Bowen hypothesized the Family Systems Theory, and it can also be referred to as the Bowen Natural Systems Theory (Kerr & Bowen, 1988; (Hepworth, Rooney, Rooney, & Strom-Gottfried, 2017). The theory describes the natural emotional process that shapes how social groups and families function (Hooper, 2007). It can also be deliberated as a theory of human behavior that envisions the family as an emotional unit and utilizes family systems and subsystems thinking in describing the complex interactions of the family. As Hooper (2007) postulates, it is the familys nature that its members are connected emotionally. Even though people may at times feel disconnected from their families, it is more of a feeling than a fact, and thus, this shows that families affect each members thoughts, actions, and feelings in such a manner that it feels as if individuals live under a similar emotional skin (Kerr & Bowen, 1988). Essentially, the theory purports that people solicit each others support, approval, attention, and subsequently react to each others upsets, expectations, and needs. The reactivity and connectedness make the functioning of family members interdependent, and therefore, a change in ones person functioning is certainly followed by reciprocal changes in the way other family members function. Even though families differ in the level of interdependence, it is always present to some degree.
There are four background assumptions and concepts that precede the eight concepts of family systems theory. These are chronic anxiety, emotional process, fundamental life forces, and the family as an emotional unit (Kerr & Bowen, 1988). Essentially, anxiety is an organisms response to an imagined or real threat. Dr. Bowen, who developed the family systems theory, presumed that all living things usually experience anxiety to some extent and in some form. Bowen used the term interchangeably with emotional reactivity. Bowen, however, highlighted that both terms indicate the upsurge of physical manifestations, including blood pressure and heart rate changes, flight and fight responses, gaze aversion, as well as heightened fear sensations and alertness (Kerr & Bowen, 1988). Even though there is a certain level of anxiety may be vital for survival, some reactions may also be adaptive. However, acute and chronic anxiety are different. While acute anxiety is a response to real threat in a short duration, chronic anxiety is usually a response to an imaginary threat.
The emotional system is mainly composed of mitochondria, cell membranes, tissues, organs among other physiological factors and organs that control human emotions coupled with the emotional reactions that these components support (Sherwood, 2015). For this reason, in accordance to Bowen, the family systems theory entails reproduction, instinctual drives, as well as responses that are controlled by the autonomic nervous system (Kerr & Bowen, 1988). Bowen also differentiated feelings from emotions. While feelings are felt, emotions mainly operate outside of awareness. On the basic life forces, the family systems theory assumes that two opposing basic life forces where one is built-in life growth force towards individuality and the differentiation of a separate self while the other an equally intense emotional process (Kerr & Bowen, 1988). The two life forces are individuality and togetherness. While togetherness entails the desire and pressure to agree on feelings, beliefs, values, and principles, individuality force entails the impetus to define separate self from others. Lastly, Bowen views the family as an emotional unit where the emotional functioning of the individual members is interdependent that the family cannot be more precisely intellectualised as an emotional unit (Rothbaum, Rosen, Ujiie, & Uchida, 2002). In essence, Bowens view of the family being an emotional unit is represented as a paradigm shift, which implies a multi-generational and deep connection between the family members that influence behaviors of its members outside their conscious awareness (Kerr & Bowen, 1988). However, individuals are more prone to developing symptoms in an out of emotional balance system. The symptoms can fall into three categories: social dysfunction, emotional and physical.
Eight Main Concepts of the Family Systems Theory
The eight concepts of the family systems theory, as postulated by Bowen are: (a) triangles; (2) differentiation of self; (3) nuclear family emotional stress; (4) family projection process; (5) multigenerational transmission process; (6) emotional cut off; (7) sibling position; and (8) societal emotional process (Hepworth, Rooney, Rooney, & Strom-Gottfried, 2017).
The first concept, triangles, highlights the family as a three-person relationship system where triangles are the basic molecule of human relationships (Titelman, 2012). According to Titelman (2012), a two-person system is seen as unstable mainly because it tolerates little tension before the third person is involved. Essentially, as Hepworth et al. (2017) highlight, a triangle can hold much more tension without involving other people as the tension can shift around the three relationships. In a three-person system, anxiety has more places to go, and thus, in the relationship where it came from has some relief. Ideally, when the three-person structure can no longer contain the anxiety, more people are involved, which subsequently forms interlocking triangles ((Rothbaum, Rosen, Ujiie, & Uchida, 2002; Titelman, 2012). Triangles can have either negative or positive outcome according to how the member manage reactivity and anxiety. Bowen highlighted that when one member of the triangle remains emotionally intact with the two, the system will calm down. However, with enough reactivity and stress, the members will lock in the triangle, leading to more symptoms.
