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Family Systems Theory

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William Davenport

on 23 June 2013

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Transcript of Family Systems Theory

Family Systems Theory
Historical Background, Bowen and other Key Influential People
Bowenian Theory
Bowen and Those he Influenced
Bowen spent 30 years at Georgetown University, working with less intense families and came to the understanding that family issues can be seen on a continuum. His work could apply to and benefit all families.

Carter, McGoldrick and Kerr
Betty Carter and Monica McGoldrick identified women's set roles within a system as barriers to forward movement and were influential in bringing feminism to the theoretical practices.
Murray Bowen
-Bowen began his work as a psychiatrist at the Menninger Clinic in the 1940's. His interest in family systems was sparked when working with people with schizophrenia and their families which led him to continue this work at the NIMH into the next decade.
There are six generally used techniques in the application of Bowen Family Systems Therapy.
3. Process Questions
5. Coaching

Bowen's ideas stem from psychoanalytic theory
Seeing exaggerated emotional disturbance in this population in relation to their family origins and parental influences led Bowen to identify the root of the issue, which he considered Anxious Attachment.
Bowen became world famous for his ideas and they are still widely used in family therapy today.
Philip Guerin and Thomas Fogarty were students of Bowen's and carried forward his ideas. Guerin also wrote two influential books to expand on Bowen's ideas. Guerin has a more systematic approach and he strives to identify specific areas to work on to increase normal functioning within a person and family.

Betty Carter branched out her thinking and ideas to consider divorce and remarriage as important changes to address in therapy.
Michael Kerr is a former student of Bowen who continues to work at Georgtown University and wrote a book about Bowen's theory titled Family Evaluation.
1. Genogram
The close examination and charting of family relationships relating to cut-offs, triangles, and other conflict.
2. Neutralizing Triangles
The therapist remains both calm and emotionally neutral and does not get tangled in triangles within the therapy session. This has a calming effect on the clients as well as allows family to remain focused on their own issues and work toward repairing of relationships.
4. Relationship Experiments
2 types of relationship patterns can be addressed, pursuers and distancers Pursuers are asked to stop demanding emotional connection where as distancers are encouraged to be better at communicating personal information. Both methods are aimed at drawing people together.
Allows the therapist to remain emotionally neutral while asking thoughtful questions meant to empower the clients to think about their role in the relationships and consider what changes need to occur coming to their own conclusions.
6. The "I" Position
The main goal and hope is that the client will learn to differentiate self which is defined as the capacity to stay true to self and maintain internal consistency while managing life's challenges and external, family influences effectively.
"I" statements are used and encouraged by the therapist. "I" statements decrease emotional reactivity and allow the client to learn more effective communication to express personal wishes rather than blaming the other person.
The Basics:

The Family:
-The family is an emotional unit. Members are connected through intense emotional bonds.
-Family members profoundly affect each others thoughts, feelings, and actions. All are "one" under the same "emotional skin".
-Families are an interdependent experience of connectedness and reactivity.
-Emotional interdependence evolves to promote cohesion and cooperation yet can also lead to heightened tensions.
-Tension and anxiety becomes infectious among family members. Emotional connectedness may lead to stress and not comfort. Members may feel isolated and overwhelmed..
-Individuals "absorb" family related anxiety and become vulnerable.
More Basics
Bowen saw human species as a product of evolution:

-The emotional systems that govern human relationship systems evolved from antiquity.

-Bowen developed his theory using a systems approach to explain the affect of emotional systems on human activity and as the principle driving force in development of clinical problems.

-Working knowledge of how the emotional systems operate in families reveals new insight and increases options for problem solving.

-Bowen's work focused on 8 concepts: triangles, differentiation of self, nuclear family emotional system, family projection process,
multigenerational transmission processes, emotional cut-off, sibling position, societal emotional processes.

