Bowen Family Systems Theory: An Extraordinary Way of Thinking about Relationships (A Book Summary and Review)

Extraordinary-Relationships-9780471346906This is a book summary and review about Dr. Roberta Gilbert’s book “Extraordinary Relationships: A New Way of Thinking about Human Interactions” We read this book for our book presentation in Homiletics III.  This theory is very applicable to the life of a pastor as he shepherds a flock.  A congregation operates like a family. This theory can be applied to the church. If you’re a pastor or minister I politely ask you to please give this a read and to check out the books on the bibliography. Happy reading.

Extraordinary Relationships

Dr. Bowen’s Extraordinary Way of Thinking

Early on in his practice, Dr. Bowen came to realize that the Freudian theory was based on human subjectivity.  It depended on what patients said and how they and their therapist interpreted what was said.  Dr. Bowen believed that the study of human beings could become an objective science accepted by many.

Dr. Gilbert writes that, “Bowen proposed a broader way of thinking about human behavior and a different way of approaching problems. His ideas, if correct, would apply…to the whole human phenomenon.  He had an idea that the basic unit of emotional functioning might not be the individual, as previously thought, but the nuclear family.”

Dr. Bowen believed that relationship patterns went beyond involving the mother and child alone, but incorporated the entire family.  He believed that problems like schizophrenia, typically thought to be caused by the mother’s faulty communication with her offspring, was not a simple cause-and-effect issue stemming from the relationship of mother with the child.

These patterns were hard to uncover at first due to the individuals being emotionally infused.  If one became intense emotionally then others reacted in a predictable manner.  In constant motion, were these emotional interactions, which took on forms that began to be recognized in time as familiar patterns.

Dr. Bowen also came to realize that the families of origin in both parents were vital to the emotional process.  He discovered that the parents contributed to what he called “multigenerational passing and circuiting of anxiety”.

Upon one person it seemed that the family anxiety would focus.  Dr. Bowen thought that diseases like schizophrenia could be a symptom of the anxiety within the family system.  The illness’ course was linked to the family’s pervasive anxiety.

Dr. Bowen saw that the emotions in all the families participating in his research transferred from person to person and even generation to generation without being resolved.  It appears to be that the families were participating in self-perpetuating anxiety at high levels.

“Dr. Bowen’s observations of these families carved out a new and much broader perspective,” says Dr. Gilbert.  He discovered that the entire family was involved in the emotional process.  He came to the conclusion that if researchers could describe what they were watching that they would have to learn a new way of thinking: systems thinking.

It is systems thinking that has replaced the cause-and-effect thinking.  In systems thinking,  Dr. Gilbert says, “Parents are not causes, but receptors or conduits, and even contributors to the much larger multigenerational emotional process.”

Even though this process is enormously complex it can nonetheless be comprehended.   The emphasis with systems thinking lies with seeing the positions of as many of the players on the field(s) that is possible at one time.  The system is a very natural one, similar to what we see in other species.

Dr. Bowen saw that in order to make a valid observation he had to remain free of the intense emotional patterns of these families.  When he and his staff responded in kind to the families under observation they all made more sense.  However, if Dr. Bowen and his team responded with emotional intensity to the family’s anxiety then everyone’s emotions escalated quickly and reverberation increased.  Dr. Bowen discovered that when the family was less anxious they were able to stop and think about their problems and create solutions to them without outside.

To comprehend this way of thinking, Dr. Bowen would draw family diagrams, which revealed much about the family’s emotions and their emotional processes.  These diagrams helped to “think systems”.

When looking at the emotional functioning of several generations one gains a better comprehension of the “big picture” so important to thinking systems.

Dr. Gilbert writes of Bowen’s theory, “It does not claim complete resolution of the complexities of human nature.  Nor is the theory primarily a method for practicing  psychotherapy.  It does not have all the answers for the problems of society.  It does, however, provide a framework for expanding understanding in all these areas.

Bowen ultimately developed a theory about human behavior that is comprehensive.  Taken in its entirety, Bowen family systems theory opens a vast new vista on human behavior…

Bowen’s research has shown that certain theoretical principles apply to any human involved in any kind of relationship with another human or humans.  The effort to think theory in relationships is what this book is all about.  Because of the internal cohesiveness of the theory, study of one part leads naturally…to the rest.  The focus in this book, however, will be primarily on the ideas of the theory essential to a better understanding of human relationships.  Only when one has a broader, more effective way of thinking about relationships is there a chance of improving one’s functioning in them.”

The Individuality and Togetherness Forces

There are two basic urges of human beings:  the drive we have towards being an individual—“one alone, autonomous”—and the drive towards being in relationship(s) with those around us.  Striking a balance between these two urges is foundational to the human condition.  In an ideal situation, these urges or tendencies are brought into harmony with one another and become balanced, but the reality is that often they are in tension.

