Family Counseling Approach A Bowen Perspective

Family Counseling Approach: A Bowen Perspective

Liberty University


Relationships within a family unit are often complex. Some families are prone to hostility and anger while others are resilient in dealing with day by day issues. A family system is shaped not only from previous generations but also by their culture, ethnicity, race, gender, morals and values, and their religious beliefs. Each element plays a crucial role in molding a sound and functional family system. As these elements continue to develop over a lifespan, even as each member of the family unit begins to separate households to form their families, the basic foundation of the family still remains. The Bowenian theory places its general focus on past generational relationships while at the same time examining present histories and relationships within a family system. Negative areas in a family’s history are examined and followed toward the present in an effort to re-examine detachments and unresolved emotional connections in order to successfully repair relationships.

Keywords: family systems, Bowen, individuality, relationships, dysfunction

Family Counseling Approach: A Bowen Perspective

Family counseling is a form of psychotherapy that evaluates the health and negative functionings’ within a family system. Goldenberg and Goldenberg (2014) stated, “A family, like a human body, is a system in which the components are organized into a whole that transcends the sum of its separate parts” (p. 91). The relationship within a family unit is crucial to the development of each individual within the family system. Each member plays an intricate role in holding the family together or breaking the family apart. Although outside factors may contribute to the dynamics between family members, ultimately it falls on the family to maintain a healthy relationship. In most cases, each family member plays a role; the father as the household provider, the mother as the caretaker, and the children, depending on their age, have their own responsibilities inside or outside of the home (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2014).

Throughout the years, various approaches to family therapy have been evaluated in hopes of developing beneficial resources for counselors to assist families in need of assistance. Although many of these methods, such as the psychoanalytic, experimental, and structural approaches have shown remarkable results in family therapy, the Bowenian therapy seems to stand out as a front-runner. Murray Bowens’ and other contributors to this approach brought to light the benefits of reaching to the past for answers that were affecting the present, and would ultimately deter a family from reaching its full potential in the future, thus repeating negative patterns instead of resolving them and finding solutions (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2014). This composition will examine the history and development of the Bowenian approach, other contributors to this approach, and techniques and interventions that are still used today to assist families in creating a well-balanced environment.

History of the Bowenian Approach

Murray Bowen’s family theory is one of many applicable models used today by counselors to assist families in understanding and changing unproductive patterns affecting autonomy and the family unity. Bowen developed an early interest in the field of psychiatry; his studies first began in the early 1940’s with high interest in schizophrenic patients (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2014). He began working with mentally ill patients, especially individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia. Bowen would observe the interactions between a mother and her schizophrenic child and would later include the father to examine the relationship. As time progressed his interest focused less time on just the emotional dilemmas applicable to one individual in a family but rather examine a broader generational family entity.

Bowen placed much of his attention on understanding patterns that develop within a family in order to formulate a method to eliminate or reduce anxiety. He aimed to understand the emotional process taking place in the main and larger family entity. Bowen (as cited by Charles, 2001) suggests, “…the family as a system is likely to be unstable unless each member of that family is well differentiated” (p. 281). It is the same concept of two individuals become involved that have the same personality traits. Eventually, they will clash because they are in essence the same person.

When anxiety is a key component within a family, it can be caused by too much togetherness to the point of feeling suffocated or it can be on the opposite side of the scale where there is little to no interaction. Goldenberg and Goldenberg (2014) stated, “This attempt to balance two life forces-family togetherness and individual autonomy- was for Bowen the core issue for all humans” (p. 205). Every family and its members experience different levels of anxiety as it relates to their external surroundings leading some members of the family to become sensitive to certain subject matters digressed from previous generations. If a member of the family system lacks the ability to formulate reasonable responses during sensitive topics and predicaments affecting the family, yet responds negatively, the patterns will remain the same an there will be no room for growth. Bowenian therapy works to help individuals and families as a whole, understand the ways in which they react to difficult situations, and also illustrating the importance of creating changes as an individual before involving the family as a whole.

Today, Bowen’s ideas are still used in a variety of therapeutic avenues, such as couples counseling through play therapy. Nims and Duba (2011) suggest that Bowen was never keen on the idea of incorporating children into the therapy process. The beginning stages were recommended as a form of accessing the family together. His principles and ideas have helped in navigating family therapy with the presence of children by introducing new ideas, such as play therapy. Play therapy is a concept that is mostly directed toward counseling specifically for children. However, research studies have shown the effectiveness of play therapy involving the parents of the children. Nims and Duba (2011) state that incorporating Bowen’s concepts in play therapy are, “…utilized to facilitate family understanding, personal growth, and the alleviation of symptoms (p. 84). It gives children as well as parents the opportunity to express themselves through a variety of avenues that perhaps would seem nearly impossible to express vocally.

