Doing “Bowen”
Turning Theory into Practice

Doing “Bowen”<br>Turning Theory into Practice

“There’s nothing so practical
as a good theory”
— Kurt Lewin

We all carry unresolved problems from past life cycle stages with us, into our current situations. At times of family life-cycle transitions and unexpected crises, conflict and dysregulation arise. Questions about how best to respond include: (1) What can you do to help resolve the conflict, reduce stress and anxiety, improve communication, and promote active problem solving and healing? (2) How do you maintain both your autonomy and the connections with emotionally important people in your life? (3) Which behaviors will help make things better no matter what anyone else does? and (4) How do you deal with differences without losing connection?

Doing “Bowen” - Turning Theory into Practice By Ronald B. CohenKurt Lewin, universally recognized as the founder of modern social psychology, noted the reciprocal relationship between theory and practice; theories can be used to solve practical problems and practitioners should make use of available scientific theory. Murray Bowen in his research, writings and clinical work, did both.

First to the theory. Bowen’s eight interlocking concepts are well documented elsewhere. For our purposes the goal is differentiation of self, “the process of partially freeing oneself from the emotional entrapment of one’s family of origin,” and resolution of the universal triangle with one’s parents.

Now to the therapy and practice, one effective behavior for each of the eight concepts, in the order presented on the Bowen Center Web Site:

  1. Triangles – The central intervention in Bowen’s model is detriangulating both the therapist and all family members from their primary parental one and all subsequent interlocking ones.
  2. Doing “Bowen” - Turning Theory into Practice By Ronald B. CohenDifferentiation of Self – Learning to speak for one’s self and take an “I” position regardless of whom in your original family agrees or disagrees.
  3. Nuclear Family Emotional System – Beware symptom resolution at the expense of the “identified patient”.
  4. Family Projection Process – As a recent New York Magazine cover proclaimed, “The Problem with Teenagers is Their Parents.”
  5. Multigenerational Transmission Process – Using the three-generation family diagram to learn about historical precedence.
  6. Emotional Cutoff – Fusion in another costume, “the person who runs away from his family of origin is as emotionally dependent as the one who never leaves home.”
  7. Ronald B. Cohen, MD discusses real-life applications of Bowen Family System Theory.Sibling Position – (Remember the fifth daughter, the first father, the second mother and the seventh son, all on Highway 61). Since we can’t change this, it may have less value to “doing” Bowen than the other seven.
  8. Societal Emotional Process – The basic relationship patterns developed for adapting to the parental family are recapitulated and transferred to social and work relationships.

So there you have it, applications of theory to achieve real-life change. Easy to say, daunting to do. When all else fails, coaching with a therapist well-trained in Bowen Family System Theory can help keep the process moving forward in a positive direction.

Please share your thoughts and experiences about theory and its application to practice in the “Leave a Reply” 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 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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  1. Bonnie Hall on May 30, 2014 at 8:32 pm said:

    Nice, concise summary, Ron. Thanks!

    • Ronald B Cohen, MD on June 4, 2014 at 6:45 pm said:

      Hi Bonnie,

      Thank you for your positive and supportive assessment. Glad you found my presentation valuable.


      — Ron

  2. Miriam Bellamy on June 2, 2014 at 3:48 pm said:

    I enjoyed this post, especially the old family pictures! I’ve been going through my own – and have found some real treasures from 5 generations back!
    I wanted to add to your comment about sibling position. I have found the concept endlessly fascinating. It adds a context to so many of the conflicts I’ve faced in my life – so maybe “doing” that one is a matter of study and awareness and contextualizing what so many of us take personally in our relationships.

    • Ronald B Cohen, MD on June 4, 2014 at 6:58 pm said:

      Hi Miriam,

      Thank you for contributing to the conversation. While I agree with the basic idea that people who grow up in the same sibling position may have important common characteristics, I have not found that part of Bowen Theory (based on the work of psychologist Walter Toman) to be all that helpful in either my clinical or family of origin work. I am curious to learn how you have experienced the effects of sibling position in your family of origin and other relationships, and how that has helped you contextualize the relationship and problem solving difficulties.


