Sample Essay on Bowenian Family Counseling Approach

Bowenian Family Counseling Approach


Over the past few decades, several approaches have been developed for family counseling, the most notable ones being psychoanalytic, structural, Bowenian, and experiential approaches. According to Kwak (2003), these theories and approaches are developed to nurture change and development of couples and family in intimate relations. They emphasize on enhancing family relationship as an essential factor in attaining psychological health. This paper reviews literature about the Bowenian family counseling approach and discusses its history, development as well as assumption, concepts and techniques.

Leading Figures

The leading figurers towards the development of this family counseling approach is a renown American psychiatrist known as Murray Bowen. He was born on January 1913 in Tennessee to a family of five members. He later joined the University of Tennessee where he received his Doctor of Medicine in 1937. He later worked at the Georgetown University as a professor in psychiatry. By 1950s, he became the leading pioneers of family therapy, developing a family system theory that would be later known as the Bowenian theory.

History of the Bowenian theory

Murray Bowen was the pioneer founder and developer of this family counseling approach that has found significant in many parts of the world. During the mid-1950s, many psychiatrists working including Bowen started working independently on disturbed family members including couples, marking the beginning of family movements. As explained by Brown (1999), during that time, they mostly applied psychoanalytic theory in treating family disturbances.

While working with National Institute of Mental Health, doctor Murray Bowen started a research project in 1954 about family dynamics of schizophrenia; he wanted to understand causes and intervention measures for psychotic disorders, which was becoming a serious problem in families. Such people were characterized by disturbances of language and thought, distortion of reality, as well as withdrawal from social contacts. He began his research by first study the relationship between mother and child then extending to couples and lately the entire family. From this research, Doctor Murray Bowen learnt that the same thing occurring in schizophrenic also occurs in all other families (Wampler et al., 2003).

With this new revelation, Doctor Bowen thought of new approaches to emotional illness, and after six years, he published his first concept about family systems. In conjunction with other researches in the family movement, several concepts were added to this theory. It was officially labeled the Bowenian Theory in November 1975. Since then, the theory has evolved and today it includes concepts that are applicable to work, family systems as well as the larger society. The family counseling concept provided by Doctor Bowen is now studied biological sciences because it is linked to biological functioning of human behavior.

Current Events and Developments

Bowenian family counseling approach has been under steady development by many therapists and researchers. In 1988, Monica McGoldrick and Betty Carter expanded the approach by adding the significance of family cycles and vertical flow of anxiety. They argued that both vertical and horizontal stress pattern converge as families move through generations thereby determining the current generation’s choice of family issues to focus on (Miranda et al., 2006). They work created a new life perspective that viewed symptom development as unresolved adjustments to the tasks of life cycle.

Later on, the significance of ethnicity, race, gender, as well as class on the progression of family through various stages of life cycle was developed. These variables have been added because they underlie the potent themes in the multigenerational legacy of each and every family because they powerfully contribute to the roles of members in the family emotional system. Gender sensitivity has been included in the Bowenian counseling approach simply to help the client consider his or her role in the relationship by looking at specific connections to defined gender roles in the society (Skowron, Holmes & Sabatelli, 2003).

During the 1990s, the several attentions have been added to influence of the wider social and political factors in family systems. Following these developments, the Bowenian counseling approach was modified to include the interplay of power and hierarchy in family as well as couple problems.According to (Skowron & Schmitt, 2003), the latest development of Bowenian approach to family counseling viewed the key concepts of differentiation, fusion, and triangles from a feminist position, an element that Bowen did not consider in his earlier development of the theory.It includes analysis of how gender roles determine how both men and women independently express differentiation, fusion, and triangles.

Assumptions of the Theory

The Bowenian counseling approach is governed by some basic assumptions relating to family systems. First, the theory assumes that there is a direct link between human behavior and biological functioning of the body thus psychological health can be traced through family lineage. According to Blow and Sprenkle (2001), this counseling approach holds that no individual in a family can be separated from his or her network of relationships; therefore, this counseling approach looks at the client’s problem as dysfunctional problem in the entire family.

