisfy a need to be love, and validated. once again the cycle repeats itself.

Bowen and his colleagues referred to this this repeating, self-feeding cycle as multigenerational transmission. Bowenian therapy seeks to break these cycles.

Tenets of Family Therapy

Central Bowenian thearapeutic goals include;

◦Increasing the individual’s ability to manage intrapersonal and interpersonal anxiety.

◦Increasing emotional functioning with both Secondary family and Family of Origin. ◦Based more on Psycho-educational insight than specific techniques or formulas.

◦Achieving growth out of patterns of enmeshment and triangulation into healthy states of differentiation.

Bowenian Techniques include;

  • Reconnections with family of origin
  • Exploring feelings of inner emptiness and identity issues
  • Pursuing new interests and hobbies outside of one's family
  • I-Statements
  • Process Question
  • Relationship Experiments (in this the client is simply asked to actin a way that is exactly opposite to the behavior that is causing problems, this works especially well in pursuer/distancer dynamics)

Therapist models I-positions until clients are able to use them effectively.

Ex. Change “You watch T.V. and ignore me.” to “I feel neglected and alone when you don’t spend time with me.”

Ex. Change “You constantly nag me and wonder why I don’t want to be around you.” to “I feel pushed away from you when you criticize me.”

Ex. Change “You don’t think I do anything around here.” to “I feel like you don’t always appreciate my household contributions.”

These statements reduce interpersonal reactivity and help the process of healthy differentiation.

Avoid Forming New Emotional Triangles

When someone is trying to draw you into an emotional triangle there are thre effective methods that Bowenian therapists teach their clients;

1.Suggest person discuss their concerns with the significant other rather

than with you. (a simple direct approach)

2.Tell the other person that their significant other has been voicing discontent to you.(hopefully this will facilitate communication between the troubled couple.)

3. Over agree with the person about the foibles of their significant until they feel the need to come to their defense. (though this has a nefarious tenor, and is arguably a little unethical, it can be effective)

Remediation

So through the use of process question, I statements, relationship experiments, new directions of recreational focus, and reconnecting with one's family of origin we hope to see poor states of differentiation to begin to improve leading to an amelioration of relationship issues.

And in turn, the formation of emotional triangles, emotional cutoff, fusion, and most importantly multigeneratioal transmission should begin to abate resulting in an overall reduction of interpersonal anxiety between family members.

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