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Murray Bowen, MD

“That which is created in a relationship can be fixed in a relationship.”

Murray Bowen, MD

History of Family Systems Theory

A psychiatrist and theorician, Murray Bowen, MD dedicated his life to the “human cause” and produced a remarkable new theory of human behavior called Family Systems Theory, or Bowen Theory.  This theory has the potential to replace most of Freudian theory and to radically change treatment approaches, not only in psychiatry, but in all of medicine.  Potential applications of Family Systems Theory extend beyond the human family to non-family groups, including large organizations and society as a whole.

Influenced by his wartime experience as a general medical officer in the Army from 1941 – 1945, Dr. Bowen decided to specialize in psychiatry and began his formal training in psychiatry in 1946 at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas.  After training, he remained there on staff until 1954.  While a resident physician at Menninger, Bowen realized that Freudian theory, the predominant theory in psychiatry at that time, was based on human subjectivity – what patients said and what their analysts interpreted it to mean.  Bowen came to believe that, despite the complexities and vagaries of human existence, the study of the human behavior could be more objective. From 1954 to 1959, he conducted research on families with a schizophrenic member at the National Institute of Mental Health in Rockville, Maryland.  He continued family research and taught at the Georgetown University School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry in Washington, D.C., from 1959 until his death in October of 1990.  Dr. Bowen was Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Director of the Georgetown University Family Center.

During his 40 year career, Dr. Bowen developed a new theory as well as a new method of psychotherapy based on his theory. Both the theory and the therapy are a radical departure from conventional practice.

The fundamental premise of Bowen theory that differentiates it from traditional psychotherapeutic theory is this: the family is an emotional unit and any change in the emotional functioning of one member of the family/emotional unit 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. (Please note that the word “emotion” in the term “emotional unit” is synonymous with instinct, not feeling.)

This principle has two important implications: 1) the emotional functioning of every family member plays a part in the occurrence of medical, psychiatric or social illness in one family member and 2) 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 – for example, ones where the symptomatic person either refused therapy or went to therapy only under pressure from the family. Consequently, if one member of a family can change his/her emotional functioning, provided he/she is present and accounted for within the family, the whole family will improve its functioning in response to that one person’s ability to change. This should help the reader to understand that “family therapy” does not necessarily mean counseling sessions with the whole family present.  Rather, “family therapy’ is counseling based on a way of thinking that conceptualizes a reciprocity in functioning between family members. Therefore, family therapy is most often a relationship between a family therapist and one member of a family who wants to change his/her level of functioning in the family.

On this foundation Bowen developed eight principles that illustrated his theory: 1) the differentiation of self, 2) the triangle, 3) the nuclear family emotional process, 4) the family projection process, 5) the multi-generational transmission process, 6) sibling position, 7) the emotional cutoff and 8) emotional processes in society.

Because traditional theoretical language did not adequately describe these observations, Bowen drew family diagrams.  These diagrams or “family trees” proved to be invaluable because they 1) helped keep the players straight, 2) charted important family facts, 3) provided a clear gestalt of complex family patterns 4) assisted the therapist and client in hypothesizing about how a clinical problem was connected to the family context and how the problem and the context both evolved over time, and 5) facilitated systems thinking for therapist and patient alike. The practice of drawing family diagrams was developed into a uniform therapeutic tool by Monica McGoldrick in her landmark publication Genograms in Family Assessment.  Subsequently, the genogram has become a symbol of family systems theory.

The Georgetown University Family Center and many other similar centers around the country are actively pursuing the teaching and application of Bowen Theory.

Perhaps the best synopsis of the history of the theory can be found in pages of Applying Family Systems Theory To Mediation by Wayne F. Regina, Psy.D. (used with permission):

In the 1950s and 1960s, psychodynamic psychologies based on the work of Sigmund Freud (1959) and his associates, behaviorism centered on the theories of B.F. Skinner’s (1972), and the so-called “third force” humanistic perspectives of Carl Rogers (1951), Abraham Maslow (1968), Victor Frankl (1959) and their associates dominated psychology, psychiatry, and models of human behavior.  All three of these theoretical and clinical branches assumed the primacy of the individual in understanding human behavior and treating psychological disorders. It was in this environment in the 1950s that Murray Bowen (1966; 1971) began his professional career as a psychiatrist, except that he, like other radical psychiatrists and psychologists of the time, began rejecting the dogma of theory and treatment based solely on the individual models. These pioneers began incorporating new approaches to treatment and formulating new theories for health and pathology. Out of this creative firmament, family systems theories were born in their many manifestations. James Framo (1992; 2003) and Henry Dicks (1953) developed object relations family systems theory and therapy. Gregory Bateson, Don Jackson, Jay Haley, and John Weakland (1956), Virginia Satir (1983), and others created communications-based theory and therapy (Wynne, Rychoff, Day, and Hirsch, 1958). Carl Whittaker and Thomas Malone (1953) founded symbolic-experiential family theory and therapy. Jay Haley (1963) was instrumental in formulating strategic family theory and therapy. These schools of family therapy represented samplings of the important work occurring during this pivotal time. Rather than simply focusing on family therapy techniques and methods, Murray Bowen (1966) boldly articulated a comprehensive theory of human functioning based on observations of families and other natural systems (Kerr and Bowen, 1988).


Murray Bowen Bio

Murray Bowen was a medical doctor who specialized in psychiatry. He lived from 1913 to 1990. While trained in traditional psychoanalytical approaches, Bowen also studied with Harry Stack Sullivan, a psychiatrist interested in the more social aspects of psychiatry, rather than simply the internal, intrapsychic factors of human existence associated with psychoanalytic psychiatry. Sullivan’s influence and Bowen’s innate curiosity about the natural world led him to look at the connections between people and the natural world. For Bowen the scientist, speculation about internal forces of the human mind lacked the kind of rigor and scrutiny that observation offered. As such, Murray Bowen began developing a theory of family functioning that was more “objective”; that is, his approach was rooted in current and multi-generational observations of human and family interactions and did not infer internal processes. With a focus on observable systems, Bowen’s developing theory was thus profoundly different from Freud’s prevailing psychoanalytic model that relied on conjecture and supposition.