Family systems theory is a way to make sense of human behavior by focusing on the interactions between people in a family. It views the family as a complex system of interconnected and interdependent individuals.
In the family system, members are strongly emotionally connected. The family is an emotional unit. Any change in one individual within a family is likely to influence the entire system and may even lead to changes in other members.
Family systems theory has been used in psychotherapy, community problems, health care, and business structures.
Family Systems Theory Definition and Assumptions
The psychiatrist Dr Murray Bowen introduced the family systems theory in the 1950s. He further developed it with Michael Kerr (Kerr & Bowen, 1988).
You might also see the theory in the literature cited as the Bowen Family Systems Theory (BFST).
Until the 1960s, that traditional psychology saw the individual as the basic unit of emotional functioning. Bowen’s theory was innovative because it shifted the focus of attention to the family unit (the group rather than the individual).
Bowen’s theory was very influential and its key concepts and structural approach have been widely applied to nonfamily groups: work environment (Chambers, 2009), community structures etc.
Bowen’s three key assumptions were:
1. The family is a complex emotional unit
Each member plays a specific role and respects certain rules. Thus, individuals can only be understood in relation to one another.
For example, a child growing up in a loving and supportive household progresses to become an emotionally stable and socially prosperous adult who exhibits prosocial behavior. Conversely, a child in a dysfunctional family might develop antisocial behavior and experience numerous obstacles in their growth.
2. The family is emotionally interconnected
If the emotional functioning of one member changes, the entire family/emotional unit automatically responds to this change.
Imagine the father becomes aggressive or depressive. This can lead to clinical, psychiatric, or social illness in the mother and/or the children. We can see how this has influenced subsequent theories of family, such as concepts around types of parenting and how they affect children’s social development.
Because familial, community, and social relationships are reciprocal, treatment should not be directed at the symptomatic person. In the words of Dr Bowen, “that which is created in a relationship can be ﬁxed in a relationship” (Bowen, 1978).
For instance, this understanding is key to Salvador Minuchin’s (1978) proposed treatment of anorexic youth. He recognized psychopathology stems from poor boundaries among family members. Then, he proposed to treat “anorexic families” instead of “anorexic children”.
Related Theory: Durkheim’s Functionalism (Which also emphasizes the role of the family in society)
8 Family Systems Theory Concepts (with Examples)
The Bowen Family Systems Theory comprises eight interlocking concepts (Kerr, 2000).
In what follows, we’ll discuss them one by one, paired with examples.
The triangle is the smallest stable relationship system. It is more stable than a two-person relationship because it can resist more tension. Triangles usually have one side in conflict and two sides in harmony.
Example: A friendship triangle
Mary, Ann, and Sofia are close friends. Mary and Ann have a stronger bond, which makes Sofia the odd person out.
Sofia feels uncomfortable and constantly tries to maintain her position in the triangle.
When Mary and Ann fall, the composition of the “powerful dyad” changes: Sofia takes the position of Mary. That’s because Ann and Sofia joined sources to scapegoat Mary, an outsider.
2. Differentiation of self
People’s levels of “differentiation of self” differ. Once formed, the “self” can only change after the person makes a long-term effort.
Some develop a strong “self” and become autonomous and confident. Others have a poorly differentiated “self”. These people tend to rely on others for acceptance and approval.
Example: John’s poorly differentiated self
John’s parents are overprotective. They always look after him and deal with all his problems. They leave him no room for decision-making in childhood and adolescence.
When John becomes an adult, he lacks confidence and is prone to “groupthink”. He quickly adjusts what he thinks and says to please his friends and co-workers.
In his thirties, he marries a dynamic woman. He attaches himself emotionally to her and she does most of the decision-making at home.
3. Nuclear family emotional system
Four key relationship patterns describe where problems may emerge in a family. The patterns can function in all family types (nuclear, single-parent etc. They are:
a) Marital conflict
Tension increases between Sam and Sally in the third year of their marriage. Then, each one suspects, tries to control the other, or focuses on what is wrong with the other person.
b) Dysfunction in one spouse
Will forces his wife, Mary, to think or behave in particular ways. Mary yields to the pressure for several years to preserve harmony.
Clearly, Mary makes most compromises in the relationship. If Will’s pressure increases, Mary might develop social or psychological dysfunctions.
c) Impairment of one or more children
The parents’ anxieties revolve around their son, Mike. They have a negative view of him as weak. The more they focus on Mike, the more Mike attaches himself to them and absorbs family anxieties.
