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What is Bowen Family Systems Theory and how can a therapist who specializes in this help me, even for individual therapy?

a dad holding two young children

You may be wondering what Bowen Family Systems Theory is because you’ve never heard of it! I often get the question, “How can this theory be helpful in my counseling experience when I am coming to counseling as an individual without my family?” In this post, I am going to clear up both of those questions and give some insight into why working with a therapist who is well-versed in Bowen Theory might be a perfect fit for you.

Concepts of Bowen Family Systems Theory

Bowen Family Systems Theory (or Bowen Theory) is a theory of human behavior developed by Murray Bowen that views the family as an emotional unit, positing that actions and emotions of family members are very closely interconnected. The theory suggests that the reason we are so influenced by family is because this was a survival mechanism we developed in the cave-man days! Basically, we needed to be very attuned to our family in order to survive. 

Think about it this way:  If a caveman’s family couldn’t cooperate and work things out, someone might be kicked out of the tribe and then would most likely starve or be eaten by a sabertooth tiger! So, we developed the ability to have cohesion and feel close to others in order to stick together and increase our life span.

 The goal of a therapist who is well-versed in Bowen Theory is to encourage a patient to be more thoughtful in their interactions with their family (or other system, such as work or church) instead of reacting automatically. In a system, if one member changes, it encourages change in other members as well. So, an individual in counseling can potentially begin to make effective and helpful change for the whole family system! 

Bowen Theory is broken up into 8 concepts, we are going to go over 4 in this post that can be helpful to address in therapy.

Concept 1: Triangle

A triangle in Bowen Theory is an emotional pattern that can be useful to acknowledge in order to determine whether we are just reacting to others or responding in a thoughtful way. 

An example of a triangle: You get annoyed by your mother, so you go to your father and complain about how annoying she is, and then the two of you bond over this shared irritation. This is reacting to the triangle. 

three black siblings pose for a photo in a park representing how family dynamics impact us later in life

In therapy, a practitioner who is working from a Bowen Theory point of view might spend time exploring what a more helpful way to respond to your frustration with your mother might be. Maybe this looks like having a conversation with your mother about what is getting on your nerves. Or maybe it looks like journaling about it instead of talking to someone which would activate that triangle. 

Concept 2: Differentiation of Self

This is a very important concept in Bowen Theory because it encourages an individual to get away from groupthink and begin to think more for themselves. This includes taking responsibility for one’s own thoughts, opinions, beliefs, values and actions.

 The less we have developed our sense of self, the more reactive we are towards what others think about us, tell us, etc. Therapy is a wonderful place to really focus on creating a more solid sense of self!

Concept 3: Family Projection Process

This concept refers to the way that our family’s focus on us can affect our trajectory. An example of this could be:  You are silently labeled as the ‘hero’ in your family. You are the one who made good grades in school, never got into any trouble, and got a great career right out of college. It was unspoken that this was the expectation of you, and it sounds like a great expectation that leads to success, at first! 

But, maybe you became a perfectionist because of it and have a really hard time making mistakes. Maybe you are overly critical of yourself and feel a lot of anxiety to perform at a certain level. 

A therapist with a specialization in Bowen Theory can help you to see this pattern of functioning and give you the support you need in order to change that narrative and relieve the anxiety you feel, which, ultimately, came from your family of origin.

a mom, dad, and baby posting in a field representing how family dynamics can impact us later in life

Concept 4: Emotional Cutoff

I think that this is a concept that can be found outside of Bowen Theory but is usually thought about in a different way than Murray Bowen discussed. Many people move far away from their family of origin and/or spend little time with their family because of the stress they cause. 

Tension and stress in family relationships is very normal, and Bowen theorized that sometimes, when we don’t address issues with our family of origin and instead avoid them, those unresolved issues bleed into our current nuclear family.  

There are often good reasons for cutoff with family, and a therapist well versed in Bowen Theory can help you explore this and decide how to begin to resolve family of origin issues, whether that is just within yourself or in contact with your family. 

What’s Next?

If you’re interested in learning more about Bowen Theory and the 8 concepts, check out this website that gives a ton of information about the theory:

And if you would like to connect to a therapist to learn more about yourself and your relationships, check out Coastal Light to get scheduled with one of our practitioners! 

Blog by: Lauren Bise, M.Ed., LPC, and Coastal Light Clinician

Trauma, Life Transitions, and Anxiety & Depression Therapy in Virginia

Specializing in Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy


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