On Family Emotional Systems

On Family Emotional Systems

Nuclear Family Emotional Process, Projection Process and
Multigenerational Transmission Process

“ …the problem a patient or couple or family walks in with
is less important than the relationship obstacles
that keep them from working to resolve it”.
— Guerin & Fogarty

What is it about family gatherings, holidays and life cycle celebrations that often bring out the worst in their participants? Where do the unspoken rules of family togetherness behavior that we reflexively adhere to, or reactively reject without due consideration of what conscious responses would be in our own best interest, come from? How do they thwart “growing in the ability to be fully responsible for my own life while being committed to growing closer to those I love”?

To begin to answer these questions, we turn to three more of Murray Bowen’s eight interlocking concepts, Nuclear Family Emotional Process, Family Projection Process and Multigenerational Transmission Process. The former addresses systemic patterns of response to marital “we-ness,” while the latter traces this process vertically through the generations. Family Projection Process connects the two as it is the only one of the four nuclear family patterns that crosses generational boundaries, and is the foundation upon which the Multigenerational Transmission Process develops historically from generation to generation.

Nuclear Family Emotional Process develops family distress in one or more of the following four patterns:

  1. Emotional Distance

  2. Marital Conflict

  3. Problems in a partner’s functioning

  4. Transmission of the problem to a child

Ronald B. Cohen MD of familyfocusedsolutions.com discusses the nuclear family and how to be autonomous at the same time as staying close to those in your family of origin.Family Projection Process describes the mechanism whereby parental anxiety is transmitted to children. Initially children are passive recipients. As they grow older, they quickly become participants.

The Multigenerational Transmission Process describes how the Family Projection Process operates from generation to generation. “Any set of parents, however, is merely the current embodiment of forces or processes that have been active for many generations before them” (Papero 1990). Over time and through multiple generations, small differences may progress to significant divergence in functioning and solid self amongst descendent lines.

Awareness of these natural processes helps calm anxiety and improve self-focus which in turn leads to decreased emotional reactivity and more productive decision making, thereby increasing the probability of higher social, emotional and physical functioning.

Attention to one’s own level of self-differentiation helps us modify and change our behavior at times of family life cycle transitions and unexpected crises. The task is about resolution of unique one-to-one relationships with each and every family member. This in turn leads to larger system-wide changes in family functioning.

Maintaining both autonomy and emotional connectivity is the both/and (Yin/Yang) goal. Whether you are fused and enmeshed, or conflicted, distant, cut-off and non-communicative, you remained undifferentiated and out of control. If your behavior is reactive, whether positively or negatively, you are not self-directed.

When seemingly inescapably caught in reciprocal family processes remember, “What you resist, persists.”

Rather recognition, acceptance and attention to improving functional levels are life sustaining and enhancing.

When all else fails, consultation with a well-trained Bowen Family Systems Theory coach or therapist can help keep the process moving forward in a positive direction.

Best of luck on your unfolding journey of a lifetime.

Please share your thoughts and experiences concerning family ties that bind in the “Leave a Reply” box below. To request more information or contact me directly for any reason, please click here. If you found this post helpful, please don’t keep it a secret. You are encouraged to click on the buttons in the second to the right hand column 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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  1. Dave Galloway on March 1, 2015 at 4:20 pm said:

    The idea that “how I think about the problem, is the problem” is one I constantly come back to. Helping people understand the relationship processes that they are involved in is a great tool that they can use for a lifetime. Which is exactly how long I’ll need to use this tool 🙂

    • Ronald B Cohen, MD on March 4, 2015 at 7:26 pm said:

      Hi Dave,

      For those of us who consider it important enough to invest the time and energy, and choose to engage with the goal of becoming an authentic adult, the process requires constant vigilance to the pull of fusion, cut-offs and triangles. Self-differentiation is about setting appropriate limits and boundaries, staying connected to one’s extended family of origin while maintaining emotional independence and self-sufficiency. Tasks include redeveloping personal relationships with key family members, repairing cutoffs, detriangulating from conflicts, and changing the part one plays in emotionally charged vicious cycles.

      Change happens on three levels. The simplest and least anxiety provoking move involves altering rote patterns of interaction with family members that have no vitality – i.e., doing things differently in ways that signal interest rather than obligation. A second, more challenging, move is the purposeful deepening of authentic, personal, one-to-one relationships with family members in circumstances outside larger family gatherings. The third and boldest move involves withdrawing from back channel family processes and asking at all times for direct, transparent family interaction. The pathway is paved with difficulty and challenge but the result of second-order systemic change is almost magical.

      It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. The life we live creates the legacy we leave.


      — Ron

  2. j on March 3, 2015 at 2:29 am said:

    It seems you are saying that a commitment to relating is the key ingredient in healthy family functioning.

    • Ronald B Cohen, MD on March 4, 2015 at 8:47 pm said:

      Hi Hyacinth,

      Relating is not optional. We all belong to families whose emotional connections greatly impact our lives. The behavior of any member of a family affects every other member in some way. We exist in our relationships and our inescapable connection to our family of origin. None of us can ever completely emotionally leave the family we grew up in, nor do we have a choice as to whether or not we deal with them. The only choice we have is how we relate, both to our family and ourselves.


      — Ron

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