Bowen’s theoretical work has proven to be beneficial in individual and family counseling. It has opened different avenues in communication between families and spouses that perhaps may have been overlooked in the past. As demonstrated through play therapy, Bowen’s theoretical approach connects the family as a whole; the actions and point of view of one person in the family will affect the other whether it is positive or negative. Through his eight interlinking elements, Bowen was able to demonstrate the development of the family unit and its positive and negative functionings that made need modification in order to create a successful family system.

Key Concepts

While studying the distinct elements encompassed in a family unit, Bowen was able to examine their thinking patterns and multifaceted interactions with one another. In most cases, family members tend to feel disconnected from the rest of the family unit; however, Bowen argues that these feeling are in fact just feelings rather than a fact. Bowen believed that a family system was based off of emotional relationships in which he incorporated eight concepts that explained the dynamics within a family, beginning with previous generation and their connection to present relationships.

Differentiation of Self

People are influenced by society in their thinking processes, behaviors, and feelings towards specific situations and other people; families are no exception. Although there are levels in which an individual in a family can become vulnerable to the way others think and behave, society also varies in the level of pressure they exert for conformity (Charles, 2001). Such dissimilarities between individuals and their surrounding peers demonstrate the variances in their levels of differentiation of self. When a person’s ability to maintain a sense of “self” is limited, they become more susceptible to allowing others to influence their thoughts and behaviors (Charles, 2001, p. 281). They rely on the approval of their parents and their peers in order to feel accepted or they attempt to dominate other into their way of thinking to satisfy their needs. The primary step of developing a strong sense of “self” occurs in the home during the first two stages of one’s lifespan- childhood and adolescence. This initial process forms a permanent stamp on their development unless they decide to make changes later on in life (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2014).


Bowen viewed triangulation as a system between three individuals, which is often referred to as the smallest relationship system (Charles, 2001, p. 281). Conflict shifts between two individuals, such as a couple to three (a couple and a therapist). Triangulation can exert control socially by placing one member of the triangle on the outside or interchanging members to decrease conflict within the family system (Charles, 2001). For instance, in a family system, the parents may be at two different spectrums in which they cannot relate to one another. When this happens, instead of looking for solace in one another, they focus their attention on the child. When there is more than one child in the family unity, this causes distance between the parent and the child who now feels a sense of abandonment or jealously of the relationship the parent has with their sibling (Klever, 2009, p. 143). Often time adding more individuals to the triangle can ease the tension thus creating a more stable environment.

Emotional Cutoffs

The conception of emotional cutoff represents the idea that individuals learn to work through their unresolved emotional “baggage” with their nuclear and/or extended family members by reducing or eliminating contact with them (Nims & Duba, 2011). Simple methods in in dealing with unresolved conflicts is by avoiding situations that may entice sensitive issues or sometimes staying away from certain family members in order to defuse the problem; however, the issue will still remain. The negative side of this is that as one member creates distance from his mother, for example, he may now depend heavily on his sister or his father. Forming new relationship may be easy in the beginning stages, but eventually the same issues that were avoided with the previous family member will begin to resurface with the others (Nims & Duba, 2011).

Sibling Position

The impact on sibling position was greatly observed by Bowen to understand the impact it has on personality formation (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2014). Bowen used Toman’s concept and incorporated it into his own ideas of sibling position. He suggested that individuals raised in the same sibling position have a tendency to exude the same personality traits. For instance, younger siblings enjoy following and mimicking their older siblings as opposed to the oldest sibling who enjoy having authority and often dominating the younger siblings (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2014, p. 219).

Multigenerational Transmission Process

The idea behind multigenerational process is that small differences between a parent and their child are passed on from one generation to the next. Every generation has a different level of dysfunction that is passed on from the previous generation (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2014). Nonetheless, the only way of eliminating the negative components is to identify and work on unresolved emotional attachments and handle it successfully. According to Nims and Duba (2011), “…family emotional patterns either remain close to the same over generations or result in one member becoming critically ill with schizophrenia, a major illness, or a major social dysfunction” (p. 88). When a family unit does not work on changing repetitive patterns from previous generations, if further deteriorate the relationships and interactions within the system. Family life becomes more chaotic often resulting in disturbances to mental functioning due to lack of the family’s emotional stability.

Family Projection Process

The projection process illustrates how a parent(s) transfers their emotional baggage to their children. By doing so, parents can cripple a child’s ability to function successfully and increase their probability of developing health or mental conditions (MacKay, 2012, p. 234). Most strengths and weaknesses children inherit are a direct result of the connections they have with their parents. High anxiety can leave children vulnerable to forming maladaptive behaviors, which lead to chronic anxiety in the family system.

