This post is the second in a series about Bowen Family Systems Theory. Before we launch in to the eight concepts of Bowen Theory, let’s define what a family system is.
A family system is a cohesive emotional unit. Emotions are highly complex and are generated in the brain. They are behavioral patterns that are necessary to survival. Emotions are physiological, mental, and automatic. Emotions are not the same thing as feelings. Feelings are emotions in awareness. Feelings bridge the emotional system and the intellectual system.
Emotions are circuited and re-circuited through a family system. A family system is multi-generational. When Bowen took a family history, he went back at least three generations. He took very detailed family histories and looked for patterns that repeated themselves through the generations. Bowen Theory practitioners use a complex diagram called a genogram to map family history. The genogram is a comprehensive visual diagram of a family system with its own language of symbols. We can use genograms to diagram church histories and relationships, too!
Note that Bowen Theory language reflects the gender roles of white, mid-century, North-American culture. For Bowen, the nuclear family consisted of the heterosexual marriage of a cis-gender man and a cis-gender woman who have gender-conforming children. His concepts can be applied to families with more diverse configurations. Whether we are straight, LGBTQia+, cisgender, or gender fluid, we have all been a part of a family system and continue to belong to family systems biologically and socially.
In Generation to Generation, Edwin Friedman identified three family systems that operate within a church or religious group: the family systems of the families within the congregation, the family systems of the clergy, the congregation itself as a family system. Friedman argues that the emotional forces within the three systems interlock. Attention to the processes in any one system will improve the functioning of all three systems.
The next blog post will unpack “Triangles,” the first concept of Bowen Family Systems Theory.