Over the last 7 weeks, program director Bob Whitehouse has been teaching the residents of Linden Lodge a class on the thinking of Murray Bowen. Murray Bowen was a psychiatrist who pioneered family systems theory. In the period from 1954 until 1959 Bowen and a team of psychiatrists worked with entire schizophrenic families at the National Institutes of Mental Health. Bowen was curious about what these families looked like when they experienced a high degree of anxiety. After objectively observing these families, eight patterns of behavior emerged. In the years that followed Bowen was constantly refining his theory and found that these 8 patterns appeared in all families, not just the families of schizophrenics. These are the patterns:
- The family (or the people who live with us) is the emotional unit. As individuals, our families are always affecting us emotionally whether we choose to recognize it or not. For example, we can usually observe our spouse having a totally different countenance when he or she is on the phone with a family member as opposed to being on the phone with someone else.
- The Differentiation of Self scale. All of us are both connected to our families and have our own opinion about things. Each family member has a basic self from which they occasionally take stands, even in the face of a family’s reactivity, and they have a pseudo self that goes along with everybody else even when they internally disagree with the others. When operating out of our basic self we calmly base our decisions on facts, principles, intrinsic motivation, and from as many camera angles as we can muster in any particular situation. Within our basic selves we determine what we are willing to do and what we are not willing to do. When operating out of our pseudo selves, we change who we are so we can be accepted in a relationship. When we are operating from the pseudo self we hold stereotypes, we feed off of praise and recognition, we go along with the group, we change our beliefs in order to find approval, and we want to be liked. Some family members have a larger basic self and a smaller pseudo self, which allows them to operate independently while at the same time staying in touch with all the other family members. While other family members, have a smaller basic self and a larger pseudo self. These family members tend to change with the wind in order to please other members of the family. In general, the more we can operate out of a basic self, the higher we move up the Differentiation of Self scale and the more we operate out of our pseudo self the lower we find ourselves on the scale.
- Triangles. Bowen and his colleagues observed that when anxiety rises in a family a two person relationship becomes unstable. As a silly example, a couple may not be able to come to an agreement on whether to go to McDonalds or Wendys. So to ease the tension between them they draw a third person into their disagreement thus forming a triangle. The person who has been “triangled” in might say, “Well, what about Burger King?” And then a discussion ensues over the pros and cons of the three choices without the same degree of intensity that existed as when there were just two people. We can observe the natural human tendency toward triangles when are standing in a large crowd without an agenda or focus. At such times, people tend to group in threes.
- Emotional distance/cut off. Bowen and his colleagues observed that when tension rises in a family people will become emotionally distant from one another or cut themselves off from one another as an attempt to ease their anxiety. The problem is that over time these attempts to reduce anxiety actually make things worse. Distancing and cut off (which are more intense than a “cooling off” period) do not resolve conflict and in time this distancing and cut offs can tear families apart. For example, family member A and B might get into an intense argument and withdraw from the scene, each to his or her own room. But, while they are apart they can’t stop thinking about one another and this interferes with each person’s own functioning. In the Linden Lodge class we talked about ways to bridge these cut offs.
- Family Projection Process – Bowen and his colleagues observed that in families with multiple children, the child the parents worry most about tends to do the worst in life. Why? The child has to carry his or her parent’s anxiety in addition to his or her own. The worried about child also tends to operate with a larger pseudo self because they are always aware of Mom and Dad’s reactions. The child or children in a family who are not the object of the parents anxious focus tend to worry less about how Mom or Dad react to them and this leaves them freer to explore the world and learn from their own mistakes (thus a larger basic self and a smaller pseudo self).