Societal Emotional Process

The societal emotional process refers to a wider emotional entity that includes a person’s ethnicity and cultural background. Bowen stated that in the same manner that anxiety levels in one family member can rise and affect other members of the same system, the same concept applies to a society (Nims & Duba, 2011). In fact, because society as a whole is a larger entity, levels of anxiety can increase to a higher degree leading to “crisis-like” situations (Nims & Duba, 2011, p. 88).

Nuclear Family Emotional System

Bowen emphasized that individuals who become involved or get married with someone that possesses the same differentiation of “self” is more likely to create a family unit composed of high levels of anxiety. As a result, tensions in the household will cause constant fighting and distance between family members. Such attitudes and behaviors are often a replica of previous generations, which will ultimately continue to the next generation. Klever (2004) emphasizes this point by stating, “When one or more of the nuclear family patterns—marital instability, dysfunctional spouse, or child focus—were predominant in a person’s family, that individual would be more likely to repeat that pattern in his/her developing nuclear family” (p. 338). Most discords within the family system occur with dysfunctional spouses or problematic children (Nims & Duba, 2011).

Bowen’s key concepts focus on forming a balance between closeness and independence. In order for a family to function successfully, they must develop the ability to co-exist with one another. Bowen warns, however, that too much closeness within a family limits their ability to create a separate identity outside of the family system, thus causing problems (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2014). At the same time, too much distance or individuality prevents emotional connections to form causing strain. Because the basis of Bowen’s theory relates to the past as well as the family as a unit, Bowen developed specific goals and techniques to assists families, couples, and individuals throughout the therapeutic process.

Goals and Techniques

Therapeutic goals and techniques vary and depend on the individual or family seeking counseling. The goal in Bowen’s approach is first to reduce the anxiety levels that exist within the family system, and secondly to assist each family member in their differentiation of “self” (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2014, p. 227). A common technique used to achieve this goal is through genograms.

Genograms are a representative of a family and their relationships with one another throughout the course of typically three generations (McGoldrick, Gerson, & Petry, 2008). It is effective in counseling settings as it allows counselors or clinicians to quickly review and access different relationships, their connections, attitudes, and dysfunctional patterns that may presently affect the family or progress into the future. For instance, genograms include important dates (marriage, divorce, and deaths), relationships between family members, health issues, and addictions, such a gambling or alcoholism (McGoldrick, Gerson, & Petry, 2008).

Another technique often used in Bowenian therapy is questioning. Questioning is an insight-based approach, which allows clients to gain understanding. The therapist begins on an honest and mechanical level and eventually, processing to an emotional level. Information is gathered about the clients or family’s histories leading the clients to explore their feelings in relation to past generations. The therapist is careful to remain control and set boundaries to avoid countertransference. Through questioning clients and therapist are then able to identify problem areas affecting the client, couple, or family system.

Although Bowen developed more techniques than those previously mentioned, genograms and questioning work well together in uncovering issues in the family system that are not being addressed by the family. Mikesell, Lustennan, and McDaniel (1995) suggest:

Although transgenerational patterns are linked to present concerns, the therapist is less likely to focus on interventions that directly address the problem as it exists in the present. Instead, the therapist addresses family of origin issues that are impinging on the present. (p. 9)

As such, Bowen’s approach and techniques differ from other contributors to family therapy, such as those who developed the structural and psychodynamic approach to family therapy, even though the end goal remains the same.

Bowen’s Theory and Other Family Approaches

It has been said that Bowen’s theory resembles the psychodynamics approach to family therapy. Goldenberg and Goldenberg (2014) stated the following:

Bowen’s theoretical contributions, along with their accompanying therapeutic efforts, bridge psychodynamically oriented approaches that emphasize the significance of past family relationships on an individual on the one hand, and the systems approach that focus on the family unit as it is presently constituted and currently interacting on the other. (p. 204)

The psychodynamic approach centers around a client, couple, or family’s self-awareness and their perception of the effect the past has on the present. Both approaches seek to gain insight on past generations so that maladaptive characteristics, relationships, and family interactions can be minimized or removed in order for healthy family system to exist.

Structural family approach, on the other hand, contends that families have a tendency to “group” themselves together by ignoring boundary lines and rules relevant to each member’s growth (Nichols & Schwartz, 2004). It emphasizes the need to reconstruct the family dynamics, which makes the therapist a prominent component throughout the therapeutic process. The therapist attempts to become part of the family system as a method of understanding the boundaries and established rules that control the family system. In doing so, the therapist is able to break dysfunctional relationships in the family causing it to even out into healthier and more functional patterns (Nichols & Schwartz, 2004). As the family begins to recognize recurring patterns within the system, they gain a better understanding to the approach used to evade pain or develop defense methods; this will support them in taking the proper actions in changing flawed patterns (Nichols & Schwartz, 2004).