      — Ron

  3. Rebecca @ Time For Clarity on July 12, 2014 at 12:46 pm said:

    Nice thumbnail sketches. Would love to see each one expanded into their own post.

    Speaking to sibling position: As a therapist whose training included Adlerian therapy, I’ve found that not only can it be helpful in conceptualization, but sharing it can be illuminating for clients. After all, change often flows more easily from awareness of ones patterns and habits.

    • Ronald B Cohen, MD on July 15, 2014 at 2:03 pm said:

      Hi Rebecca,

      Thank you for contributing to the discussion. The web site of the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family and the Georgetown Family Center provides an in depth discussion of the eight interlocking concepts of Bowen Theory, the sum total of which supports your final sentence that “change often flows more easily from awareness of ones patterns and habits.” Michael Kerr has written that “Bowen theory ‘purists’ assume that if the functioning of the relationship system improves, clinical problems will resolve”.


      — Ron

  4. Motahareh ghorbani on October 5, 2014 at 6:06 am said:

    I found it very helpful. Thank you very much for sharing this summary.
    I like Bowen theory.

    • Ronald B Cohen, MD on October 10, 2014 at 4:04 pm said:

      Hi Motahared,

      You are very welcome. I would add that no matter how much one knows, one cannot fully appreciate Bowen Family Systems Theory (BFST) without the experience of “doing”. Essential to gaining competence and expertise in BFST “Coaching” is planful work on self-differentiation.

      Murray Bowen described the benefit to mental health professionals of studying the history of, and differentiating within their own families of origin. In many training programs, including the one I completed at Family Institute of Westchester, study and work on the family therapist’s own extended family is a mandatory part of clinical training.

      Losing sight of one’s part in the therapeutic system of interactions leads to the creation of a “therapist’s triangle.” To help avoid this non-productive outcome BFST gives a high priority to understanding and making changes within the therapist’s own family of origin.

      There is a clear positive correlation between work done in the therapist’s own family of origin and gains in the therapist’s clinical proficiency to a far greater extent than in traditional supervision of clinical work.


      — Ron

  5. Lilah on January 20, 2017 at 12:47 am said:

    When you speak of “doing,” are you speaking specifically about application to your own life (as a professional)?

    I have wondered why it would not be natural for a therapist to apply whatever they know to their own life and functioning…..such as, recognizing when they aren’t taking responsibility for their emotions–noticing that they aren’t. Pausing when stressed/upset and noticing the anxiety aroused in them at that moment by their child’s behavior. Putting their attention on their own functioning in moments like that (noticing what difficulty they’re having regulating their emotions right then; noticing the strength of the impulse to control/change the environment–the child–in order to get back into the comfort zone internally. Or the parent, or sibling. Or partner….just noticing the impulse to engage in struggle, noticing how little room there is in the relationship for “certain” feelings like unhappiness or disapproval at that moment–how much you are resisting their expression from the other person.) Things like that. Seems like it could be routine, particularly for therapists! I think it’s a great way to grow.

    • Ronald B Cohen, MD on March 17, 2017 at 9:38 am said:

      Hi Lilah,

      Absolutely! I would suggest that the “task of the therapist” is to develop his or her own solid self in order to maintain his/her own emotional equilibrium. As much as we talk about “The Self of the Therapist”, few of us actually want to work on it. And yet, to the degree that we have unresolved emotional attachments from our own families of origin, (and truth be told, we all do), and to the degree that unresolved emotional issues from current and past life-cycle stages intrude into our work and hinder us from staying out of the emotional processes of the families and individuals who seek our help and guidance, we reduce our effectiveness and professional satisfaction.

      Murray Bowen described the benefit to mental health professionals of studying the history of, and differentiating within their own families of origin. Working on self-differentiation and learning about your family of origin can help you get a clearer picture of who you are, how you became who you are, and what the family influences, both immediate and multi-generational are on you, thereby freeing you from unnecessary encumbrances.



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