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Family System Therapy uses systems theory to describe the family as a complex emotional unit where members are intricately and intensely interconnected.

FST looks through the lens of system theory where each family member is emotionally and behaviorally connected through complex interactions (Kerr, 2016). In FST, “Families so profoundly affect their members’ thoughts, feelings, and actions that it often seems as if people are living under the same ‘emotional skin.’” Family members react to one another in both behavior and emotions. If there is a change in one person, there will most likely be reciprocal changes in other family members. Family members who “absorb” the anxiety of others are vulnerable to depression, alcoholism, affairs, and physical illnesses. (The Bowen Center, 2018).

Bowen's Eight Interlocking Concepts

Differentiation of Self refers to the way in which an individual is able to separate feelings and thoughts, respond to anxiety, and cope with the changes in daily life while pursuing personal goals. An individual with a high level of differentiation may be better able to maintain individuality while still maintaining emotional connection with the group. A person with a low level of differentiation may experience emotional fusion where they are feeling what the group feels, due to inadequate interpersonal boundaries between members of the family. Highly differentiated individuals may be more likely to experience contentment through their own efforts, while those with a less-developed self may seek approval from other people. 


Emotional Triangles are the smallest stable organization of human relationship systems. A two-person dyad may be present for a time but may become unstable as anxiety develops. A three-person system, however, may provide more resources toward controlling and decreasing anxiety within the group. Despite the potential for increased stability, many triangles create their own rules and exist with two sides in harmony and one side in conflict leading to conflict. It is common for children to become triangulated within their parents’ relationship.


Family Projection Process refers to the transmission of a parent’s anxiety, emotional problems, and relationship struggles to the child within the emotional triangle and this may cause ore exacerbate emotional problems in the child. One parent, or both parents, may first focus their anxiety onto their child. When the child reacts to this anxiety by experiencing anxiety in turn, they may either try to “fix” these concerns or take their child to seek professional help. If parents manage their own anxiety, this will typically lead to the most improvement in the child.


Multigenerational Transmission Process describes the way that individuals seek out partners with a similar level of differentiation, causing certain behaviors and conditions to be passed on through generations. A couple where each partner has a low level of differentiation may have children who have even lower levels of differentiation. These children may eventually have children with even lower levels of differentiation. When individuals increase their levels of differentiation, according to Bowen, they may be able to break this pattern, achieve relief from their symptoms of low differentiation, and prevent symptoms from returning or occurring in other family members. 

Emotional Cutoff describes a situation where a person decides to best manage emotional difficulties or other concerns within the family system by emotionally distancing themselves from other members of the family. Cutting emotional ties may be an attempt to reduce tension in the relationship and deal with unresolved interpersonal issues, but often leads to an increase in anxiety and tension. 


Sibling Position describes the tendency of the youngest, middle and oldest children to take on specific roles within the family due to differences in expectations. For example, older children may be expected to act as miniature adults within the family setting. These roles may be influenced by the sibling position of parents and relatives. 


Societal Emotional Process illustrates how principles affecting the emotional system of the family also affect the emotional system of society and refers to the tendency of individuals within a society to be more anxious and unstable at certain times  rather than others. Environmental stressors like economic forces, scarcity of natural resources, epidemics, overpopulation and lack of competence for living in a complicated and diverse world are all potential stressors that contribute to a regression in society.


Nuclear Family Emotional Process reflects Bowen’s belief that the nuclear family tends to experience issues in four main areas: intimate partner conflict, problematic behaviors or concerns in one partner, emotional distance, and impaired functionality in children. Anxiety may lead to fights, arguments, criticism, under- or over-performance of responsibilities, and/or distancing behavior. Though a person’s particular belief system and attitude toward relationships may impact the development of issues according to relationship patterns, Bowen held them to be primarily a result of the family emotional system (Kerr, 2000).

Dr. Michael Kerr Interview

 Dr. Michael Kerr succeeded Dr. Murray Bowen as Director of the Georgetown Family Center and served in that role until 2010. Dr. Kerr co-authored with Dr. Bowen the seminal book Family Evaluation: An Approach Based on Bowen Theory. Dr. Kerr’s new book, Bowen Theory’s Secrets: Revealing the Hidden Life of Families, was released in February 2019. Dr. Kerr was also the founding editor of Family Systems: A Journal of Natural Systems Thinking in Psychiatry and the Sciences. Dr. Kerr is now the Director of the Bowen Theory Academy in Islesboro, Maine. 


Click the links below to find out more about Family Systems Therapy.

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