Murray Bowen

Murray Bowen (1913-1990), devoted more than forty years of his life pursuing a science for human behavior. From observing WWII soldiers recovering from trauma, to his time at Georgetown University where he consolidated his concepts into a coherent theory.

The fundamental premise of Bowen theory that differentiates it from traditional psychotherapeutic theory is this that the family is an emotional unit, and any change in the emotional functioning of one member is predictably and automatically compensated for by changes in the emotional functioning of other members of that family/emotional unit. For Bowen, the family, not the individual as was previously thought by traditional psychology, was the basic unit of emotional functioning. This principle has two important implications. One, the emotional functioning of every family member plays a part in the occurrence of medical, psychiatric or social illness in one family member and two, treatment need not be directed at the symptomatic person. Not having to direct treatment at the symptomatic person brought a new flexibility to difficult clinical situations. (

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Differentiation of self is a central concept in Bowenian Theory. Differentiation and fusion are how Bowen describes the extent to which people can separate their emotional and intellectual spheres (Rabstejnek, 2012). “.. a way of characterizing the balance/imbalance of two life forces or instincts: the force for togetherness and the force for individuality” (Titelman, 2014, p14).

People with higher levels of differentiation have less emotional reactivity, with an ability to calm their emotions and make more thoughtful and intentional decisions. Having a higher level of independence and more tolerance to stress, they are less prone to triangulation. The have an ability to remove themselves from emotional entanglements, which allows them to have a closeness without getting lost in the relationship. Generally, these relationships are considered fulfilling.

On the other hand, fusion, or lack of differentiation as described by Brown (1999), is where family harmony is chosen over the individual. Undifferentiated people are more emotively reactive and have difficulty in managing thoughtful behavior. They have difficulty saying no to people, tending to be critical and judgmental, and are overly concerned about approval from others. Dependent on others, they have difficulty in communicating, making decisions, and they are prone to triangulation. They tend to have problematic relationships repeatedly, rather than learning from their mistakes.

The concept of triangulation, along with differentiation of self, is central to Bowen’s Theory. It is said to occur when the anxiety in a dyad is relieved by involving a third party who either takes sides or provides a distraction for the anxiety. A common example of this is when a parent brings in a child to stabilize the tension with the other parent. Other examples include, an in-law, a friend, a co-worker, alcohol, drugs or an affair. They all work as a triangulating stabilizer. Triangles are not necessarily dysfunctional. It’s when they become rigid, when the third party distracts from the dyad, and the problem remains unsolved, the triangling is considered problematic. Bowen stated that triangles tended to repeat themselves across generations. For example, when a family member leaves, perhaps through death, marriage, divorce, or for a variety of other reasons, someone else can be brought into the triangle. Perhaps the eldest child leaves due to marriage, the next eldest sibling is then drawn into the parents’ tensions (Brown, 1999).

The nuclear family emotional system describes the family’s emotional system during a single generation. Bowen focuses on the impact of undifferentiation on the emotional functioning of a single generation family. Symptoms tend to develop during times of increased and prolonged family tension. The tension level depends on the stress a family encounters, how a family adapts to stress, and on a family’s connection with extended family and social networks. Symptoms can manifest in one of three categories (Brown, 1999).

Couple conflict is one category. As family tension increases, spouses get more anxious, externalizing their anxiety into the marital relationship. Focusing on what is wrong with the other, there is an attempt to control, that is met with resistance. Symptoms in a spouse is a second category. Here pressure is put on the other to think and act in certain ways. In a fused relationship the other yields to the pressure to preserve harmony. If tensions rise further, the spouse who made the most adjustments is prone to develop systems. The third symptom of fusion is when symptoms develop in a child. It causes decreased differentiation in subsequent generations. An example of this is of the mother projecting her anxieties onto her child/children, thereby serving the purpose of soothing her own anxiety (Gehart, 2014).