The second concept is a differential of self, which describes how people cope with the demands of life and pursue their goals on a continuum that starts from most to least adaptive (Hepworth et al., 2017). The variation in this adaptiveness is dependent on several factors, such as the amount of solid self, a part that is not negotiable in relationships. The fusion between two people develops chronic anxiety as one is sensitive to what the other feels, thinks, or does, but also acute anxiety plays a role in that one can develop symptoms of acute anxiety, but can return to normal after a while.
The third concept, nuclear family emotional process manages the anxiety and differentiation with distance, conflict, under-, and over-functioning reciprocity, which in its extremity can result in dysfunction in a spouse, and child focus (Hepworth et al., 2017). Individuals engaged in conflict fight, criticize, blame, fight, and argue each other. Also, partners who distance will often tend to be emotionally unavailable and avoid uncomfortable but relevant topics. Reciprocity occurs when one person undertakes the responsibilities for the twosome, but the scenario becomes extreme when the partner falls ill or lacks direction.
The fourth concept is family projection process, where a fixed triangle is evident in the family projection process and families in a nuclear family focus anxiety on children, and subsequently, the child develops problems (Hepworth et al., 2017). The parents will then tend to get the kid to change or solicit professionals to fix the child. However, research establishes that when the parents manage their anxieties and resolve issues I the relationship, the child will subsequently improve.
The emotional cut-off is the fifth concept in the family systems theory, where an extreme distancing posture constitutes the concept of emotional cut-off, and family members discontinue their emotional contact (Rothbaum, Rosen, Ujiie, & Uchida, 2002). In effect, according to Hepworth et al. (2017), this has significant implications in futuristic generations, as the emotional family unit is disengaged in such a manner that the anxiety has fewer places to be absorbed within the extended family. As a result, chronic anxiety upsurges and people look for other relationships in substitution of the cut relationship, and the new intensifies, which leads to the vulnerability of symptoms.
The sixth concept is a societal emotional process, which refers to the tendency of individuals in society to be more unstable and anxious at certain times compared to others (Hepworth et al., 2017). Potential stressors include scarcity of natural resources, overpopulation, economic forces, epidemics, and lack of skills, and all thee contribute to the social regression. The seventh concept, sibling position, is a concept that Bowen postulates that it affects variation in functional and basic levels of differentiation. Youngest, middle, and oldest children tend towards certain functional roles in families, influenced by a mix of sibling positions and those of their parents and relatives.
Lastly, multi-generational transmission process concept highlights that differentiation of self is mainly transited via multigenerational transmission process (Hepworth et al., 2017). The concept describes patterns of the emotional process via multiple generations and offers a way of thinking about the family patterns that goes beyond a dichotomy of genes versus the environment, and one of them was via which family relationships are passed through is by triangles.
Aspect that Focusses on Family System, Rather than on Individual Problems
The multigenerational transmission process is one aspect that affects the familys entirety instead of a single family member. It describes how minute differences in the levels of differentiation between families and their offspring lead over generations to marked variations in differentiating family members in the multigenerational family (Hepworth et al., 2017). The information that creates the variations is passed over through generations via relationships. The transmission usually occurs in interconnected levels that range from conscious teaching and learning of information to unconscious and automatic programming from an emotional perspective (Rothbaum, Rosen, Ujiie, & Uchida, 2002). As such, in this cases, genetically and relationally transmitted information is attributed to the shaping of the persons self in the family. The offspring usually respond to moods, actions, attitudes, and moods of parents, which leads to similarity on the transfer of the same to generations to come, but one member in a nuclear fail emotional system can develop more or little self than the parents. Also, the level of differentiation of self can subsequently affect marital stability, educational accomplishments, longevity, and also occupational successes.
Family Systems Assessment and Family Subsystems Assessment as ways to understand a Families Functioning
Therefore, family systems assessment and family subsystems assessment can be used as ways to better understand a families functioning. Essentially, Hepworth et al. (2017) highlight that one of the central premises of the family systems and subsystems theory is that individuals organize themselves in carrying out tasks of life and daily challenges, as well as adjusting to developmental needs of each family member. As such, it becomes easier to comprehend the functioning of the family, as held in the holism concept. Essentially, as held in the family systems approach, to effectively understand the family system and its subsystem, it is important to look at the family as a whole. Essentially, as discussed in the eight concepts, family relationships are based on triangles, and the mood, attitude, as well as the attitudes of one family member can affect the other (Titelman 2012). In relation to the concept of holism...
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