Family Systems Therapy

Families are complex, dynamic, interdependent systems. Each member cannot be fully understood in isolation because the family is an interconnected emotional unit. This is the underlying premise behind Family Systems Therapy. In this blog entry we will continue to explore the different types of methodologies used by relationship counsellors, by focusing on Family Systems Therapy.
Developed by Murray Bowen during the 1960’s, the philosophy of Family Systems Therapy is that individuals are inseparable from their network of relationships. He arrived at this conclusion after many years of researching the family lives of people with schizophrenia. Bowen observed that a change in one family member’s functioning came to influence the way the rest of the family behaved, thought and felt. He concluded that an individual could not be fully understood by simply concentrating on their individual psyche alone, as done in traditional therapy, but rather as a member of a network of individuals.
In Bowen’s understanding, there are eight major factors that influence the family system. These eight factors make up the theoretical underpinnings of Family Systems Therapy. They are:

  • Differentiation of Self – An individual’s ability to cope with life’s demands and pursue their goals is affected by their differentiation of self. The more developed a person’s ‘self’, the less impact others have on their functioning. This is considered to be a positive attribute in the context of a relationship, as the person is not overly dependent on their partner for emotional stability.
  • Triangles – If one family member can remain calm, the family system automatically calms down. Likewise, if one family member is agitated or in a state of heightened emotion, the entire family system is impacted.
  • Nuclear Family Emotional Process – Bowen suggests that there are four basic relationship patterns that govern where problems develop in a family: Marital conflict, Dysfunction in one spouse, Impairment of one or more children, and Emotional distance.
  • Family Projection Process – Anxiety between parents is projected onto children. If parents can manage their anxiety, the functioning of the child will improve.
  • Cut-off – Family members discontinue emotional contact with each other.
  • Multigenerational Transmission Process – Patterns of emotion are transmitted through multiple generations.
  • Sibling Position – Oldest, youngest, and middle children tend toward certain functional roles in family systems.
  • Societal Emotional Process – Depending on one’s environment, there is a tendency for some people to be more unstable or anxious. For example it is more difficult for parents to raise a family in a period of societal regression than in a more stable period, which results in higher levels of stress.

An interesting characteristic of Family Systems Therapy is the use of genograms. A genogram is a pictorial representation of a family’s relationships and medical history. The drawing up of a genogram helps the practitioner gain better insight into the psychological and hereditary factors involved in how the couple relates, as well as any important events which have occurred that may be impacting the family’s functioning.
Many of our couples therapists utilise elements of Family Systems Therapy when working with couples. If your relationship is in need of support, one of our qualified couples counsellors can assist. Call (02) 8002 1020 to speak to us about making a booking today.
For more information regarding Family Systems Therapy see The Bowen Center website.


  1. Bradbury, T.N., Fincham, F.D., & Beach, S.R.H. (2000). Research on the nature and determinants of marital satisfaction: A decade in review. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 62
    (4), 964–980. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2000.00964.x.
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