Family Systems Theory Definition & What Is It?

By ReGain Editorial Team|Updated June 22, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Karen Devlin, LPC

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

Family Systems Theory Is More Common Than You Think
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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.

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:


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.

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.

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.

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.

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

Family Systems Theory Is More Common Than You Think

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.

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.

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