NCE – Murray Bowen Family Systems Therapy

Definition of Murray Bowen’s Family Systems Therapy (MBFST)

​Developed by Dr. Murray Bowen, MBFST involves a systems perspective reflected in the other theories discussed thus far.  According to MBFST, families have relationship systems in which individuals function interdependently. Consequently, underlying issues within families is a complex circular causality that diverges from the linear thinking standard in conventional therapy. MBFST describes three inter-relational family systems: (1) an emotional system, (2) an intellectual system, and (3) a feeling system. While the emotional system is an inter-relational byproduct of our primitive limbic brain, the intellectual system represents the efforts of our prefrontal cortex. Finally, the feeling system appears to be a Hegelian dialectical concept that combines insights of two previous systems. What I appreciate most about this theory is it considers the well being of the family unit as well as the individuals who comprise it. This is what makes MBFST unique, in my opinion. For example MBFST describes a process of self-differentiation that seems similar to the Jungian concept of individuation. While family relationship systems function is interdependent in nature, it is vital that this reciprocal functionality promotes individual well-being. What has frustrated me with several of the previous theories, are that they can, at times, gloss over this fact.

“Key Concepts”

Degrees of Differentiation

​Coming from a medical perspective, Dr. Bowen’s concept of differentiation reflects the biological notion of cell specialization (Metcalf, 2011, p39). Within all families, individuals develop the ability to function independently within this reciprocal relationship system. This process of differentiation allows individuals to balance opposing drives and functions, dialectically. Internally this process of self-differentiation occurs as we learn to balance insights from within the intellectual and emotional system (Metcalf, 2011, p43). Externally, the process of self-differentiation allows us to remain as separate individuals while remaining connected to the family (Metalf, 2011, p43). I find the textbook’s description of high and low levels differentiation an interesting point of comparison. Low levels of differentiation encompass emotionally driven and reactive behaviors that result in other-driven life paths (i.e. conformity or rebellion). In contrast highly differentiated individuals are capable of managing anxiety and think through feelings rather than with them. Additionally, highly differentiated people retain a strong sense of self while maintaining a healthy connection with others.


“The triangle structure is a three-person emotional con guration that is the basic building block of any emotional system. Triangling describes the process of the predictable patterned moves of emotional forces between any three people” (Metcalf, 2011, p. 44).  For example, Metcalf offers the scenario in which a mother and child have an overly-close position and the dad is like an outsider.  In such situations you see a natural “flow and counter flow” (Metcalf, 2012, p. 44).

Nuclear Family Emotional System

This concept refers to common symptomatic patterns in a single generation nuclear family system in which poor differentiation has occurred.   For example, emotional distancing can occur when we attempt to maintain some emotional separation from another family member to avoid our reactivity to their own emotions.  Another example of this is cyclical marital conflict.

Family Projection Process

“This concept describes the primary manner by which parental undifferentiation is projected onto one or more children, resulting in impaired functioning (Kerr, 2003). Parents scan a child for potential problems, diagnose the child’s behavior as con rmation that the problem exists, and then treat the child as though the diagnosis is accurate, shaping the child’s devel- opment through the parents’ undifferentiated projection lens. Inherited problems that affect children most include (a) excessive need for attention and approval, (b) dif culty dealing with expectations, (c) blaming self or others for problems, (d) assuming responsibility for others’ happiness or subjugating personal happiness to others, and (e) relieving anxiety by acting impulsively rather than tolerating anxiety while acting thoughtfully (Kerr, 2003).” (Metcalf, 2011, p. 46).

Multigenerational Transmission Process

This concept seems to point toward a tendency for families to pass a psychological history from generation to generation.  Unhealthy beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, and habits inevitably get passed from generation.  “For Bowen, differentiation of family members is a key indicator of family functionality: greater differentiation leads to greater flexibility and independence from emotional forces and a lesser likelihood of developing emotional difficulties. When differentiation is low, the family is described as an “undifferentiated ego mass” [Bowen 1978]. The emotional boundaries of family members are blurred and permeable. Family members tend to be bound to emotions, dependent, and easily stressed into dysfunction” (Hurst, et al, p. 695).  For many raised in poorly differentiated families we can spend good chunk of our lives getting over messages from our childhood of what we are to think and feel as well as what we should be.

Emotional Cuttoff

“Emotional cutoff is expressed in internal process by denying the attachment, in external process by physical separation, or by some combination of the two (Papero, 1990). Kerr stated that emotional cutoff re ects a problem of generational fusion, solves a problem by reducing anxiety that comes with uncomfortable contact, and creates a problem by separating people from important relation- ships and intensifying fusion in remaining relationships ” (Metcalf, 20-/, p. 47).