Dr. Gilbert writes, “The individuality forces pushes toward defining one’s self as separate from others.  It propels one toward adopting individual beliefs, reasoning out choices, and personal autonomy.  This work of building a self, with its beliefs, goals, and boundaries that are distinct from those of other people, begins early in life and, ideally, continues throughout.  The individuality forces is ever-present in human beings.  It reminds one constantly of boundaries that are non-negotiable in our personal relationships.

The together force urges us toward others, for attachment, for affiliation, and for approval.  It is an emotional process among individuals in which both anxiety and self are transferred.  This movement of emotion and self among individuals is basic to seeing the group as the emotional unit.”

Togetherness can be found expressed in companionship, family, and society.  Dr. Gilbert says, “In these emotional units, the transfer of anxiety between individuals is such that something of each self is exchanged between them.  One person gains and the other loses self as the one viewed as having a problem is focused on by both.  Or they can both lose self by focusing on each other or a third.”

Fusion is another way of thinking about togetherness.  Fusion is the taking on or giving up of your self in any relationship.

The emotionally mature person can handle the individuality/togetherness forces with much more ease than the emotionally immature person.  The emotionally mature person is comfortable with their self and are emotionally complete in and of himself and does not need to seek attachment to another person.  The emotionally immature person seeks comfort in his relationships.  This is an attempt to complete the lack of self this person has.  The attachment to another person via relationship is an attempt to make a self out of two or more selfs.

“The central dilemma in managing the individuality/togetherness forces for each person is how to keep the focus on one’s own life and life direction but still stay in open, clear communication with the other significant people in that life.  Or, stated differently, how can one be the best one can be and still be with others who have that same goal?  Bowen theory shows how to head in that direction,” writes Dr. Gilbert.

Two Principles


A clear picture of human potential and the principles needs to attain it is what Bowen’s family systems theory gives to us.

Our thinking profoundly affects our efforts and it is very vital that we examine our thinking about relationships.  Thinking more objectively and inclusively makes it easier to see relationships as they are.  In order to see what they could be, we must learn some principles and how to apply them so that our relationships improve.  Learning to think different is not an easy task.  It is painful and challenging, but is one exciting journey full of benefits for our relationships.  There are two principles we can learn along this journey that are the heart of Dr. Bowen’s theory.  Dr. Gilbert writes that, “The first and most important concept in understanding and changing relationships  is differentiation of self…

A second important concept for gaining an understanding of human connectedness is that of emotional systems.  Within that concept, thinking systems and observing process become clear… The first concerns the self in relationships, and the second, the emotional relationship system in which the self lives.”

I will discuss the first principle at length, and give a small introduction to the second one.

Differentiation of Self

Dr. Gilbert states, “If any single idea in Bowen family systems theory is central in importance, it is the idea of differentiation of self.  It is essential to understanding relationships.  Stating the concept simply: Individuals vary in their ability to adapt—that is, to cope with the demands of life and to reach their goals.”

She continues, “Basic self is ‘differentiated,’ or separated, from the emotional system of one’s family very early in life, and to different degrees in different people and families.  This takes place in the context of mother/child/family togetherness.  The degree to which differentiation is set in infancy by the family system may be considerable.  Differing degrees of competency have been observed even among newborns.  Ideally, at the highest levels of differentiation, one would be a complete and emotionally separate self sometime before leaving one’s family of origin.”

The more differentiated a person is the more basic self that is present, which lessens the need for attachment of self to others in the context of relationships.  This is due to one being wholly separated emotionally from one’s family of origin or family emotional system.  It is important to note that not being emotionally attached does not equate being emotionally distant from one’s family.  It is quite the opposite!  When less attachment occurs then openness is created in the emotional system that is more characteristic.

Many will reach adulthood with an ample amount of basic self having been undeveloped.  To a degree, it means their basic self was only developed partially within the family of origin.  Separation from the fusion to their family was no completed and the self only became differentiated partially.  Others in their family always completed them in the fusion.  Since they did not work out basic self in the family they will act automatically often being unaware of doing so.  As adults, they will attempt to complete or compensate for this lack of self via relationships.  Their tendency for attachment is automatic, and they are unaware consciously of this automatic response.  Basically, this is an attempt to complete self.

Patterns from their family of origin are repeated, reacted to, or avoided.  An example of this would be if a person grew up in relationships filled with conflict one may seek out conflicted relationships.  Or one may be afraid of conflict, seeking to avoid it at all costs, so one keeps the peace at all costs.

Dr. Gilbert writes, “Human beings will attempt to complete the self in relationships to the degree that it is incomplete by itself.  At the same time, the others in their systems will also be aiming for self-completion.  The effort to make a complete self out of two undifferentiated selfs results in a fusion of selves.  It is based on the need for attachment or togetherness that was not resolved in the original family.”

There are two inner guidance systems by which the self is affected.  Dr. Gilbert writes of these two guidance systems, “One is comprised of the automatic, emotional, or instinctual processes necessary to maintain life.  The patterned emotional responses from early life also become part of this automatic guidance system.  This system is most likely rooted primarily in the emotional parts of the brain…

The other inner guidance system, which is mostly organized in the cerebral cortex, is newer in evolutionary time.  It functions by processes of thought, reasoning, judgment, and logic and has reached its most complex level of development in Homo sapiens.

