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What Is Bowenian Family Therapy?

By Paul Cartmell
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Bowenian family therapy was developed by U.S. psychiatrist Dr. Murray Bowen to explain the relationships that take place within a family group and can lead to dysfunctional behavior by one or more members of the group. The theory was developed along with eight interconnected principles revolving around the dependence of family members upon each other. Dr. Bowen’s theory attempts to explain why certain members of a family are more susceptible to dysfunctional behavior, such as substance abuse, extra marital affairs, and feelings of inadequacy.

Development of Bowenian family therapy used theories of evolution and research on the formation of family groups. This technique attempts to find the member, or members, of a family who absorb the majority of emotions and conflicts that occur between members of the family and place himself or herself at risk from dysfunctional behavior. Through the absorption of negative feelings and conflicts, the family member becomes isolated from the family group and can exhibit anti-social behavior that can become disruptive to the family as a whole.

Within Bowenian family therapy, the relationships of a family are explored to identify the areas of interdependency shown by the members. Dependence upon each other is a common part of family life developed through evolution to ensure that a family is secure from predators and can survive in an environment. The therapy attempts to identify areas of anxiety within the family that can result in conflict between the group members.

Eight areas of study are used with Bowenian family therapy, including the identification of triangular relationships within a family that have a negative path, and two positive, loving relationships. Differentiation of self is a theory determining that some members of a family group require the approval of others to function successfully within the family. Two theories within Bowen’s work look at the relationship between parents and children; these are the projection of feelings from a parent to a child and the projection of differences from the parents to the children of a family. The position of a sibling within the family can also have an effect on the workings of the group and have links to the theory that certain members of the group can become distant from the rest of the family.

The working of a nuclear family are discussed within Bowenian family therapy and this particular theory can be used to identify the problems facing a group. Marital conflict can be identified as a problem that has an effect on the entire group, along with problems faced by one parent. Family problems can result in the emotional impairment of a child within the group as well.

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