What Is The Family Systems Theory?

Updated March 29, 2024by Regain Editorial Team

Family relationships are very complex, and no two families are alike. However, the family systems theory suggests that each family is one big emotional system and that each part of the family unit affects everyone else.

What is family systems theory?

Dr. Murray Bowen developed the Bowen family systems theory (or Bowen theory). One of the central premises behind the Bowen family systems theory is that families and the people in them function as one emotional system, which means it may be easier to understand people by viewing them in the context of their family relationships.

This theory suggests that understanding someone’s family story can help understand how they think, feel, and behave. Family impacts one another to some extent, and what happens to one will positively or negatively impact others, affecting their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

Getty Images
The family unit has a profound impact on actions and emotions

The eight concepts of family systems theory

The Bowen family systems theory derived from his study of the family is composed of eight interlocking concepts:

1. Triangles

A triangle in the Bowen family systems theory is a three-person relationship and a building block for larger family systems. This theory suggests triangles provide the smallest stable form of a family emotional system; if tension builds, the two people who are closer in the triangle will choose to grow closer to the outsider. Though the triangle dynamic is seen as a stable relationship structure, it can catalyze many familial problems.

2. Differentiation of self

Even within a family unit, every person is unique. Bowen’s study of the family revealed that people differ in the degree to which they develop their sense of self; how strong one’s sense of self is depends on familial relationships during childhood and adolescence.

Bowen’s study of the family revealed that, in all families, there will always be a mix of people with poor and strong differentiations of self. 

3. Nuclear family emotional process

The nuclear family emotional process comprises four relationship patterns that govern familial problems. Bowen’s study of the family outlined four basic relationship patterns:

  • Marital Conflict: As family tension increases, spouses will externalize their anxiety about their marital partner and relationship.

  • Dysfunction In One Spouse: One spouse will pressure the other to think or act a certain way, exerting control over their partner. If family tension arises, the subordinate partner may experience high anxiety levels.

  • Impairment Of One Or More Children: A parent may focus all of their anxieties on one or more of their children, limiting their differentiation of self and making the child vulnerable to internalizing family tensions.

  • Emotional Distance: Emotional distance results in avoiding family tension. 

All of the nuclear family emotional processes can overlap, profoundly affecting each previously stable relationship within the nuclear family emotional system.

4. Family projection process

Getty Images

This concept describes how parents may transmit their emotional problems to their children. The family projection process, according to Dr. Bowen and the Bowen family systems theory, follows three steps:

  1. The parent focuses extra attention on one child in the family system out of fear that there is something wrong with the child

  2. The parent finds something in the child’s actions or behavior that they perceive as confirming their suspicions.

  3. The parent then treats the child as if there is something truly wrong without analyzing the child’s positive and negative traits.

5. Multigenerational transmission process

Typically, as part of the multigenerational transmission process, one sibling develops a slightly stronger sense of self than their parents. The nature of this multigenerational transmission process means that slight differences in the level of differentiation between parents and children will grow larger over time.

The level of differentiation affects many components of one’s life. Thus, different generations of the same family may have significantly different lifestyles from one another due to their differences in levels of differentiation. In general, people with higher levels of differentiation of self have more stable nuclear family relationships.

6. Emotional cutoff

Emotional cutoff often leads to unresolved attachment issues and can cause tension in familial relationships.

7. Sibling position

Research by psychologist Walter Toman states that people in the same sibling position tend to have common characteristics.

Sibling position and the associated personality traits can impact family relationships, especially regarding marital relationships. Married couples tend to fare better when the two people are in complementary sibling positions. When two people of the same sibling position marry, there is often not enough differentiation between parents, and conflict arises.

Of course, differentiation plays a role in this, as do families or family dynamics that influence one’s behavior and personality.

8. Societal emotional process

The Bowen family systems theory applies not only to traditional families but to non-traditional families and non-family groups, such as workers in an office. Even outside the family, emotional processes influence behavior and lead to progressive and regressive periods in society. This idea serves as the main crux of the societal emotional process. Emotional processes and cultural forces impact how well society can adapt to change or overcome challenges. A progressive period is when things are improving, while a regressive period will see spikes in negative things. The progressive and regressive stages of the greater family system development can have substantial positive and negative impacts on society as a whole.

Societal factors can impact family systems, too. In regressive periods, it is harder for parents to exert appropriate control over their children. The anxiety parents feel in these times can become very intense and negatively affect the family unit.

Family systems therapy

The family unit has a profound impact on actions and emotions

Psychologists have taken family systems theory and applied the principles to help families resolve their problems and get through hard times.

What is family systems therapy?

This therapy approach aligns with the family systems theory in that emotions like stress or anxiety spread from one person to all their relationships, and the tension can lead to more serious problems over time.

In family systems therapy, the family works together to find a solution for relieving stress from the individual and strain from the family as a whole. This makes the family united and family love stronger.

Families who are struggling with conflict, as well as couples in the same situation, can benefit from family systems therapy. 

Family systems therapy is not the only option for dealing with conflict within your family or relationship. Traditional counseling methods or online therapy are also great options to help you overcome hurdles in your relationships with loved ones.

But, given the widespread applicability of Dr. Bowen’s family systems theory on the study of the family, some of the principles of FST will likely come up in any family or couple’s therapy session. The study of the family found in FST can help explain many positive and negative aspects of relationship dynamics and help guide people toward improving their relationships with others.

Online therapy can help

If you are interested in family systems therapy, consider online treatment. You and your family can attend sessions from anywhere you have an internet connection, even if you’re not all in the same place. When you sign up, you’ll be matched with a counselor who can start helping you right away. There’s no need to worry about being on a waiting list.

Research shows that online family therapy is effective, with one study concluding the outcomes of online family therapy were the same as in-person treatment and that it may even have some advantages over face-to-face treatment as some participants found it easier to reveal vulnerabilities. If you want to learn more, connect with a qualified therapist at Regain.

Counselor reviews

“Dr Bown has made significant impact in our lives and She is always giving honest advice and we feel she genuinely cares about our family. She is a valued treasure that we are grateful for in our lives :)”

“Yumi is amazing and a perfect fit for us. Just having one video session help our family so much in so many ways. He responses are on point and we value it greatly. I can’t thank her enough for all she has continued to do to strengthen our family. I would recommend her to the world that’s how amazing she is.”


Family relationships can be challenging. With online therapy, you can get the support you need to work through these challenges together.

For Additional Help & Support With Your ConcernsThis website is owned and operated by BetterHelp, who receives all fees associated with the platform.
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet Started
This website is owned and operated by BetterHelp, who receives all fees associated with the platform.