-Bowen was most interested in theory guiding technique. However, many of those who follow in his footsteps are most concerned with interventions.
Emotional Triangles
Differentiation of Self
Nuclear Family Emotional System
Family Projection Process
Multigenerational Transmission Process
Emotional Cut-Off
Societal Emotional Processes
Sibling Position
The three-person relationship system is the smallest stable relationship system and the building block of larger emotional systems.
Dyads are inherently unstable and unable to tolerate heavy loads of tension and stress. Triangles are created when one individual in the dyad turns to a third party for sympathy.
Triangles becomes a fixed part of the relationship when the third party stays involved.
Basic functions:
The introduction of a third party to the dyad decreases anxiety by spreading it out through the three relationships.
Each individual's behavior is tied to the other members. The three are linked through reactive behavior. Typically two sides are in harmony and one side is in conflict, creating a dynamic between "insider" and "outsider".
Triangles have the tendency to become habitual.
When tension becomes too high for one triangle to contain, it spreads out, creating a series of interlocking triangles.
Triangles let off steam but tend to freeze conflicts in place. These frozen conflicts
become diversions that undermine relationships.
An individuals "self" is inborn. However, family relationships during childhood and adolescence determine how much "self" is actually developed.
Individuals with under-developed sense of self tend to depend heavily on the acceptance and approval of others. They adjust what they say, think, and do to conform to others. Similarly, they may also try to control the functioning of others. Chameleons and bullies.
Qualities of Individuals with well-differentiated sense of self:
the capacity to think and reflect within one's own conscience
ability to not respond automatically to internal and external emotional pressures
flexibility and wisdom when making choices
balance polarities of thinking and emotion
able to think things through, decide what they believe, and act on those beliefs
all of the above, while recognizing the one's realistic dependence on others.
Four basic relationship patterns that govern where problems develop in a family:
Marital Conflict:
Externalization of personal anxiety into the marital relationship, typically spurned by increase in levels of family tension. Each focuses on what is wrong with the other, each resists the others efforts at control
Dysfunction in one spouse:
One spouse pressures the other into certain behaviors , and the other yields. Both accommodate to maintain harmony, but it is imbalanced between the two. At a certain point the imbalance causes the subordinate spouse to yield so much that his/her anxiety increases greatly, and becomes the source of dysfunction.
Impairment of children:
Parents focus their anxieties on one or more of the children, worrying, etc., and creating either and idealized or negative view of the child. The focus is reciprocated by the child towards the parents. Reactivity develops to the attitudes, needs, and expectations of the parents. The process undercuts the child's development of a differentiated self, and creates undue anxiety which may affect all aspects of his/her being.
Emotional distancing:
Individuals in the family distance themselves to reduce exposure to intense relationships, but risk isolation. The pattern works in association with the others.
Describes the primary way parents transmit their emotional problems to a child (and also strengths!).
Projections can impair functioning of children and increase vulnerability to clinical symptoms.
Typical issues inherited from parents are relationship sensitivities such as:
heightened needs for attention and approval
difficulty dealing with expectations
tendency towards self-blame or the blaming of others
feeling responsible for the happiness of others or vice versa
acting impulsively to relieve the anxiety of the moment
Three steps of the projection process:
(1) parent focuses on child out of fear that something is wrong with the child
(2) the parent interprets the child's behavior as confirmation of the fear
(3) the parent treats the child as if something is really wrong with the child
In this model, a child's issues are dependent on the parent's affirmation.
Mother is usually the primary caretaker and more prone than father to excessive emotional involvement with the children.
Father occupies the outsider position in the family triangle.
This concept describes the multi-generational process in which small differences in levels of differentiation between parents and offspring lead, over the course of generations, to differences in differentiation among members of a multi-generational family. These are the inter-generational patterns of emotional forces.
Families with an excess of emotional reactivity (undifferentiated family ego mass) tend to produce reactive children who are typically either over-involved or cut-off from parents.
This leads to emotional fusion in new relationships, as people with limited emotional resources tend to project needs onto each other.
This new fusion is seen as unstable, and tends to one or more of the following:
emotional distance between the partners
physical or emotional dysfunction in one partner
overt conflict
projection of discord onto the children
Children most involved in a family's fusion tend towards lower levels of differentiation.
Children least involved in a family's fusion tend towards higher levels of differentiation.
People tend to seek mates with similar levels of differentiation. As this process occurs over generations the differences between family lines becomes increasingly marked.
Parents who intrude their concerns onto their children leave them little choice but conform or rebel.
The key implication is that the roots of the most severe human problems as well as adaptations are often generations deep.
Describes the way people manage their unresolved emotional issues and anxiety with parents and other family members by reducing or totally cutting off emotional contact with them. The greater the emotional fusion, the greater the likelihood of a cut-off.
Some seek distance by moving away.
Some avoid emotionality by avoiding sensitive issues.
Some insulate with the presence of a third party.
Relationships may look "better" if people cut-off to create "healthy distance", but the underlying problems are dormant and unresolved.