Personal Integration

One of the most important aspects of Bowen’s theory is that through the discovery of the past and in forming connections to the future, eventually a person is able to identify key elements they contribute to the family system. Through these discoveries, the individual, couple, or family is able to appreciate their value in the relationship and adjust dysfunctional patterns that continue to disrupt their ability to have a peaceful coexistence. Through his transgenerational view a person must learn to separate their “self”, thoughts, and emotions from others to allow healing. Bowen’s theory can be applied to a person’s faith in God. During creation, God created every person as an individual responsible for one’s own behaviors and actions.

The Christian worldview emphasizes the idea that through Christ all are created in his image. I may be an individual and stand alone, but I am called to reflect a Christ-like character. But as children of the world, “…all fall short of the glory of God” (Roman 3:23, KJV). Christ is merciful of His children and provides salvation as a promise of His commitment to his children. In such, the family system should make an effort to eliminate faulty thinking and refrain from allowing faulty relationships of the past continue to damage present and future relationships.

Though Christ created Eve from Adam’s rib, both were two different people who were brought together by God. His plan during creation was not for Man to be alone; on the contrary, He wanted Adam to have a family to teach and demonstrate God’s love. Through sin, however, this plan was distorted causing the family God intended as a safe haven to become a battleground; wife against husband, father against child, and brother against brother. Often times dysfunctional patterns are formed in relationships involving more than one person, which eventually spreads to the rest of the system.

In the same way that there is no “I” in “TEAM”, one person does not make a family; in a sense, being part of a family requires group effort from each person. At the same time, every member holds a duty within the family system and should not consume themselves with the likings of another family member nor negate their wants and needs to satisfy the wants and needs of another. Each member of a family must possess their own identity within the family system in order for it to flourish. Goldenberg and Goldenberg (2014) suggest that as members of the family system, “…increase in each participant’s level of differentiation” change can begin and each member will begin to adapt more effectively (p. 227).

Bowen reiterates throughout his work that lack of communication is the downfall to any family system no matter the amount of members that are part of the system. Lack of communication creates anxiety where it should not exist, causing arguments and distrust (Sparrow, 2008, p. 783). When members of a family system cannot look to each other for comfort because, each member looks for solace outside of the home through other avenues further alienating the member who they had a disagreement with and continuing to damage the family unit. Christ, however, calls His children to refrain from allowing anger to take over and create a home in the hearts of His children. Ephesians 4:26 says, “In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry” (NIV). Scripture also says, “Moreover, if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his faults between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained a brother” (Matthew 18:15, NKJV).

Of course, there are specific circumstances in which families, couples, or individuals may feel it is impossible to break maladaptive behaviors or learn better communication techniques. In these scenarios, Bowen introduced a concept known as triangles; the assistance of a third part, such as a therapist becomes the middle player allowing the tension experienced by the two individuals to subside. Sparrow (2008) stated, “Bowen believed that the best way to assist in ‘‘detriangling’’ was to remain neutral and to ask questions designed to help the conflicted family members become more aware of their respective contributions to the problem and what they needed to change in their own behavior in order to facilitate improvement in the relationship” (p. 784).

As a teenager, I recall the many lectures I received from my mother. As a result of a traumatic experience during my childhood, I was full of resentment, hate, anger, and a constant need to seek revenge. The fact is that when a person holds on to such harsh emotions, it becomes part of the “self”; it becomes part of one’s identity, so much that learning to let go of it is more excruciating than the trauma itself. However, in order to grow one has to learn to let go of the past; one must learn to grant forgiveness in order to begin the healing process. The pain from my past was jeopardizing my relationships with my family and friends. I was not given the opportunity to confront the individual who had done me harm. All the reserved emotions were transferred to whoever questioned me in any way, which was often my mother. But God says, “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (Romans 12:2, KJV).

I thank God I have a God-fearing prayer warrior mother, who in my darkest moments never gave up on me. My parents and I eventually spoke with the Pastor of our church, and I was finally able to understand where all the repressed anger was coming from. Although it took many years, I was able to release all those negative emotions that had affected my past and the way I related to others. It was by far the most freeing experience. There is a promise that God gives His children in Matthew 11:28-30, which says, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest …for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest…For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (NKJV).


Traditional therapy focuses on a person’s psyche in order to change relationships, Bowen concentrates developing better structure and behavioral patterns within a family unit. The importance of family is clear no matter which viewpoint is observed. Bowen emphasized the ideas that counselors should first examine their own generational patterns, ethnic, cultural, gender, and religious affiliations prior to entering a counseling relationship with a family. It allows counselors to gain a better understanding of the influences and changes that occur from one generation to the next. The fact is that a family system works as one entity whether or not multiple members exist in the family unit. Each person plays a role and has center responsibilities to contribute to the family system. although some characteristic traits may affect the family negatively, there are various factors and techniques that are useful in assisting families in regaining control, allow a healthy and respectful environment in developing “self”, and resolving old wounds.


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