Societal Emotional Process

This intriguing concept has me both intrigued and befuddled.  Metcalf (2011) states: “This concept addresses ways that families shape society and society shapes families…. The emotional system drives functioning at all levels— families, society, work, social organizations…The triangling process observed in families is played out in society with the same variables in the process: 1. Emotional tension (i.e., anxiety) grows between two groups. 2. Emotionally vulnerable others are involved, and the anxiety spreads. 3. Emotional reactiveness, defensiveness, and counterattacks feed the anxiety. 4. Emotional energy is spent, and the system calms.” (p. 74).

Strengths & Weaknesses

​The strength of this theory is in its ability to accurately depict the relational context in which individuals grow and develop. The concepts of a solid versus pseudo selves in MBFST depict this notion vividly (Metcalf, 2011, p44). A solid self is reflected in realistic expectations of others and a solid understanding of who we are. The pseudo-self comprises an other-defined self, and an inability to function outside of a reciprocal and interdependent relational context. Together, these two concepts remind me very much of two children’s books of mine by Shel Silverstein, author of “The Giving Tree”. In my opinion, “The Missing Piece”, and “The Missing Piece Meets the Big O”, effectively illustrates the differences between a pseudo and solid self.

​Metcalf, (2011) makes a statement about MBFST that it is theory driven. It provides a manner for conceptualizing issues and a roadmap for the therapy process. In this respect any limitations of this approach pertain to the idea that the situation itself is defined by theory. Finally, the concept of differentiation, as discussed earlier, is a culturally relevant term. While this concept works well in our individualistic society, it may not work in families with a collectivist cultural orientation.

Theoretical Assumptions

  1. View of Family – “Bowen (1978) defined the family as follows: The family is a system in that a change in one part of the system is followed by compen- satory change in other parts of the system. I prefer to think of the family as a variety of systems and subsystems . . . I think of the family as a combination of “emotional” and “relationship” systems. The term “emotional” refers to the force that motivates the system and “relationship” to the ways it is expressed. (pp. 155, 158)” (Metcalf, 2012, p. 48)
  2. Process of symptom development“An individual’s ability to adapt to life is most strained by events that (1) threaten his emotional connections with others; (2) increase the anxious focus of others on himself; (3) increase his dependence on others; (4) increase the dependence of others on him; (5) threaten the function- ing of others upon whom he is dependent; or (6) increase his level of responsibility. (p. 105)” (Metcalf, 2011, p. 48-49).
  3. How change happens “In Bowen theory, therapeutic change occurs when one person focuses on accepting responsibility for self within the family and in life, developing awareness of the differences between emotional and intellectual functioning and creating problem-solving options based on those differences” (Metcalf, 2011, p. 49).

a working template

  1. Tool for Change – “the therapist is responsible for working on differentiation of self in his or her own family…The therapist works to get clients to lower anxiety by reducing emotional reactivity so that the client can access his or her thinking process…The therapist helps identify predictable reactions (avoidance, going along, conflict, overfunctioning)…Throughout therapy, the therapist should ask process questions to increase the client’s awareness of family emotional process and the client’s role in them.” (Metcalf, 2011,  p.  51).
  2. Joining & Building Rapport –  Engage the clients’ to begin thinking about their role in things and encourage self-responsibility.  Work on helping everyone manage their emotional reactivity while constructing a family genogram
  3. Understanding Present Issues –help family understand individual behavior problems and emotional reactions as byproducts of the family system.  “over time, the therapist and family member(s) develop a broader, more factual, and objective perspective on the presenting issue, on factors driving the anxiety, and on his or her own reactivity and that of others.” (Metcalf, 2011, p. 52).
  4. Assessing Family Dynamics –utilizing the concepts discussed previously, the goal is to understand the underlying patterns and family dynamics that help explain the current problems this family faces: (i.e. Addiction, divorce, abuse, etc)
  5. Create Goals – “The goals of Bowen therapy include placing the presenting problem in multigenerational context/system, decreasing anxiety within the family members, Detriangling three-person systems, and increasing basic differentiation of self among family members.” (Metcalf, 2011  p. 53).
  6. Amplify Change-“change occurs when each client achieves a reasonable level of understanding about his or her family history, his or her roles, and the roles of others. It is hoped that the client will then begin to change and differentiate as he or she becomes aware of his or her patterns of relating in family systems. Progress is measured by how quickly clients recover from emotional reactivity and their ability to create a workable plan to maintain self” (Metcalf, 2011, p. 53).


Hurst, N. C., Sawatzky, D. D., & Pare, D. P. (1996). Families with multiple problems through a Bowenian lens. Child Welfare, 75(6), 693.
Metcalf, L, (2011). Marriage and family therapy: A practice oriented approach. New
​York: Springer Publishing Company

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