Family Systems Theory Definition & What Is It?

Updated April 27, 2020

Reviewer Karen Devlin, LPC

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


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 is a concept of looking at the family as a cohesive emotional unit. According to the FST, family members are intensely emotionally connected. Psychiatrist Murray Bowen developed the family systems theory. 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 states that a family functions as a 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 behaviors impact 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 among family members, 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 things 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. With an additional person in the mix, the tension can be shifted around between three people, so 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. 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. Though the triangle dynamic is seen as stable, 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.


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 one'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's 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. These four basic relationship patterns 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 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 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. 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 approval from others or feeling responsible for the happiness of other people. The project process, according to Dr. Bowen and the family systems theory, follows three steps:

  1. The parent focuses extra attention on a child 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

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, so anytime they do something and do not receive the praise they feel that they did something wrong and began 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, 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. This 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 differentiation. In general, people with higher levels of differentiation of self have more stable nuclear family relationships.

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.

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 because there will be more pressure on them 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.

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 couples. Marital 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 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 not only apply to families but non-family groups such as workers in an office. Even outside of the family, emotional processes influence behavior and lead to progressive and regressive periods in society. 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.

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.

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 your 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.

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