Bowen family systems theory is a theory of human behavior that views the family as an emotional unit and uses systems thinking to describe the complex interactions in the unit. It is the nature of a family that its members are intensely connected emotionally. Often people feel distant or disconnected from their families, but this is more feeling than fact. Families so profoundly affect their member’s thoughts, feelings, and actions that it often seems as if people are living under the same “emotional skin.” People solicit each other’s attention, approval, and support and react to each other’s needs, expectations, and upsets. The connectedness and reactivity make the functioning of family members interdependent. A change in one person’s functioning is predictably followed by reciprocal changes in the functioning of others. Families differ somewhat in the degree of interdependence, but it is always present to some degree.
The emotional interdependence presumably evolved to promote the cohesiveness and cooperation families require to protect, shelter, and feed their members. Heightened tension, however, can intensify these processes that promote unity and teamwork, and this can lead to problems. When family members get anxious, the anxiety can escalate by spreading infectiously among them. As anxiety goes up, the emotional connectedness of family members becomes more stressful than comforting. Eventually, one or more members feel overwhelmed, isolated, or out of control. These are the people who accommodate the most to reduce tension in others. It is a reciprocal interaction. For example, a person takes too much responsibility for the distress of others in relationship to their unrealistic expectations of him, or a person gives up too much control of his thinking and decision-making in relationship to others anxiously telling him what to do. The one who does the most accommodating literally “absorbs” system anxiety and thus is the family member most vulnerable to problems such as depression, alcoholism, affairs, or physical illness.
Dr. Murray Bowen, a psychiatrist, originated this theory and its eight interlocking concepts. He formulated the theory by using systems thinking to integrate knowledge of the human species as a product of evolution with knowledge from family research. A core assumption is that an emotional system that evolved over several billion years governs human relationship systems. People have a “thinking brain,” language, a complex psychology and culture, but people still do all the ordinary things other forms of life do. The emotional system affects most human activity and is the principal driving force in the development of clinical problems. Knowledge of how the emotional system operates in one’s family, work, and social systems reveals new and more effective options for solving problems in each of these areas.