Sarah explains the Bowen family systems theory


PDC Health Hub

Bowen family systems theory is a theory of human behaviour that views the family as an emotional unit and uses systems thinking to describe the complex interactions in the unit. It is the nature of a family that its members are intensely connected emotionally. Often people feel distant or disconnected from their families, but this is more feeling than fact. Families so profoundly affect their members’ thoughts, feelings, and actions that it often seems as if people are living under the same “emotional skin.” People solicit each other’s attention, approval, and support and react to each other’s needs, expectations, and upsets. The connectedness and reactivity make the functioning of family members interdependent. A change in one person’s functioning is predictably followed by reciprocal changes in the functioning of others. Families differ somewhat in the degree of interdependence, but it is always present to some degree.

The emotional interdependence presumably evolved to promote the cohesiveness and cooperation families require to protect, shelter, and feed their members. Heightened tension, however, can intensify these processes that promote unity and teamwork, and this can lead to problems. When family members get anxious, the anxiety can escalate by spreading infectiously among them. As anxiety goes up, the emotional connectedness of family members becomes more stressful than comforting. Eventually, one or more members feels overwhelmed, isolated, or out of control. These are the people who accommodate the most to reduce tension in others. It is a reciprocal interaction. For example, a person takes too much responsibility for the distress of others in relationship to their unrealistic expectations of him, or a person gives up too much control of his thinking and decision-making in relationship to others anxiously telling him what to do.

The one who does the most accommodating literally “absorbs” system anxiety and thus is the family member most vulnerable to problems such as depression, alcoholism, affairs, or physical illness.

When using family systems theory to inform counselling, this would involve:

  • Exploring historical and present family dynamics
  • Gaining self-awareness around the client’s role in their family of origin
  • Exploring how their role was maintained
  • Exploring how their family role informed self-beliefs
  • Exploring how their family role served them then and now
  • Developing new helpful ways of coping with anxiety
  • Developing new helpful ways of being in relationships with others

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