Family Systems Theory Definition & What Is It?

Updated July 16, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Karen Devlin, LPC

Family Systems Theory Is More Common Than You Think
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Family relationships are very complex, and no two families are exactly alike. Despite these differences, some theories suggest that all families fall into the same model of the emotional system. This concept is referred to as the Family Systems Theory.

What Is Family Systems Theory?

Family systems theory (FST) is a concept of looking at the family as a cohesive emotional unit. Psychiatrist Murray Bowen developed his FST theory to describe the relationship system the family exhibits as the interlocking concepts of familial development and behavior are carefully analyzed. According to Bowen’s theory, family members are intensely emotionally connected. In regards to the family systems theory, Dr. Bowen was described as "one of those rare human beings who had a genuinely new idea."

Family Systems Theory Definition

The family systems theory suggests that a family functions as an emotional system wherein each member plays a specific role and must follow certain rules. Based on the roles within the system, people are expected to interact with and respond to one another in a certain way. Patterns develop within the system, and each member's behavior impacts the other members in predictable ways. Depending on the specific system, these behavioral patterns can lead to either balance or dysfunction of the system, or both, at various points in time.

Why Is Family Systems Theory Important?

According to Dr. Bowen's theory, even when people may feel they are disconnected from members of their family, the family still has a profound impact on their emotions and actions- whether positive or negative. And, a change in one person sparks a change in how other members of the family unit act and feel as well. Though the degree of interdependence can vary between different families, all families have some level of it among the members.


Dr. Bowen believes that perhaps humans evolved to be interdependent on family members to promote cooperation among families that are necessary for things like shelter and protection. But, in stressful situations, the anxiety that one person feels can spread through family members of the emotional unit, and the interdependence becomes emotionally taxing rather than comforting.

There will always be one person in the family unit who "absorbs" the bulk of the emotions of other members of the family, and this person is most likely to suffer from the repercussions of emotional issues like depression, alcoholism, and physical illness as a result. This shows the importance of families working together to conquer their problems, rather than letting negative emotions stew. Therapy or counseling can help many families work better together and keep anxieties at a minimum.

The Eight Concepts Of Family Systems Theory

The family systems theory is composed of eight interlocking concepts:


A triangle in the family systems theory is a three-person relationship and is considered a "building block" for larger family systems. These relationships are seen as the most stable because a two-person relationship is too small and tension easily builds. Triangles provide the smallest stable form of a family emotional system, because with an additional person in the mix, the tension can be shifted around between three peopleso that none of the relationships become too volatile. While shifting tension can reduce stress and pressure on a relationship, it is important to note that nothing gets resolved, and thus tension will continue to build.

In fact, despite the fact that triangles are more stable than a dyad, there is always an odd person out. The two closer people, or "the insiders," choose one another over the third person, or "the outsider." But, if tension builds between the insiders, one of them will choose to grow closer to the outsider. It then becomes hard for the outsider to not choose a side in conflict. The relationship dynamics of a triangle tend to frequently shift based on conflict or tension that arises between any two people in the triangle. When tension is high, it becomes more desirable to be the outsider so that your relationships with the other two people become your – and their – sides in harmony. Though the triangle dynamic is seen as the smallest stable relationship structure, it can be a catalyst for many familial problems.

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Differentiation Of Self

Even within a family unit, every person is unique. In addition to possessing individual personality traits, people also differ in their susceptibility to being influenced by others or fall victim to groupthink mentality. The less developed a person's sense of self, the more likely they are to be influenced by others. And, whether consciously or unconsciously, they will also try to exert their influence over other people.

On the other hand, someone with a stronger sense of self is less influenced by others and does not try to push their personality onto other people. Though everyone is born with an inherent "self," the degree to which someone develops their sense of self is dependent on familial relationships during childhood and adolescence.

In all families, as well as in society at large, there will always be a mix of people with poor and strong differentiation of self. Families vary in their levels of emotional interdependence based on the levels of differentiation of self of the family members. The more emotionally interdependent a family is, the weaker differentiation of self-are the members. This also means that it will be more challenging for that family unit to adapt to stressful situations, as an individual member’s behaviors and problems affect the entire family unit emotionally.

Nuclear Family Emotional Process

The nuclear family emotional process is composed of four relationship patterns that govern familial problems. Thesefourbasicrelationshippatterns are:

  • Marital Conflict: As family tension increases, spouses will externalize the anxiety they are feeling onto their marital partner and their relationship.
  • Dysfunction In One Spouse: One spouse will pressure another spouse to think or act a certain way, exerting control over their partner. This change in another spouse’s behavior due to dysfunction in one spouse leads to a period of perceived harmony, but if any family tension arises, the subordinate partner may experience high levels of anxiety.
  • Impairment Of One Or More Children: A parent may focus all of their anxieties on one or more of their children. They may worry obsessively about the child, or have an unrealistically ideal or negative view of the child. The more a parent focuses on the child, the more reactive and responsive the child becomes to the parent, limiting their differentiation of self. This makes the child vulnerable to internalize family tensions, which can lead to problems like anxiety, depression, or poor performance in school.
  • Emotional Distance: Emotional distance often occurs in tandem with one of the other relationship patterns. To avoid family tension, family members will distance themselves from one another to reduce the intensity of emotions that may arise from the tension.

