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Unless you were raised by wolves, your family has an influence on you. Murray Bowen’s family systems theory looks at people in the context of their family relationships. In this lesson, we’ll look at some key concepts for family systems theory.

Abnormal Psychology

Jessica is depressed.

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She used to like to dance and cheer, but recently she just doesn’t feel into anything anymore. She feels sad a lot, and some days she doesn’t even have the energy to get out of bed. Her parents and her brother are all worried about her, but they don’t really know what to do. Depression is one of many psychological issues studied in abnormal psychology. There are many possible causes of abnormality, including biology, life stress and personality, among others.

But people don’t live in a vacuum; we live in society, and most of us are part of some sort of family system. Like who you are and what happens to you, family dynamics play a role in mental wellness. There are many ideas about how to study families and psychological disorders. Let’s look closer at one of them, family systems theory, and some of its key components.

Family Systems Theory

One of the first people who studied the impact of the family unit on abnormal psychology was Murray Bowen. Bowen grew up in a small town in Tennessee and seeing the families around him gave him the idea that each family works as a single unit. This is the basic idea behind the family systems theory developed by Bowen: That a family acts as a unit (or system) that influences the individual members of that family. Bowen believed that families should be studied as systems, not as loose, unrelated interactions between individuals.Remember Jessica? She’s depressed.

She has had conflict with her father for as long as she can remember. They don’t get along well at all, and they argue all the time. When Jessica goes to see a psychologist, she says that she feels like her relationship with her dad has made it difficult for her to have relationships with anyone.Before Bowen, Jessica’s psychologist would explore her relationship with her father, but that’s about it. They might talk about her current issues and the way that her father and she fight. But the rest of her family wouldn’t really matter all that much – not unless she had an explicit problem with another member of her family.

But Bowen’s family systems theory says that Jessica’s relationship with her father is also influenced by other members of her family. As such, her psychologist will work with Jessica to explore her relationship with her mother and her mother’s relationship with her father, and so on. The interwoven relationships between all the members of the family influence Jessica’s relationship with her father. Like a spider web, the people in Jessica’s family are all connected in complex and intersecting ways.

Eight Concepts

Bowen’s family systems theory has eight underlying concepts. They are:1.

Differentiation of the selfPeople with low self-differentiation have trouble distinguishing themselves from the rest of the family unit. They are dependent on others for approval, acceptance and decision-making. The healthier alternative is to recognize that, though you are part of a family unit, you are your own person. Healthy people learn to differentiate themselves from the family system.

2. TrianglesWhen two people are involved in a conflict, they might pull another person into the conflict. Sometimes this happens when they ask someone to take their side. For example, if Jessica asks her mother to take Jessica’s side in a disagreement with her father.

Other times, it can be more implicit. For example, if Jessica dedicates time and energy to her mother in order to avoid spending time with her father, she is drawing her mother into the conflict implicitly.3. Nuclear family emotional systemThis is a series of four basic problems that sometimes spring up in family units. They are marital problems, dysfunction in one spouse, impairment of one or more children and emotional distance. Note that, though this is called nuclear family emotional system, it can show up in all types of families, even non-traditional ones.4.

Family projection processParents who have fears or emotional problems can pass those on to their children through a process of projection. In this process, a parent is scared that there’s something wrong with the child and then sees evidence to support their theory in even innocuous actions of the child and finally treats the child as if there’s something actually wrong.Imagine that Jessica’s mom has issues with body image. When she looks at herself, she sees a woman who is fat, even though she’s a healthy weight. She projects this fear onto Jessica.

She studies Jessica to see if Jessica is fat. When Jessica hits puberty and begins to develop breasts and hips, her mom believes that her fears are being confirmed and that Jessica will end up fat. As a result, she restricts Jessica’s diet and ends up passing on her body image issues to Jessica.

5. Multigenerational transmission processIn the multigenerational transmission process, children of two parents develop their sense of self and/or their emotional problems as a result of their parents. The children then find mates who share their issues and then their children develop issues even more severely.

In the example above, Jessica will find a mate that has similar body image issues as she does. Jessica’s children would then develop body image issues that are more severe than Jessica’s. Their children will have even more severe body image issues, and so on.6.

Emotional cutoffThis occurs when someone avoids issues they have with their family by cutting them off, either emotionally or physically. A child can move away from their parents as a way of cutting off emotional baggage. On the other hand, they could stay in close contact with their family but just avoid talking about anything emotional. Though things seem to be better as a result of emotional cutoff, the truth is that the problems are still there, just below the surface.7.

Sibling positionBowen drew on research by Walter Toman about how birth order and siblings affect people’s personality and relationships. Both Bowen and Toman looked at how birth order and gender of siblings create complementary personality types. For example, the older sister of a brother and the younger brother of a sister would make a good match because their birth order and sibling genders are complementary of each other.

8. Societal emotional processAll of the previous seven concepts can be applied to society as a whole, not just blood-related families. Bowen believed that these concepts not only explained family dynamics but also explained the progressive and regressive patterns of society and the way people interact with their communities.

Lesson Summary

Murray Bowen’s family systems theory said that families act as units, not as individual people or relationships. He used his theory to explain why some people end up with psychological issues.

The eight key concepts relating to his theory are:

  1. Differentiation of the self
  2. Triangles
  3. Nuclear family emotional system
  4. Family projection process
  5. Multigenerational transmission process
  6. Emotional cutoff
  7. Sibling position
  8. Societal emotional process

Learning Outcomes

When the lesson is completed, students should be able to:

  • Recognize the family systems theory of Murray Bowen
  • Describe the eight components of the theory

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