Family Emotional Systems Theory: An Insight
The theory of Family Emotional Systems was first introduced by Murray Bowen in 1974 and became popular as the Bowen Theory. It was one of the first theories on the institution of family and is being used by psychologists in their practice of family therapy. It has also been the basis of considerable research. The theory focuses on relationships within a family. Bowen contends that too much closeness or too much distance in a relationship generates anxiety. The level or extent of anxiety is determined by the level of sensitivity and the amount of external stress experienced by individuals within the family. Anxiety becomes chronic when members of a family react emotionally rather than rationally to stimuli within the family. The level of anxiety, according to Bowen may be reduced by generating awareness and focusing on changing the self. Seven psychological concepts form the basis of the family theory. These are Emotional Fusion and Differentiation of Self, Triangles, Nuclear Family Emotional System, Couple Conflict, Symptoms in a Spouse, Symptoms in a Child, Family Projection Process, Emotional Cutoff, Multi-generational Transmission Process, and Sibling Positions. There is an eighth concept that links Bowen’s theory to evolution of society. However this concept has little relevance in the practice of psychology (Brown, 1999). In this paper we will focus on three of these concepts namely emotional cut off, Emotional triangle, and Emotional Fusion.
Bowen’s theory states that emotions within a family escalate due to relationships being too close or too distant. This generates anxiety and members of the family find different ways to deal with the anxiety. Individuals often react emotionally rather than rationally. Too external factors generate stress on individual members of the family. Over time and without intervention, the anxiety becomes chronic and individual members within the family find different ways to deal with it. Bowen’s theory is based on eight psychological concepts. In this paper we discuss three of these concepts and how they relate to the practice of psychology.
Emotional cut off
Bowen believes that a person who leaves home to escape the anxiety within the family is as emotionally dependant on the family as the individual who does not leave. The runaway individual exhibits negative reaction to the emotional dependency but it exists none the less. Leaving home is a form of coping with anxiety. Bowen contends that in nuclear families where contact is maintained with older generations the family is more ordered and exhibits lower symptoms of stress. This is true of both generations that is to say both the young adults who have left home as well as the older adults exhibit less anxiety. Emotional cutoff is therefore not a solution to the problem of anxiety. Rather an awareness of the emotions brings about better relationships. Family therapy utilizes this concept to generate awareness of emotional dependency so that the relationships between members of the family can be improved and the levels of anxiety decreased (Rabstejnek, n.d.).
Rabbi Edwin Friedman first applied the theory of family emotions in his work. He expanded on the concepts of the theory and explained the complexity of relationships within a family (Guilford Press, 1985). Friedman explained that relationships within families are influenced by external factors both positive or enriching and negative or pressurizing. Relationships are therefore a set of complex triangles that represent a number of interwoven or interlocking relationships. Each triangle represents one aspect of the relationship. There exist infinite numbers of triangles some of which are significant while others thought exerting influence are not as significant (Remson, 2000).
Fusion is a blurring of differences between individuals. Fusion occurs when individuals feel responsible for the actions of others (Brown, 1999). It may also be expressed negatively in the form of emotional cutoff (Kerr and Bowen, 1988; Herz Brown, 1991 in Brown J (1999)). Bowen’s theory of emotional fusion states that an individual can exist and function in a state of autonomy within a relationship while he is still emotionally connected to the relationship. Kerr and Bowen, (1988) in Brown J (1999) call this concept “Differentiation by Contrast”. Minuchin, (1974) in Brown J (1999) calls this “Enmeshment” that is a lack of differentiation between sub-systems. Bowen explains fusion with the “differentiation of self-scale”. On one end of the scale is emotional cutoff or complete dissociation while at the other end is a complete blurring of boundaries between individuals within a family. Bowen acknowledges that it is not possible to achieve total dissociation or differentiation within families (Brown J, 1999).
