Family Systems Theory
The family systems theory is a theory introduced by Dr. Murray Bowen that
suggests that individuals cannot be understood in isolation from one another,
but rather as a part of their family, as the family is an emotional unit.
Families are systems of interconnected and interdependent individuals, none of
whom can be understood in isolation from the system.
The family system
According to Bowen, a family is a system in which each member had a role to
play and rules to respect. Members of the system are expected to respond to each
other in a certain way according to their role, which is determined by
relationship agreements. Within the boundaries of the system, patterns develop
as certain family member's behavior is caused by and causes other family
member's behaviors in predictable ways. Maintaining the same pattern of
behaviors within a system may lead to balance in the family system, but also to
dysfunction. For example, if a husband is depressive and cannot pull himself
together, the wife may need to take up more responsibilities to pick up the
slack. The change in roles may maintain the stability in the relationship, but
it may also push the family towards a different equilibrium. This new
equilibrium may lead to dysfunction as the wife may not be able to maintain this
overachieving role over a long period of time.
There are eight interlocking concepts in Dr. Bowen's theory:
- Triangles: The smallest stable relationship system. Triangles usually
have one side in conflict and two sides in harmony, contributing to the
development of clinical problems.
- Differentiation of self: The variance in individuals in their
susceptibility to depend on others for acceptance and approval.
- Nuclear family emotional system: The four relationship patterns that
define where problems may develop in a family.
- Marital conflict
- Dysfunction in one spouse
- Impairment of one or more children
- Emotional distance
- Family projection process: The transmission of emotional problems from a
parent to a child.
- Multigenerational transmission process: The transmission of small
differences in the levels of differentiation between parents and their
- Emotional cutoff: The act of reducing or cutting off emotional contact
with family as a way managing unresolved emotional issues.
- Sibling position: The impact of sibling position on development and
- Societal emotional process: The emotional system governs behavior on a
societal level, promoting both progressive and regressive periods in a
Many of these concepts are discussed in the context of genograms in the book
and Intervention by Monica McGoldrick, Randy Gerson and Sylvia
Family systems therapy
One of the best ways to begin therapy and to gain understanding of how the
emotional system operates in your family system is to put together your family
genogram. Studying your own patterns of behavior, and how they relate to
those of your multigenerational family, reveals new and more effective options
for solving problems and for changing your response to the automatic role you
are expected to play.
Creating a family genogram
GenoPro is a unique software
perfectly suited for creating quick computer-generated genograms. By entering
key information, such as names of family members, key life events, emotional
relationships, and social relationships, the user can easily create a
multi-generational genogram of their family system or of their patient's family
system. The genogram thus created becomes a graphical picture of the family,
helping the user to identify patterns of behavior and dysfunctions that need to
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