Family Systems Theory Definition & What Is It?

Updated November 17, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Karen Devlin, LPC

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

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Family relationships are very complex with no families exactly alike. However, Family Systems Theory suggest that all families fall into the same model of the emotional system. 

What Is Family Systems Theory?

Bowen's family systems theory (FST) is a concept of looking at the family as an emotional unit derived from Bowen's study of the family. Psychiatrist Murray Bowen developed the Bowen family systems theory which is a relationship system the family exhibits as the interlocking concepts of familial development and behavior are carefully analyzed. Bowen’s theory or the Bowen family systems theory view the family as an emotional unit where family members are intensely emotionally connected. 

Family Systems Theory Definition

The Bowen 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 Bowen's theory and his study of the family, roles within the emotional system, patterns develop within the emotional system, and each member's behavior impacts the other members. Depending on the specific human relationship systems and how the emotional systems operates the Bowen family systems theory suggests these behavioral patterns can lead to either balance or dysfunction of the system or both.

Why Is Family Systems Theory Important?

According to Dr. Bowen's theory and study of the family, even for disconnected members of the family, Bowen family systems theory suggests that one's family unit or family center overall still has a profound impact on their emotions and actions. Though the degree of interdependence can vary between different families depending on how their family emotion system operates or their unique family center or human relationship systems, all families have some level of interdependence among the members in one's family.

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Dr. Bowen showed through his study of the family in Bowen's theory that perhaps humans evolved to be interdependent on family members or family center to promote cooperation among families for essentials like shelter. However, Bowen family systems theory suggests that in high-stress times the anxiety that one person feels can spread through one's family to family members or family center of the overall emotional unit, and the interdependence becomes emotionally taxing.

Bowen family systems theory suggests there will always be one person in the family unit who "absorbs" the bulk of the emotions of one's family. Regardless of how one's family emotional system operations or their human relationship systems, Bowen's theory stresses the importance of families to work together in therapy or counseling as it can help one's family work together better and keep anxieties low.

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:

Triangles

A triangle in the Bowen family systems theory is a three-person relationship and is considered a "building block" for larger family systems and overall systems thinking. Bowen family systems theory suggests triangles provide the smallest stable form of a family emotional system, if tension builds between the insiders, the two closer people in the triangle, one of them will choose to grow closer to the outsider. Though the triangle dynamic is seen as the smallest stable relationship structure, it can be a catalyst for many familial problems.

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

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Differentiation Of Self

Even within a family unit, every person is unique. Bowen's study of the family revealed people differ with the degree to which one develops their sense of self and it is dependent on familial relationships during childhood and adolescence as seen in the study of the family. 

The study of the family in Bowen's theory revealed that in all families, there will always be a mix of people with poor and strong differentiation of self. Families vary in their levels of emotional interdependence depending on how their emotional system operates and 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 will make it harder for the 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. Bowen's study of the family outlined four basic relationship patterns:

  • 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 and 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 which can limit their differentiation of self. This makes the child vulnerable to internalize family tensions.
  • Emotional Distance: Emotional distance results in avoiding family tension. Family members will distance themselves from tension and one another to reduce the intensity of emotions.

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. 

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Family Projection Process

This concept describes how parents may transmit their emotional problems onto 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 fear
  3. The parent then treats the child as if there is something truly wrong without analyzing the child’s positive and negative traits

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. 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.

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. 

Level of differentiation affects many components of one's life. 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 there is no common ground. 

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

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Emotional Cutoff

Emotional cutoff occurs when people attempt to manage their unresolved problems with family members by cutting off emotional contact which involves distancing oneself from family members to become more emotionally independent. While cutting off emotional ties with family members can make someone feel better on the surface, the problems within the family unit and with family members do not simply go away.

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

Sibling Position

Research by 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. 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. 

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Societal Emotional Process

The concepts of the Bowen 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 negative things. 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. 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 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 their group dynamic better, to help the family work better together overall, 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, to help the family work better, 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.

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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 on the study of the family, it is likely some of the principles of FST will come up in any family or coupling session. The study of the family found in 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.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is the family systems theory?

The family systems theory (FST) that was formed through the study of the family 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 family systems theory view the family as an emotional unit or family as an emotional system and this emotional system operates using systems thinking. In a study of the family, Bowen analytically observed the different relationships within the family system and how their emotional system operates and made sense of behavioral phenomena and interlocking concepts integral to family function. In the family systems theory the family systems or family unit's emotional system operates with each family member playing a unique role with their place in the family. In Bowen's family systems theory the family roles help establish patterns of behavior that impact all members of the family unit resulting in the family unit experiencing harmony or dysfunction.

What is the goal of family systems theory?

Bowen’s theory is a theory created from the study of the family that combines the theory of human behavior with systems thinking which is expressed in the book  One Family’s Story: A Primer on Bowen Theory. One of the main goals of Bowen's theory or family systems theory is to educate people about the importance of family emotional systems. Even a person remove from their family unit is still greatly impacted by the emotional condition of the family. According to Dr. Bowen, a change in one family member is bound to affect another family member. Bowen believes that humans evolved with a sense of familial interdependence to encourage cooperation necessary for survival. 

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 judgments, and an outside analysis aid is often needed for clear judgment. The FST provides clear criteria for family examination that allows people to learn more about their family structure.

What are the four subsystems in family systems theory?

In Bowen family systems theory is a theory based on the study of the family, systems thinking and the theory of human behavior which views the family as an emotional unit. The most common systems in the family systems theory are parental relationships, sibling relationships, parent-child relationships, and the overarching family system, which each system in connection with the other systems, known as systems thinking.

What is a family systems approach to counseling?

Family systems therapy is to help a family work better overall where 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 to learn to 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 such as the struggle to have family work life balance. Then family conflicts can begin to be resolved such as the issue for family work life balance and advice will be given by the mental health professional. Every member of the family can greatly benefit from family systems counseling to make the family work better.

What are the key concepts of Bowen's family systems theory?

Bowen family systems theory the family systems are seen as connected emotional system based on systems thinking and theory of human behavior. While in family systems theory the family will have their own unique human relationship systems and way their emotional system operates, in the book One Family’s Story: A Primer on Bowen Theory explains that the family systems theory is a theory based on systems thinking and the theory of human behavior that views the family as an emotional system that regardless of how disconnected a family member may feel in their human relationship systems with their family, the individual is still very affected by the actions and emotions of their family member. Systems thinking is how parts in the system relate and work together as part of larger systems.

There are eight major concepts involved with the family systems theory that is based on the theory of human behavior, also expressed in the book One Family’s Story: A Primer on Bowen Theory.

These eight concepts are defined and described below as well as in One Family’s Story: A Primer on Bowen Theory:

  • Triangles
    • The triangle represents a family system of three people, where there are the two ‘insiders’ who are closest, and the ‘outsider’ who is more removed. 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, being able to establish your own sense of ‘self’ is dependent upon your own level of individuality and self-esteem. Some family members will be stronger than others in this regard, and this mix is what allows for familial interdependence.
  • Nuclear Family Emotional Process
  • Family Projection Process
  • Multigenerational Transmission Process
  • Emotional Cutoff
  • 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.

What are the different types of family systems in Bowen's theory?

Bowen’s theory is a theory developed by Dr. Murray Bowen. Bowen’s theory is based around the theory of human behavior, the study of the family, and the theory of family systems. Bowen family systems theory is a theory that involves systems thinking where the family center is an emotional system or unit. Systems thinking refers to how systems work within the context of larger systems, such as one’s family within a larger family center.

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 and is discussed in the book One Family’s Story: A Primer on Bowen Theory. 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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