Theory and practice of psychology are often different. While the theorists base their theories on their perception of human behaviour, therapists find it difficult to conform to the frameworks defined by the theorists. Bowen attempts to relate theory and practice of psychology using his theory of family emotions. Bowen believes that structure is necessary to classify emotions and analyse them. He contends that Psychology has evolved more as a dogma or religion than a science and in order to treat emotional disturbances in a scientific way, it is necessary to classify them using different framework (Bowen n.d.). Bowen’s work focusses on integrating psychopathology and universal continuum (Friedman, 1991). Bowen believed that mental illness occurs as a result of the degree to which certain universal traits are processed by individuals. For example every individual is schizophrenic up to a certain degree. However in certain individuals this degree is extremely high because of which the said individual is deemed to have a mental illness. Bowen’s theory is applied by psychologists who do not merely treat the symptoms but base their therapy on an understanding of behaviour. For example in family therapy, emotional cutoff is a method of dealing with anxiety and stress. This understanding of behaviour helps the clinical psychologist in generating awareness of emotions in his patients. This awareness leads to an understanding of the self and subsequent alteration in behaviour. We examine Bowen’s theory and the three concepts examined in this paper in relation to a case study to show its application in family therapy.
APPLICATION OF BOWENS FAMILY THEORY OF EMOTIONS
The case under consideration is that of Marie and Bob, both of whom come from families having a history of substance abuse. In the case of Bob it was his father who had an alcohol problem whereas in the case of Marie it was her mother who abused alcohol and prescription drugs. Both were exposed to domestic violence in different ways. Bob’s father would come home drunk on Friday nights and abuse his mother and two sisters. Bob adopted the role of protecting them and experienced pride and responsibility in doing so. Bob himself ended up being abused for protecting his mother and siblings. As Bob and his sisters grew up, they learnt to avoid being at home over the weekend.
In Marie’s case, her mother would often be in drugged state at night when she would be lax about rules. However the next morning when the effect of drugs wore off, Marie and her sister would be accused of not following the rules. Both children were forced to service their mother as a punishment for “being bad”. Marie had to make and serve tea to her mother while her sister massaged her mother’s head. Marie's father, a businessman was often out and not involved in the family matters.
Bob and Marie met in college and married after graduation. During their association in college they shared their pasts with one another and found a soul mate in each other. Both were determined to have a family free of substance abuse. All went well until the birth of their children. As the three children grew Marie became more and more involved in their lives while Bob became the bread winner. They grew apart and Bob was dissatisfied by the lack of physical intimacy. Bob went out with his friends from work one day and had a couple of beers. This soon became a practice and then a habit. He also began taking interest in a colleague. Bob did not appreciate Marie’s overbearing parenting style while Marie was overwhelmed with caring for the three children and resented Bob’s lack of involvement. One major issue in the family was the weight of their eldest daughter Emily. Emily had become withdrawn and stopped sharing things with her mother. One day Marie received a phone call from the school psychologist telling her that Marie had confessed to using purgatives to lose weight.
Bob and Marie’s case is a typical example of the three concepts selected for this study. Bob exhibits emotional cutoff in his behaviour by hanging out with friends. He has a decreasing desire to return home to petty fights with his wife Marie. There possibly exists an underlying desire not to repeat the behaviour of domestic violence like his own father. He therefore unconsciously cuts himself off from the emotions by hanging out with friends until late. There exist several emotional triangles in the situation with Bob and Marie. These triangles are apparent in Bob’s continuing relationship with his mother, his being a “buddy” rather than a dominating father to his own children and in Marie's behaviour being an over protective and consequently over bearing parent. Though Bob had every intention of being a “good” father to his children he mimics the behaviour of his own father. Marie too mimics the behaviour of her mother in having her youngest daughter massage her head when she feels stressed. There exists a fusion of individualities here with Marie confusing her mother’s demands for service with “good” behaviour of children.
An understanding of Marie and Bob’s behaviour within the framework of Bowen’s theory will help the therapist to generate awareness about emotions. Once Bob is aware of his unconscious coping method he can learn to be a good father and husband. Marie’s awareness of the fact that she associates “good” behaviour with serving the elders will help her deal with her children’s problems in a rational and positive manner. Thus Bowen’s theory of family emotions can aid family therapists and those practicing social psychology to understand and rectify behavioural issues within the family framework.
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