All of the nuclear family emotional processes can overlap, which can have profound effects on each previously stable relationship within the nuclear family emotional system. For example, a marital conflict may lead to emotional distance, and cause a mother to focus too much on a child, which inhibits the child's differentiation of self.


Family Projection Process

This concept describes how parents may transmit their emotional problems onto their children. Children can inherit many types of problems, as well as strengths, from their parents, but the most impactful is relationship sensitivities such as a strong need for acceptance and approval from others or feeling responsible for the happiness of other people. The family projection process, according to Dr. Bowen and the 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 fear
  3. The parent then treats the child as if there is something truly wrong with them without even analyzing the child’s positive and negative traits

The "scanning, diagnosing and treating" cycle begins early in a child's life and continues throughout. The parents' fears will shape the "problems" they perceive in their child. Thus, their fears shape the child's behavior and personality. By focusing so much attention on these perceived faults with the child, they usually end up causing the child to embody the things that they fear- a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For example, if a parent perceives their child to have low self-esteem, they will go out of their way to overly praise the child. But the child may become dependent on praise from a member of any emotional system, so anytime they do something and do not receive the praise, they feel that they did something wrong and begin to experience low self-esteem. If parents focus most of their projection on only one of their children, the siblings less involved in family projections are better off and more likely to develop a strong sense of self.

Multigenerational Transmission Process

Small differences in the differentiation of self between parents and their offspring can lead to major differences in differentiation among members of a family over the course of many generations. Typically, as part of the multigenerational transmission process, children develop similar levels of differentiation of self as their parents, through observing their parents and through the parents teaching their children.

But, in the relationship patterns of the nuclear family, there is typically one sibling who develops a slightly stronger sense of self than their parents, and another sibling who has slightly less differentiation than their parents.

People tend to seek out mates with similar levels of differentiation of self as themselves. Then their children will, for the most part, take after them. The nature of this multigenerational transmission process means that small differences in the level of differentiation between parents and children will grow larger over time. For example, the child who is more differentiated from their parents will go on to have children who are likely to be slightly more differentiated than themselves. As the pattern continues, the differences in differentiation between generations can become drastic.

Level of differentiation affects many components of one's life and relationship, including health, marital stability, occupational success, and more. Thus, different generations of the same family may have extremely 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.

The level of differentiation embodied by each member of a family can create a sort of multicultural family atmosphere, where each family member is so different from the others that common ground is hard to find. This idea is adjacent to the work conducted by clinical psychologist Dr. Monica McGoldrick, who is an adjunct associate professor at the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. McGoldrick is known for her clinical work with diverse families.

Family Systems Theory Is More Common Than You Think
Learn How To Navigate It With ReGain.


Emotional Cutoff

Similar to the emotional distance pattern previously discussed, emotional cutoff occurs when people attempt to manage their unresolved problems with family members by totally cutting off emotional contact. Cutting off emotional contact is not necessarily the same thing as cutting off communication. But, it involves distancing oneself from family members to become more emotionally independent while engaging in selective privacy contact strategies.

For example, someone seeking emotional cutoff may choose to move far away from home and avoid going home, or stay in close physical proximity but avoiding conversation with family members about any sensitive topic. While cutting off emotional ties with family members can make someone feel better on the surface, the problems within the family do not simply go away.

Another problem with emotional cutoff is that the person's relationship outside of the family unit may become too prominent in their life. For example, if a man cuts off his parents, he will become more reliant on his spouse and own children. This can create tension and other problems in those relationships within the newly separated emotional system, because there will be more pressure on these relationships than what is typical.

The emotional cutoff is a hard situation for all members of the family unit. When an emotionally cut off family member does visit, all members of the family are likely to feel exhausted afterward. Siblings may hold the other ones responsible for distressing their parents. Emotional cutoff often leads to unresolved attachment issues and can cause tension among the familial relationships. Family is an emotional pond of still water, where a disturbance in one part of the pond will cause a ripple effect in the rest of the water.

Sibling Position

There tends to be a certain archetype of the older sibling, younger siblings, and middle siblings. For example, the idea that older siblings tend to be leaders while younger siblings prefer to fall into the follower role. What many people may not realize is that there is psychological research to back up these common claims. The FST, based on the research of psychologist Walter Toman, states that people who are in the same sibling position tend to have common characteristics.