- Multi-generational Transmission Process – Bowen and his colleagues observed that anxiety from past generations can influence today’s families without today’s families even being aware of it. For example, one day a daughter watched her mother preparing a ham for Sunday dinner. Before the mother put the ham in the pan, however, she cut off a chunk of it. Her daughter asked her mother why she did this as the pan was plenty big enough for the ham. The mother said, “I don’t know, that’s just how my mother always did it.” So the went back to the child’s grandmother to find out why she prepared hams that way. The child’s grandmother remembered that the child’s great grandmother had a pan that was too small for the ham, so she guessed that’s where she learned off the end of the ham before cooking it. In a more serious way certain important events, which Bowen called Nodal events, can have impact for many generations. The loss of a family’s fortune in a war or depression, can impact families for generations. So can a family feud when siblings stop speaking to one another affect the contact of subsequent generations. As humans, we achieve more self-understanding and we can pull ourselves further up the self-differentiation scale higher by staying true to ourselves while at the same time developing a one on one relationship with as many family members from all generations as possible.
- Sibling Position – Bowen and his colleagues observed that a person’s sibling position influences that individual’s behavior in marriages and families. The basic idea is that people who grow up in the same sibling position predictably have important common characteristics. For example, oldest children tend to gravitate to leadership positions and youngest children often prefer to be followers. The characteristics of one position are not “better” than those of another position, but are complementary. For example, a boss who is an oldest child may work unusually well with a first assistant who is a youngest child. Youngest children may like to be in charge, but their leadership style typically differs from an oldest child’s style. Bowen found, however, that sibling position is not fixed in stone. The gap between children affects sibling position. Also, the amount the parents focus their anxiety on a child can affect their sibling position. For example, if an older child is born with a severe physical illness or brain illness the parent’s anxiety about that child will cause them to function with less of a basic self. And in this situation, the younger sibling, free of his parent’s anxiety, will then take on the functioning of the oldest child.
- Societal Regression – In societal regression, people act to relieve the anxiety of the moment rather than act on principle and a long-term view. Bowen and his colleagues observed a pattern of societal regression that began unfolding after World War II. It worsened some during the 1950s and rapidly intensified during the 1960s. The “symptoms” of societal regression include a growth of crime and violence, an increasing divorce rate, a more litigious attitude, a greater polarization between racial groups, less principled decision-making by leaders, the drug abuse epidemic, an increase in bankruptcy, and a focus on rights over responsibilities. Back in the 1970’s Bowen predicted that the current regression would, like a family in a regression, continue until the repercussions stemming from taking the easy way out on tough issues exceeded the pain associated with acting on a long-term view. He predicted that will occur before the middle of the twenty-first century and should result in human beings living in more harmony with nature. It is more difficult for families to raise children in a period of societal regression than in a calmer period. A loosening of standards in society makes it more difficult parents to hold a line with their children. The prevalence of drug and alcohol abuse gives parents more things to worry about with their adolescents. The current societal regression is characterized by an increased child focus in the culture. People who advocate more focus on the children cite the many problems young people are having as justification for their position. Using the child’s problems as justification for increasing the focus on them is precisely what the child focused parents have been doing all along. An increase in the problems young people are having is part of an emotional process in society as a whole.
Like the class, the material for the article above is taken from the Bowen Center www.thebowencenter.org. (Especially sibling position and societal regression), the teaching of my mentor of four years, Dr. Roberta Gilbert (a student of Murray Bowen’s for the last 14 years of his life), and my own thinking and experience. It is by no means a complete presentation of Bowen theory. Bowen theory has many complexities and nuances that can’t be explained in such a short space. In practice, one can’t experience the power of Bowen’s theory unless one knows Bowen’s theory and one works (not in a study hall or therapist’s office) in and amid one’s own family (often with the guidance of a coach who keeps bringing one back to Bowen’s theory). This work is never complete. It is always ongoing. But, the effort pays off in increased wisdom, confidence, awareness and slight movement up the differentiation of Self scale. In the Linden Lodge class, I use more material than is presented here and I use numerous examples from my life and family experience that I would never share on the web. The good news is that so far I have observed that learning this theory has led Linden Lodge residents to have both increased family contact and less anxiety in their lives. The work will be ongoing.