Implications of Bowen Theory for Clinical Consultation

The Family is the “Emotional Field”

Dr. Murray Bowen conceptualized the family as a natural system which has its origin in evolutionary processes. The reciprocal and interlocking relationships of a natural system mean that a change in one part of the system is followed by a compensatory change in other parts of the system.

The eight concepts of the Bowen theory help the clinician or “coach” to think in terms of the family relationship system rather than individual dynamics or diagnoses. The concepts guide the thinking of the coach in evaluating the family processes that have contributed to the presenting problem. Similarly, the concepts provide directions for coaching clients to:

• Think more broadly about the presenting problem
• Learn more about the “functional” facts of the multigenerational family: Who, What, When, Where and How
• Manage more responsibly their own predictable actions and reactions in their significant relationships based on the knowledge they have acquired.

In order to understand the relationship context in which a client is functioning, the clinician gathers information about three generations of the family which comprise the “emotional field” of an individual, couple or nuclear family. These generations are referred to as the family of origin or grandparent generation, the nuclear family or family of choice, and the new generation of children.

Differentiation of Self

Dr. Bowen’s concept of “differentiation of self” describes the ability of humans to think objectively about what is happening in a relationship system and to manage oneself accordingly rather than in reaction to predictable emotional stimuli.

Self Observation Leads to Choice

In order to think objectively, it is necessary for individuals to learn to observe the automatic emotional responses in the family (and in other relationship systems) that operate largely out of awareness. Dr. Bowen wrote that “minor emotional stimuli in one member… trigger major emotional responses in another”. These stimuli are related to the five senses, but are most often visual or auditory stimuli, such as the look on a face, the sound of a voice, or a physical gesture.

One of the first significant steps clients take is to observe in their daily lives these stimuli and their responses to them. The stimuli can be positive or negative, both of which greatly influence the functioning of the observer/client. As clients learn more about how families function and how “self” is reacting within the system, they begin to make more informed choices about their responses to emotional stimuli from others and about the cues they are transmitting to others. These choices provide a foundation for managing self more thoughtfully in relationships. Responses are less driven by reactivity and more by a thoughtful consideration of the processes at work in a system.

Change in Self leads to Change in the Family

Symptoms begin to diminish in self and others when clients develop their capacity to:

• Develop a more emotionally neutral, thoughtful understanding of what is happening
• Explore personal patterns of functioning within those processes
• Think through what he or she would like to accomplish within their relationship networks
• Formulate ways to function differently in their family based on that knowledge

While there are predictable “change back” messages from the family elicited by the change in the emotional equilibrium of the family, clients work toward maintaining a balanced, neutral and steadfast position in the face of those messages. The capacity to withstand emotional pressure from family members increases the likelihood of other family members moving toward more responsible functioning in the system.

Leading by Managing Self

One of the most difficult and rewarding challenges in life is learning how to function as a self in relationships of consequence. The benefits of moving toward defining a self in family relationships carry over to the other important relationship systems that are part of life. The faculty of the VCFS focus their efforts on educating and coaching those interested in changing their part in the system. This is also known as ‘leading by managing self.”