The family projection process describes how parents transmit their emotional problems to a child. The projection process can impair the functioning of one or more children and increase their vulnerability to developing clinical symptoms. Bowen describes this as happening when a child responds anxiously to the tension in a parent’s relationship (Brown, 1999). Ways in which it can affect their lives are via relationship sensitivities such as heightened needs for attention and approval, or difficulty in dealing with expectations. Perhaps they develop a tendency to blame others or feel responsible for the happiness of others or that others are responsible for one’s own happiness.

“Bowen describes ’emotional cutoff’ as the way people manage the intensity of fusion between the generations” (Brown, 1999). People try managing their unresolved emotional issues with family members by reducing or totally cutting off emotional contact with them, or by moving away from their families. Relationships may seem to be better if people cutoff, but the problems are dormant and not resolved. There are however, cases where cutoff may be appropriate, such as where sexual abuse has not been acknowledged (Gehart, 2014).

The multigenerational transmission process describes how small differences in the levels of differentiation between parents and their children, over many generations, leads to noticeable differences in differentiation among members of a multigenerational family. The information creating these differences is channeled across generations through relationships. The transmission occurs through interconnected levels, “ranging from the conscious teaching and learning, to the automatic and unconscious programming of emotional reactions and behaviors. Relationally and genetically transmitted information interact to shape an individual’s self.” ( For example, when people flee a war-torn country, or are displaced after a war or natural disaster, their trauma is passed on through generations. The impact on each child varies, depending on the degree of triangulation they have with their parents (Brown, 1999). Children therefore, can emerge with higher, lower, or similar levels of differentiation.

Incorporating the research of Walter Toman, Bowen observed the impact of sibling position in understanding the roles individuals take on in relationships. For example, the oldest child tends to take on responsibility and leadership. Middle children move between responsibility and dependence, whilst the youngest child often prefers to be a follower and chose freedom over responsibility (Gehart, 2014). Bowen was particularly interested in which sibling position in a family was most vulnerable to triangulation (Brown, 1999). Perhaps the parent is the eldest child, thus relates more to her eldest child, or that of a previous generational triangle. The sibling position is also an indicator of a family’s level of differentiation. The more they exhibit the sibling positions characteristics, generally the higher the level of differentiation (Gehart, 2014).

The concept of societal emotional process, describes how the emotional system governs behavior on a societal level, highlighting both progressive and regressive periods in a society. It explains the erosion of emotional functioning that happens to a family when it is subjected to ongoing chronic stresses that are beyond the family’s capacity to manage (Bregman and White, 2014). It is more difficult for families to raise children in a period of societal regression than in a calmer period. A relaxing of standards in society makes it more difficult for less differentiated parents. Today we see societal regression characterized by an increased child focus, and anxiety exists about the future generation. Parents are criticized for being too busy with their own pursuits to be adequately available to their children, both to support them and to monitor their activities (

From a Bowen perspective, theory and therapy are reciprocally intertwined. Therapy will always be a somewhat personal journey, however Bowen theory provides a map for guiding clinicians and clients through the emotional process of therapy.

Bowen therapy is very much a process orientated therapy. It focuses on client process and rather than symptom reduction. It relies on the ‘self-of-the-therapist’, the therapists level of differentiation. Techniques and interventions are de-emphasized, and more focus is on the therapist helping the client see patterns, understanding the multi-generational process, and helping the client to differentiate themselves in situations that most closely relate the presenting problems. This therapeutic approach is distinctly Bowenian. The focus is on the differentiation and the well being of the therapist. There is a belief that the client can only differentiate as much as the therapist is differentiated. The therapist aims to have a non-anxious presence in the therapy room and aim to be emotionally non-reactive to the clients. In this sense, they are role-modelling (Gehart, 2014).

Brown (1999), indicates that Bowenian therapists employ four techniques. To begin with, a family evaluation usually occurs in the first few sessions. The therapist gathers family history and other important data. It is during this phase that a Bowenian therapist might employ a Genogram. It visually records the facts of functioning across at least three generations of the multigenerational family. This includes information about things such as physical problems, emotional symptoms, and educational achievement. Genograms might also show signs of substance abuse, educational achievement, divorce, or many of other issues which can prove useful when helping the client or family see patterns of behaviour that could be causing dysfunction.