Everyone has some degree of unresolved attachment to their family of origin, but well differentiated people have more resolution than less differentiated people.
Many people quickly rendered helpless by a visit from their parents.
Superman robbed of his power by kryptonite (a piece of his home planet).
Bowen incorporated the research of Walter Toman into his own theoretical work. Walter Toman was a research psychologist
specializing on siblings.
People who grow up in the same sibling position invariably have many of the same important characteristics in common.

However, people in the same sibling position may exhibit marked differences in functioning. This may be explained by differentiation.
Bowen noted the socio-political influence on family function,
seeing sexism, class, and ethnic prejudices as examples of toxic social environments. However, he believed that families with
higher levels of differentiation were better able to resist destructive social influences.
Monica McGoldrick and Betty Carter expanded the influence of gender and ethnicity to Bowen's theoretical framework.
ignoring inequalities in gender tends to perpetuate the primary forces that keep men and women locked into inflexible roles.
women live with constraining social conditions and with men who profit from them.
men may benefit from societal gender priveledges outside the home and yet not feel powerful with wives and mothers inside the home
While Bowenian therapy has been embraced by some leading feminist therapists, it has also received a fair share of criticism:
Bowen paid too much attention to the role of mother's contribution to symptom development in the child
a perceived investment by a mother in her child is seen as a sign of undifferentiation.
Bowen failed to contextualize maternal behavior
patriarchal assumptions about male/female roles and family organization are not acknowledged or critiqued, leaving women vulnerable to having their socially proscribed roles pathologised.
women's active, relational roles results in quick labeling as "fused" and "undifferentiated"
no questioning of societal norms that can be seen to "school females in undifferentiation by teaching them to always put others first.
Bowenians do not try to change people or solve problems.
Therapy is seen as an opportunity for people to learn about themselves and their relationships so that they may take responsibility for their own problems.
Bowenian therapy is a process of active inquiry in which the therapist guides family members to overcome blaming and encourages them to explore their own roles in family issues.
Therapist strives for emotional neutrality and begins a process of differentiation and detriangulation.
Clinical methodology: increase parents ability to handle their own anxiety and become better able to handle their children's behavior, strengthen emotional functioning by developing ability to operate with less anxiety in families of origin.
Understanding, lowering anxiety, and increasing self-focus are seen as the primary force of therapeutic movement.
Genograms help people make associations and gain perspective on their problems.
Seeing family history and current trends helps to remove emotionality.
Detriangulation may be the central technique in Bowenian therapy.
Therapist uses questions to help family members develop awareness of their roles in family triangles.
Individuals must recognize how they are "triangled" by others, and how they also form triangles in their relationships.
Use of open ended "tracking questions" helps clients learn to investigate their own interpersonal relationships (who, what, when, where).
Once triangles are exposed:
family members plan ways of communicating with neutrality
focus on communications within the dyad
focus on finding less reactive positions in the face of other's anxiety
Despite Bowen's general disdain for formulaic technique, process questions are a critical intervention in family systems practice. Process questions are designed to:
slow people down
diminish their anxiety
get them thinking about their role in interpersonal problems.
The goal is to get people to remain calm and see issues clearly, which facilitates the healing of relationships.

Process questions explore what is going both inside and between people:
"What is it about your husband's drinking that bothers you?"
"When your daughter stays out all night what goes on
inside you?"
Full transcript