Bowen Family Systems Theory
No man [human] is an island,” mused 17th century English poet, John Donne, in his poem of the same name. Dr. Murray Bowen, a 20th century psychiatrist, would agree. Bowen saw his patients not as isolated individuals, but as members of a system. Dr. Bowen originated his Family Systems Theory over decades of psychiatric practice. A “family system” is the web of family relationships that extends back over the generations. Every person is a part of a family system whether by birth or adoption.
In Bowen Theory, a family system is an emotional unit with generally predictable feelings, anxieties, and behaviors. Dr. Bowen looked closely at the dynamics of his patients’ family systems as he treated his patients’ various illnesses. He found that his treatment of patients was more effective when he considered patients in the context of their family systems. He could see recurring patterns in the histories of his patients’ families that impacted his patients’ symptoms and behaviors.
Is My Church a Family System?
Rabbi Edwin Friedman’s landmark book, Generation to Generation, describes churches, synagogues, and other religious groups as family system. In fact, three family systems interlock in churches, synagogues, and other religious groups. First, you have the family system of the pastor, rabbi, or religious leader. Second, there are the existing family systems of all of the members of the group. And, third, the religious group itself becomes a family system.
Rabbi Friedman applied the eight concepts of Bowen Family Systems Theory to the lives of churches, synagogues, and other religious groups. These eight interlocking concepts can help us unlock conflict in religious groups. Remember, we are not looking simply at individual behavior, we are looking at individuals functioning within a system.
Eight Concepts and towards a Ninth
The eight concepts of Bowen Family Systems Theory are
- Differentiation of Self
- Nuclear Family Emotional Process
- Family Projection Process
- Multi-Generational Transmission Process
- Emotional Cutoff
- Sibling Position
- Societal Emotional Process
Dr. Bowen was working on a ninth concept at the end of his distinguished career. The ninth concept incorporated spirituality. Unfortunately, Dr, Bowen was not able to flesh out this ninth concept fully before he died.
With this post, I am embarking on a series of posts describing the eight concepts Bowen Family Systems Theory. We will look at each of the eight concepts and how they apply to churches. I have found these concepts to be very helpful as I work with congregations in conflict. In addition, the eight concepts help me work on the issues in my family of origin. I hope that you will find Bowen Theory helpful, too, as you navigate conflict in any area of your life!