Sibling position and the associated personality traits can impact family relationships, especially when it comes to marital relationships. Married couples tend to fare better when the two people are in complementary sibling positions, such as when an older sibling marries a younger sibling. When two people of the same sibling position marry, there is often not enough differentiation between parents, and thus a higher chance of butting heads over responsibilities. For example, two older siblings may find themselves often arguing over who is "in charge."

Of course, people in the same sibling position can be extremely different from one another. Differentiation plays a role in this, as does family dynamics that influence one's behavior and personality. As no two families are the same, children will pick up different traits as a result of their upbringing, which causes them to differ from other people.


Societal Emotional Process

The concepts of family systems theory do not only apply to families, but to non-family groups such as workers in an office as well. Even outside of 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, along with cultural forces, impact how well society can adapt to change or overcome challenges. A progressive period is when things are changing for the better, while a regressive period will see spikes in violent crime, increasing divorce rate, and more corrupt behavior from government officials. The progressive and regressive stages of 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 an appropriate amount of control over their children, especially if the parents are less differentiated. Children may feel that they can "get away" with more and be more likely to experiment with drugs or alcohol, or care less about their schooling. The anxiety parents feel in these times can become very intense and negatively affect the family unit. As a result of societal turmoil, the entire family system is liable to partially break down and create emotional problems for family members.

Family Systems Therapy

Psychologists have taken the family systems theory and applied the principles to help families resolve their problems and get through hard times. The resulting therapy is known as Family Systems Therapy.

What Is Family Systems Therapy?

In family systems therapy, family members work together to understand better their group dynamic and how their behavior can affect other members of the family. The guiding principle is that "what happens to one member of the family, happens to everyone in the family." This aligns with the family systems theory, in that emotions like stress or anxiety begin to spread from one person to all of their relationships, and the tension can lead to more serious problems over time.

During family systems therapy, each member of the family will have the chance to voice their opinions or discuss any troubles. The family then works together to find a solution for how to relieve stress from the individual and strain from the family as a whole.

Families who are struggling with conflict, as well as couples in the same situation, can benefit from family systems therapy. The therapy can also help with conditions such as anxiety and depression, so if a member of the family has one of these conditions, it can be beneficial for the whole family to undergo the therapy together to help the individual better cope with the condition.


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

But, given the widespread applicability of Dr. Bowen's Family Systems Theory, it is likely some of the principles of FST will come up in any family or coupling session. The FST can help explain a lot of both the positive and negative aspects of relationship dynamics and can help guide people towards improving their relationships with others, both within and outside of their family.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is the family systems theory?

The family systems theory (FST) views the family structure as one that is continuous and connected as a complex emotional system. This theory was developed by Dr. Murray Bowen, a psychiatrist who was a pioneer of family therapy and is credited with the founding of systemic therapy. Bowen analytically observed the different relationships within the family system and made sense of behavioral phenomena and interlocking concepts integral to family function. His FST states that the family unit acts as an emotional system, with each family member playing a unique role. Each role is filled by a specific person, and that person must follow the rules associated with their place in the family. These roles help establish patterns of behavior that have profound impacts on all members of the family unit. Thus, depending on the adequacy of fulfillment of responsibilities for each role, the greater family will either experience harmony or dysfunction.

What is the goal of family systems theory?

One of the main goals of the family systems theory is to educate people about the importance of family emotional systems. Even if a person considers themselves to be removed from their respective family unit, they are still greatly impacted by the emotional condition of the family. Too often, people break away from their family and attempt to live as separate, singular entities. In reality, this is practically impossible, because according to Dr. Bowen, a change in one family member is bound to affect another. Bowen believes that humans evolved with a sense of familial interdependence to encourage cooperation necessary for survival. Thus, as hard as a person may try to emotionally cut their family off, it is extremely difficult to override the foundational principles of human nature.

Another goal of the family systems theory is to inform family units about the way in which families are structured and work. It is extremely hard for a family member to objectively analyze the condition of their family unit. Emotions often cloud our family judgements, and an outside analysis aid is often needed for clear judgement. The FST provides clear criteria for family examination that allows people to learn more about their family structure while also making changes to their emotional systems and personal relationships as necessary.

What are the four subsystems in family systems theory?

It is important that each subsystem be well defined by boundaries that make a system unique and definitionally different from others. The most common systems in the family systems theory are: parental relationships, sibling relationships,parent-child relationships, and the overarching family system. Each system, while unique, is constantly in connection with each of the other systems.

What is a family systems approach to counseling?

