What is Bowen family systems theory?

Bowen family systems theory is a natural systems theory of relationship systems and defines the family as an emotional unit that regulates its members. The theory holds that the individual is part of the broader family relationship system and describes how the process between individual members profoundly affects and guides individual functioning. The complicated system of exchanges between family members leads to the family being a resource and/or to the development of symptoms. Theory provides a way of accounting for vast variations in individuals and families. An understanding of and application of Bowen family systems theory principles, concepts, and ideas can lead to more effective options for managing life’s challenges in the family and workplace. The goals are to decrease chronic anxiety, increase confidence and sureness in self which allows for increased self- management and sturdiness in facing life’s challenges.

The variation in families is described in detail by BFST and the forces that govern them. This provides a wide range of functioning within all families from immature to more mature (differentiated) responses. The families that struggle the most have a higher level of emotional interdependency which can challenge their ability to cope with life’s stressors. This interdependency can be a huge challenge or stress in and of itself. The angst emotional interdependency carries is coped with in predictable ways by families such as conflict, focusing on a child, functional helplessness or the development of a symptom.

This interdependency can be a huge challenge or stress in and of itself.

The emotional system is a multigenerational process that is propelled into the current generation. It is bigger than an individual but it is up to the individual to do something different with it. How the individual thinks about this process can greatly affect the outcome and allows an individual to liberate themselves while staying in contact.

Murray Bowen, MD was a psychiatrist who developed the theory and continued to expand and test it until his death in October, 1990. Michael Kerr, MD took over leadership and development of the theory upon Dr. Bowen’s death with additional contributions from many of those dedicated to understanding and applying the theory. Dr. Kerr is currently the Director Emeritus of the Georgetown Family Center which became the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family and is current director of the Bowen Theory Academy. (BTA) Dr. Bowen developed his thinking about family emotional process in the 1940’s and 1950’s. He began as a psychiatrist at Menninger in Topeka, Kansas and then moved to Georgetown University Medical Center when he received a grant from the NIMH to study families. Whole families were hospitalized and observed. In Washington, DC, he established the Georgetown Family Center. His ideas continue to be tested and expanded in order to develop a science of human behavior which can lend a hand to effectively addressing human problems.