This process troubles his differentiation. His school performance or social life might be negatively impacted.
d) Emotional distance.
This pattern occurs when people move away from each other to reduce conflicts. But they risk isolation.
4. Family projection process
The passing of emotional problems from parents to the children.
Example: Self-confidence issues
The parents believe their son has low self-esteem. To boost his confidence, they repeatedly affirm him. As a result, the child’s self-confidence becomes reliant on parental affirmation.
5. Sibling position
People who grow up in the same sibling position share significant common traits. For example, elder, middle, and youngest children seem to have common traits based on their position in the family and the expectations placed on them in those roles.
Oldest children tend to be more independent or lean towards leadership positions. Youngest children often tend to be followers.
Some positions are not “better” than others. For example, the youngest children may have a different leadership style than older children.
6. Emotional cut-off
The gesture of reducing or cutting off emotional ties with parents, siblings, or other group members. This is seen as a way of handling unresolved emotional matters.
At first glance, relationships seem better when there’s less emotional contact. In reality, the problems are still lying dormant.
Example: A man’s emotional cut-off from his family
A man cuts off from his family because he always felt his mother was very controlling. He rarely visits her, and when he does, they always talk about his work and her gardening ventures. They never touch upon their unresolved issues.
Cutting off from his family made the man’s other (intimate or work) relationships too significant. For instance, he spends more time and energy looking after his spouse and children.
He now runs the risk of exerting too much pressure on them. Hey may project his expectations on his kids. Or he might prioritize his job, seeing the workplace and his colleagues as substitute “families”.
7. Multi-generational transmission process
Minor differences in the differentiation of self between parents and their children can cause significant differences in differentiation between family members over several generations.
The premise of this concept is that parents actively shape the development of their children, who respond to their behaviors and moods.
The steps of multi-generational transmission process are explained below:
- As seen before, some children have more “self” and others less “self” than their parents. Imagine two siblings, Jim and Betty. Jim grows to be a confident and calm-headed man, while Betty is somewhatinsecure and anxious.
- Jim selects a partner/spouse with similar levels of differentiation (an assertive and clear-headed woman). Likewise, Betty chooses a husband that seeks her approval or recognition.
- Because Jim’s marriage is “more differentiated” than his parents, his children will be so too. Accordingly, Betty’s kids will be “less differentiated” than she or her husband are. So, one generational line (Jim’s) becomes progressively more differentiated, while the other (Betty’s) becomes less differentiated.
- This explains marked differences between the members of multigenerational families. For example, Jim’s grandchildren might become successful professionals contributing to society. By contrast, Betty’s grandkids might lead chaotic personal lives and depend on others to sustain them.
8. Emotional processes in society
The emotional system dictates behavior on a societal level, just like on a family level. Bowen came up with this idea when he identified parallels between parents and the juvenile court system’s behavior towards juvenile delinquents in the 1960s. Essentially, both “systems” were largely ineffectual in controlling delinquents.
Example: Regressive forces in society
Bowen argued that Human societies go through periods of regression when their functioning is anxiety-driven. The 1950s and the 1960s were “regressive”—crime, violence, racial groups polarization, and divorce rates increased.
The regression of contemporary society could be related to the depletion of natural resources, the climate crisis, and the never-ending armed conflicts.
Overall, family systems theory understands human behavior through a complex web of emotional processes in one’s family, work, and social systems. It describes how the emotional interdependence among family/society members impacts individuals’ character and life choices.
The complex emotional systems—e.g., family, organization, society—within which we live are the critical driving force behind the development of clinical or societal problems. Understanding how these systems operate can help us find practical solutions to problems and construct more collaborative, healthy, and productive teams and societies.
Bowen, M. (1978). Family therapy in clinical practice. New York, NY: JasOn Aronson.
Chambers, M. (2009). Nothing is as practical as a good theory: Bowen Theory and the workplace – a personal application. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 30(4), 235–246.
Kerr, M., & Bowen, M. (1988). Family evaluation: The role of the family as an emotional unit that governs individual behavior and development. Ontario, Canada: Penguin Books.
Kerr, M. (2000). One family’s story: A primer on Bowen theory. Retrieved from https://thebowencenter.org/theory/.
Minuchin, S., Baker, L., & Rosman, B. (1978). Psychosomatic Families: Anorexia Nervosa in Context. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]