Family systems therapy can be thought of as a mix between couples counseling and group counseling. In this unique form of therapy, family members learn and work together to better their understanding of how an individual’s actions can affect the emotions of everyone else in the family. The idea that what happens to one member of the family happens to all members of the family is the major guiding principle for family systems therapy. Emotions spread rapidly throughout a family system, and it is important for people to learn the details of this phenomenon so that they can control their behaviors for the sake of their family.

In a typical family systems therapy session, every family member will be given the opportunity to speak about their opinions and perceptions of family troubles. Once each family member speaks their part, conflicts can begin to be resolved and advice will be given by the mental health professional. Every member of the family can greatly benefit from family systems counseling.

What are the key concepts of family systems theory?

There are eight major concepts involved with the family systems theory. These concepts are defined and described below:

  • Triangles
    • The triangle represents a family system of three people, which is the smallest stable family structure possible. In the three-person structure, there are the two ‘insiders’ who are closest, and the ‘outsider’ who is more removed from the other two system members. This formation allows for the management of tension and conflict, because when there are problems between the two insiders, the outsider is there to provide a form of mediation where the outsider grows closer to one of the insiders.
  • Differentiation of Self
    • Within a family system, each person is different from the rest. Every person has unique personality characteristics, but it is sometimes hard to distinguish ourselves from the rest of our family. Being able to establish your own sense of ‘self’ is dependent upon your own level of individuality and self-esteem. People with weaker senses of self often exert their influence over other family members. Some family members will be stronger than others in this regard, and this mix is what allows for familial interdependence.
  • Nuclear Family Emotional Process
    • This process is characterized by four major relationship patterns:
      • Marital Conflict – One spouse experiences anxiety, and then projects these feelings onto the other spouse.
      • Dysfunction in One Spouse – The change in a spouse’s behavior from normal to dysfunctional can force the other spouse to change their conduct so that the marital relationship can prosper. However, this honeymoon phase does not usually last for long, and marriage problems ensue.
      • Impairment of One or More Children – Sometimes, a parent will choose to direct all of their anxieties on one or a few of their children. Intense attention can result in a child with the inability to establish their own sense of self and lead to anxiety, depression, etc.
      • Emotional Distance – In order to eliminate familial tension, certain members will choose to distance themselves from the rest of the family.
  • Family Projection Process
    • This process is outlined by three steps:
      • First, the parent forces intense attention onto one child in fear of something being wrong with this child
      • Next, the parent decides that there is something wrong with the child’s actions
      • Finally, the parent treats the child like there is really something wrong with this child, even though these ideas are not necessarily founded in truth
  • Multigenerational Transmission Process
    • It is possible for children to experience both higher and lower levels of differentiation than their parents. When greater levels of differentiation are exhibited, this differentiation gap continues to grow over subsequent generations.
  • Emotional Cutoff
    • Emotional cutoff is described as a person’s attempt to manage conflict with members of their family by choosing to cut off emotional contact completely.
  • Sibling Position
    • There are stereotypes associated with first-born children, middle children, and youngest children. These stereotypes are often founded in fact, and these behavioral variations can even have a legitimate impact on marital relationships. It is proposed that the best relationships will result from a person of one sibling position marrying a person of a different sibling position.
  • Societal Emotional Process
    • The general disposition of the aggregate of family systems can have influence over the disposition of society, and conversely, the disposition of society can influence the emotional condition of family units. This idea serves as a two-way street of influence.

What are the 6 functions of the family?

There have been multiple variations of the main functions of the family, but the following functions seem to be representative of all ideologies:

  • Socialize children
  • Provide relatively unchanging sexual opportunity for adults
  • Provide love and care
  • Provide the world with more children
  • Provide economic stability
  • Serve educational and religious functions

What is family stress theory?

Family stress theory sets out to analyze the occasional micro stressors that occur within all family units. As stressors grow more frequent or familial relationships are not strong, family problems and crises can ensue. This dysfunction can take the form of divorce, mistreatment of children, emotional suffering, physical illness from weakened immune system, domestic disputes, etc.

Researchers contend that children’s sense of security greatly depends on the continuity of their daily routines and rituals. Thus, keeping kids on a schedule can help them stay emotionally happy and healthy.

What are the different types of family systems?

Family systems can have multiple structures and the different possibilities are listed below:

  • Nuclear Family (mother, father, children)
  • Single Parent Family
  • Extended Family (two or more people related by blood or marriage who live together)
  • Family Without Children
  • Step Family
  • Grandparent Family (grandparents raise grandchildren)

How does family systems theory work?

The family systems theory functions through careful analysis. By analyzing each of the subsystems involved in the general family system, mental health professionals can find real solutions to familial conflict. This theory, created by Dr. Murray Bowen, is revolutionary and has ushered in a new and exciting world of family therapy. It is remarkable how much this theory can accomplish by breaking down the complexity of family systems into manageable pieces of relationship data.

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