The two together comprise the guidance systems of the self.  At higher levels of differentiation of basic self, people have more choice about whether to follow the guidance of the thinking self or the guidance of the emotional/feeling self.  They are better able to separate these two functions.  At lower levels of differentiation, the intellectual and emotional guidance systems are fused, allowing little or no choice between the two and making the intellect essentially emotionally driven.”

There is much to say about differentiation of self.   It is the vital heart and lifeline of Dr. Bowen’s theory.  We have only discussed a small part of this principle due to the time constraints, but I encourage you to look further into this theory.  Differentiation is something we all have.  We are all either at the lower levels or higher levels of differentiation.   In “The Leader’s Journey”, Jim Herrington, Robert Creech, and Trisha Taylor define differentiation of self as “A person’s capacity to remain true to his or her principles, to be thoughtful rather than reactive, while remaining emotionally connected to others who are important to him or him.”

This is something we can all discover.  We can discover our principles and love by them.  Dr. Gilbert writes, “Adults can improve upon that level with hard work.  Thinking out one’s principles, fundamental to the development of the basic self, is a project everyone can undertake.  Improving the ability to choose between thinking and reacting emotionally is possible alone, but a coach or supervisor can greatly enhance one’s efforts.  Technically, only a small increment of change is possible after leaving one’s original family.  But any change in the level of differentiation makes for a radical difference in functioning in all areas of life, particularly in relationships.”

Emotional Processes

The next concept is relationship patterns.  We see 5 familiar and well-defined relationship patterns emerge, and they are: conflict, distance, cutoff, dysfunctional spouse (underfunctioning/overfunctioning reciprocity), and dysfunctional child.

Dr. Gilbert writes, “These patterns form to ‘solve’ the problem of relationship anxiety.  The basic problem, emotional immaturity that led to the attempt to complete a self through affliction with another self in the first place is merely played out in the relationship pattern.  It then becomes clear that emotional immaturity, pushed into a relationship, becomes a burden on that relationship.”

In “The Leader’s Journey”, Jim Herrington, Robert Creech, and Trisha Taylor define  the emotional process as “The interaction of the level of differentiation and the level of chronic anxiety; the interplay of the togetherness forces and the autonomy forces, and the emergence of symptoms within a relational system.”

This process is played out in the relationship patterns that they go on to clarify:

  1. Conflict- A common symptom of anxiety in a system, in which people insist on their way as the only way and clash with others taking the same emotional stance.
  2. Distance- A common symptom of anxiety in a system, in which people withdraw from others emotionally, creating superficial harmony.
  3. Cutoff- A common symptom of anxiety in a system, an extreme expression of distancing, in which people completely break off relationships.
  4. Dysfunctional overfucntioning- A common symptom of anxiety in a system, in which one member of the system takes on responsibilities that belong to others.
  5. Dysfunctional underfunctioning- A common symptom of anxiety in a system, in which a portion or portions of the system fail to accept responsibility for their own functioning, allowing others to take it up for them.


Family Systems Theory examines the individual within the larger context of the nuclear family.  Dr. Murray Bowen, “had an idea that the basic unit of emotional functioning might not be the individual, as previously thought, but the nuclear family.”  Family Systems Theory is about how the family responds and interacts emotionally. The theory aids one to examine the system and helps one to see the role one plays in those patterns whether as a receptor, conduit, or contributor to the emotional process.  In this theory, one learns to watch emotional process and gain control of one’s own emotions and work on personal development by basing life decisions and reactions on values and principles not on emotions.

Suggested Reading 

Friedman , Edwin. A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of Quick Fix. New York City: Seabury Books , 1999.

Friedman,  E. Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue. New York:   Guilford Press, 1985.

Gilbert, Roberta. Extraordinary Relationships: A New Way of Thinking About Human Interactions . New York City: John Wiley and Sons, Inc. , 1992.

Jim Herrington, Robert Creech, and Trisha Taylor. The Leader’s Journey: Accepting the Call to Personal and Congregational Transformation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003.

Kerr, M.E., and Bowen, M. Family Evlaution: An Approach Based On Bowen Theory. New York City: W.W. Norton and Co., 1988.

Richardson, R. W. Creating a Healthier Church: Family Systems Theory, Leadership, and Congregational Life. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.

Steinke, Peter. How Your Church Family Works: Understanding Congregations as Emotional Systems. Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2006.

Many more can be found on Dr. Carlus Gupton’s “Life and Leadership” website under the ministry resource guide list. It will be listed as “Emotional Systems”.  Dr. Gupton provides thorough explanations to several books that apply systems theory to congregations. Here is the link:

2 thoughts on “Bowen Family Systems Theory: An Extraordinary Way of Thinking about Relationships (A Book Summary and Review)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s