The second assumption that is governing the application of Bowenian approach to family counseling is that all organisms including human beings have certain degree of anxiety that can be reasonably adapted. According to Chung (2001), the degree of anxiety varies from one person to another depending on many internal and external factors. He further illustrated that a person started developing tension when the anxiety becomes chronic thus affecting his or her relationship with other people in the family. Under such case, the Anxiety produces tension that eventually precipitates dysfunction, symptoms, or sickness manifested as emotional dysfunction, physical illness, behavioral dysfunction, or social illness.

Development of the Theory

The Bowenian family counseling approach was developed from the idea that people’s behaviors result from evolutionary process. With this perspective, doctor Murray Bowen assumed a direct link between human behavior and biological functioning, which is determined by the evolutionary process (Weingarten, 2004). In addition, the idea of multigenerational transmission was core to the development of the Bowenian family counseling approach. This implies that there is tendency to move to lower level of differentiation in each new generation of the family. This downward movement continues from one generation to another until the generation successful deal with the family cutoffs as well as unresolved emotional attachments.

Doctor Murray Bowen then developed this family counseling approach to help change couples, family members, or individuals who can easily influence other members on the family. It is developed to self-differentiate individuals in the family then progress into transforming their relationships with the entire family system. This is done with the primary goal of reducing anxiety, which is assumed the root cause of the family problems, and resolving symptoms of anxiety.

Concepts and Techniques of the Bowenian Theory

The abstract principle of Bowenian family counseling approach is based on emotional behavior that is observed from different society and families. The basic principle and concept of this counseling approach is to distill and condense several unique and particular manifestations of human interactions in the family level, which are more related to the behavior of an individual person (Pillemer et al., 2007). Guided with the assumption that there is some degree of order and natural laws in the universe, the Bowenian approach give predictions that relates these laws with the interrelatedness of emotional phenomena in the family.

As explained by Miller, Anderson and Keala (2004), the single concept of Bowenian family counseling approach suggests that the limited aspects of human behavior cause substantive consequences in the family or society. It suggests that viewing humans can only make predictions about human behaviors from the entire emotional system or as a network of family dependencies. This is the basic concept behind the development of the Bowenian family counseling approach and theory, which has proved effective in counseling of couples as well as afflicted family members. Over the past 25 years, this concept has been analyzed to understand the nature of dependency as well as the patterns of emotional behaviors in the family.

The technique of Bowenian family counseling approach involves three stages. The first stage is aimed at reducing the client’s level of anxiety about his or her behavior symptoms. This is undertaken by helping clients dainty the symptoms and encouraging him or her to relate the identified symptoms with his or her relationship pattern. The second stage is aimed at increasing level of individual differentiation by focusing on self-issues affecting the individual. This stage uses techniques that prevent the client from the pull of ‘togetherness force.’ The last stage focuses on coaching the individual to differentiate from the family origin assuming that the technique will help reduce anxiety and promote self-responsibility in the family system.

The Bowenian approach explains the development and functioning of each family using eight interlocking concepts namely differentiation of self, triangles, nuclear family emotional processes, family projection process, multigenerational transmission process, sibling position, emotional cutoff, and lastly societal emotional processes (Larnera, 2004).

The first concept, which is differentiation of self, actuallydifferentiates individuals from the family members to separate feelings and thoughts. It defines how individual family members independently think and feel about issues and people. The triangle concept considers how two people in a family can waver between distance and closeness especially when they have feeling of intense emotion of distressed. Hooper (2007) explains that in such case, they will often seek the help of a third person ease or triangulate the existing tension. The other concept explains how emotional patterns are displayed depending on the type of family system.Multigenerational processes determine the transmission and maintenance of emotional processes in a family over several generations to follow. The concept of emotional cutoff entails the process of complete separation of individuals from family members. In such case, the person may have little or completely no contact with the family members thus feeling independent from the family.


Being a pioneer of family counseling therapy, Doctor Murray Bowen introduced concepts and theories that recognized how social and cultural values shape how human value themselves and their families. However, Bowenian family counseling approach is unique because it put into consideration the family history and how it shapes the thoughts, values, as well as experiences of each family members throughout any generations. Bowenian family counseling approach focuses on the balancing of two main forces namely individuality and togetherness. This concept argues that too much togetherness in a family may create fusion thus preventing the development of self. On the other hand, too much individuality may result in the establishment of estranged or distant families.



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