A Bowen Theory Lexicon

A Bowen Theory Lexicon

How Even the Great Ones Get Confused

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone,
it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’
—  Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Or as Hamlet put it way more succinctly, “Words, words, words,” which Liza Doolittle modernized as: “Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words! I get words all day through; first from him, now from you; is that all you blighters can do?”

So what do some of the most used words in Bowen Theory really mean? And since the writer is dead, who’s to know? Herein lies my attempt to bring meaning to the words. (NB: Much of what follows was originally written in response to my blog on Individuation and Togetherness).

We start (and, depending on word count, potentially end) with the concept of differentiation of self, generally acknowledged as the most difficult of Bowen’s eight interlocking concepts to grasp and apply. Misunderstandings, misconstructions, and downright confusion abound, so if nobody really knows, we can invoke any fantasy we like. Here is mine:

The process of partially freeing oneself from the emotional entrapment of one’s family of origin

The process of developing a unique, personal, authentic relationship with each and every member of your extended family of origin

The process of changing one’s part in old, repetitive, dysfunctional emotional patterns to the point at which one is able to speak calmly and non-reactively one’s personal views of important emotional issues regardless of who is for or against them

James B. Smith defines differentiation as “the process by which an individual manages the life forces of togetherness and individuality,” which means we need to define these concepts before we proceed further. Following are the definitions I use, which may or may not clarify anything.

Individuation and Togetherness are two primary evolutionary life forces that, while distinct, are also complimentary and can work together as a team. All of us participate in both processes simultaneously.

The individuation force facilitates the ability to focus on self, on one’s own needs, wants, core values and beliefs. The togetherness force drives an obligatory relationship orientation. One becomes emotionally reactive, either slavishly conforming to or reflexively dismissing the rules, roles, relationship requirements, and rituals of one’s family of origin.

A Bowen Theory Lexicon By Ronald B. CohenDifferentiation of self, in relation to one’s extended family of origin, is a response to managing the two primary life forces and addressing unresolved emotional attachments. It is the capacity to think clearly in the face of emotional reactivity, the capacity to address life’s stressors, to focus on the self and not others, and to take responsibility for the emotional processes in one’s own life.

Confusion arises when one considers the concepts of closeness/distance, fusion, and cut-offs.

Fusion and cutoff are mirror-image responses wherein “emotional reasoning,” rather than clear thinking, predominates. I consider them to be congruent with a low level of differentiation of self.

Closeness and distance, while describing similar phenomenon, are not synonymous with fusion and cut-off. They are reciprocal processes to manage the two primary life forces, resulting from some combination of levels of differentiation, ambient level of chronic anxiety and acute stressors, the outcome of which is largely determined by the degree and intensity of unresolved emotional attachments to one’s families of origin.

So if all of this is way too many words, and you are afraid that you can never be put back together again, consultation with a well-trained Bowen Family Systems Theory Relationship Consultant and “Coach” may be better than anything all the king’s horses and all the king’s men have to offer.

What say all of you?

Best of luck on your unfolding journey of a lifetime.

Please share your thoughts and experiences concerning the languaging of difficult theoretical concepts in the “Post Comment” box below. To request more information and/or schedule an initial consultation, click here. If you found this post helpful, please don’t keep it a secret. You are encouraged to click on the buttons at the bottom of the page and share this article with your own networks. Looking forward to continuing the conversation.

Ronald B Cohen, MD, PC www.familyfocusedsolutions.com Ronald B. Cohen, MD
Bowen Family Systems Coach
1 Barstow Road, Suite P-10
Great Neck, NY 11021
(516) 466-7530

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