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5 Concepts of Family Systems Theory

What is Family Systems Theory?

Family systems theory, or FST for short, is the theory that individuals can be understood in terms of their relationships with the people in their family. This theory, based on the work of psychoanalyst Murray Bowen, utilizes the idea that a person’s behavior is inextricably connected with the behaviors and attitudes they have learned from their family.

Essentially, our family system and family members make us who we are due to the emotional system that the family dynamics we grow up with revolve around. As a child, we learn human behavior from the integral family structure that raises us. As an adult, our physical and emotional system operates from this groundwork. There are five key concepts that summarize the most important points of family systems theory.

5 Concepts of Family Systems Theory:

Emotional Triangles

In Bowen’s family systems theory, a triangle – a relationship between three people – is the smallest stable relationship system. Although two-person relationships can exist, FST assumes that these relationships are prone to becoming unstable as one or both partners become anxious. Though emotional triangles have the potential to be stable for everyone involved, they often are not a healthy family system. A frequent scenario found in emotional triangles is that two people are in agreement with each other and the third is in conflict with them. This can lead to interpersonal and emotional problems for the person in conflict with others.

Differentiation of Self

In family systems theory, differentiation of self refers to a person’s sense of identity and ability to function on their own, rather than as a member of a group, such as family members in an emotional unit. A person’s level of differentiation determines how confident they are in themselves and how much validation they need from others. Someone with a low level of differentiation usually requires a great deal of approval from others in their family and social groups. They may feel emotionally bound to the group and the other people in it. A person with a high level of differentiation, on the other hand, is emotionally self-sufficient and requires less validation from family and peers. Someone with a high level of differentiation can still interact emotionally with their group, but they are not personally dependent on the group.

Family Projection Process

The family projection process is the process by which parents transfer their worries, anxieties, and other emotional problems to their children. This is often troublesome when there is marital conflict happening. The projection process starts with the parent, or other family member,  worrying that something is wrong with the child. Whether this fear is based in reality or not, the parent interprets the child’s behavior as confirmation of their fear. They then treat the child as if their fear was true – even if the problem is all in the parent’s mind. The family projection process can lead to children inheriting their parents’ emotional problems.

Emotional Cutoff

When a relationship between two people or groups is fraught with difficulties, one party may decide to have an emotional cutoff with the other in an attempt to ease the tension. Though this may bring some short-term relief, cutting a person or group off emotionally may cause more stress in the long term because it leaves the underlying problems unresolved.

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Multigenerational Transmission Process

In family systems theory, the multigenerational transmission process refers to the way people seek out partners who are similar to them in terms of differentiation and pass these traits on to their children. For instance, someone with a high level of differentiation is most likely to seek out a partner who is also highly differentiated from their family. This couple is likely to produce children who are also highly differentiated.

Additional FST Background

As touched on above, family systems theory can be entirely attributed to the work of Dr. Murray Bowen. Dr. Bowen was a famed psychoanalyst and psychiatrist who pioneered the specifics of FST as well as wrote a book on the subject, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, in 1978. It was his goal to further quantify and classify the roles that individuals play in family units as well as the many effects of the interactions within that family unit. FST was the doctor’s method of doing this.

In addition to the five elements of FST discussed above, Dr. Bowen also incorporated several other components into FST approach. The element of Sibling Position looks at how sibling position and interactions between siblings can impact development and behavior. Societal Emotional Process is the element of FST that focuses on the interactions between society and the family unit and how each affects the other. Finally, Dr. Bowen also found it important to consider what he called the Nuclear Family Emotional System. This component to FST relates four relationship patterns that often foretell of familial problems of some sort on the rise.

FST-Related Resources

For those interested in learning more about family systems theory or the various professional works surrounding the theory, there are numerous, excellent resources out there that serve that purpose well. The following three resources are among some of those most relevant to FST and its practice today.

The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family

The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family is the definitive, representative organization for Dr. Bowen’s work and FST itself. This group’s entire operating mission is to advance the cause of FST and its further utilization in relevant therapy works. To that end, the organization also provides a rich array of resources, FST information, guidance, professional directory and networking assistance, and more.

Psychology Today

Throughout the greater psychology world, Psychology Today is a leading journal and resource for all things psychology. Not only can visitors to this group’s website find important information about FST specifically, but they can also find information and guidance on a virtually endless list of other psychology-based topics as well. All information found here is up-to-date and industry-accepted.

International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors

The International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors is yet one more, great resource for those interested in the wider picture of family and marriage therapy topics. While many of its benefits require membership, visitors to the organization’s website can find an assortment of information as well as contacts with which to learn more on any therapy-related topics. The IAMFC started in 1989 and has only grown since in size and reputability across the industry.

Are You Interested in Family Systems Theory?

Family systems theory has been a staple of psychology and family studies for 50 years, and it remains relevant today. By understanding the concepts that underpin family systems theory, it is possible to gain a better understanding of interpersonal relationships and family dynamics. Family systems therapy is also a great way to gain control of one’s emotional health in order to leave behind damaging thought processes and more. If you’re interested in becoming a family therapist or are looking for one for yourself or a loved one, we hope you found this helpful!

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