Bowen Family Systems Theory
It would be strange to introduce the framework of Bowen Family Systems Theory (BFST) without first referring to Murray Bowen’s seminal work, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, published in 1978 after almost 30 years of research on thousands of families. The volume, which Bowen described as a collection of his most important papers from 1957-1977 (Bowen, 1978), chronicles his “disciplined effort to select consistent theoretical concepts that might someday conceptualize emotional illness as a product of that part of man he shares with the lower forms of life” (p. xiv). His intent was to use a “minimal number of congruent pieces from the total bank of human knowledge that fit together to tell a simple story about the nature of man” (p. xiii). He believed that the profession had a responsibility to make “psychotherapy as scientific and predictable as possible” (p. 470).
Families as Systems, not Groups of Individuals
Bowen’s theory broke with the conventional theory of his day which placed pathology within the individual from the lens of cause-and-effect (Bowen, 1978; Kerr & Bowen, 1988; Papero et al., 2018). His work with families at the National Institute of Mental Health from 1950-1954, however, along with his reading in biology and the natural sciences, led Bowen to see patients as part of family systems, in which each member contributes a part in the functioning, or lack thereof, of the whole. Over time, his thinking evolved and coalesced into a theory of eight interlocking concepts that Bowen laid out in his seminal volume.
Theory: More Than a Wild Guess
Bowen took issue with the vernacular use of the word theory: “It is common for people to say ‘I have a theory’ when it would be accurate to say ‘I have an idea’ or ‘a wild guess,’” he said (1978, p. xiv). A theory, however, is not merely a wild guess, but a collection of concepts which are an abstracted version of real life situations that have predictive value for similar situations and which accounts for discrepancies. Bowen’s theory names some overall characteristics of human families, identifies patterns of functioning within the nuclear family system, names the way emotional problems are transmitted to the next generation, over multiple generations, and into society (Bowen, 1978).
For Bowen, anything not governed by the cerebral cortex was defined as emotional functioning. It does this via eight interlocking concepts that were based on Bowen’s notions about human nature: that Homo sapiens is the most complex form of life evolved from lower life forms, and that the most basic difference is the development and complexity of the cerebral cortex, with its ability to think and reason, rather than to rely solely on instinct.
The more fused the intellectual and emotional systems, the higher the level of emotional reactivity, anxiety or stress. Bowen Theory directly addressed the variable of anxiety, with the goal of helping an individual or family reduce it, so that they could function with more flexibility. For Bowen, anything not governed by the cerebral cortex was defined as emotional functioning, including: reproduction, autonomic nervous system activity, subjective emotional and feeling states, and the forces that govern relationship systems (Bowen, 1978, 1997; Noone, 2016; Papero et al., 2018). It follows, then, that Bowen understood emotional illness to be a dysfunction of the emotional system, depending on how separate (differentiated) or how attached (fused) the emotional and intellectual systems were, both within and between individuals (Bowen, 1978). The more fused the intellectual and emotional systems, the higher the level of emotional reactivity, anxiety or stress. Bowen Theory directly addressed the variable of anxiety, with the goal of helping an individual or family reduce it, so that they could function with more flexibility.