Family Systems Therapy

Family systems theory was the brainchild of Dr. Murray Bowen of Georgetown University; a psychiatrist working with patients with schizophrenia in a hospital setting in the 1940’s and 50’s. At that time, the predominant thinking came from Sigmund Freud and his followers who believed that the psychology of human behaviour was rooted in the individual. Dr. Bowen’s family systems perspective was a major challenge to the psychiatric thinking of his day. He deviated from the mainstream of psychiatric thinking of the ’40s and ’50s in two important ways:

  1. Systems theory was developed on the assumption that an understanding of a person’s emotional functioning must extend beyond psychological constructs to recognize his/her relatedness to all life
  2. He made the assumption that a comprehensive understanding of human behavior must rest on a foundation that moved beyond the study of the individual to include the human’s relationship system. In other words, Bowen proposed that the human family operated in ways that were consistent with its being a system and that the system’s principles of operation were rooted in nature.

Adapted from: Kerr/Bowen, Family Evaluation, 1988.

Family Systems Theory:

  • is a way of understanding present situations in terms of past relationships or family histories.
  • understands the family as a single emotional unit made up of interlocking relationships existing over many generations.
  • suggests that individual behavior throughout life is more closely related to the functioning in one’s original family than most people realize.
  • attempts to move beyond cause-and-effect thinking to a more comprehensive understanding of the multiple factors which interact across time to produce problems or symptoms.
  • recognizes an interplay between biological, genetic, psychological, and sociological factors in determining individual behavior.
  • identifies some of the ways that human functioning is similar to the functioning of all other forms of life, and postulates that certain principles governing behavior are common to all life forms.
  • views most of human life as being guided by emotional forces which to a varying degree can be regulated by an individuals ability to think. (Emotional here includes a smorgasbord of automatic responses such as those driven by instinct, genetics, biology, and hormones as well as automatic feeling or sensory responses.)
  • postulates that the degree to which individuals may be able to exercise some choice regarding how much they respond to their automatic emotional input can be predicted by understanding the functioning of the family unit.
  • indicates that people are able to modify their responses to the automatic emotional input by undertaking a study of their own patterns of behavior and their link to those in their multigenerational family.

Borrowed from the Western Pennsylvania Family Center website.