Secondly, coaching is a technique used with individuals who are wanting to obtain a greater level of differentiation within the family. It is a way to instruct and support a family member learning to stand on their own two feet. It is designed with the family in mind, but usually performed on one client at a time. For example, when we visit our parents it often brings out the child in us. Clients are encouraged to take a step back and see the situation through adult eyes. The use of process questions, such as ‘Why is it threatening when your partner has a different opinion to you?’, ‘How could you respond next time your partner has a different opinion of you?’. These types of questions help the client be a separate individual, whilst still staying connected to the family.

Thirdly, family systems theory advocates that the past influences the present. The multigenerational lens is an exercise where the therapist uses a series of questions to stimulate discussion about the ways in which previous generations continue to influence current decision-making and beliefs. The therapist might help an individual or family see how a previous generation’s views on religion, finances, child rearing, or many other issues continues to influence the current family system.

A fourth technique is detriangling, which is central to Bowenian therapy. Communication is essential in relationships, therefore the addition of an extra voice in a relationship may only confuse the message being sent. Often, family members will unintentionally collaborate, leaving a third person isolated and resentful. The therapist looks to identify triangles where they exist and assist family members deconstruct them.

Brown (2008), discusses another technique that is designed to increase client’s ability to gain objectivity about relationship patterns by using displacement stories. The therapist tells stories or parables about families with similar problems to both normalize the family’s struggle and to draw out some clues that may help family members to think about what they might do differently the next time tension mounts.

As the client talks about how they react to the person they have been trying to change, blame or avoid, the therapist encourages them to speak for themselves as opposed to anxiously responding to the trigger from the other. This is called drawing out the “I” position where the client begins to say what they think and believe and what they will do and will not do.

Gehart (2014) cites David Schnarch as having developed a specific model for couple’s therapy, called The Sexual Crucible Model. He uses Bowen therapy primarily to conceptualize the marriage as a crucible. He uses the metaphor to describe the marriage as a vessel that is used as a transformational process. The marriage helps people to grow, to mature, and to learn to be more differentiated. Schnarch focuses on each person learning to be more differentiated, rather than be demanding of their partner to be what they want them to be and becoming anxious when they fall short of such demands. He directs the client to learn how to manage their own reactivity and to relate in a much more differentiated way to their partner.

Bowen therapy has been looked at and adapted by people who have been concerned with using his concepts. The Women’s Project raised issues of the power dynamics and how therapists were reinforcing many of the stereotypes. They looked at using some of the gender role expectations to illustrate that some of the intergenerational beliefs were unfair and unrealistic. Some women that work with the Bowen concept, and other family approaches look at gender roles in family and addressing questions of equity and diversity across genders (Gehart, 2014).
There are some recommendations also, when working with LGBT clients. Gehart (2014), talks about the therapist paying attention to inter-generational relationships and how they play out in the client’s life. As well as considering a multi-faceted identity in terms of biological sex, gender identity, social sex role, as well as their sexual orientation. And to consider these across generations.

When understanding the concept of differentiation, considerable consideration needs to be given to cultural norms. Individualistic cultures and collective cultures see the world differently. It is very important the therapist assess the values of their client’s cultural background and be mindful as to how differentiation is viewed by the family, thus making sure the goals set are appropriate. Gehart (2014),

“Perhaps the greatest hurdle to Murray Bowen’s theory securing a place in the psychotherapy mainstream is the appeal of quick fix approaches and a return to medicalized individual treatment modes. Bowen believed that progress in lifting one’s differentiation of self beyond the level of the previous generation of parents is both slow and unsubstantial. At the same time he believed that small shifts in a person’s ability to manage themselves in their relationships without giving in to relationship pressure or running away from it would bring much greater adaptive resources to an entire family system.” Jenny Brown Sept 2008. Journal of the Counsellors and Psychotherapists Association of NSW Inc (CAPA) Quarterly Issue 3 pp. 11-17.